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The lesson of the NBA Elite 11 demo, and why I won’t delete it

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All sports video games stand on the shoulders of their ancestors — even the ones who stumbled

NBA Elite 11 - Vince Carter takes a free throw
A 2010 promotional screenshot for NBA Elite 11.
EA Canada/Electronic Arts

I checked on Wednesday and it’s still there. I think I’ve had three Xbox 360s using four different hard drives over the past eight years, but I always made sure to transfer and preserve the 927 megabytes of the NBA Elite 11 demo.

This week, though, I thought about deleting it. I feel like NBA Live 19 smooths the last spadeful of dirt on the plot of its absentee parents, Elite and NBA Live 13. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable game of basketball, and in moments I’ve seen it do things that seem to validate the ambitions that its predecessors were never able to fulfill.

Midway through a game in the Pro-Am World Tour I sent my player on a baseline cut and called for the pass. After one bounce, she went airborne. I was sitting on the trigger and holding square, the commands to dunk. Contextually, and without me doing anything, she switched to an up-and-under reverse layup as a big man stepped over to defend. She still got the two points.

NBA Elite 11’s demo wasn’t just the glitch-filled Lakers-vs-Celtics game which saw Andrew Bynum standing in the jump circle in a T-pose. It included a simple practice tutorial to acclimate players to a new control scheme, one whose reach far exceeded its grasp. NBA Elite 11’s creative director had been a producer on the NHL series, which had seen success with a control philosophy that placed the player’s skates on the left stick and hands on the right. NBA Elite 11 was going to try for the same thing, hoping that gestures on the analog sticks would combine into athletic drives and dunks instead of using a series of key presses that resembled a fighting game’s.

An example of this was the means of switching from a dunk to a layup attempt in midair. It’s part of the skills tutorial in the NBA Elite 11 demo, and it brought back a lot of bad memories when I saw it again on Wednesday. My attempts still clanged or rolled off the front of the rim. I finally got it right, and recreated something that NBA Live 19 just up and did for me without asking.

As I’ve struggled to keep up with video game basketball’s increasingly complicated and granular controls, I’ve wondered aloud why so many things simply can’t be contextual. I never direct my baserunner’s slide in MLB The Show; I always selection the option where the CPU makes those decisions. Madden, for example, used to have a manual input to switch the ball from one arm to the other if a defender was approaching that side. That’s now done by the AI. NFL 2K5 had an AI-applied “get skinny” motion where a runner trying to squirt through a hole at the line of scrimmage would turn sideways. It took years to see the same thing in Madden.

NBA Live 19 - Ben Simmons passes to Joel Embiid
NBA Live 19 isn’t a breakthrough because of a mode of play, but because it will leave a better legacy to future games.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

When EA took another stab with NBA Live 13, the project went down to Florida under new management. The new producer mentioned to me in 2012 that the team wanted the user to focus on their court vision and good decisions, such that the payoff was recognizing a teammate making a cut rather than memorizing a multi-button process for the layup that scores. A creative director told me that when they took apart the old Live and Elite assets, they found a bunch cool animations that simply were never used because the game leaned on more basic movements in so many contexts.

I recall that, in all this discussion of contextual action, there was a lot of concern at the time that they might be dumbing down the game, or making a babied version for casuals and ceding the core simulation audience to 2K Sports. Ultimately, it made no difference, as Live 13 was canceled in September just like Elite 11.

Yet here again, NBA Live 19 did something for me that a euthanized predecessor aspired to in philosophy. I set up my player in the corner and paused for a little bit, then shimmed past her defender and whacked the stick right to break toward the basket. I called for the pass at the right time and went to the rim. That recognition got the points. Key presses to make a balletic scooping gesture are nice, but if I’m late on that break or the pass, they’re worthless.

None of this is to suggest that Elite 11 was somehow misunderstood or ahead of its time. It wasn’t. It was strewn with basic failures and imbalances. There was a hideous exploit that found hook shoots from anywhere on the court were near automatic, for example. But it’s taken eight years and the modest successes of NBA Live 18 and NBA Live 19 to show what pure folly it is to try to remake an iterative work in a single year, or even two. And until an embarrassing video hit YouTube in September 2010, this was a reasonable expectation to a publisher that was all too willing to ship that disc otherwise.

Though it’d be fitting to give the NBA Elite 11 demo a symbolic deletion, it’s too important for that. Not as an artifact of video game history, but as a powerful lesson about sports video games and expectations of them. Because all sports video games must stand on the shoulders of their forebears — both good and bad.

NBA Elite 11 forsook all the strides its predecessor had made to bring the series into competition with NBA 2K the year before, and the series paid a disastrous price for that lack of vision. NBA Live 19 isn’t a breakthrough in the sense it has some transformative mode or gameplay feature. But it is a game that will leave its successors a far better legacy than the one given to it.

Roster File is Polygon’s column on sports and video games.