EA Sports has the reputation of an unstoppable giant when it comes to football, soccer, and hockey. With the juggernauts of Madden, FIFA, and NHL, you’d expect them to dominate every sport they touch. But as the tumultuous history of NBA Live has shown, it’s not a simple matter of EA simply showing up and expecting to be crowned champion.
After getting humbled by NBA 2K for several years, the folks behind NBA Live knew they had to go back to the drawing board in 2010. After handing development to EA Tiburon, taking a three-year hiatus from the franchise, and finally relaunching last year, the series might finally be headed for a turnaround. We had a chance to chat with executive producer Sean O’Brien and get an inside look at how EA Tiburon has gone about rebuilding the two-decade-old franchise from the ground up.
EGM: There was a three-year period there between NBA Live titles, so NBA 2K really got a monopoly on basketball video games in that time. Can you tell us about finally coming back to the market with NBA Live 14 and the difficulties you faced that first year back in trying to reclaim a piece of the market share?
Sean O’Brien: It’s definitely hard, and I think that, even outside of the brand, probably the biggest challenge was building NBA Live 14 on what we had. The game didn’t ship in those previous years for a reason, and that was because it simply wasn’t good enough. That, on its own, is challenging, but to complicate matters, our base wasn’t what Madden or FIFA or NBA 2K was, so we were trying to build up the quality while also bringing it onto the next generation of hardware at the same time.
I think part of that, too, was building the team that could actually do that. We had a bit of a broken, fractured team beforehand that I inherited, so we had to ask ourselves if we even had the right people to pull this off. Then came the decisions regarding what our direction was, what our identity was, and where we were going to go—and all that’s a work in progress.
I think, after those 11 months where we built the game and we launched with next-gen, it allowed us to come together as a team. Then we got reviewed, and it was so bad, and our scores were so low, and that could’ve been a point where the team just turtled and said, “Why are we doing this?” and given up. And, for a couple of days, there were definitely some doubters. What was really cool for me, though, was come that next Monday, almost a full week after we launched, I saw a lot of people start to rally. Asking what we could do to make this better, shouting that we weren’t done yet, wanting to prove to people that this wasn’t our best. To see the team rally, I understood then that the make-up of this team—sure, we had some holes to fill talent-wise—but the core team had the gumption to make it happen.
That’s part of it. You need the right people, the right talent to make a good product in anything—not just games—and I think we’re showing with NBA Live 15 that this is more in line with what people expect from the NBA Live brand. We’re ready to take on the fight. We have a different identity and are not creating a “me too” basketball game that copies 2K, not creating the same feature set or mechanics. We’re creating an identity around our own connected feature set that focuses more on control when you’re playing the game itself, the simplicity of the game itself so that you’re always feeling like the game is responsive when you play.
So, it’s just a question of bringing people in on a journey that’s steadily improving. Our goal is to prove that we’re constantly making the game better. And given that we’re shipping NBA Live 15 ten and a half months after we shipped Live 14, after we put out numerous updates to make 14 better, being able to put out something like 15 is going to reinforce the fact that everyone at EA is taking this very seriously. There’s a big investment around it. NBA Live 14 was not our best effort and was just a small step forward in the direction we’re going.
EGM: You mentioned how low the review scores were and that NBA Live 14 wasn’t your best effort. What advantages were there in releasing a product that might not have been your best foot forward and not nixing it like NBA Live 13 in the hopes of coming back stronger this year?
O’Brien: From a development standpoint, as you finalize a game—especially an annual title—you learn something about your team, and you also establish guidelines on what “good” looks like, how to achieve that, and then how to finish. In any game development, you have your pre-production, which is your ideas and early design. Then you have your production, which is how good are you at actually implementing those things. Then you have your finalizing process, which is how you pull it all together.
How you pull it all together and have it compliant by Microsoft and Sony standards and actually ship a game under the rigid and strict timelines in sports games is a huge learning opportunity for a team, and it can bring them together. So, for better or for worse, we set a bar for where we were, both inside and outside the company. But also, with all the stuff we did after launch, it allowed us to come together as a team and engage our fans. It helped us key players in on what we’re doing here.
We have different strategies across the board, and one of those is talking with the people managing our social channels and having them engage people 1-on-1 and making sure that, even if it was just some guy saying “this game sucks,” we made sure they got a response. Asking them about their experience with the game, having them explain their issues to us, seeing if they had any questions—and it’s really interesting to see the surprise from people when someone actually responds to them and shows that we’re paying attention to them. This helps build a bit of a transparency and an honest, listening relationship with players that I think they really want.
We see it a lot in a variety of games. You see it in the indie-game scene a lot more, where you ask people to get on this journey with you and pick their brains about what they want to see from it. And that’s what we’re trying to do, whether it’s with old Live fans and you miss things about the series, or you play 2K and you’re frustrated about some things with their series. We want to know the game players want made.
