AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY STEVENSON OF EA SPORTS ON NBA LIVE 14, DAMIAN LILLARD, PERSONAL STYLE, AND NEXT-GEN GAMING

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EA Sports will be relaunching the NBA Live franchise this year after not releasing an installment since NBA Live 10 in 2009. This past week, it was announced that the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard would be part of the NBA Live 14 Lineup along with cover athlete Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Wizards’ John Wall, the Magic’s Victor Oladipo, the Bobcats’ Kemba Walker, and the Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio. These six players were chosen under Live 14’s banner slogan, “Nothing But Next,” and as featured players, they had greater involvement in both the marketing and development of the game, ensuring the accurate appearance of their likenesses and that their signature moves would be included in the gameplay. I had a chance to interview EA Sports’ Senior Director of Marketing, Anthony Stevenson, on the same day that EA Sports released the first 5-on-5 trailer of Live 14 (viewable here). Stevenson spoke in more detail about how Lillard and the other featured players reflect EA Sports’ mentality in creating and marketing the game, the importance of personal style in the NBA game and the greater ability of next-generation gaming technology to bring that style to video games, as well as how modern basketball analytics influenced the game’s development and gameplay. Read the full transcript below (slightly edited for flow).

 

JS: As the Senior Director of Marketing with EA Sports, what were your goals and mindset with re-launching the Live franchise?

AS: Yeah, well it was great. We did a lot of research early on and we knew it was going to be a challenging year. And we were excited about the next generation of consoles to come out. And what we found is, we talked to a lot of basketball fans and they really love EA Sports. A lot of people enjoyed the Live series and while it was a rocky couple of years, people genuinely wanted us to come back. We were really excited at that opportunity to be able to kind of embrace our heritage but also look to usher in a new generation of technology and a new generation of NBA Live. And that’s kind of the mantra that’s permeated everything we do. It’s why Damian [Lillard] is one of our key ambassadors.

So the goals for this year were pretty simple: just to re-establish ourselves, make it clear that we’re focused on nothing but next generation, whether it be the NBA stars that we work with or just the consoles in general—we are only on PS4 and Xbox One this November—and really laying the foundation for what we kind of view internally as a 2-3 year journey where we hopefully will, at that time, get back on top of the mountain in a similar fashion to our Madden series, our FIFA series, our golf series, UFC when that comes out next year. The goal for EA Sports is always to be the premier gaming franchise for every sport that we play in. And so this is a multi-year journey for us and we’re really excited to get the first step here going.

 

So by picking that group of young, up-and-coming players, did that match the mentality that you had re-launching the game?

Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. You know, it started with Kyrie [Irving]. Every position on the court is important but what you find is that the NBA sort of goes through transitions where certain positions tend to get—almost seem like they’re elevated. And certainly, this generation feels like the young generation of the point guard. You know, Chris Paul and Derrick Rose, Steve Nash, those guys sort of got it going but now with Damian Lillard, with Kyrie Irving, guys like that coming in, there’s such immense talent at that position. And what we realized is when we talked about next generation technology—the art of the dribble. All of these players, that’s their signature. That is their calling, it’s their dribble. Nobody does a crossover the same way. Nobody does a hesitation or a step-back the same way. That’s their kind of unique paint brush that they use to kind of paint the picture of, tell the story of, their game. And so, we wanted guys that really personified that. So Ricky Rubio, Kyrie, Damian, we signed Victor Oladipo, the number two pick who’s gonna be on the Magic this year, and all those guys sort of share that.

With Kyrie specifically, and Damian as well, we really wanted to focus on players from teams that kind of help tell our story. So if you think about the Cleveland Cavaliers, they had it all when they had LeBron [James] there, right? And then LeBron left and they lost their way a little bit. But now with Kyrie, it really signaled a big time change. And they are certainly in contention to be a playoff contender this year with all the signings: with [Andrew] Bynum, and getting [Anderson] Varejao back, and [Tristan] Thompson, and all of those guys. Now, they’re rebounding. And that’s exactly what this franchise is doing. We have a strong heritage, but in a lot of ways this is a new beginning, a new generation for us both from a technology standpoint and from an overall brand standpoint. So that was why we went that way.

And you think about Portland, Portland’s got such a rich tradition, some of the best fans in the league from the days of, you know, [Clyde] Drexler—I mean you can go on forever and ever. But now they’re very young, and up and coming. LaMarcus Aldridge is an absolute stud, one of the best post players in the game today. Damian, being Rookie of the Year, has been amazing. You got [Nicolas] Batum—there’s just a lot of youth on that team and a lot of energy and that’s what we’re about.

 

When you were talking about picking these players because that’s the way the league was moving, becoming more of a point guard driven league, how else will that effect the gameplay? For example, you talked about the new dribbling technology, but will there also be a greater focus on the pick-and-roll and the AI around that?

