If you love the game of basketball, now is a very exciting time to be an NBA fan.
The game has changed considerably over the past few years; ask fans and retired players, and they will tell you that the pace is faster, players are more evenly sized and interchangeable among positions, which leads to more ball movement and strategic gameplay.
The aggressive use of the 3-point shot has introduced a new dynamic where a 20-point lead can easily dissolve with a couple of strikes beyond the arc. No team embodies this fresh style of basketball more vividly than the Golden State Warriors, a team that the NBA is all too happy to promote in marketing its brand.
At the time of this writing, EA’s NBA Live Mobile is closing on its one-year anniversary and is a top 100 grossing app, but it isn’t a consistent top 20 title.
We are in the heat of the NBA playoffs, prime time for the NBA to showcase its best talent, and this weekend NBA Live Mobile only manages to reach #39 on the iPhone top grossing charts (by comparison, EA’s Madden Mobile topped at #2 during the NFL playoffs).
This is surely below the sight lines of EA’s expectations; it spends years developing titles, iterating and polishing to groom its next billion dollar franchise.
To compare console offerings - NBA 2K17 has sold 3.6 million copies while Madden NFL has sold four million copies (US sales figures from vgchartz.com, PS4 and XBox One).
When the NBA product is so strong, and the brand has its best marketing with the playoffs in full swing, NBA Live Mobile isn’t making the strides it should be - but why?
In my analysis, I will deconstruct Past, Present, and Future of NBA Live Mobile in an attempt to explain the decisions made in creating this product and where I believe it needs to go in the future in order to win.
The past: The EA Sports Mobile Playbook: Why EA wanted to re-use its winning playbook from Madden Mobile, and the five pillars of that playbook
The present: Where NBA Live is Falling Short: A case study of NBA Live Mobile using two other titles (Madden Mobile and NBA 2K17) to understand where NBA Live Mobile is falling short and not winning
The future: Paving the Road Ahead for NBA Live Mobile: Understanding mobile as a medium for games and sports, and a proposal for an NBA gaming product
Here are the five “pillars” that make up the EA Sports “Mobile Playbook”, and how it applies to NBA Live Mobile.
Pillar #1: The game hero’s journey
A compelling game will always have a compelling ultimate aspiration - the throughline that motivates you beyond the core loop to come back, day after day, month after month. I describe this as the “meta-goal” in my deconstruct of “Contest of Champions”, in which the ultimate aspiration is about creating the ultimate team with the most powerful champions.
The EA sports meta-goal is very clear, whether it’s Madden or NBA Live - build the best team. You take on the role of General Manager (not explicitly stated, but that’s the idea) and build the "ultimate" team.
If we’re talking in basketball terms for NBA Live, it’s literally the All-Star or dream team that you’re building - not taking the current Chicago Bulls roster and turning them into champions.
You are collecting the best players across the league - LeBron, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant - and putting them on one squad, your squad.
In my mind, the EA “Game Hero’s Journey” takes you through primarily three stages:
Learn the game. When you’re dropped into the game, you are entering a new universe and you need to learn the rules. Maybe you know the rules of basketball, but you need to know how to operate these virtual players. How do you pass on a touch-screen? How do you trigger a “special ability”? (e.g. Steph Curry’s sweet 3-point shot). How do you steal the ball? EA assists you in this journey with the single player campaign (“Season Mode”), which allows you to learn the game with a safety net, and without public embarrassment. Additionally, you are introduced to “Live Events”, which emphasise different skills (e.g. shooting drills, dunking) to help you hone specific mechanics.
Play against others (Competitive). Now that you understand the game, picked up a knack for how to run a smooth offense and defence, you’re ready to be challenged by playing real world adversaries. “Head to Head” mode allows you to see how you stack up against the competition, by playing asynchronous, turn-based games with opponents (very similarly architected as Madden). The motivation here is individual status - by collecting “fans” by beating real-world opponents, you feel mightier and accomplished than other players. You’ve gained recognition, and it feels good.
Play with others (Co-operative). After individual status, the EA Sports games stack on top of that collective status, where you want to be a part of the best team of EA players in the entire game. This is not dissimilar to most free-to-play games topping the charts, like Clash of Clans, Game of War, Hay Day, and on and on and on. Collective status is achieved by joining a League, and winning in League vs. League competitions (a feature in Madden, not yet released in NBA Live).
