Screen shot from NBA Live 19. (Courtesy EA Sports)

The very best, or marketable, NBA players have two teams: the one they play for in the league and the one that makes their shoes. The so-called Sneaker Wars continue to simmer, even as Nike is perched in a dominant position with Adidas clawing to catch up.

In the world of NBA video games, a similar dynamic seems to be emerging between rival properties. Even as the predominant NBA video game franchise, NBA 2K, releases its newest version, EA Sports seeks to reassert itself via its NBA Live title, attempting to regain relevance after a dismal near-decade that featured multiple years in which Electronic Arts did not even release a game annually.

Once the premier, and essentially only, offering throughout the 1990s in terms of 5-on-5 NBA-licensed video games, NBA Live lost the bulk of its market share to rival Take-Two Interactive Software’s NBA 2K franchise. That title has emerged as one of the top selling games, not just within the sports genre, but overall. It sold about 9 million titles of their 2017 edition and, for modern consoles, became the top-selling sports game for titles based on a U.S.-based leagues. EA, through a press representative, would not confirm any sales figures nor user metrics for NBA Live 18. There was no NBA Live 17. To use another metric, NBA Live 18 has about 65,500 followers on Twitch while NBA 2K18 has 2.5 million.

The dynamic is a reversal for a sports game market that Electronic Arts has dominated with titles such as its Madden , FIFA and NHL franchises, the most popular games, by far, among football, soccer and hockey gamers, respectively. But the NBA Live franchise lost its grip on the top rung. Now the question is whether it can regain its former status and challenge 2K’s throne.

“It’s sort of like how Yahoo had search before Google, but Google had their launch so who cares about Yahoo? No one’s going to use it,” said Michael Pachter, a research securities analyst at Wedbush Securities who specializes in the video game industry.

Pachter credited Take-Two’s deft strategy of heavily discounting games to secure market share in the mid-2000s as a reason for 2K’s success. The position of the 2K franchise is now so strong that the NBA partnered with Take-Two to launch the NBA 2K League, with Twitch buying the streaming rights to broadcast matches between teams bankrolled by actual NBA teams.

Now, with NBA Live 19 released Sept. 7 and NBA 2K 19 released Sept. 11, EA must prove its value to an audience that has already embraced and entwined itself with 2K.

Despite this competitive gulf, the team at EA, led by veteran producer Mike Mahar, believes the NBA’s global fan base is large enough to allow for at least two games, and that his game can compete by not going directly at 2K’s core features.

“We are trying to make a bit of a different game and different experience,” Mahar said at NBA Live’s launch event last month in Hollywood. “We’re leaning really heavily into features that allow players to create fantasies, like courts, rules, challenges and battles as individuals or groups, also live services.”

NBA Live has also leaned into gender equality, with its exclusive inclusion of WNBA players and the ability to create female custom players.

NBA Live might also be able to peel away gamers because of intense criticism directed at 2K over its reworked, but still prevalent, in-game payment system, called micro-transactions, seen as all but necessary for a reasonable rate of progression through the game. Without such payments, rewards from gameplay were relatively meager. EA has faced this same issue in the past, notably with its Star Wars Battlefront II and Dungeon Keeper titles.

Building, and defending, courts is one way EA is hoping to win over the audience. (Courtesy EA Sports)

Mahar, who previously worked on NBA Live from 2005-2010 and EA’s Fight Night boxing game, said NBA Live does away with micro-transactions in all modes except for its Ultimate Team feature. He also highlighted the game’s new Real Player Motion animation system — which makes in-game players look more realistic — as well as Court Battles, an online mode that smacks of a massively multiplayer online real-time strategy game. One of the Court Battle games is Boom Beach, where players create their own customized basketball courts, with customized rules, and attempt to “capture” other players’ courts by winning games against the computer. They also create a strategy for the computer to implement against other online players to defend their own courts.

Beyond specific elements in this year’s game, Mahar also pointed to his team’s culture as a reason for why he believes NBA Live is poised for a big comeback.

“We’re stubborn and we like to compete” he said, with a smile.

But EA has much ground to make up, particularly when it comes to repairing its reputation. Despite EA’s latest innovations and Mahar’s plucky attitude, industry observers are not convinced NBA Live is ready to be taken seriously.

Regarding the recent installments of NBA Live franchise, Pachter said they featured “glitchy, weird” issues, before more bluntly calling the franchise’s previous games “terrible.”

“Gamers don’t care [about the NBA Live series]. They have a great option with NBA 2K and there’s just no reason to buy another game,” Pachter concluded.

Pachter supported this in part by referencing NBA Live 14’s rating on Metacritic, which is 36 out of 100. Several recent versions of NBA 2K are rated 90 out of 100, while NBA Live hovers in the high 50s or low 60s. No full console version of NBA 2K has scored below an 80 on the site. Meanwhile the just-released NBA Live 19 rates in the mid-70s, a marked improvement over recent years, but users are giving it a 6.5 on a 10-point scale on PlayStation. (It earned a 7.6 on Xbox).

Video game media company IGN, which gave NBA Live 19 its most positive review with a score of 79, summarized the comparison to 2K by writing, “In the world of basketball games, it’s the Eastern Conference to 2K’s Western Conference – good, but at the end of the season, the odds are heavily in the opponent’s favor.”

Back at the Friday night Hollywood launch of NBA Live, which featured a roped entrance line, neon-lit court, DJ, open bar, servers with hors d’oeuvres, smoke machines, a dunk contest and rapper/comedian Lil’ Dicky, EA displayed a degree of confidence in its latest NBA Live release by trying to reintroduce the game to influencers. Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, who is also a big hit on social media, is the game’s cover athlete.

However, it is unclear how committed Embiid is, or any of the other players featured in or by EA’s game are, to promoting it. Embiid declined to be interviewed for this article through his marketing agent after rescheduling several times. Embiid’s teammate, Ben Simmons, said earlier this summer that Embiid plays NBA 2K “a lot.” The Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker, another member of the NBA Live 19 promotional push, has only Tweeted about playing NBA 2K in previous years. A search for NBA Live references returned no hits.

Even as it seems 2K’s lead is insurmountable, Sean Williams, Rankin Scholar at Drexel University and leading authority on sneaker history and culture, offered a perspective from the sneaker world of how NBA Live could come from behind.

“Adidas is not trying to play Nike’s game,” said Williams, saying that when they tried to compete on Nike’s terms, they failed.

“They got smart,” said Williams. He contrasted Adidas approach of calling everyone a “creator” with Nike’s recent controversial Colin Kaepernick campaign. He also identified Adidas’ decision to hearken back to their original successes, with non-athletes like Run DMC, as well as innovations, such as their early traction designs and now BASF-licensed Boost cushioning.

“They could care less about teaching you that everyone is an athlete,” he said, referencing Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan and campaigns.

“Everybody is glued to their phone, everybody is not an athlete,” he said with a laugh.

Whether that thinking will translate over to an audience of gamers remains to be seen.

Standing next to a row of people playing NBA Live 19 overlooking the court, with the smoke machine working on full blast, and loud music bumping over the speakers, Mahar takes in the scene at the launch event and portrays a mix of composed excitement seen by the biggest underdogs, ones who are free from any expectations of defeating a highly favored opponent.

“It’s all blue ocean for us,” he said, with a smile. “We have nowhere to go but up.”

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