We put that out there—establish a baseline with what we did with NBA Live 14 and then show and build confidence in people based on what we do and deliver against it. As we learned this past year, we learned it in a good way, that we promised a bunch of things. We said that this wasn’t our best effort and asked people to bear with us and that we’re going to prove to them on this journey that we’ll make the game better. It easy to say that, of course, and it’s harder to do it, but I’d put up what we did post-launch with 14 against what any other sports game has ever done post-launch in the history of sports gaming.
That’s how much of an investment we put into showing players just where we’re going and then with our next release, NBA Live 15, having the game look and play as it does now is a huge transformation. And so, having people along on that journey to experience that, I think, is advantageous as well. And it gets the feeling some people might have when they contribute to a Kickstarter. You want to get in early or help shape something, or hop on board as it goes because it’s cool and you want to be a part of what’s next. It’s not about what’s there right now, and that’s sort of the philosophy we’re taking with the athletes we work with, the musicians we work with. It’s not about what’s cool right now, but if you want to be a part of something that will be cool, then that’s where we are.
EGM: You said there were some holes on the team. Can you specify where those holes were and how you’ve filled them since then?
O’Brien: Without getting into names or anything, I think we lacked a bit of creative leadership. We did fill those holes, though, as I brought down some guys that I used to work with previously, which made me feel better. I brought in some guys from EA Canada that I worked with on [the series] before. Connor Dougan runs our gameplay team, which is a very big team; he worked with me on NBA and NCAA basketball and was a line producer on SSX and was doing some work on UFC before we moved him down to [EA Tiburon]. Same with [senior designer] Ryan Santos, I worked with him on NBA Live and NBA Street. He’s a real lifestyle basketball guy, so we wanted him to insert some of the lifestyle of the sport that is so important, fusing the culture of the sport through music and footwear and apparel into the backbone of what NBA Live is, similar to what we did with NBA Live 10. We’re trying to reinvent it again on new-gen hardware. And a few other guys, too, to just really round out the experience level on making a basketball game, as well as to bolster what I felt was not enough creative leadership.
So, the designers and producers making the game, we really just needed more of them. And since then we’ve hired a number of engineers, a number of artists and animators, but what I was most happy with was the team that was there was actually a lot better than I thought. And what we produced was better than 13, because I played 13, it was better than what that looked and played like. And what we’re doing now is better than what 14 was. There are some really talented guys there, and I felt they just needed better direction, better leadership, and a better understanding of how to come together.
The coolest thing is that there’s some really strong talent there, so that’s why I feel even better about this year. For example, Paul Kashuk, our art director, who’s been at EA Tiburon for maybe eight years in a central role, worked on PGA Tour a few years back and is a former Disney guy. Giving him the opportunity to do this, he’ll be the first to tell you that his overall plan was a three-year plan. I believe we’ve achieved the vast majority of it in two years, but because of the way the art was built for 13, we couldn’t do as much as we wanted in that short timeframe for 14. But this was his plan all along. We built a scanner that was mobile and portable enough to go scan the athletes, and he had this strategy that we had to pick certain things we could in 14, knowing we could do more in 15 and even have the creative direction set already for 16, knowing where we could then take the franchise in the future as well.
EGM: Does the yearly iteration and near-constant work cycle due to the franchise’s annual nature make it easier then to implement long-term plans and follow through on them? Does the unending cycle become daunting at times, even with plans in place?
O’Brien: That’s one of the most challenging things. Knowing that we have a list of work can, at times, be overwhelming. But you got to stick to the plan, because I’d love to just snap my fingers and hand you the game I’ve got in my head. Obviously, I can’t do that, so it’s both the frustrating and challenging thing about being in sports-game development.
From the team’s standpoint, what we’re trying to figure out now is take what we proved internally with our post-launch support and expand on it. We’ve helped streamline this with new technology. Like for example, when LeBron James broke his nose last year, we have this live content update system now. Normally, when we want to update something, we’ll have to go through a submission process with Microsoft and Sony, and it becomes a patch, and they update your kit. So, we do the work, send it to them, they take about two weeks to review it, approve it, send it through the proper logistics channels of making it happen, and it finally gets to the player’s game. So, it takes a good chunk of time.
And so, when we’re living in a time when LeBron breaks his nose, you read about it, write about it, or see it on SportsCenter, and then you see him bring out that black mask/nose guard that the NBA didn’t want him to wear, and there was all this conversation about it. But when I went and played Live or 2K, he’s not wearing it. So, there’s a disconnect from reality. We could turn that around in three days now, though, with our new tech, so on the third day, LeBron in our game was wearing the black mask.
