Sports At E3: A Postgame Report

Gameplay impressions are difficult to form under the lights, sights and cacophony of E3 in full swing, where you never have enough time to see all of what you want, and there’s always an appointment five minutes from now. It’s even more difficult to get a good read on a sports game.

Usually what they show is head-to-head gameplay which, if the title is any good, is pretty consistent year to year. The subtler refinements, such as new animations, adjusted artificial intelligence, are things that you need a lot of time to see, and see repeatedly, to understand how well they work.

So, yeah, I saw Madden NFL 12, and I saw NBA 2K12 and I saw FIFA 12 and they all look great. But then, we knew that going in, and many were preceded by rollout campaigns that already highlighted their new features well before we got to L.A.

The real impressions, the newsy ones anyway, that I formed at E3 were more of the behind-the-scenes picture of sports gaming. Here they are, without any unifying theme, other than they’re the 15-minute snapshots I took of sports gaming at the year’s midpoint.

NBA 2K12 showed the least and came home with the most. I think they took at least half-a-dozen nominations in the sports category from various publications, including IGN’s top honour in the category.

“We’ll take it,” a 2K rep told me with a smile and a shrug.

The shrug acknowledged that they showed less than half of what the game will deliver at release in October. It was a closed-door, hands off demonstration that spotlighted upgrades to the broadcast presentation. It looked good, but there’s a big “to be continued,” on this.

The honors show the power of incumbency in sports publishing. The successor to a great title starts out ahead of the game, like a college football team ranked high in the polls largely for what was done in the past year. It doesn’t mean NBA 2K12 isn’t or won’t be good, but it does show the added importance of ratings in sports, especially as a segment that has shrunk noticeably in the past two years.

Of course, NBA Elite 11 got best-of nominations at E3 2010, and we know how that turned out.

Speaking of NBA Elite where does that project stand at EA Sports, now that it’s been postponed another year and moved from the label’s Canada studio down to Florida?

“It’s in the shape you would expect it to be for a title that’s a year and four months away,” EA Sports president Moore told me. “There’s a non-answer for you!”

Moore did say that “absolutely” there will be an NBA simulation coming from EA Sports in 2012, dispelling doubts (including ones I’ve voiced) that the two-year postponement will ultimately mean the end of NBA Elite or Live or whatever it will be called. What will it be called, anyway?

“Don’t know,” Moore said. “I’ve got to get through 2011!”

In seriousness, though, Moore admitted that the threat of a lockout, expected by nearly everyone in and around the league after the end of the month, held some sway in the decision to put off an NBA sim.

“It was certainly a factor but it was much less a factor than the fact we needed to get the game right,” Moore said. As for the label’s relationship with the NBA, contractually EA Sports was obligated to deliver this title last year and this year. The hiatus, Moore said, has not ruptured that partnership.

“They have been unbelievably sympathetic, understanding and cooperative.” Moore said. “[NBA Commissioner]David [Stern]would tell you this if he sat right here, one of his most treasured business relationships is with EA Sports. When we ran into difficulty, they couldn’t have been more accommodating. They were disappointed, and they could have done all sorts of nasty things contractually, as you can imagine. To their credit they said, let’s sit down as a team and work this through.”

I’d say it is indeed a strong relationship if Moore can speak for the NBA commissioner, on the record.

If you’re THQ you don’t want to hear this, but UFC Undisputed 3 is a game whose major upgrades seem to be co-opted from competing titles, and not just in the head stomps and soccer kicks sanctioned by Pride Fighting rules, which were a feature of last year’s EA Sports MMA

Most obvious is the new submission system, which replaces the “shine” system of UFC Undisputed 2010, which many folks didn’t get the hang of. In UFC 3, submissions are a minigame in which two bars race around an octagon, one bar trying cover and trap the other. It looks a lot like EA Sports MMA‘s submission, in which both sides felt blindly around the perimeter of a circle, trying to find a moving spot that made their controller rumble.

