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Madden and NBA Live’s new leadership talk about their roads ahead

Basketball’s new executive producer comes from football’s flagship

Steph Curry in NBA Live 18 EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Maybe now we can close the book on NBA Live’s troubled times, and stop referring to the series in the yes-but way that followed it for almost eight years. Last year — and almost unexpectedly — EA Tiburon fulfilled the idea that an NBA simulation was still worth doing and could be done well, which anyone not working for the studio had pretty much given up on.

“The language I use is, we’ve got some momentum,” said Seann Graddy, the series’ new executive producer. “We got positive praise about how The One [NBA Live 18’s single-player career], how we’re different in some ways and we really want to lean into that momentum. We’ve come a long way, and we still have a long way to go.”

The NBA 2K series, of course, is still miles ahead in its depth and complexity — to say nothing of sales — but sports loves a comeback story always, and the best one last year was NBA Live 18. After the franchise took, again, another year off (in 2016) to get its head on straight, no one paid attention to promises the game was coming back to consoles, approaching E3 2017.

But EA Tiburon’s team, focusing on a solid single-player career supported by fresh and understandable gameplay, delivered something that’s now worth talking about for the right reasons coming into E3 2018. It still has work to do, particularly with a rote franchise mode that had some problems in its behind-the-scenes systems. But we’re talking about NBA Live without using disparaging question marks. It earned at least that respect.

“The way we spend that trust is to listen to fans in terms of what they want us to do better,” Graddy said. “We’ve looked at how players are playing the game, we want to give them more and give them things that will surprise them.”

EA Tiburon/EA Sports

Electronic Arts is, per the usual, being coy about what’s on the table with NBA Live and Tiburon’s other big title, Madden NFL — they book a Hollywood theater during E3 to announce new things, not repeat them. But Graddy’s transition from Madden to NBA Live suggests — to me, anyway — that the franchise is in a good-hands state and ownership isn’t panicked for a leader. Sean O’Brien, the former executive producer, was virtually brought back like a decommissioned battleship (he had worked on the series at EA Canada in the early 2000s) to save the project. He handed Graddy a project that holds it head high.

“Let me give all due credit to the team that built that,” Graddy said. “All of the modes are getting a little bit of love at some level,” this year, he added, “We tried to address at least a couple [of criticisms] regardless. Our focus is to still do things differently; we want to build a game for a younger, new demographic.”

Graddy is leaving a Madden NFL development team that did not have the same kind of wilderness period as NBA Live but did go through some soul-searching of its own that established five years of development goals, beginning in 2012. Carlos Guerrero is the game’s new senior producer, in a reorganization that has consolidated creative director duties into a single role (Mike Young). Young’s baby was Longshot, Madden NFL 18’s foray into a story-based mode. EA announced Madden NFL 19’s launch date (Aug. 10) just yesterday but still has a lot more to talk about with the game, including what many people expect will be another chapter of Longshot.

Otherwise, among the features confirmed so far are a custom draft class creator for the game’s mainstay franchise mode, and the introduction of Real Player Motion Technology, a new animation system that Guerrero says will be more responsive and deliver truer gameplay.

”One of the big pieces of Madden 18 was the introduction of [the] Frostbite [engine], which elevated the visual fidelity of the game,” Guerrero said. “So this year, the question was how do we get the gameplay itself to feel better. You look at the great visuals, and you want the gameplay to feel the same way. That’s one of the things this year with the addition of Real Player Motion.”

Graddy, for NBA Live’s part, said this year’s game will revisit the parts that made last year’s work so well — such as an on-the-ball defense system that a lot of critics, myself included, found intuitive and determinative. NBA Live 18 also was praised for being accessible while still providing some level of sophistication, which positions it well against NBA 2K — a very deep game that some users find a very challenging in its complexity.

”I like that as our identity,” Graddy said. “I talk about us as being different, and the language used is all over the map, but what it boils down to is saying the game is fun to pick up and play. You could give it to your 12-year-old son and your 65-year-old dad, and the game is still pretty easy to play. Out of the box, we do like that identity, and it is one we will continue to lean into.” That the game has an identity, and a positive one, suggests that the dark days really are over, and the developers can move forward with the attention of the public.

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