It’s a little thing, but maintaining relevancy is extremely important and one of the things that we’re going to hang our hat on. So, it’s the ability to support our games post-release and create this experience that doesn’t die. And at the same time of doing that, also executing for the next year’s game. That’s just the challenge of bringing our resources together and making sure we use them appropriately to ensure that the player who has the game now gets what they’re expecting and that we really fulfill the promise of that live service. Then, it’s making sure we have enough people and enough time to really innovate and build the new features that same player wants in next year’s game as well.
So, in regards to visuals, we made the game look better through one of our updates to 14, so if visuals were at a five out of 10 before, maybe the update bumped them up to a six. It was better, but it wasn’t what we’re doing for 15, because we took our new tech and went out and rescanned every player in the game, had to build a pipeline, and we had to actually re-author with new lighting to make the game take the step forward we needed to take.
It’s not something we could just update 14 with because we’re just getting to the point where we’re almost done now, and that’s something we were very honest about. I’ll tell you exactly what we can do; we’re not holding anything back. If we could’ve done this in 14, we would have. Sometimes, it’s just not possible, and I think that’s the challenge we’re taking on to make sure people can be a part of our journey and the trajectory to where we’ll be good—and, at the same time, understand why, have a stake in it, and give their feedback and have an opinion on where we’re going and then use our abilities to course correct as best we can along the way while supporting the live service of the current game and building toward the next one.
So, it’s challenging, but it’s also kind of fun, because sports games don’t traditionally do a good job of that. We’ll do roster updates and the little things, and Ultimate Team helps keep games a lot more relevant from a fantasy perspective, but in terms of giving you content and new things that you can engage with, it’s cool, but our challenge now is primarily to do everything we did with 14 for 15, and then with 16 and moving forward, people really buy into it and get what’s happening. That’s a differentiator to me.
EGM: When you guys invite the NBA players to have them scanned into the game, what’s their response? Are they excited just because it’s a videogame, or are they disappointed it’s not NBA 2K? What’s the feeling from the players around the league about NBA Live?
O’Brien: It’s interesting because, just to use a hypothetical here, a guy like [No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft] Andrew Wiggins, who’s only 19, doesn’t really remember Live unless he had an older brother or someone who played Live. But the older guys all know Live and grew up with it and love it and want to see it make a comeback. Most of the guys who play, though, now say they play 2K, or there’s a small minority of guys who played both last year. But they’re all very interested. I’ll exaggerate slightly and say they’re all interested, but most of the guys are more interested in what we’re doing. How we’re doing it, where Live is in its development, how we’re going to make it as good as 2K, and they talk about this as they sit down and scan with us.
Most of the environments we do in the scans in are a hotel ballroom or meeting room, and we’ll have the scanner set up, the game on the screen, and then the PR departments bring the players through, the coaches through, and most of the guys just sit around and play. They talk and make fun of each other because we get them to do screams and stuff to get different emotional performances from them. So, they talk and make fun of each other, and then they ask questions. And there’s usually three or four guys who are really interested in software development and what we’re doing, and they’ll ask these questions, and the other guys start listening.
It’s pretty cool, because it’s a different generation. Fifteen years ago, guys wouldn’t care about this, and now they all want to know what their ratings are, if their hair is right—like, we’ve had guys not want to get scanned and ask us if we could come back the next day because they’re getting a haircut. It’s all really important to them. So, the engagement on the players is extremely high, and then what we did throughout the course of the year, when we actually did some scans and ran them through the pipeline and showed them the graphical differences between last year and this year, we were getting the “Holy s***!” reactions to how good it looked, which is pretty rewarding. Anytime you can show players how good they look in a game, it’s kind of cool.
EGM: Have you made enough advancements between NBA Live 14 and 15 to completely narrow the gap with NBA 2K?
O’Brien: It’s hard to know for sure without knowing what 2K has done this year. Taking that into consideration, at the very least, visually, I can say yes. I think when we put our two games up side by side, we’ll absolutely be in the ballpark. I think there’s a different style between the two—like, if you look at a 2K game, I think there’s only two different body types. 2K tends to go for more of a heroic look, big feet and big shoes. They use their shaders a bit differently, so it’s a little more of a different artistic style, whereas we go for more of a photorealistic EA Sports style. So, that’ll be a plus or minus depending on your own personal preference.
I think that, from the gameplay side of things, we’re going to offer something different. Their animation is so strong and looks so good. That’s the one area where I’m curious to see how we stack up this year, but I do think that unless they’ve completely changed their approach, I think our game will be more responsive. What I mean by that is, I think you’ll feel more in control of what’s happening. The action, the input on your controller, what your expectation is, we feel that’s a point of differentiation that we can take advantage of.
