The Flamboyant Brilliance of EA Sports BIG

In terms of pure, infectious energy, few games are as thrilling as SSX Tricky. Developed by EA Canada and first released on PlayStation 2 in 2001, this outlandish, larger-than-life snowboarding game was notable for its colourful characters, vibrant visuals, gravity-defying tricks, and that impossibly cool remix of It's Tricky by rap giants Run-DMC. It's a game that fizzes with life and personality, painted in bold blues and oranges, and it quickly became the poster child for EA Sports BIG – an offshoot publishing label that no longer exists, but remains one of the best things Electronic Arts has ever done.

Introduced in 2000, the BIG imprint was dedicated to flamboyant, fast-paced, arcade-like extreme sports games. It was the brainchild of Steven Rechtschaffner, a former competitive skier, whose work on the original SSX impressed EA enough that it let him use it as the starting point for what would eventually become EA Sports BIG. The publisher realised that there was a market for these kinds of accessible, action-packed sports games and more followed, including the aforementioned SSX Tricky. The first SSX is a great game in its own right, but Tricky really brought the concept to life with exciting rollercoaster-like tracks and acrobatic Uber tricks.

The next game, SSX 3, continued to develop the series, switching to an open world and adding complexity in the form of different snow types and weather. It's a great game, with some beautifully powdery snow and a gorgeous, atmospheric soundtrack. But the elegant simplicity and, more importantly, sheer undiluted fun of Tricky was lost in translation.

Follow-up SSX on Tour, the last game in the series to appear on the BIG label (not counting Wii exclusive SSX Blur), brought some of that personality back with a stylish, punky scrapbook art style. But, again, failed to dethrone Tricky as the purest, most joyous expression of the series, which it remains today.

Of course, there was more to EA Sports BIG than its flagship snowboarding series. NBA Street was, after SSX, the other highlight of the label — particularly the second game, NBA Street Vol. 2, which was released for PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube in 2003.

This fast, fluid basketball sim wasn't about replicating the realism and nuance of the sport, but rather the lively, grassroots spirit of 3v3 streetball. Living up to the BIG label, Vol 2. was every bit as loud, likeable, and vibrant as SSX, with stylised comic book representations of NBA stars, a stellar hip-hop soundtrack, and energetic commentary from Rock Steady Crew's Bobbito Garcia, a real-world streetball MC.

The inspiration for NBA Street was a Nike commercial directed by Paul Hunter, which was hugely popular when it was released in 2001 and accounts for much of the game's authenticity. The award-winning short film features pros and streetballers playing together in a dark arena, dancing and performing impossible-looking tricks to the beat of bouncing balls and squeaking sneakers.

NBA Street Vol. 2 producer Wil Mozell was so enamoured by the short that he tracked down its creative director, Jimmy Smith, and hired him to inject the game with the same energy. The result is one of the most exciting sports games EA has ever released, and another prime example of how exciting and fresh the BIG label was in its early 2000s heyday.

But the fact that EA Sports BIG is long gone should have tipped you off to the fact that not all of its games were hits. EA tried to recreate the success and popularity of NBA Street by developing a series of flashy NFL Street games, but developer EA Tiburon never quite managed to capture the magic and dynamism of its basketball counterpart.

It had the same chunky, approachable feel of the other games in the BIG stable, but was overly simplistic and lacking in depth. Because for all of SSX and NBA Street's slick design and accessibility, there were still layers to uncover and, especially in SSX, scope for mastery. FIFA Street, released in 2005, was more successful, but was still ultimately overshadowed by the brilliance of the NBA games.

2002's Freekstyle was another BIG release, being an ill-fated attempt to give motocross racing the SSX treatment. Its thrash soundtrack, tribal tattoo visual motif, and cocky characters have not aged well at all, and even felt contrived back when it was released. But there's something enjoyable about the game's breakneck pace and expressive animations, even if the AI is a constant source of frustration.

But Freekstyle failed to take off and was never heard from again. BIG founder Steven Rechtschaffner also dreamed of making an SSX-style game about mountain biking, whose working title was Cranked and reached the prototype stage. But EA wasn't willing to take a gamble on the idea — an attitude that would, in time, spell the end for BIG.

In a 2018 interview with USgamer, Rechtschaffner says that this conservative approach to investing in new games contributed to the unfortunate demise of EA Sports BIG.

"We had an approval process that involved a lot of sales people, marketing people, and not so many game makers," he told the website. "It shifted to become much more marketing focused." In 2009, EA laid off 11 per cent of its workforce and became increasingly risk-averse under the leadership of its new CEO, John Riccitiello. And one of the biggest casualties of this change in direction was, sadly, the BIG label.

The last game released on the imprint was 2008's NFL Tour, a forgettable arcade football game released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. For such a bold, provocative series of games, it's a shame that BIG just faded away.

But, as they say, the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Electronic Arts has a chequered history, but there's no denying that EA Sports BIG was one of its greatest triumphs. It's one of many examples in the games industry of something vibrant, imaginative, and forward-thinking being crushed by cold corporate necessity. But if anything, its sad fate has only added to its legend.

EA replaced BIG with the EA Sports Freestyle label, which focused on casual sports games. But this was quietly retired with only three unremarkable games released under the name. BIG was lightning in a bottle, and I don't think we'll see anything quite like it ever again.

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This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.


Comments

    Back in the days when EA was about experimenting and making good games.

    And not loot boxes and fucking over gamers.

    Sled Storm was skimobile racing with the SSX characters, on the PS2 under the BIG label. Was fun.

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