To mark the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re taking a look back at every game in the series with retrospectives and other fun content! This also includes re-running some features from our 20th Anniversary celebrations, with a few revisions. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with NBA Live and are keen on taking a trip down memory lane, or you’re new to the series and want to learn about its history, we hope that you enjoy celebrating the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live here at the NLSC! Next up is a look back at NBA Elite 11 and NBA Live 13.
I was originally going to write separate articles for NBA Elite 11 and NBA Live 13, but they’re obviously closely connected, being back-to-back cancellations. Since I haven’t played the full version of NBA Elite 11, and have no hands-on experience with NBA Live 13 at all, it occurred to me that there isn’t really enough I can say about both games to fill two articles. Nevertheless, when we look back at the history of the NBA Live series, it’s important to cover these two titles. Needless to say, they played a significant role in the series being in the position that it’s in today. As such, there are cautionary tales to reflect upon, as well as a couple of “What Ifs”.
The word that comes to everyone’s mind when NBA Elite 11 is brought up is “why”. Why change direction after NBA Live 10 was well-received? Why implement new controls that are meant for a hockey game, not a basketball game? Why go back to the early 90s by not having a sprint control? Why change the name after so many years, and to one that feels rather awkward to say? Why wait until a week before release to pull the game? Why not cancel it then and there, instead of indefinitely postponing it? And, having done all that, why not go back to NBA Live 10 and keep building on that foundation, when it seemed to be the right direction for the series?
There isn’t an official answer to all of these questions, but there is some information out there, and we can make some educated guesses. As it turns out, the plan to revamp NBA Live’s controls began 18 months before NBA Elite 11 was set to release. As former Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello explained to Kotaku, the NBA Live team came to him with the concepts that would be introduced in NBA Elite 11. The sales figures for NBA Live 10 therefore weren’t a direct cause for the change in direction, though they were a continuation of the trend that inspired it. Who knows how things would’ve gone if NBA Live 10 had outsold and been reviewed better than NBA 2K10.
Their vision of reinventing the wheel with NBA Elite 11 wasn’t universally supported by everyone on the team. Mike Wang, aka Beluba, clearly didn’t agree with it, and returned to Visual Concepts as a result. Implementing the new approach to controls involved a complete overhaul of the technology, which as the Kotaku article noted, was a huge undertaking. Since it was going to be a revolution – and possibly because it distanced itself from the now-tainted NBA Live brand – the game was renamed NBA Elite 11. In that respect, it’s similar to the decision to adopt the name NBA Live 95 back in 1994, rather than running with the original title of NBA Showdown 95.
We can also speculate that it was done as a failsafe in case the new direction flopped, but I would suggest that that turned out to be a silver lining in hindsight. Even at the time, the new name was unpopular. NBA Elite simply doesn’t roll off the tongue the way NBA Live does. At the end of the day though, the name was hardly the biggest problem with the game. Revamping the right analog stick to include both dribbling and shooting controls utilised technology that was originally developed for the NHL series. We’d seen the benefits of shared tech in previous games, but mechanics meant for a hockey game sounded like a poor fit for basketball, clearly a very different sport.
Not only that, the sprint/turbo control that had been in the game since NBA Live 95 was removed, as it had been in NHL. This was puzzling, as it was a vital part of the controls that allowed for explosiveness and elusive movement. The idea was that we’d be able to vary player speed sufficiently without it, but to be blunt, we couldn’t. We didn’t miss it too much in the halfcourt, as properly executed dribbling moves could provide the bursts of speed we needed to elude defenders; at least to some extent. In the open court however, the lack of a sprint control killed fast breaks. In comparison, the shooting and dribbling controls were functional, but had problems of their own.
The new shooting mechanics aimed – pun intended – to eliminate the dice roll that determined shot success, by giving the user full control over the action. This was achieved by holding the stick up to attempt a shot. The aim of the stick needed to be within a “make” window, and released at the right time. If the aim wasn’t true, a shot would miss left or right according to the stick position, and short or long depending on the timing. Although it might sound contrived, gamers did pick it up, and 2K has used similar concepts in both NBA 2K17 and NBA 2K21. Unfortunately, it was a little too easy to master, as well as trigger contextually inappropriate animations.
This led to people showing off how they could make three-point hook shots when the NBA Elite 11 demo came out. It was clear that the method was good for free throw shooting, but not jumpshots. The old control method (sans sprint control) could be selected, though that option tended to be overlooked. Of course, that wasn’t the end of the embarrassment for the demo. The infamous “Jesus Bynum” glitch, where Andrew Bynum got stuck at midcourt in the t-pose, became a meme. Not everyone actually encountered the glitch – I never have – but a video made the rounds, and went viral. Combined with the rough gameplay, it completely tanked the demo’s reputation.