Of course, the through line that threads all three stages is building the best team of players on your team, and each one of these stages benefits from, as well as contributes to, the goal of having the best squad possible.
Pillar #2: Card collecting / gacha
I don’t want to go too deeply into gacha (see my deconstructs on Madden and Contest for more on the subject), but gacha is the fuel for collecting players. You open card packs in the hopes of getting rarer and more elite players, and of course EA is more than happy to charge you for currency to buy packs.
So here’s a quick run-down on EA’s version of gacha:
Gacha is core to collecting the best team: gacha and opening packs is the primary way to get new cards (aside from the auction house), and all game loops provide coin (soft) currency that can be used to purchase packs. Some cards are better than others, which fuels the desire to keep buying and opening packs.
Every card pack opening is meaningful: The prospect of rare cards keeps you coming back (to achieve the ultimate goal), but even lower tier cards can be used to fuse and create better cards. Also, cards can be put up for auction in the auction house to get more coins, to buy more packs.
Buy card packs OR play core loop to acquire more cards: Grinding into the core loop rewards cards, crafting cards or coins, which are all useful in acquiring better cards.
New cards/players continuously offered during the season: Players demand more content, and EA is good about offering new players throughout the season (e.g. “Legends”, like Hall of Fame great Shaquille O’Neal) that ensure pack purchases are continuously rewarding the player with new and interesting options to build their team.
Pillar #3: Game content is continuously refreshed
Content is king, and we all know that a game maker’s ability to satisfy their players’ insatiable demand for new content ultimately makes or breaks a game. In the end, the better studios are able to anticipate such demand and build systems/cadence ahead of time to meet demand (Contest of Champions comes to mind as such an example).
EA delivers on this player need by using three mechanics:
Social Gameplay: Users keep the game fresh, primarily in three ways: the Auction House, Head to Head matches and League play. The Auction House is a place for users to continually post new cards for sale, so it is exciting to go in there and see if you can grab an elite player, or spot a really good deal and buy something.
Head to Head matches provide opportunities to play new opponents with different team configurations, and Leagues allow you the opportunity to interact with people by chatting or challenging League members to matches.
New Events: Madden and NBA Mobile show almost identical interfaces with this, by adding new events on a map of the United States to give the impression that you are traveling to different cities to complete challenges.
Events are refreshed hourly / daily (on any given session, you may have five to six new events awaiting you), and you never know what the game will throw at you. Events can be as simple as hitting five shots from anywhere on the court, to a full game against AI. New collectible card sets are also introduced via Events, which lead to unlocking new player cards.
New Card Content: As mentioned above, new players are continuously released, giving players new aspiration in players to collect. These new cards are highly aspirational, as they are “brands” in themselves - if you love the NBA as a brand, you’re going to love the special “Legends” edition Magic Johnson player card.
There is also a strong linkage between events and content (new events unlock new content), and these two support one another well.
Pillar #4: Variety in gameplay
EA is good at introducing different “game modes” so while the core of the game is basketball - or football or soccer - you have a variety of ways to engage in that sport.
As mentioned above, “Events” are typically one to two minute challenges to start a session, which usually focus on fundamentals like shooting drills or precision movement.
Head to Head matches run a little longer (three to four minutes) and engage you in a quarter of gameplay. Season is your single-player campaign, and you can play 10 minute matches against the AI for bigger coin rewards.
The variety makes sessions feel good because they don’t become monotonous, and also give you the feeling that you could play the game for as long as you wanted to, and still have things to do. In order to win on mobile and retain users, they must feel like there is no shortage of game play, and that’s what game modes help accomplish.
Pillar #5: Reset users at end of season
This is by far the riskiest move that EA Sports made when it went to free-to-play, and it wasn’t even known until the first season of Madden Mobile came to close. At the end of the season, Madden Mobile actually took away all your player cards and reset you for the next season!
This is a gambit that ultimately paid off big for EA Sports, and saw them resurrect Madden Mobile into a top 20 title when it restarted the next season to coincide with the return of football.
It allowed them to refresh the UI of the game, make tweaks and fixes to all game modes, and refresh the entire player card deck to reflect the rosters of the latest NFL season. Player ratings changed to reflect current abilities, and it was game on.
