With a heavy rain pouring down on the roof of our bus, a collection of media from around the world made their way through the streets of Vancouver this past Tuesday.
Our destination was every gamer’s wet dream: the Electronic Arts studio in nearby Burnaby, British Columbia. Our mission was simple: learn about NBA Live 09 and talk with a handful of NBA players, and for some reason one NBA exec, about the game.
This was my second trip out to the EA studio. My experience with last year’s event—which included a random airport pat-down, public nudity on the shuttle in from the Vancouver airport and then Gilbert Arenas letting a fight with his girlfriend keep him from making it out to Vancouver for the event he was supposed to host—made for a wild and strange, if not entertaining day. There was a lot of stuff in there that I’d rather have had not happened, but in the end, it was easy to write about. In a way, it was the quintessential Gilbert Arenas experience, without the man being there.
Looking back on that trip now though, the game ended up being secondary to the gong show that the day was.
This isn’t a knock against the show EA put on for us this year, but this time around, the Live 09 experience to me anyway, was all about the game. The players that were on hand this year—Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani, Brandon Roy and Live 09 cover athlete Tony Parker—all showed up as were promised and they were all good with the media present. From the minute that the game’s lead producer Brian Ullrich started his presentation with Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, though, NBA Live 09 stole the show.
Word has been out for a minute now on Live 09’s new feature, Dynamic DNA. Using the same statistical analysis program by Synergy Sports Technology that at least 20 NBA teams used last season, Live 09 has the breakdown of every single player in the game’s tendencies. Player DNA tells you how your man gets his points, while team DNA gives you the stats on your team’s tendencies, which allows you to maximize your strengths and weaknesses.
Combine Dynamic DNA with what EA is calling Made Fresh Daily, and you’re going somewhere that sports videogames have never gone before. NBA Live 365 brings daily updates throughout the 2008/09 season, that refreshes the players’ DNA based on how those players are performing to that point in time. The best example presented was that of Pau Gasol last year. In Memphis, the giant Spaniard was a pick and roll man. When the Lakers took Gasol off the Grizzlies hands, he started scoring in the post. Trades, injuries, surging players and teams and slumping players and teams will all work their way into Live 09 as it happens in the NBA.
In one fell swoop, EA has nixed two of my biggest pet peeves with sports videogames. Gone are the days of having an overrated center scoring 50 against you at will; gone also are the days of Jose Calderon not being able to play like Jose Calderon. The fact that players can improve their games in different aspects ala Gasol in LA, to me, was jaw dropping.
From the presentation on the game, the players went over to the games area and played as their teams against the people who created the game for about an hour. Trash talker of the day award goes to Andre Iguodala, who was more vocal than any of his NBA counterparts during the hands on session.
After playing the game, the guys all made their way over to EA’s motion capture studio, where they had their bodies scanned in preparation for the mo-cap session in the afternoon. The guys have to stand shirtless with their arms pointing outward while they have the scan done. It’s a one-by-one process, so we got a chance to talk with the players that weren’t busy.
Sitting behind a Live 09 backdrop in studio chairs were both Andrea Bargnani and Brandon Roy.
“Does anyone want to talk with Andrea or Brandon?” an EA PR person called out to the room. Standing in front of them, I had a choice.
FLASHBACK: June 28, 2006. The Toronto Raptors have the first overall pick in the NBA draft. Speculation has turned to near certainty that brand new GM Bryan Colangelo will take Italian seven-footer and supposed Dirk Nowitzki clone, Andrea Bargnani. Also on the board is University of Washington guard Brandon Roy.
We all know how this one played out. Two years removed from what I think most Raps fans would call a mistake, I’m looking at the two of them, sitting next to each other and I think to myself, “I have to make the right choice. Do it for the Raptors fans, set things right in some regard with this one meaningless gesture.”
Turns out my moment of clarity cost me my spot in line with B-Roy. When I looked at him again, the line for interviews ran five-people deep. I sighed, thought of BC and the fate of the team that I’ve somehow ended up caring about more than any other in the Association, and approached Il Mago. His English is pretty fluid now, though there’s still some hiccups here and there. I’d read in the past that the guy was a tough egg to crack, and you get that right away in talking with him.
SLAM: Do you play a lot of games?
Andrea Bargnani: I play games, not so much during the day because I don’t have time, but I’ve got a PS3. They gave us the PS3 at Christmas for the team. Bryan Colangelo gave us them.
SLAM: That’s a cool gift.
AB: Yeah, it was very cool. Everyone on the team has got a PS3.
SLAM: What are your favorite games?
AB: (pauses, looks around) NBA Live. (Laughs a bit)
SLAM: That’s a good answer at this event.
AB: (Laughs a bit more)
SLAM: What other kinds of games do you play?
AB: I like shooting games. We play on the internet, it’s fun.
SLAM: Were you surprised that Josh Childress left to go play—
SLAM: I haven’t even got the question out yet and you’re saying no. You’re not surprised then?