Yeah, absolutely, and [that’s] one of the things that we really wanted to get—and that’s not to say that we’re not focused on post play, because we are. The way the game is built is really structured around the way the NBA is played. And right now, it’s very point guard. It’s very pick-and-roll. The post play is very physical. And that’s been a challenge, to bring that physicality to a basketball video game. So we really focused on bringing that. When LaMarcus is banging in the post, and then he turns around to get that jumper off, you’re gonna feel that physicality. You’re gonna feel the defender banging up against you—the momentum and force of the defender and LaMarcus as well. So, you know, that’s really what we do. We just look at the game.

And as far as point guards are concerned, it’s all about signature style. On the right stick [of the controller], we’ve got six signature moves tied to the most popular, the most dynamic point guards in the league, Damian as well. So whether it be Steph Curry’s step-back or Carmelo gathering his “J”, all of those things, you’ll do it in the game and you’ll go, “Oh my god, that looks just like so-and-so.” Having those signature styles, I think that’s what makes the NBA so unique in terms of sports games. You think about the NFL, you don’t hear a lot of people talk about Aaron Rodgers’s arm angle versus Drew Brees’s arm angle or the way that they pass. They’re just amazing quarterbacks and they’re cerebral. But in the NBA, it’s one-on-one battles and you really see the different styles. As I told you earlier, everybody’s crossover is different. And to bring that to life, we needed that Bounce-tek technology. So that’s one of the big things for us this year and really what that means is, we’ve separated the ball from the hand, which sounds obvious. But when you add the physics to it, it really allows you to bring those unique styles that each player has to life, and [it’s made possible through] the next generation technology, which is powered by our EA Sports Ignite engine. It’s a next generation engine that we share with FIFA and with Madden and for NBA Live 14 to be able to take advantage of that, to bring these point guards to life and show off their unique styles, it’s really exciting.

 

As far as Lillard specifically, how much was he involved in the development process?

A lot! So he came, he literally came to our studios, spent the whole day with the team. We did motion capture with him. So we’re tracking all of his movements and making sure we got all of his signature styles in the game, his signature moves in the game. And he got to see that first-hand and help us make adjustments, not only for his personal style, but also for the game in general. We did a face and body scan to make sure that his likeness looks just like himself in-game so if you’ve seen some of the teasers that we’ve released thus far—we actually had our first big 5-on-5 trailer that we released this morning and Damian’s featured in that. He looks just like him, and that’s the goal. So he spent the day with us, the team, and he had a lot of valuable input across all the areas of the game and certainly, he was most fired up about making sure his likeness and his signature moves were captured just right.

 

Cool, so that signature move of his, will that be the hesitation dribble that he has?

Yeah, you got it. You get a little bit of a taste of it in the trailer that we released today, so you can take a look at it.

 

So another thing is, the Blazers specifically have a guy, Ben Falk, and a lot of other teams have similar analytics gurus that have had greater influence on personnel and even the play on the court. How much of the modern basketball analytics are factoring in to your player ratings, gameplay, etc.?

Oh my gosh, I’m glad you asked this. It’s one of the things that really sets our game apart. So we have something that we call “Court Q”, and Court Q is really just, I guess at a high level, it’s the intelligence and sort of science behind the game of basketball: everything from the way the players move and the way they anticipate. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Synergy [Sports], but all of the NBA teams use this data. So we’re tracking over 70 traits and tendencies, and those traits and those tendencies inform every action that a player does on the court. The really neat thing about it is, again with next generation technology, that these games are always alive. They always feel fresh and new. We’re updating these player tendencies and traits, not daily, not weekly, not monthly, [but] within an hour after every NBA game. So if Damian nails from three-point, and he’s shooting at a 75% clip, we’ll update that immediately. And when you’re playing against Damian, he’s gonna be money from downtown. So we’re able to make those adjustments on the fly. And as I said, over 70 traits and tendencies, so it’s really, really deep and all of our gameplay is informed by this Synergy data.

 

So my last question—one of my favorite features in the old NBA Live game was the Dunk Contest as part of All-Star Saturday Night thing where you could take Tom Chambers and do double through the legs, throw it off the Jumbotron—will there be a dunk contest in this one?

[laughter] Well not in this one. You’ll have to stay tuned. As I said, this is a multi-year journey. And that was certainly one of the more enjoyable parts of NBA Live over the years. But for us, for this year with the new technology, the focus was all on gameplay and getting all of that right and laying that foundation. And then as time goes on—and you’re gonna see that across the board, our Madden franchise, our FIFA franchise—with the first year of the technology, a lot of it is nailing down that core, laying down that foundation. And then all of the sort of ancillary pieces – things like that, like Dunk Contests, stuff like that – that’s all stuff we’ll look to layer on over the next couple years.

 

NBA Live 14 releases for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on November 19th.