Looking back, I can't shake the feeling that it's what I didn't see at E3 that will provide, again, the juiciest story for the year in sports gaming: The showdown between NBA 2K11 and NBA Elite 11.
Last year, both games were the closest they've been, in critical reception, since 2004, although NBA 2K thoroughly dominated at the cash register. EA Sports retrenched with a name change to its franchise and a remade, skill-based control set. 2K Sports brought aboard no less than Michael Jordan as its cover athlete, and will make him a playable athlete for the first time in seven years. And both had a very quiet demonstration in Los Angeles, with EA giving only a behind-closed-doors hands-on with Elite, and 2K Sports showing only an eyes-on demonstration that focused largely on the game's visual polish.
This is a major team sport that as a video game hasn't sniffed the hallowed 90 Metacritic score since 2002. This year, EA Sports and 2K Sports are in competition as much to beat each other as they are to be the first to return to that prestige mark. EA Sports boss Peter Moore has dispatched his best man to the front: David Littman - whose 90-rated NHL series arm-barred 2K's competing title into at least a one-year tapout on the PS3 and 360.
I asked Moore if there was any clock ticking on Littman's NBA mission as well. No, said Moore, who instead envisions a long-form counterattack modeled on FIFA's resurgence against Pro Evolution Soccer. Littman himself has invoked NHL and FIFA as aspirational models, obliquely saying it's time for video game basketball to get there, too. They've placed a renewed focus on gameplay and enabling gamers to have even more control over their individual players' movements, no small goal with 10 guys on the floor in a constantly moving sport with a constantly contested objective.
That's what EA Sports hopes to do. The 2K Sports team in Novato, Calif. is tremendously proud of what it has achieved with NBA 2K, and what it gets to build on for the coming title. In one of the few head-to-head battles left, 2K's basketball franchise has put it on the chin of EA every year in this console generation, something no other sports publisher can claim. This is a very personal rivalry for them. You'd better believe that both the leaked news of Michael Jordan going on the 2K11 cover, and the timing of the formal announcement, coming in the same weeks NBA Elite was teasing and confirming its own makeover, was meant to wipe its competition from memory.
At E3, 2K revealed zilch about how Jordan will appear and be playable and still showed off a beautiful game. I am assured that they are carefully shepherding their major news for a long campaign up to Oct. 4, the day the NBA drops the flag for these games to go out. And NBA 2K producer Rob Jones is sanguine about his title's chance to be a hall-of-fame effort. The last three months of production, Jones said, can focus almost entirely on the little things that inevitably mean the difference between a great game and one-of-a-kind.
"If I had to ship it today, I'd be happy," Jones said, "It's not where I want it to be, but we could do it." Already in place, Jones said, is an engine that manages more player animations and does so more smoothly, and keeps everything running at 60 frames per second. 2K Sports has also poured resources into multiplayer support; the connectivity issues that bothered NBA 2K10 - some of it attributable to unexpected demand served by architecture going back to dial-up days on the Dreamcast - were a forehead-smacking setback that they felt cost them that coveted 90.
Contrast this with a year ago at the same time. Jones said the team was still working feverishly on core demands and nowhere close to finished. One of the biggest differences was the return of Mike Wang, who had defected to EA from 2K for a year and helped lead NBA Live to its biggest critical improvement in years before jumping back to 2K in February. Wang was said to leave over creative differences, but NBA 2K's promises of 1-to-1, think-it/do-it dribble control vaguely echo what EA Canada is up to with NBA Elite. I do believe Jones when he says his team made refining player control and animations a day one priority for 2K11; but the fact remains these are two sides that know each other and got more intimate over the past year.
"Mike showed up, and I had a list of things we wanted to do for this game, and he took a look at it and was like, ‘Yep.'" Jones said. That includes a jostling physics system that, interestingly, Jones said is inspired by FIFA's contact defence - where a player pushing into another player can feel that physicality and press past it without going out of control. There's going to be a midair collision system in which players will adjust to finish out the play. The camera angle has been tuned and player bodies reworked to make them more distinctive and identifiable, especially the superstars.
"But it doesn't matter how many great ideas you have, if there's no engineering to deliver them," Jones said. "2K has really poured resources into this."
It plainly poured them into getting Jordan, who most certainly did not come cheaply. Elite would have to deliver LeBron James in a Knicks uniform on the day he signs, if he signs with them, to have a similar impact and even then, he's functionally just another current player in the game. Jordan wins out because he's a living legend still hailed in the public mind as the basketball player who can, today, beat all who have walked or will ever walk the earth.
"He's stamped in time," Jones said. "You couldn't put Magic - even if Magic Johnson put shoes on today and went on the court, he'd get destroyed, right? But Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan who is 47, going out there, people still see him beating Kobe. They still see him beating LeBron.
"And so, having the balls to put him on the cover," Jones said, "means we had better bring it."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.