What we’re trying to do is really give you the control that you expect. So, I think that’ll be an opportunity for us, and we’re going to hang our hat on responsiveness and control, so I’m curious to see if 2K has done anything to address that. That’s an unknown for me. They took a different approach last year with their virtual currency and how they’re doing online teamplay and online play in general. They had some server problems that everyone either experienced or read about, so I’m curious to see how much they’ve cleaned up there. It’s something we do extremely well at EA in general. Except for Battlefield. [Laughs]
But speaking for sports, the Ignite engine and our online experience is really buttoned up and really solid, and we rarely have server issues or challenges—if ever. The connected experience and what we provide, our relationship with [real-time stats company] Synergy Sports, it provides new data and tendencies on an ongoing basis based on what’s happening in the real world and changing your experience.
Maintaining the relevancy is something else we’ll hang our hat on and continuing to invest in. I think that’s where we’re best in class in sports games. And I think once our game looks better and plays better, that’ll get a little more recognition—because now, who cares? If it doesn’t play good or look good, then the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter and isn’t really meaningful. And then, looking forward, seeing how we invest in online teamplay, what that experience looks like, as well as how Ultimate Team ends up looking like as well and evolving that, I think that’s where we’ll continue to form our identity and differentiate.
So, I’d say we’ve definitely caught up in a lot of areas. I think the gap last year was quite significant. I think we’ve done an incredible job within 10 and a half months of closing that gap significantly in a lot of different areas. Overall, they’re an 85-plus-rated game, so it’s still going to take us some time to actually really catch up, but I think we do offer something different, and I think that’s important.
EGM: It really seems there’s been a culture shift within EA’s halls. I don’t think a few years ago you guys would’ve been talking about three-year plans. Do you think this could’ve been done a few years ago, or have things changed?
O’Brien: Things are changing. A lot of it is around [EA CEO] Andrew Wilson and [executive vice president of EA Studios] Patrick Soderland’s approach to quality and the emphasis on quality, not around headcount or your business plan. It’s about having the right people to make a great game. We’ll figure out the logistics, but that’s the most important thing now, and it’s what Andrew wants to hang his hat on and all of our hats on as a company.
So, it’s a really cool thing for me, just as a side note, how Andrew is giving me build feedback. The CEO of our company is talking about animation blending and AI states, and it’s cool and empowering in a way, because I can go back to my team and be like, “This is what Andrew thinks of our game.” Patrick is the same exact way, where they’re honed in on making a great game, making sure we’re focused on quality.
And then, even the tough decisions—which Andrew says are tough but aren’t really tough, like [pushing the release date back for] games like Hardline out and Dragon Age: Inquisition. EA, as a company, would’ve never made those decisions before. We were so quarter-by-quarter focused, and he pushed Battlefield: Hardline out of a quarter, which is enormous revenue, but he knows it’s the right thing to do. The game’s not ready, and they want to make 9s. We’re done with making 7s and 8s, and sometimes, that’s what it takes. So, it’s pretty cool to have the support of all these guys who believe in what we’re trying to do, understand the challenge, are giving us the resources to make leaps and bounds, recognizing those leaps and bounds, and then continuing to push us to be even better. It’s a pretty cool—and I’d say new—take on what EA’s all about, and it’s a lot of fun.
EGM: From an outsider’s perspective, the announcement of NBA Live 15 signified a change to me, because—sorry to bring up the bad review scores again—the EA of old, I think, would’ve never moved forward with NBA Live 15 after how poorly 14 was received.
O’Brien: I agree with you completely. When I came back to EA—and Andrew’s the guy who actually wanted me to come back before he got promoted to his big-boy job—I was just grilling Andrew on what the expectations were, what the support would be like, and I told him if he expected us to turn this around instantly, it wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to make sure there was the support internally, as a company, that they believed in this category, and they did.
It’s a huge opportunity, globally, on a number of different platforms. The NBA is an amazing partner with us, and they support us still, even with all the crap we’ve gone through over the past five years. It’s really important to me to feel like a part of something that the company sees a value in. If you think about it, in terms of games, what other genre can you say there’s an established $350 million category annually that EA’s had a huge presence in before? We’re really good at all the other sports, so if we came back and can take half of that, we’re in a good place—aiming for more, of course.
When we talk about creating new IPs and opening up new markets and new genres, yeah, this is an established market with an established genre and an established competitor, which makes it admittedly really challenging, but it gives you a court to play on. And I think that’s where Andrew’s vision is. For us, for the studio team, it’s just about making sure we can show the progress that he’s expecting and the company’s expecting to honor that commitment and keep that commitment alive. If we were a complete bust and had no plan and no idea what we were doing, it’d probably be a different conversation right now, but I think that’s part of the story we’re trying to tell. There’s more to what you saw in the package that was NBA Live 14. There are reasons why it was what it was. And it’s not a question of making excuses or being defensive; it’s just that there’s reality, and we just want to share some reality for those who are interested. And when you look at last year versus this year, you can see the differences. There’s a lot of good things happening, and it’s just a matter that some of them take time, and we’ll share as much as we can along the way. But believe in us, because we’re going to do it.