Monday Tip-Off: Could College Basketball Be EA Sports’ Niche?

Monday Tip-Off: Could College Basketball Be EA Sports Niche?

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Join me as I begin the week here at the NLSC with my opinions and commentary on basketball gaming topics, as well as tales of the fun I’ve been having on the virtual hardwood. This week, I’m tipping things off with my thoughts on the prospect of EA Sports using college basketball as a springboard for their return to the virtual hardwood.

Excluding the mobile version of NBA Live, we haven’t seen a new basketball video game from EA Sports since 2018. There was time when such a thing seemed like an unthinkable prospect. Sure, NBA Live had had a rough release here or there, and NBA 2K steadily rose to become the premier brand by the end of the 2000s. We still expected a basketball game from EA, though; two in fact! With the NCAA series ending in 2009, and NBA Live missing several years beginning with the cancellation of NBA Elite 11, we’ve grown accustomed to their hoops titles being benched.

Not everyone has a problem with that. For some gamers, it’s EA Sports’ just deserts after failing to develop a satisfactory basketball title, or perhaps moving away from the PC platform (or indeed, both). I do understand that sentiment. However, for all the good things that NBA 2K has done, we’ve seen the downside of 2K having a virtual monopoly over the virtual hardwood. Unfortunately, while there would be a benefit to competition and choice in the space, NBA Live has not been able to deliver and be that viable alternative. With that in mind, eschewing the NBA in favour of a new college basketball game could prove to be EA Sports’ best move at this juncture.

There’s an obvious benefit right out of the gate: no competition. While there would inevitably be some comparisons between a new college basketball game from EA Sports and the latest NBA 2K title, the former would be filling a niche that the latter does not. A small taste of college basketball as part of the journey in MyCAREER wouldn’t be the same as a full-blown collegiate title. Whereas NBA Live has been falling short as an NBA sim, a college basketball game from EA Sports would be offering something that NBA 2K doesn’t provide. It would be the only game in town when it comes to the college scene, just as NBA 2K is the only choice in NBA titles.

Blake Griffin in NCAA Basketball 10

While it would obviously remain vital that any college basketball game from EA measure up in terms of graphics, gameplay, and modes, there wouldn’t be the same pressure to catch up to NBA 2K. NBA Live’s Dynasty and Franchise modes have fallen way behind what NBA 2K has done with The Association, and subsequently MyLEAGUE, MyGM, and MyNBA. Naturally, the college equivalent of a franchise mode must still be deep, but it could avoid direct comparisons to an NBA-oriented experience. Differences between college and professional basketball would mean that the gameplay in EA’s title wouldn’t be identical to the style of play found in NBA 2K.

This lack of competition would alleviate some growing pains. Again, EA Sports couldn’t come out with a game that feels two or even three generations behind, but if it’s aiming to provide an experience that NBA 2K isn’t, the room for improvement is more tolerable. When NBA Live has come up short, there’s been another game we can at least try. Referring once again to the franchise experience, it’s harder to overlook or forgive NBA Live’s shortcomings in that area, when a deep mode is on offer in NBA 2K. A barebones Ultimate Team looks even worse when MyTEAM is going from strength to strength. Again, the fewer direct comparisons, the better for EA Sports.

As long as a new college basketball game from EA features enjoyable gameplay and engaging modes, the mere fact that it’s providing a different basketball experience would make it an intriguing prospect. Sure, EA Sports doesn’t have the best reputation among gamers, but look how many virtual hardwood enthusiasts admit that they buy NBA 2K out of habit and a desire for a new NBA game, rather than affection for the brand and recent releases. There’s interest in having a new college basketball game on the market. Whichever publisher can provide one is going to draw attention, making it a tremendous opportunity for EA Sports to get back into the basketball gaming space.

Kansas Player in NCAA Basketball 09

It would also be resurrecting a brand that hasn’t been tainted by failure. For all the good things that NBA Live did in its heyday, and for all the nostalgia and positive memories that many of us have, there’s no denying that the series’ reputation has been stained. We haven’t seen a college basketball game from EA Sports since NCAA Basketball 10, which like NBA Live 10, was generally well-received. Obviously there’s still understandable distrust in EA’s ability to develop a quality sim basketball title of any description, but there’s also some goodwill in that brand. It’s a series that ended too soon and while it was still good, whereas NBA Live has repeatedly faltered.