I didn’t get to play the game and test this for myself, but in talking with a developer, they know that EA Sports MMA‘s submissions were, with some fighters, easy to implement and to escape multiple times against the CPU, and promise this technique will be more challenging.

The second aspect of UFC 3 that will follow a competitor is the fighting-game focus. The camera’s been lowered to more of a Street Fighter style angle, and the game will get a Competition mode that equalizes all the fighters and makes a bout more like Tekken, where it’s all about the moveset, not a fighter’s ratings. The presentation, in fact, cited those two fighting games, by name.

Though developer Yuke’s has been working on this for some time, it’ll arrive after Supremacy MMA, built as a fighting game (and touting that street cred) from the start. Fighting-game hybrids, like Lloyd Dobler said of kickboxing, is the sport of the future, evidently.

Sometimes you do get a strong gameplay impression out of a hands-on. It’s funny sometimes what ends up making the most impact. FIFA 12‘s precision dribbling, tactical defending and collision system were front-and-center in a 10-minute presentation given behind closed doors. Crecente declared himself “in awe” of the dribbling. And it did look good in my hands-on with the game. But it was how that dribbling can be applied that left its mark on me.

The tighter dribbling control, and the adjusted press defence (which no longer sends defenders after their man “like a heat seeking missile”) will mean that the centre of the pitch, particularly in front of the penalty area, will now be more useful for staging one’s offence, as is seen in football as it is played live. In FIFA 11 and before, the wider dribbling distance and the press defence encouraged players to take the ball up the pitch on the wings, cross the ball and score, a video-gamelike (and dare I say American-like?) approach to the Beautiful Game.

EA Sports pulled NCAA Football 12 from the show floor and put it behind closed doors this year, a curious decision for a title releasing next month. Some read that as a lack of confidence in the game but I think that’s going a little too far.

Whatever the case, had it been out among the public, scenes like this one on Tuesday would not have happened: Ben Haumiller, the game’s producer, and I were talking about defensive AI when suddenly the room went very quiet and I was politely asked to put down the sticks and leave my seat. In walked Snoop Dogg, escorted by some very serious, very robust individuals.

This photo (not taken by me) is the only known evidence of the sighting.

Ben showed Snoop a Pac-12 matchup featuring his beloved USC. Snoop was noticeably impressed by the pregame pageantry, smiling and pointing when the Trojan twirled his sword and plunged it into the 50-yard line. But the fun was soon over. Playing the game’s producer, against Oregon’s offence, Snoop went into a 21-0 hole in the first quarter.

Why was Snoop Dogg at E3? Aside from living in L.A., he was there to appear in a Yoostar promotion.

The interior of EA Sports’ booth was decorated with the box-art shots of their current cover athletes: Alabama’s Mark Ingram, Tiger Woods, Cleveland’s Peyton Hillis … and the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto? The hell?

I briefly, irrationally considered this was a secret message that MVP Baseball, dormant (as an MLB licence anyway) since 2005, was coming back. Chatting up some developers, I was reminded of EA’s latest MLB-licensed Facebook game, World Series Superstars, which is what Votto was representing up on the wall.

As for the future, 2K Sports’ exclusive deal with Major League Baseball will expire after next year’s game. Word has it that MLB’s starting figure is way too high for EA, and that it will seek a deal of similar structure to the one it inked six years ago, including an exclusive third-party development licence. (The Show is around because a console-maker, Sony, develops it.)

If so, that sounds completely out-of-touch. Baseball landed an exclusive pact for many reasons, but a big one was 2K’s desire for revenge. When EA Sports’ agreement with the NFL took the beloved NFL 2K series out of commission, 2K struck back at MVP; most observers believe 2K overpaid and at any rate, their core baseball titles have consistently underdelivered. 2K is widely expected to walk away from the licence, if statements like these are any indication.

EA Sports may be the only label with any experience willing to listen to MLB, which will understand exactly how much leverage it has once 2K says adios. So I wouldn’t write off a return of MVP Baseball simply because the price isn’t right, right now.


Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.

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