For Madden Mobile and NBA Live to work as live operations for EA Sports, and with card collecting/team building the highest aspiration, it makes sense to refresh that aspiration with a new season.
EA also keeps your previous seasons’ progress in a trophy room to remind you of the glory days of seasons’ yore, but it’s a reminder that next season, everyone starts fresh. So start paying up again.
The present: Where NBA Live is falling short
Given that NBA Live reuses the core systems architecture that made Madden Mobile so successful, why does it not work as well on basketball?
The single biggest issue with NBA Live is that the essence of the game (“the puzzle”) isn’t captured on mobile. Basketball is so fundamentally different than football in a number of ways, and in many ways football just translates better to mobile than basketball.
This isn’t to say that a great basketball game can’t be made on mobile (and in my “Future” section, I will make a case for a different design to get at the game’s core); it’s just that NBA Live isn’t quite there yet.
It’s important to understand what the “puzzle” is that any game is asking you to solve. Sometimes this is referred to as the “meta-game”. I believe that it is critical for a team-based PvP game to build the following layers to create an interesting puzzle:
In the figure below, I explain how each element of the puzzle is important in figuring out how to win.
The puzzle is about solving for each one of these pieces, and pulling the pieces apart and reconstructing them differently when the strategy isn’t working anymore.
Let me step aside a moment and let the best player in the game, LeBron James, describe how he plays to win:
“The only thing on my mind is how we execute the best way we can and get a bucket. If I can get myself a shot or if I can drive, get my shooters a shot, or if I can get a double-team in the paint or get to the free throw line.”
There are a couple of elements to deconstruct in LeBron’s statement. First is that he’s talking about strategies in how to score - the mental aspect of the game.
Second, he enumerates a number of options in scoring (e.g. getting to the free throw line, shooting 3 pointers), each of which provides different scoring potential.
Third, LeBron is talking about how to leverage the fact that he is the best player in the world to draw more defenders to himself (the double-team), so that it creates opportunities for other players (shooters) to get open shots.
Solving the puzzle starts with the strategy, which is formulated with an understanding of the team you want to build, and building the best team by assembling the individual units which fit that strategy the best.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about an important difference between Madden and NBA Live. In Madden Mobile, the strategy is abstracted before the actual gameplay. A playbook is opened, a play is selected, and the team and individual units execute that game plan automatically on a per down basis. The gameplay is also linear - offensive plays have “routes” which prescribe a starting point, ending point, and the line in-between.
This is not how most of basketball gameplay works; strategy is decided on the game floor and oscillates between your action and your opponent’s reaction. Basketball doesn’t have linear routes like football; you are constantly scrambling back and forth on the court, and breaks in gameplay are not the norm.
Due to the difference of strategy occurring before gameplay in football versus strategy during gameplay in basketball, you need the ability to make and execute complex decisions during gameplay. If you have high-fidelity controls with a PS4 this is possible - on a mobile device it is not.
In summary, NBA Live Mobile struggles to capture the strategic elements of basketball for two reasons: (1) strategy is not abstracted away from gameplay in basketball like football; and (2) because strategy must be executed real-time during gameplay, NBA Live fails to make this meaningful as precision control on mobile is too complex to direct team play and individual units.
One of the elements that keeps basketball (or any team-based sport, for that matter) fresh and exciting is that your game plan can dramatically change depending on which opponent you face.
If you are playing against a team that loves a high-tempo, fast paced offense with quick perimeter shooting, your strategy will vary from a team that slows the ball down and takes its time whittling away near the basket.
This is where you shuffle the deck and change your team’s line-up depending on who you are matching up against.
In a recent series that I played on the PS4 title NBA 2K17, I controlled the Golden State Warriors and I was up against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals. A critical adjustment I made was having my team’s best defender, Draymond Green, guard Tristan Thompson.
It was not an obvious matchup, as they play different positions, but it made a critical difference in ensuring that Cleveland did not score at-will near the basket. This small adjustment changed the momentum of the series - after losing the first game, I won the next four games consecutively.
These are the types of things that make the “puzzle” interesting and feel like it is continuously evolving - you are shifting and making changes and understanding your opponent, and just when you think you have it figured out either they change to adapt to your adaptations, or you are on to your next opponent who has a totally different strategy.
