NBA Live ends the decade as it began: canceled without explanation

“We are obviously disappointed that EA will not be releasing NBA Live this year, but have been assured by EA that the next release will meet our mutual standards of excellence.”

The NBA said that in 2012. To Joystiq.

And yet it’s still applicable in 2019, if comments from Electronic Arts chief executive Andrew Wilson, announcing the cancellation of NBA Live yet again, can be taken at face value.

“With great support from the NBA and the NBA Players Association, we have been working on an innovated new direction for our game,” he told investors on Tuesday. I’ve heard some form of this assurance before, from executives like Peter Moore and producers like Sean O’Brien, and I still have to wonder what makes it worthwhile, to either the league or the publisher, to stay in this pot.

EA’s NBA Live series has failed to launch five times this decade. You’d think this kind of a misfire, especially after two games that arrived on-time and were distinct and enjoyable (even if they weren’t commercial successes) would get at least one question from investors.

On Tuesday, they had none for Wilson. I’m not expecting the folks from Piper Jaffray or J.P. Morgan to step in with a show of consumer advocacy. But some kind of query like “What does all this cost and why are you still in this,” from the people who either put large amounts of money into the company or advise their clients to do so, would seem to be in order. NBA Live 20 was promised as packaged goods in the previous two quarters, after all.

Well, whatever, that’s between them. As for the general public, you can cancel a game like NBA Live two times and still get interest when you manage to hit it right and on time, as EA Sports did in 2017 and 2018. Everyone loves a comeback story, after all. But the publisher cannot expect the same kind of forbearance for a cancellation after supposedly getting everything back to stable footing, and telling everyone the troubled times had passed.

On Tuesday, I asked an EA Sports representative two times if development problems were the reason, and was told no. EA Tiburon didn’t try to reinvent the wheel again, in other words, which makes this a betrayal of their work, in my view. So I don’t understand why any money-paying video gamer should trust that another NBA Live will be on shelves next year, or care if actually is. The next console generation is no promise, either; EA leaned on that idea with NBA Live 14, and it was terrible.

From the player’s perspective, NBA Live going AWOL is a downer because it was at least a symbolic repudiation of the NBA 2K’s insistence on monetizing everything. The cosmetics, customizations and other upgrades in NBA Live 19’s career and online modes were all effectively unlockable — earned with an in-game currency that couldn’t be bought with real money. And nothing about player advancement could be influenced by money, where it is in NBA 2K20.

Maybe EA would be killed for having the audacity to sell something like loot boxes under a brand as damaged as NBA Live. But this was still at least a meaningful brand differentiator.

NBA Live 18 and NBA Live 19 were not commercial successes. Hard data is never provided, of course, but GameStop sales rankings last year suggested that Live 19 — a good game — sold about as well as the Nintendo Switch version of NBA 2K19. The series’ afterthought of an Ultimate Team mode probably added little in terms of revenue, too.

It still does not explain why it wasn’t worth just pushing whatever EA Tiburon had out the door this year to wave the flag. If the game already has no sales expectations, and you’re already paying (one assumes) some kind of guarantee to the league and its players regardless, and the product isn’t actually broken like NBA Elite 11 or NBA Live 13, why not just stick it out there, and put off whatever big plans you had until next year?

We may never know the answer, because who can tell with NBA Live anymore. I’ve been writing this kind of story for 10 years now. While the handwringing about NBA Live and the backlinks to the Andrew Bynum Jesus Glitch will always get reader attention, I can’t credibly say this series is worth it a reader’s attention any more than, say, whatever back-catalog concept 3D Realms is trying to rehabilitate this time.

Investors may not feel like their money has been wasted, but the public’s time is. That’s what EA gave up with Tuesday’s cancellation.

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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