Nevertheless, it seemed as though EA were going to go ahead with the launch, and look to patch issues based on the feedback they’d received. There was even a launch party on September 23rd, ahead of the game’s projected October 5th release. Four days later, it was “indefinitely postponed“. Come November, the game was officially cancelled, as many had expected. In the wake of the cancellation, EA announced that NBA Live 10 would continue to receive online support, and roster updates through the 2011 season. It was a first for a once-proud series. NBA Live 06 had been a rough start to the generation which led to some struggles, but this was a major turning point.
Because the game was postponed so close to its intended release, copies have made it out into the wild. As such, they’ve become incredibly expensive collector’s items. Gamers who have played the full version of NBA Elite 11 tend to agree that the game shouldn’t have been released, a sentiment that the executives at EA Sports back then obviously share. As John Riccitiello put it in his conversation with Kotaku, games in other genres can be delayed because there’s no season. Every day NBA Elite 11 was postponed, they lost further ground to NBA 2K11, while also moving closer to the release of the next game. Quality aside, it simply didn’t make sense to release it later.
Of course, even the worst games can have some good ideas. The fact that NBA 2K has adopted shot aiming with the right analog stick suggests it’s a concept with merit, though not everyone is a fan. NBA Elite 11 would’ve also introduced a career mode called Become Legendary. Named after a marketing slogan for the Jordan Brand, the mode would’ve seen our player begin their career at the Jordan Draft Showcase. From there, we’d leave our “Fingerprints” on the game as we progressed through 23 levels, where we’d attempt to replicate statistical milestones from Michael Jordan’s career. Poor performances would trigger “bounce back games”, with added XP on offer.
There are some creative concepts there that weren’t followed up on in Rising Star or The One, though the 23 levels of Become Legendary are somewhat similar to The One’s Icon Path idea. NBA Elite 11 would’ve also included established staples such as Dynasty, Online Team Play/adidas LIVE Run, and so forth. Ultimately the gameplay needs to be up to scratch though, and NBA Elite 11 simply fell short. EA’s internal reviews concluded it wasn’t worth the risk of releasing a game that felt so unfinished when it came to the on-court product, and the rest, as they say, is history. Once again, most people who have played the full version tend to agree with EA’s assessment.
I’ll put my hand up here and admit to being too soft on the demo when it came out. I was trying to look on the bright side and give the new technology and concepts a chance. I will say that it’s not all bad in terms of how player movement felt on the sticks, but the drastic change in direction wasn’t the right way to go. I do believe that EA could’ve salvaged some ideas from Become Legendary, and again, they kind of did with The One’s Icon Path. As much as cancelling NBA Elite 11 hurt the brand, releasing such a broken product that would likely sell very poorly after the initial postponement would’ve been just as damaging, if not more so. It was the right call.
It did further damage the brand though, but as I mentioned, the name change to NBA Elite 11 arguably softened the blow. It led to snark, such as calling the game “NBA Delete 11”, but in that respect, it spared the NBA Live moniker from further scorn. On the downside, it damaged the reputation of EA Sports’ reboot of NBA Jam. A stripped down version of the game was originally going to be bundled with NBA Elite 11, with the full game being paid DLC. When NBA Jam was released as a standalone title, many were under the misconception that EA were trying to sell a full game that was originally going to be free, rather than NBA Elite 11 providing a small taste of it.
The 2010 reboot of NBA Jam was still ultimately well-received though, and its sequel NBA Jam: On Fire Edition was even more successful. The follow-up to NBA Elite 11 wouldn’t be so fortunate. Because the NBA Elite name had been ruined, EA made the sensible decision of returning to the NBA Live branding. After announcing that they would skip the 2012 season entirely and return the following year with NBA Live 13, we were hoping for the best. Ideally, that meant a return to the drawing board, with a game that was more like NBA Live 10, only better. We figured that wasn’t out of the question, given the additional time the developers would have to work on the game.
Not only that, but development had transferred to EA Tiburon, the studio responsible for Madden. Although Madden had its own issues, it was always looked upon as the superior release in EA Sports’ lineup. The combination of a different studio, a new team, and a fresh start, inspired a degree of optimism. As it turned out, NBA Live 13 hadn’t been in development since the cancellation of NBA Elite 11. The time had been used to assemble the team and perform market research, but not develop and polish the technology. Speaking of which, NBA Live 13 was set to utilise the same ANT animation technology that could be found in the FIFA and NHL series at the time.
At first, everything had looked promising. There was a clip of the game in action at E3 2012, and NBA Live developers were giving several interviews about it. As you can see if you go back through our news archives for NBA Live 13, for the first month or so, there were plenty of early previews of the game. EA Sports even put together the “NBA Live Advisory Council”, a group of gamers (which included future NBA Live and NBA 2K developer Scott O’Gallagher) who would provide detailed feedback at playtesting events. A release date was announced, and from all accounts, EA were all in on rebooting the NBA Live series and making it successful once more.