AB: No, because we’re talking about money. To play in NBA, you’ve got an average salary, four or five million. And Europe it’s much more. There’s no tax, and you’ve got houses, cars. It’s a good opportunity.
SLAM: Do you think when your contract is up that European teams would ever make a move to get you back to Europe?
AB: (kind of looks at me like I’m dumb) I don’t know, I have no idea. I like playing in the NBA. But if they keep going like this more players will go over there for sure.
SLAM: With Jermaine O’Neal coming in, do you want to play more of the three next year?
AB: We’ll see what the team needs. Maybe some three, some four or five.
SLAM: What would you rather play?
Bargnani: Four is my natural position.
SLAM: Do you have goals set for next year?
AB: We definitely have to try to go to the playoffs and try to advance in the playoffs. I think that’s the main goal of the organization. We’ve made the playoffs two years in a row, but we always get sent home early. This year was very sad, the end of the season was sad. We didn’t play like we usually do. We have to come back next year and play better.
Whenever I read about Bargnani in the Toronto papers, there’s always something in there about the Italian media that follows him around. This day was no different, as three different people from Italian media outlets had made the trip over to see their boy. All three guys were friendly. I should take this time to shout out Paul from Italy’s Sky Sports, who sits through 45 minutes of futbol news before basketball makes its way onto the highlights, much like I have to do with hockey in Canada.
Bargnani finished up his interviews and went for the body scan. Rudy Gay took his spot, so I went to him next.
SLAM: How did you feel about your season? You had a breakout year but the team struggled.
Rudy Gay: It didn’t really feel like a breakout year. I see a breakout year as you’re doing good and your team is getting better. I didn’t really feel that. I scored a lot of points but I didn’t expect anything different form myself. I expect his year coming up to try to take my team to the next level.
SLAM: You go into the draft and you have Kevin Love, then you leave with OJ Mayo on your team. What’d you think of that?
RG: We’re definitely going to miss Mike Miller, he taught me a lot of things. He was a professional, he was fun to be around, but I guess they felt that we were going to a different level. I’m going to miss him but with the guys we have we have to learn to play together and play better.
SLAM: How do you approach next season? You had 22 wins last year, do you set a win goal for next season?
RG: I wouldn’t set a win total, we just want to go up. We don’t want to decline at all, we want to get better. We definitely don’t want to have another year like we did recently. That was just…that was ridiculous.
SLAM: Do you look at the league and get frustrated? A 22-win team in the West could win more games in the East and even get into the playoffs.
RG: That’s the thing about it. That’s what makes me as a player better personally and I think that makes us as a team better. It helps us grow. We didn’t have a chance to choose where we were going to be, we were put there. So we knew we had to face it night in and night out and all we can do is challenge ourselves and they’re going to challenge us.
SLAM: Kwame Brown just signed with Detroit. How do you feel about it?
RG: I’m happy for him. I think in Detroit he’ll get a chance to actually get out there and show what he can do. These are the times where people are doubting him and he has to step up and show what he can do. I’m hoping he does exactly what he thinks he can.
We broke for lunch after Tony Parker and Bargnani were scanned in. Lunch had a high school cafeteria feel to it, with a surreal twist. We all worked our way through the buffet-style lineup, then with our plates looked for places to sit, which is very high school. Then, as you’re sitting, Tony Parker walks by you, plate in hand, looking for the NBA guys to sit with, which was very surreal.
After lunch, the players donned their spandex motion capture suits, which for some reason had Andre Iguodala breaking out a Martin Lawrence impression.
In the spandex suits, the guys have silver-colored balls called markers stuck to all of their joints. They then get on EA’s half court that’s surrounded by cameras that are designed to capture the reflection off the markers. That reflection goes from the cameras to a computer screen that builds a skeleton of the players, recording all of their moves. The skeleton’s motions are recorded and then placed into the game. Both years I’ve been at the studio, the players inevitably start dancing when they seem themselves on the giant screen at the corner of the court. Rudy Gay led most dancing efforts on the trip.
As the players got ready for their individual mo-cap sessions, there was more media time. I finally got to talk with Brandon Roy.
SLAM: Are you a big gamer?
Brandon Roy: I like NBA live, I’ve always played Madden. Now I’ve got a family, so it’s hard to get to games as much as I like. When I was a kid I was a big gamer.
SLAM: What system do you have?
BR: X-Box 360.
SLAM: Do you play anything else?
Roy: I play some war games. My friend got me into Halo for a little bit. Besides that I’ve always been pretty much a sports guy.
SLAM: Who do you play your games against?
BR: Growing up, I always played against my older brother. We used to battle every day. We couldn’t wait for the new ones to come out. Even to this day we’ll pick up the controllers and play some NBA Live or some Madden.
SLAM: Who’s winning the all-time series?
BR: I think I’ve won the majority, and then he gets mad.
SLAM: I imagine it’s like that on the real court too.
