Commentary

NBA Elite 11: See you at the crossroads!

Originally Published: October 4, 2010
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

When EA Sports announced last week that its upcoming "NBA Elite 11" basketball video game would be delayed until next year -- despite being scheduled to release on Monday and already having a Manhattan launch party -- the news didn't come as a surprise to anyone (read: nerds) who had been following the title's troubled development.

In fact, it shouldn't have been surprising to anyone familiar with sports video games, period.

While games such as "Madden NFL" seem like undead cash cows, annually releasing to pomp and profits, the truth is that most sports titles are akin to athletic dynasties: they have a limited shelf life. Some last a decade. Some last a single year. Some never get released in the first place.

With that in mind, Page 2 tips a symbolic 40 oz. to the once-proud sports video games that didn't make it, the franchises joining "NBA Elite 11" at the crossroads:

NFL 2K

Years: 1999-2004

Scouting Report: When "Madden NFL"-maker EA Sports declined to release titles for Sega's Dreamcast console, Sega had programming house Visual Concepts create the critically-acclaimed "NFL 2K" series.

Peak Performance: Considered by many to be one of the best sports games ever made, "NFL 2K5" cut into "Madden NFL's" market share and forced an EA Sports price drop when Take Two Interactive priced 2K at $19.99.

Tragic Flaw: EA responded to 2K's insolence by buying exclusive NFL and NFLPA rights, effectively killing the 2K series and all other football game competitors. A bare-bones effort featuring retired players -- "All-Pro Football 2K8" -- failed to revive the 2K franchise.

NBA Inside Drive

Years: 2001-2003

Scouting Report: The best basketball game you've never heard of, "Inside Drive" was made by Microsoft for its fledgling Xbox console and featured play-calling, realistic player tendencies and sophisticated A.I. that was far beyond what other games were doing.

Peak Performance: "Inside Drive 2004," the first basketball video basketball game that played like, well, basketball, as opposed to an AND 1 mixtape.

Tragic Flaw: Workmanlike visuals -- think stiff, repetitive animations and player models that sometimes resembled Mr. Hankie -- and substance-over-sizzle gameplay made "Inside Drive" popular among a small subset of hardcore sports gamers ... and left it ignored by everyone else.

MVP Baseball

Years: 2003-2005

Scouting Report: The successor to the little-loved, less-lamented "Triple Play" baseball series, EA Sports' "MVP Baseball" line was a critical and commercial hit, introducing an innovative pitch meter and playable minor league teams.

Peak Performance: When the game's designers replaced Barry Bonds -- the first player to ever withdraw from the MLBPA's licensing agreement -- with huge, home run-swatting digital slugger "John Dowd," possibly the greatest forgotten player in sports game history.

Tragic Flaw: After EA Sports scooped up exclusive NFL rights, 2K Sports responded by purchasing semi-exclusive rights to MLB; EA Sports released a pair of college baseball games using the "MVP" engine before pulling the plug on the series.

NFL Fever

Years: 1999-2003

Scouting Report: When Microsoft released the Xbox in 2001, the company needed a flagship football title to compete with "Madden NFL" (PlayStation2) and "NFL 2K" (Dreamcast). Enter "NFL Fever," a revival of a previous PC franchise.

Peak Performance: Inaugural installment "NFL Fever 2002" was the cleanest, best-looking football game of its era -- even though the player models were slightly steroidal.

Tragic Flaw: Excluding its spotty pass defense A.I., "NFL Fever" wasn't terrible -- it just wasn't necessary. "Madden NFL" and "NFL 2K" were better overall games, and when "NFL Fever" attempted to be more than a copycat title -- for instance, with an ill-conceived "read n' lead" passing system -- it failed to execute. Microsoft admitted as much in 2004, shuttering its entire line of sports titles.

High Heat Baseball

Years: 1999-2003

Scouting Report: The man behind the original "John Madden Football" -- Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins -- later founded 3DO, which flopped as a console-maker but produced software like the "High Heat" series.

Peak Performance: "High Heat's" realistic gameplay -- particularly it's pitcher-batter confrontations -- was second to none.

Tragic Flaw: "High Heat's" graphics, animations, sound and overall presentation were second to all. Also, the series was known for glitches and bugs. When 3DO filed for bankruptcy in 2003, the franchise went kaput.

NCAA College Football 2K

Years: 2001-2002

Scouting Report: With EA Sports on the sideline -- see "NFL 2K" above -- the Sega Dreamcast needed a college football title.

Peak Performance: None. Though the "NCAA College Football 2K" games reused the solid "NFL 2K" game engine, they felt rushed and half-baked, in part because they lacked authentic touches like a full slate of campus fight songs, in part because they looked (Voltron player models) and played (warp speed movement) too much like their NFL counterparts.

Tragic Flaw: "NCAA College Football 2K3" featured former Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch on the cover ... and yet running in-game option plays wasn't any fun. Small wonder that EA Sports' popular "NCAA Football" line knocked this game out of contention.

NFL Gameday

Years: 1996-2004

Scouting Report: Once upon a time, "Madden NFL" had an actual competitor in Sony's "NFL Gameday" series, which sold well and earned high critical marks on the original PlayStation.

Peak Performance: When Sony exec Kelly Flock famously dismissed "Madden NFL '98's" new adaptive CPU intelligence feature -- "Liquid A.I." -- with the quote, "liquid A.I. is the crap that ran down [EA Sports'] leg when they saw 'NFL Gameday.'"

Tragic Flaw: Series failed to evolve during the transition from the PlayStation to the PS2/Xbox generation; an attempt to reboot "NFL Gameday" in 2004 by releasing it exclusively for the PSOne was too little, too late and downright inexplicable. What, no Atari 2600 version?

Blitz

Years: 1997-2008

Scouting Report: A fast-paced, hard-hitting, completely over-the-top arcade football franchise that owed less to "Madden NFL" than "Mortal Kombat," "NFL Blitz" was an arcade smash that became a console mainstay.

Peak Performance: The series' initial quarter-munching arcade installment, which featured seven-on-seven action, evil catch-up A.I., superhuman passes, pro wrestling-style suplex tackles, late hits, pass interference and plenty of showboating.

Tragic Flaw: Over the years, NFL pressure made Blitz turn more and more into a football simulation -- a lame imitation of the "Madden NFL"-style games it once gleefully thumbed its nose at. Following EA Sports' NFL exclusivity deal in 2004, the game was reborn as the "Playmakers"-esque "Blitz: The League," with extra violence, simulated steroid use and a left-handed quarterback named "Mike Mexico" who participates in a prison football match.

College Basketball Titles

Years: Early 1990s-2009

Scouting Report: "Coach K College Basketball." "NCAA March Madness." "College Hoops 2K." Time was, sports gamers had their choice of college basketball games. Really.

Peak Performance: "College Hoops 2K8," considered by hardcore sports gamers to be the top basketball title ever created.

Tragic Flaw: College basketball titles cost money to license but generally sell poorly; in 2008, 2K Sports stopped making its game, and this year EA Sports followed suit.

Madden NFL '96

Years: 1995

Scouting Report: "Madden NFL's" PlayStation debut.

Peak Performance: Probably seemed awesome in design documents.

Tragic Flaw: Hamstrung by development problems, "Madden NFL '96" was cancelled, the only time a "Madden NFL" title has failed to ship. Of course, that didn't stop the franchise from rebounding and selling a gazillion copies. So chin up, "NBA Elite" -- there's hope for you yet.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.


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