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Why are we asking where the hell is NBA Live again?

The difference this year is there’s something worth missing

NBA Live 19 - Joel Embiid and squad in The Ones career mode 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.

A month ago, EA Sports did something for NBA Live 19 that now seems ominous. It updated the game’s rosters to reflect all of the free agent moves that had gone through in the preceding three weeks. So, Kawhi Leonard is already on the Clippers, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on the Nets, Kemba Walker is with the Celtics. NBA 2K19 didn’t do this.

But this hardly seems like a bold move, or Live smartly picking up while its larger rival has been napping. Post-season roster updates like this are rare, and the reason is obvious: They cannibalize a big reason folks would buy the newer game on the way later in the year. Unless that game isn’t on the way, which, sadly, is again a question facing the NBA Live series.

I thought after two solid launches we were done with this storyline. But Electronic Arts resurrected “beleaguered” and “troubled” as first-reference adjectives for its NBA series when it quietly moved the game from a third-quarter (July to September) to fourth (October to December) launch in a call with investors three weeks ago.

Who knows what the reasoning is; my entreaties to EA Sports simply haven’t been acknowledged, even as asides in an email about something else. It’s true that September is simply the traditional release month for the year’s NBA video games, dominated by the NBA 2K franchise for the past 15 years. The real-life NBA season starts at the end of October, and maybe EA is moving its product closer to that date to get it out of the way of NBA 2K20’s oxygen-destroying launch on Sept. 6.

If so, the virtual shoulder-shrug this news has gotten should tell EA’s marketers that they probably won’t do much better with the news cycle all to themselves. More importantly, if there really is a console product coming this year, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do things that make people remember the bad old days of shadow cancellations, missed launches and serial delays. The team at EA Tiburon has worked too hard to see that kind of story pinging around again.

My bad feelings here are not based on ancient history like NBA Elite 11 or the launchpad implosion of NBA Live 13. In 2016, EA again put out word, through a slide deck to investors, that NBA Live was getting a console launch sometime after the season’s opening day. It never did. That followed the series’ first on-time release since 2009. I don’t recall it being much of a big story when Live was confirmed as canceled for that year. Hell, I don’t recall that there ever was a story.

The difference is, this time, there is something worth missing if NBA Live goes AWOL. I really enjoyed The One, the career mode that blended freestyle blacktop play with a life in the NBA. The streetball portion was lively, had a great cast of characters (including WNBA stars, in mixed-gender competition) and an appealing goal of building up the crew used in other modes, like Court Battles, with their offbeat rules variations. FIFA 20 will have a house-rules mode of play this year, and Madden NFL 20’s off-the-field interactions in Face of the Franchise: QB1 also resemble those from The One. The last time NBA Live was a no-show, it didn’t have much worth remembering, much less copying.

That’s what makes this so inexplicable. I sure as hell don’t want to hear that EA Sports took what they had recovered and built up over the past two years and tried to reinvent the wheel in a year again. And I don’t understand why, after keeping so much skin in the game through flameouts like NBA Live 13, no-shows like 17, and the dog-ate-my-homework launches of 14 through 16, they’d quit now, after two years of honest-to-god positive reviews.

What I am hoping for is we hear something soon, maybe even from Gamescom (Europe is a strong hoops market, after all) that clears all of this up. We can’t go past the launch of NBA 2K20 — whose WNBA integration will take away NBA Live’s biggest distinction — hearing nothing. After that, even if they give the game away, it’ll be too late.

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

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