This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at ESPN Integration in NBA Live 07.
If I’m being completely honest, then I’ll have to admit that for a variety of reasons, I’m not the biggest fan of ESPN’s coverage of the NBA these days. They are obviously one of the league’s biggest partners though, and through ABC, their presenters have the call for the NBA Finals. Their branding is instantly recognisable to basketball fans, and it makes sense that EA Sports would also want to partner with them to bring authentic television presentation to NBA Live. It’s a relationship that began over a decade ago, with the implementation of ESPN Integration in NBA Live 07.
Although ESPN branding is now very prominent in NBA Live, it was a few games before it truly took over. It was a gradual transition in some respects, but as the original fifteen year agreement between the companies demonstrated, they were both in it for the long haul. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Before EA began a working relationship with ESPN beginning with NBA Live 07, the network had previously partnered with Visual Concepts on the NBA 2K series. Beyond providing NBA 2K with vocal talent, that partnership also had a large impact on the branding. NBA 2K3 was “Powered by ESPN” as per its cover art and its immediate successors were officially titled ESPN NBA Basketball and ESPN NBA 2K5. After that licensing agreement ended, ESPN came to terms with EA Sports, and it looked as though NBA Live would adopt the network’s branding. As I mentioned above however, the initiative of ESPN Integration was a gradual process.
If you played some of the early NBA Live titles, or if you’ve been reading my retrospectives in our 20th Anniversary of NBA Live content, you might recall that some of the games featured NBA on TNT branding. It wasn’t much more than a logo here and there and Ernie Johnson providing a few voiceovers in the menus, as the in-game presentation was EA Sports branded (though NBA Live 2000’s overlays in particular clearly took cues from TNT broadcasts). Beginning with NBA Live 2004, the game’s commentary featured NBA on TNT talent, including the legendary Marv Albert. When the ESPN deal was announced, we wondered what would happen.
As it turned out, EA Sports weren’t in a rush to completely overhaul the commentary or in-game presentation and branding. Although there was a demand for authenticity in the presentation, they’d licensed talent and assets from both ESPN and TNT under the umbrella of their own fictional EA Sports television branding, similar to what Visual Concepts is currently doing with NBA 2K. The decision was made to keep Marv Albert and Steve Kerr on commentary through NBA Live 10, though Greg Anthony (then an analyst for ESPN) did replace Kenny Smith on the call for All-Star Weekend events, after The Jet signed on with 2K Sports.
Still, beginning with NBA Live 07, there was plenty of ESPN branding elsewhere in the game. Stats screens, box scores, and the new mock draft in Dynasty Mode were ESPN branded, and the new partnership was advertised on the cover art. The Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 07 took things a step further with streaming ESPN content, including scores, a news ticker, podcasts, and even video highlights. On top of eventually introducing ESPN presentation during gameplay, the aim was to make NBA Live a hub for the network’s content. In theory, basketball gamers would be able to keep up with the news without interrupting a session of NBA Live.
A troubled release, NBA Live 07 didn’t exactly become the definitive product for basketball gaming and ESPN updates, but over the next few years, the partnership continued to produce similar content. Streaming and on-demand audio and video were available in the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of NBA Live, and the branded stats menus also remained. NBA Live 09 also added an ESPN Game of the Week, as part of the NBA Live 365 initiative. EA were finally set to replace the TNT commentators with Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson in NBA Elite 11, and introduce in-game presentation mimicking an NBA on ESPN broadcast.
Of course, NBA Elite 11 would be cancelled, and EA would not relaunch its series until the release of NBA Live 14 in 2013. At that point, the game finally made full use of the ESPN license, with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy on commentary, Jalen Rose hosting the pre-game, halftime, and post-game shows, and the presentation closely resembling that of a real broadcast. Although original ESPN Integration features such as video highlights and scores are no longer present, there are remnants of that content in the form of Jalen Rose’s audio updates discussing recent events. Moving forward, NBA Live will continue to utilise ESPN talent and branding.
Going back to ESPN Integration in its original form in NBA Live 07, it was definitely a big deal. Signing a fifteen year deal with ESPN seemed like a coup for EA Sports, a wise move in terms of being able to add more authenticity to NBA Live’s presentation (and of course, their other sports titles). At the time, the concept of featuring real ESPN content was more exciting than it probably seems now. These days, we have smartphones and tablets to keep us up to date with the latest NBA news when we’re away from a computer or not watching TV. As such, that part of ESPN Integration probably feels somewhat antiquated and harder to appreciate now.
With that said, even at the time, it’s probably fair to say that there were a lot of basketball gamers who just didn’t care about the ESPN content; at least, not while they were having a gaming session. If nothing else, the feature was obviously far less important than the gaming experience. News and highlights that could be consumed elsewhere didn’t exactly make up for the problems in NBA Live 07 and its successors. Though it was a fresh and interesting way to begin ESPN Integration in NBA Live while phasing out the NBA on TNT talent, it certainly makes sense that EA has moved away from some of those features, especially as technology has marched on.
Aside from Jalen Rose’s aforementioned mini-podcasts, ESPN Integration is now mostly about in-game presentation and branding. In my opinion, that’s the way it should be. As EA continues to rebuild NBA Live and the game’s userbase, ESPN Integration remains one of its strong points in terms of authenticity. When you look back at the beginnings of the partnership though, it saw some ambitious and creative ideas that went beyond enhancing the in-game presentation. With NBA 2K now featuring 2K TV, who knows what the partnership with ESPN may have produced, had the NBA Live brand remained stronger over the past decade.