Of course, I would still like to see an NBA-licensed game that is a viable alternative to 2K, and realistically, EA Sports are the only company in a position to make one. To that end though, returning with a new college hoops title and establishing a foothold in the basketball gaming space could facilitate a strong return for NBA Live at some point. The thought here is that EA Sports establishes a solid foundation by releasing a basketball game with good bones and plenty of potential, which gamers will check out as it’s not directly competing with NBA 2K. Through building suitable tech, as well as trust and goodwill, they could also pave the way for NBA Live to make a comeback.

First things first, though. Once again, this hypothetical new college basketball game from EA Sports still needs to be very good at the bare minimum, if it’s to stand any chance of re-establishing its NCAA and NBA series. Even with the advantage of not directly competing with NBA 2K, comparisons are inevitable because NBA 2K has still set the standard for 5-on-5 sim basketball titles. The game would still need to impress, and there’s no guarantee that it would. Switching from an NBA to an NCAA title provides some advantages, but after years of coming up short with NBA Live, it’s not unreasonable to doubt EA’s ability to develop a satisfactory basketball game at all.

Recruiting Players in NCAA March Madness 08

After all, the engine and the tech at their disposal aren’t going to magically improve just because colleges are replacing NBA teams. The collegiate style of play isn’t going to overcome issues with animations and AI that NBA-oriented gameplay could not. A college franchise mode wouldn’t need to have all the features seen in MyNBA, but if it’s anything like the “streamlined” (i.e. incredibly shallow) mode seen in the eighth generation NBA Live titles, it’ll still be a disappointment. To put it bluntly, you can change the league, but if the tech isn’t up to scratch and the design choices are bad, it won’t matter overmuch. Room for improvement is fine, but subpar is unacceptable.

If you’ll indulge a few basketball metaphors, a college title would be an opportunity for EA to get off the bench, but it wouldn’t be a wide open dunk. It’s a way for them to get back into the game following a major injury, not a guarantee that they’ll dominate once they’re out there. It’s a brand new season, but if they didn’t do a good job of rebuilding, it’s going to be another year in the lottery. I think you get the point. There’s a niche that EA Sports can fill with a new college game, but they have to deliver. Otherwise, unless they have an exclusive deal in place, they could easily re-establish interest in a college basketball game, only for 2K to swoop in and make a better one.

With that being said, it remains a tremendous opportunity that arguably has lower stakes than immediately throwing their hat back into the ring with another NBA Live release. I mean, if they’ve been quietly developing NBA Live for a few years now and have a game that’s capable of making some noise, by all means let’s see that. At this point though, I’m not going to get excited about the prospect of a new NBA Live until we see some solid evidence that it’s in the pipeline. Strange as it may sound, I’d take a new college basketball game as a promising sign. If nothing else, it would be tech that could potentially be repurposed for an NBA Live title, if everything goes well.

A Classic College Basketball Rivalry in NCAA Basketball 09

Even putting aside the prospect of NBA Live returning, simply having a new college basketball game on the market would be awesome. Yes, ideally we want it to be great and worth buying, but just having something apart from NBA 2K to talk about and look forward to would be immensely refreshing. The preview season has become incredibly dull, a trickle of news and previews that are increasingly difficult to put faith in. It’s been over a decade since we frequently had multiple games to cover, consider, and check out. If EA takes advantage of such an opportunity, then hoops gaming becomes far more interesting, and – with any luck – more entertaining as well.

That of course brings us to the likelihood of this happening. I’m hesitant to declare it to be a foregone conclusion, but there are a couple of signs that lead me to believe that it’s not completely impossible. EA have hired a couple of people that worked on NBA 2K, and while there’s always the chance they’re looking to do new things with their career, it would be wasteful to bring them in and not attempt a new basketball title. There was also seemingly a teaser on the official EA Twitter during March Madness 2022. It’s easy to read too much into such things, but there have been hints here and there suggesting that EA Sports isn’t done making basketball video games just yet.

For now, all we can do is to wait and see. With so little to go on, it’d be foolish to assume that the return of NBA Live or NCAA Basketball is definitely imminent. I’ve seen too many people assume speculation as a given, and then get upset at a broken “promise” that was never made in the first place. Nevertheless, returning to the virtual hardwood with a college title could be an excellent move for EA Sports, one that avoids some of the challenges that have derailed NBA Live’s comeback attempts. It could be the best thing for the future of their basketball games, and obviously good news for us, too. I for one am open to the prospect of more hoops titles on the market.

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