BR: I do now, but not growing up though. He used to beat me up on the real court. He was two years older than me, so I don’t think I started beating him till my senior year of high school, maybe freshman.
SLAM: Did you find that was a turning point for you guys? Did he slam the ball off the ground and go inside like I did when my younger brother beat me?
BR: I think when I finally beat him, we didn’t play much after that. He was like, you already beat me once and that’s it. I think that’s what they all say. Once the little brother wins once, you’re done playing with him.
SLAM: Is this the first time you’ve done the mo-cap session?
BR: This is my first time. I was excited when they asked me to be a part of it. Now I can go back and talk to my brother and friends. I’ve got little cheat codes that they don’t have, and I get to just learn about the game and understand it.
The interview carousel spun again when Andre Iguodala wrapped up his individual mo-cap session. After doing a series of yoga-like stretches, then getting a few shots up, I got a chance to talk with the team-less talent. If I were the type to randomly speculate on what his free agency fate will be, I could point out that he played Live 09 with Oklahoma City most of the afternoon when he wasn’t on the court. He said it was because he wanted to see what the team’s jerseys looked like (note: they were a generic white and grey, I believe).
SLAM: When you play these games, do you always use Philly?
Andre Iguodala: I play a little bit with the Sixers, but not really. When I play against some of my friends we all have different teams we play with and we just o kind of like a league: you pick different teams and then you play.
SLAM: Did you think you’d be in this spot at this point in the summer with your contract?
AI: No I didn’t.
SLAM: Is it frustrating?
AI: It’s not frustrating because last year I went through it with the extension, so that got to me. It’s just understanding the process of going through some stuff that you really don’t want to go through. You hear some things you don’t want to hear. There are some disagreements, so my whole things is just being ready for next season no matter what and just being ready to play ball. Other than that I’m cool.
SLAM: Do you expect to be back in Philly?
AI: That was the plan form the beginning but anything can happen. We’ll continue to talk with the team and my agent is trying to get something done. My whole thing is let him get it done and I don’t have to worry about that stress.
SLAM: If you’re back in Philly, what do you think it’ll be like with Elton Brand there?
AI: I think if they bring me back I think we’ll be a great team, we’ll have a chance to get to the Finals. I’m being realistic. Last year I said we’d get to the playoffs. I said that on media day, first day and they were like you’re supposed to say that, and I said no, we’re really getting to the playoffs and they didn’t want to hear that.
I feel like we have a shot to get there, especially with Elton. He being an inside guy, we need to throw the ball to him on the blocks and let him do his thing down there.
Tony Parker was the last man to wrap up individual mo-cap sessions. The 2007 Finals MVP stretched, took shots and made some moves to the hoop in his session. The most un-Parker moment of the day came when someone asked him to dunk. The 6-2 Frenchman struggled above the rim, pushing one ball in and sending the rest of his attempts flying off the back of the rim. “Not today,” he said, walking off the court after his last attempt bounced out past the three-point line.
SLAM: Do you play a lot of videogames?
Tony Parker: I used to play a lot, and once you get married you start to play less, you know? I played a lot with my brothers. Growing up with two brothers we played videogames against each other all the time.
SLAM: With player stats being updated throughout the season on this game, does that make you happy? You hear a lot of players complain that their stats are too low in these games.
TP: No, I don’t care. For me when I play videogames I just play the game to have fun. I play games and that’s it, I don’t look at stats. But for a fan, I think there’s a great deal of stats and information that you’ll enjoy more. Me as a basketball player, I just play.
SLAM: When did you find out you were the cover athlete?
TP: I found out two or three months ago. It’s a great honor to be the first European guy on the US cover. I’ve had a long relationship with EA Sports because I’ve been on the cover for five years in France. For me, I was very happy to represent EA Sports.
SLAM: Do you sense a shift in the balance of power in the west?
TP: Not really. I still think all the best teams are in the west. Boston has a very good team too and they won against the Lakers. I think overall the best teams are in the west.
SLAM: France isn’t in the Olympics this year for basketball. Who do you think will win the gold this year in Beijing?
TP: The US. They’re always the favorite, you know? Then you have Spain Greece, Russia. I think the US is the team to beat but you never know in sport, anything can happen.
I also had a chance to talk with Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Keep in mind that this was Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before news of the Ron Artest deal broke. I give full props to the guy for keeping a gangster poker face when I brought trades up to him. He rolled his eyes when I brought up the T-Mac to Detroit stuff.
SLAM: How do you feel about your team right now?
Daryl Morey: We feel like this off-season we’re adding Yao Ming, basically. That doesn’t mean that we’re resting on what we’ve got. We’re constantly looking to upgrade, but we feel like we’ll make a strong push next year and we really need to figure out how to get out of the first round.
SLAM: What was going on with the T-Mac to Detroit rumors? Was it more Detroit coming to you guys? Was there any truth to it?
DM: I think, to me it feels very similar to when I was in Boston with Paul (Pierce). All those years there were rumors that we were trading him and we never were and it’s the same with Tracy, we’re not.