In Los Angeles six months ago, Erick Boenisch gave me my first look at NBA 2K12. I think I watched about a quarter of play in it, with no additional commentary or guidance. He just wanted me to see that it was a good-looking game, and indeed it was. My first question had nothing to do with that, though. It was about the NBA lockout — which at that time hadn't even begun.
"Yeah, we knew you were going to ask about that," Boenisch, the game's producer, said with a half-smile.
Last week, the questions finally stopped and the cloud over his game, 2K Sports' pride and joy, finally lifted. A handshake agreement between the league and its players is in the process of being formalised, with both sides expecting to begin play on Christmas. Boenisch is no longer an unofficial spokesman for something out of his control. More importantly, his livelihood is no longer in the same line of fire.
Video game makers weren't lumped in with the archetypal beer vendors, parking lot attendants and other lunchpail types looking at lost paychecks as millionaires in two leagues argued through the spring, summer and fall. But a seat usher also won't find himself in the role of representing a league in the absence of scheduled games, as NBA 2K12 was for the past month.
Boenisch and his mates at Visual Concepts, the 2K Sports in-house studio that makes the game, were literally 4800km from the negotiating room, but every time I or someone else asked about the lockout, he had to put on a professional smile and say something diplomatic about both the NBA and its players' association as the two sides lobbed accusations at each other.
I can't imagine any league licensee, for any product, was placed in a tighter spot than 2K Sports this year. True, this summer, EA Sports was caught in the middle of the NFL's nasty spat with its players, but that was resolved before any regular-season games were canceled. The NFL also adjusted the terms of its exclusive licence with EA, recognising that — as EA's Peter Moore told me during the same LA visit — they're not making a can of beer with the league logo on it.
Neither was 2K Sports, which stood to lose, as a percentage of its business, more than EA risked with Madden. NBA 2K11, went an entire year on the top 10 of NPD's sales roundup. As the lockout dragged on, analysts prophesied that an entirely cancelled year — much more likely in the NBA lockout than it ever was in the NFL's — could cost 2K Sports tens of millions in its sales of NBA 2K12.
If 2K Sports got a break on its deal with the NBA — which is not an exclusive — they aren't saying. "The NBA have been extremely good partners with us, and have worked with us well, through an admittedly less-than-perfect process," said 2K Sports' Jason Argent, who as the label's vice president of marketing had almost daily contact with the league throughout the ordeal.
"We spoke with and dealt with the league every day," Argent said, correcting my assumption that the league had a don't-call-us posture with licensees through the worst of the lockout. "If there was anything good that came out of that process — not to sound sappy, but it brought us closer together. We're still glad it's over."
Ideally, it wouldn't have come to this, of course. 2K would prefer every year to unfold like 2010 did — a consensus game-of-the-year releasing a month before a remarkably compelling season and postseason. But if the lockout had to play out this long the timing was especially fortunate.
Fans got the good news the Saturday after Black Friday, and two days before NBA 2K12 released its "Legends Showcase" DLC. The league will tip off December 25, meaning any game given as a gift will be real-world relevant on Christmas morning. In a sense, NBA 2K12 can have a second launch, a useful do-over considering the league's troubles and the snags the game hit with its online modes when it released.
Argent said the game's marketing would celebrate the league's return, but will stop short of seeming to relaunch the title. "We'll make sure that it's clear we're happy to be back and we're happy the NBA is back, and you will see a promotional push from us there," he said. "But it's not going to be a restart of our marketing campaign, more of a support of the NBA and our friends there and in the players' association coming back."
NBA fans will also see some new content introduced to the game, once all the proper paperwork is filed. Most notably, the entire rookie class will drop in as they sign contracts with the teams that drafted them. That will translate to the game's My Player mode, which now incorporates an NBA Draft sequence. During the lockout, the draft featured generic fictitious picks. Once all players are signed, 2K Sports will push a patch and players will see their created NBA rookie drafted along with the real world class.
"It was very key to me that we set that kind of scenario up," Boenisch said. "Earlier this year, we had [NBA Commissioner David] Stern record the full audio for the 2011 Draft, with all of the real players' names. It won't be generic. We strove to make My Player totally adaptable to these circumstances."
Roster updates will come more frequently than they have in the past, Boenisch said, accounting for both the influx of rookie players and any changes in free agency or pre-season trades, which began on Wednesday. Instead of waiting until the final day before the regular season tip-off, Boenisch said the game will push roster updates as frequently as possible over the next three weeks. That kind of update comes totally through the 2K Sports server and isn't subject to the kind of review Microsoft or Sony has for a game patch or title update. A patch still is coming before December 25, Boenisch said, but he held off on committing to a specific date.
The big difference will be in NBA 2K12's "NBA Today" mode. When the season is going on, gamers can play one-off games from the real-world schedule of that day — and NBA 2K12's robust commentary engine will reference real world events. During the lockout, NBA Today was serving up hypothetical cancelled games and the booth team of Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Doris Burke were commenting on them out of context.
"That's really what separates us from other video games," Boenisch said. "Without the league going on, we have to rely solely on the disc commentary. We still think it's more robust than any other game out there, but it doesn't have that real world data — how many points Kobe scored in real life last night, or how the Clippers did against the Warriors, breathing that continually new aura of life into the game."
For the past six months, Boensich says he didn't mind friends and colleagues constantly making small talk about the NBA lockout with him, assuming that he had an insider's perspective on the negotiations by virtue of his job. He really didn't, though, any more than the next dedicated basketball fan. Neither did Argent. "The irony is, I probably knew less than they did," he said.
What was tiring for Boenisch was constantly reading that an agreement between the league and its players was right around the corner, only to see it dead end against another wall of hardline posturing.
"We'd been hearing for the last 75 or 100 days that everyone was really close," Boenisch recalled. "They were always really close to a deal. So when I saw the news on Saturday that the lockout was over, at first I dismissed it as a fluff piece put out by one of the sides in the negotiation."
But as the league readies for tip off and normal relations, like trades and free agent signings, fill the news cycle, it's now safe to say this is indeed for real, and we will see basketball this year. For as much relief as that creates in their professional roles at 2K Sports, there's a new round of negotiations in their personal lives.
"I'm still trying to get to this Laker game that's playing on Christmas day," Argent laughed. "I'm arguing with my mum in Palm Springs about whether I can take off early that day to go to LA and see it."
"I'm in the same boat," Boenisch said. "The Clippers play Golden State in a Christmas night game up here. I want to get out there and see Blake Griffin."
Boenisch says he's opened discussions with his family. "We're still working out the details," he said.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games.