Or perhaps in the middle of the game you lose a player to injury or because they fouled out - you now have the task of reconfiguring your team with the individual units that you have.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the game is totally lost because of EA’s emphasis on Card Collections in its core game design (Pillar #2 in “The Past” section).
Your goal is simply to get the highest rated team by acquiring the highest rated cards. For instance, I am incentivised to get the highest rated Center unit (Shaquille O’Neal), rather than the best Center that serves my particular strategy (Motion-Heavy Flow Offense).
Additionally, my lineup when playing opponents is always my highest rated team, rather than the best team to counter my opponent.
As a result of these core changes to gameplay, NBA Live totally loses focus of the “Team” element of the puzzle. To be fair, Madden Mobile also suffers from this issue, but because it is strong in the other two elements (Strategy and Unit) it is able to overcome this issue.
The final part of the puzzle is being able to control and make decisions on a unit level, which in NBA Live Mobile is about controlling individual players.
There are two critical components of unit-level play: (1) unit control must be precise enough to execute your game plan (your strategy) effectively; and (2) different unit types should feel distinct and unique in their strengths and weaknesses.
To provide an example of this, let’s deconstruct a classic offensive set to score a basket: the pick and roll.
Let’s say you are playing as Steph Curry and your teammate Draymond Green (controlled by computer) sets the pick.
As Steph Curry, you must precisely move him so he dribbles around Draymond Green’s screen. Now you must accurately target a pass to Green, who is fast approaching the basket. Once the pass is complete, you take over as Draymond Green and complete the trip to the basket for a dunk or layup.
This requires, at a minimum: control of a first player, precise semi-circular first player movement, targeted passing, control of a second player, speed control of a second player and release of ball - not to mention the precise timing of all these moves.
Can you imagine executing all of this on a touch-based device? No, but this is what real basketball feels like - and where a game like “NBA 2K17” on console succeeds.
“Continuous gameplay” (when controls are used to constantly provide input into your playing experience) is tailor made for console and PC. Games like Mario Kart, Sonic the Hedgehog and Halo all require continuous player input to succeed, and are all successful on console and PC.
Continuous gameplay on mobile continues to deliver a significantly inferior playing experience when compared to console.
What kind of gameplay works on mobile? Games that require user input in short bursts and much more infrequently, like match-3, farming, base defence and runners. These games instead feature “discrete gameplay” (game action in short bursts) which has become the dominant style of gaming on mobile.
In a match-3 game, your success or failure has nothing to do with continuous tapping - you can stare at your screen for long stretches without doing anything. Same goes with farming games (in fact, staring is when most of the productivity happens here). Runner games even take away the running part, requiring users to only tap and swipe at key moments to win.
The fact of the matter is, mobile as a gaming medium demands simpler controls and challenges continuous gameplay. While it is commendable to try to give users the level of control to replicate the speed and movement of real-time basketball, attempting to map console-level control on NBA Live Mobile is a mistake.
As I mentioned, having precision controls is just one-dimension to making sure unit-level control / strategy feels right. The other dimension is making sure units themselves feel authentic to their brands.
Looking back at this example of Steph Curry and Draymond Green, these individuals are two of the most celebrated in the NBA for their level of skill. Steph Curry’s ability to execute the pick and roll is a combination of basketball IQ and agility; his ball-handling and lateral movement is unrivaled, so he can turn on a dime and slip through tight spaces to leave defenders in the dust.
Similarly, Draymond Green is an exceptional all-around player; he can use his size to create an effective screen for Steph Curry and is then able to then use his speed and strength to slice through tough defences in the interior to find a shot (and sometimes get an extra point opportunity when a defender fouls).
You can use any two players to execute a pick and roll, but the point is that employing Steph Curry and Draymond Green should result in a much higher success rate than the average NBA pair because of their unique talents.
To summarise, to ably execute your strategy you must be able to use your individual units’ strengths to their maximum abilities to succeed (with continuous gameplay on console, but similar efforts prove futile on mobile), and select the RIGHT individual units whose talents complement your strategy.
The future: Paving the road ahead for NBA Mobile
So what would a complete NBA Mobile product look and feel like?
I do think that EA Sports has built robust systems like Live Events, Daily / Weekly Challenges, and Head to Head that can continue to work; however, it needs a strong “battle” to serve as the foundation.
