Reevaluating Expectations: EA Sports NBA 13 and Challenging NBA 2K13

Posted February 16th, 2012 at 3:30 pm

There are less than eight months until the new crop of NBA games arrive – and after a two year absence that’ll mean competition for 2K Sports with EA Sports debuting their new sim series being developed out of the Tiburon studio.

Following the release of NBA 2K12 I discussed the environment surrounding NBA video games and whether consumer discontent with that game was opening the door for EA Sports to succeed in their return. The conclusion was that the impact would be minimal with the ’13 crop of titles and that EA would need to gain back consumer confidence first. That was way back in October though, circumstances have largely changed since, so it felt right to go back into the topic and examine the situation as it stands now. 

Online play remains the biggest weakness for the NBA 2K series and the company did themselves no favors by stripping out many of the features like Crew, and even removing Online Leagues in favor of a disastrous attempt at Online Association, while arguably not even improving online performance substantially. Even more than just taking out features it was that 2K attempted to cover it all up. They refused to comment on any of it for upwards of a month until admitting to all the problems and explaining the background of why things happened the way they did. That did little to wipe away the negative feelings about the product from those online-centric gamers however and resentment is still present.

Post-release support has also been sorely lacking as well. There has only been one feedback-based patch and no more are planned (Madden NFL 12 has been criticized for providing just one too), roster updates have been inconsistent, and the promised feature of art updates have been few and far between. The paid downloadable content was also ill-conceived and not received well.

Still, the lockout was lifted and fans moved past their anger. Sales which were down heavily picked back up and the focus turned to following the season (thank you Jeremy Lin) rather than debating how much the sport meant to fans and the video game product that represented it. The NBA 2K brand may have lost momentum in the process but it regained footing and has positioned itself well for the next battle at hand.

Where does that leave EA Sports NBA? Right now simply as a curiosity and not much more. Expectations will be low, and certainly EA realizes they aren’t going to capture a large portion of the market in year one, but instead the product will need to establish some real credibility. Unfortunately for EA they’ve continued to degrade their NBA brand by poorly supporting NBA Jam over the past two years so they’ve only dug the hole deeper since.

EA Sports NBA will have to be a fully-featured product that addresses what consumers want. Where the company really went wrong with NBA Elite 11, outside of being poorly executed obviously, is that they tried to push features that no one had asked for as being innovative and a revolution – that people didn’t know what they wanted out of an NBA game and instead EA was going to show them what they wanted. That’s not the way to build interest in a product. Now they’ve had time to watch the market trends from afar and should have learned from their failures.

Rarely the underdog EA faced that very scenario when they introduced EA Sports MMA in a world where UFC is the dominant brand. EA MMA was a very good effort but the sales weren’t there – even still the company planned to move on with a sequel until Strikeforce was bought out. EA MMA was established and earned immediate credibility, and they were going to stick with it and hope to see it grow as a franchise, but unfortunately that wasn’t meant to be. What that shows though is when backed into a corner EA can get serious. One can also look at how FIFA, which once trailed PES in sales and quality, and how that has become the largest selling sports franchise worldwide on a yearly basis in history.

Ultimately consumers are going to go with the product that they feel the most comfortable with. This year there is no doubt it will be NBA 2K13. It’ll take several years before EA Sports NBA can become the “safe” or “comparable” product in the minds of most. The market right now will struggle to support anything considered “risky” and that’s what EA will be bringing to the table this year. Word of mouth will be a big factor in all of this – so while EA won’t be able to explode onto the scene with NBA 13 their main goal will be to avoid failure, which they simply could not recover from again, and start building up the confidence they lost over this generation.