NBA Elite 11 is an unusual game to have in your PlayStation 3 library. Copies don’t surface often, not even in the towering stacks of cast-off sports games that litter used game shops and K-Mart bargain bins. And if the game happens to pop up on eBay, it’s liable to run you around $900. That’s because NBA Elite 11 was never properly released. It was an aborted attempt to revitalize its aging NBA Live series at the end of 2010—aborted so late that Electronic Arts distributed “finished” copies of NBA Elite 11 to the press and other industry folk before canceling it days before its scheduled release date.
NBA Elite 11 is magically bad. Rock the Bulls in Elite, and Derrick Rose might just spin endlessly in a circle, stuck in an infinite bind. Meanwhile, Luol Deng would never miss a single shot standing just outside the paint. The sheer quantity of glitches and flubs would be funny if Electronic Arts hadn’t spent millions of dollars making the game only to kill it at the last second. (Okay, it’s still funny.) Ultimately, though, Elite is just one part of Electronic Arts’ wasteful pursuit of an NBA game that can print money like the studio’s dual earners, Madden NFL and FIFA Soccer. Six months after canceling Elite, EA announced that its then-defunct NBA Live series would return. But then, after work on NBA Live 13 was finished, EA canceled that one, too—a week before it was set to come out on Xbox Live. EA finally got a basketball game out this past fall with NBA Live 14. Long story short, everybody hated it and bought NBA 2K14 as they’d been doing for years. It wasn’t even magically bad; it was just bad. So bad that EA had to apologize for making something that sucks so much.
Electronic Arts’ flailing effort to lock down another popular sport for its panoply of perennial simulators is galling not just because it represents a waste of resources but also because it embodies how creatively stifled the game makers with the greatest means have become. NBA 2K, the competing series made by Visual Concepts, bested NBA Live years ago at making a game that feels like pro basketball. Even to a casual fan of the league, 2K nails the fluid appeal of the game, and Visual has poured on feature after feature for the most ardent fans over the years, from legacy players to “executive producer Jay Z.” Competition drives creativity under the best circumstances, but Electronic Arts couldn’t even keep up, let alone compete, and it never considered the alternative. With its enormous resources, EA never tried to make an NBA game that doesn’t slavishly recreate the NBA experience. The studio didn’t try to make a new type of game.
A healthy disregard for realism has been a signature of so many great sports video games. When you get down to it, an electronic version of basketball or football is about as possible as making an electronic gun-fighting simulator. In the same way that Call Of Duty doesn’t actually recreate a war zone, games like Madden NFL and NBA 2K don’t recreate the sports. They just use the rules and trappings of the pro sport to frame all these ways to play. It’s why early sports games are so much fun: The sport was just a jumping-off point to create a different type of game.
Arch Rivals took basketball and used it to make a gonzo, Tex Avery-esque scrum in which you punch dudes as often as you slam dunk. NBA Jam took post-Dream Team NBA icons and used them to make a two-on-two competition as bombastic as a ’70s kung fu movie and as funny as an episode of Animaniacs. But absurdity wasn’t the only route to successful sports game design. NBA Live 95, the first EA basketball game to bear the name, let you play with the league like a box of toy soldiers, played in a top-down diorama. Mimicking the actual sport felt like an afterthought. The goal was to make something that resembled the real product, yes, but the foremost goal was a game that felt good to play on its own merits.
At some point, making a good video game ceased to be the goal of game makers holding onto the licenses for professional sports leagues. Electronic Arts brought back the NBA Jam series for one game just before the NBA Elite fiasco, and while the newer game certainly had the acrobatics of the original, it still had the stuffy pretension of an Officially Licensed Product of the NBA. The same goes for EA’s 2011 attempt to resurrect NFL Blitz, a series of football games that felt like the Zucker Brothers trying their hand at making Madden. 2K Games briefly toyed with The Bigs—an overblown Major League Baseball game with batting and fielding that played like Michael Bay’s Field Of Dreams 2: Building It Again—but that series wound down in 2009. If you’re making a novel sports game today, either it doesn’t have real athletes in it or it’s got Mario wooting his pudgy ass around a soccer pitch.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Publishers like Electronic Arts and 2K Games are going to keep their tight grip on their lucrative licenses from the pro leagues, but whether they like it or not, there will always be a glass ceiling on the audience for games like Madden NFL and NBA 2K. These games may sell in the millions each year, but the audience will inevitably peak. (Madden NFL has actually started to decline, with last year’s Madden 25 selling about 15 percent fewer copies than Madden NFL 13.) Rather than waste the money and talent necessary to make a game like NBA Live 14, companies like EA ought to use their resources to make creative video games, no matter what shape they take.
EA doesn’t have to look that far back for a possible solution to its balling woes. The NBA Street series, for instance, has been dormant for 10 years, its ridiculous three-on-three matches pitting Allen Iverson against the Beastie Boys lost to the ages—for now. Remaking NBA Street isn’t necessarily a fix, though. EA and 2K should stop trying to make the ultimate league product and reconsider what it means to make a sports game. Not-so-distant history has shown that sports games can be much more than what they’ve become.