However, following the reveal of rookie ratings at the 2012 NBA Draft – which was presented by EA Sports – news began to dry up. This didn’t inspire confidence after what had happened with NBA Elite 11, nor did the announcement that the game wouldn’t be released on October 2nd as originally planned. There had also been talk that NBA Live 13 might be a cheaper, digital-only release. Despite pushing back the release, EA did actually drop a first look trailer for NBA Live 13 in mid September. Two weeks later, NBA Live 13 would be officially cancelled, with EA admitting in the announcement that they’d “not yet met (their) high expectations with NBA Live”.
From what I’ve been told, NBA Live 13 had been testing very poorly with the NBA Live Advisory Council. The final straw was a playtesting session quite late in the development cycle, in which members of the council indicated that if NBA Live 13 launched in its current state, sales and reception would be extremely poor. Once again figuring that cancellation was preferable to postponement or releasing a subpar game, EA pulled the plug on September 27th; two years to the date that NBA Elite 11 had been indefinitely postponed. It was slightly less shocking the second time around though, especially given how quiet everything went shortly after the 2012 Draft.
The cover player for NBA Live 13 was never officially announced, and there’s been a persistent rumour that it was supposed to be LeBron James. However, when we asked former NBA Live Executive Producer Sean O’Brien about that, he told us that it was LeBron’s teammate Dwyane Wade who was set to appear on the cover. Wade had previously appeared on the cover of NBA Live 06, becoming the first player to win a championship and NBA Finals MVP the same year as appearing on the cover of a video game. It would’ve made him the first repeat cover player in the history of NBA Live, but with the game ultimately being cancelled, that wouldn’t come to pass.
Not much else is known about NBA Live 13, except that Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy provided commentary for the game. Breen and Van Gundy were originally going to debut in NBA Elite 11 alongside Mark Jackson, but with Jackson being hired as the new head coach of the Golden State Warriors, he was removed from the team. The duo of Breen and Van Gundy would finally make their debut in NBA Live 14. Promotional material for NBA Live 13 made mention of “Basketball IQ” and an “all-new Playmaker Engine”, but these concepts were never elaborated upon. The game would’ve also continued to use Synergy data for player ratings and roster updates.
Returning to the questions posed at the beginning of this retrospective, the change in direction that began with NBA Elite 11 was obviously a response to the tide turning against NBA Live. The new name was supposed to emphasise a revolution. When that fell through after frantic efforts to fix the game in time for its release, EA tried to save face with postponement, but ultimately (and correctly) decided that saving the game wasn’t feasible at that point. They returned to the NBA Live name, but it seems that they weren’t able to pick up were they left off with NBA Live 10’s assets. This led to another ambitious and frantic development cycle, and in turn, another cancellation.
While going back and continuing on from NBA Live 10 wasn’t feasible, in hindsight, it’s what they should’ve done in the first place. At the very least, 18 months wasn’t long enough to develop the concepts they sought to introduce in NBA Elite 11, and so the tech wasn’t ready. Had they continued to build on NBA Live 10, perhaps while developing that tech a little longer, I have to believe the series wouldn’t have fallen on such hard times. Talented developers like Beluba possibly wouldn’t have left EA. They might have realised the new tech wasn’t necessary or panning out as hoped, and scrapped it in favour of building even better games on NBA Live 10’s foundation.
It emphasises the importance of ensuring that technology is ready to implement, as well as sticking with a direction that’s working. It also demonstrates the importance of listening to gamer feedback, and for that matter, the right voices. As I’ll discuss in the forthcoming retrospectives, shutting out experienced and knowledgeable gamers in favour of a new crowd with bad ideas and little history with the NBA Live series has caused further harm in recent titles. Finally, it proves that while competition is healthy and needed, the pressure of competing with NBA 2K has led to rash decisions that damaged the NBA Live series, and subsequently widened the gap even further.
Although management has obviously been an issue, it’s interesting that the changes in NBA Elite 11 that led to the series’ abrupt decline following a strong showing with NBA Live 10 were instigated by the developers. They weren’t foisted upon them by the suits; at least, that’s the official story, and there’s been no rebuttal to the tale. The inability to pick up where they left off with NBA Live 10, or spend enough time to properly develop new tech, would hamper their reboot efforts with NBA Live 13. In that span, NBA 2K went from strength to strength. NBA 2K11 brought us The Jordan Challenge, and sold five million copies. It’s been an uphill battle for Live ever since.
NBA Elite 11 and NBA Live 13 will always have a certain air of mystery and “What If” about them, but the bottom line is that they were subpar games that weren’t worthy of release, and subsequently set the NBA Live series back several years. A stripped down version of Elite was released for iOS, but as with NBA Live Mobile in recent years, it didn’t fill the void. Although the series would return with NBA Live 14, and isn’t quite finished as of 2020 – or so we’re hoping – there can be no understating the damage that was done by NBA Elite 11 and NBA Live 13. Some ideas look good on paper, but need a little longer in the oven before they can be a recipe for success.