I will use the puzzle framework of “Strategy-Team-Unit” to propose a game that feels like true NBA action.
Strategy and team
To quickly recap, the strategy is about giving the player’s control to formulate a game plan to win; whether that’s shooting on the perimeter to score 3s or dish to a big guy in the paint for easy 2s, or everything in-between.
Madden Mobile allows players to select from a playbook, while NBA Live Mobile eschews this completely. Why not allow players to select up to three plays to run on any given play?
These plays can be earned via card packs (like Madden Mobile) and upgraded through gacha mechanics. The player can then select plays and players to go with it; there will inevitably be better combinations of plays and players (e.g. isolation heavy plays that go through an all-star like LeBron James and Kevin Durant makes sense).
However, this doesn’t solve for one of my main arguments earlier - basketball play is continuous, not discrete like in Madden Mobile. How can you set plays when there is continuous motion back and forth on the court?
Here is a radical proposal based on the following objectives: (1) incorporating play setting strategy; (2) creating discrete gameplay; and (3) building quicker gameplay experiences for short sessions on mobile.
Imagine playing against another player where you are given three offensive possessions, and your opponent is given three offensive possessions (where you play defence). Let’s say that each possession is 20 seconds long, for a total of two minutes. (20 seconds * six possessions)
On offense, your “possession” ends when whichever happens first - either you score, your timer (20 seconds) expires, or the defence takes possession of the ball. It’s up to you in setting plays and taking players ahead of time for these three possessions.
Now you have several layers of strategy; you can choose players to create a team on offense, players to create a team on defence, setting plays offensively and defensively.
Perhaps you even have one timeout that you can use between offensive and defensive possessions to make player adjustments based on what you’re seeing on the court.
On the unit-level, NBA Live Mobile could dramatically simplify gameplay by moving towards tap-based gameplay where better players have special abilities that can be triggered by user input.
You are not providing moment-to-moment input; rather, many decisions are made before the match, and units respond to how they’ve been “programmed” by the plays that you set ahead of time. This solves the issue of not having precise enough controls on mobile; you eliminate the most thorny aspect of the game.
I think that gacha can still be used to collect players, but that the upgrading tree should go deep rather than wide.
So for example, if you acquire Steph Curry through card pack opening, you only get him at Level 1. As a Level 1 player, he’s more like a rookie: he has potential but needs to be leveled up in order to get to his current All-Star self. Steph Curry might be able to become a Level 10 point guard, whereas the average point guard may only get to Level 4.
In addition to leveling up players, I also think there is room to create unit-level strategy and choice by creating tech trees of skills (e.g. passing, ball-handling, mid-range shooting, 3 point shooting).
Maybe Steph Curry has 3 signature abilities, and you can choose to make progression on one or all by completing single player campaigns/seasons.
This creates a level of customization, and a feeling of strategic choice when employing plays that cater to these signature skills. (NOTE: NBA Live Mobile does have Signature Skills as a feature, but the implementation is very different from what I am describing)
If it wasn’t clear already, I’m a huge basketball fan who has loved playing NBA-based video games: from NBA Jam on the Sega Genesis, to Kobe Bryant’s NBA Courtside on the Nintendo 64, and now NBA 2K17 on the PS4.
I believe that a great basketball game needs to adequately address all three pieces of the Strategy-Team-Unit puzzle; while my suggestions may seem like a radical departure from the tried and true EA Sports Mobile formula, we need to accept that basketball is a very different game from football and the mechanics need to be adjusted accordingly.
The mobile gaming landscape has evolved over the past year and a half, and we now know what a great strategy battle on mobile feels like, thanks to Supercell’s Clash Royale.
Next, in terms of “Team”, you must assemble the best team that aligns with your strategy (e.g. employing a Control strategy and using Skeleton Army as defence against a rushing Prince, who then counter push and become offensive weapons).
Finally, when it comes to “Unit”, Clash gives you choice in terms of choosing when to employ a certain unit and where to place it on the gameboard.
While Clash Royale and PvP sports games are obviously very different genres with very different user needs, it is helpful in looking at them from a common framework in terms of understanding what makes a game work and keeps gameplay engaging and exciting.
I’m rooting for EA and their Sports titles on mobile, and can’t wait to see what’s in store for next season.