Grunting men and sneaker squeaks rush through my surround speakers, enveloping the room with sound and cradling me in its center. My fingers move in rhythm, perfectly in tune from years of repetition to control the avatars moving at breakneck speeds on my television. Just Blaze’s booming soundtrack vibrates the walls of my room. My character launches into a 360 degree tomahawk dunk which breaks the rim and leaves me on my tattered tan couch with a smug sense of satisfaction. This is only one of a million fond memories I created while playing EA Sports Big’s (EA Big) NBA Street Vol. 2.
I’ve been a gamer for over twenty-five years. Because of my longevity and intimacy with this space, I’ve seen a good number of developers go the way of Von Dutch trucker hats. That’s to say, they had a good run then disappeared from the collective consciousness. The phenomenon of game studios and publishing companies closing isn’t particularly noteworthy––it happens all the time––but every once in awhile the industry will lose a real gem. That was the case with the closing of EA Big.
Gaming, like most things in America, is overwhelmingly white. When my uncle bought my Sega Genesis in 1991, the first game I owned was Sonic the Hedgehog. Its main character was a blue hedgehog capable of running so fast the screen would turn into a blur. As I grew older, my video game experiences jumped from Sega Genesis to Super Nintendo, Sega Saturn to Sony Playstation, and Sega’s last console, the Sega Dreamcast. In that eight year period, the number of black characters that resembled me, anyone that looked liked me, the neighborhood I grew up in, or the experiences I was having, might be next to zero. That’s not to say there weren’t black characters in any of the video games I played. I simply couldn’t relate to those characters. EA Big changed that.
A publisher tasked with making extreme and arcade sports games, EA Big became one of my favorites because they laid the blueprint of how to intertwine hip-hop and sports in video games. EA Big made classics like Snowboard Supercross (SSX); the NBA, NFL, and FIFA Street titles; and the fantastic Def Jam Vendetta wrestling series. The company pioneered the act of combining sports and rap in a way that didn’t feel exploitative, with a hip-hop experience from the first loading screen of each game. Rahzel, a former member of The Roots, opened each game with an “EA Sports BIG!” drop. Just Blaze produced original beats for NBA Street Vol. 2, a game which featured “T.R.O.Y.” by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth as its opening theme music. As a lifelong fan of hip-hop it thrilled me to see the love EA Big showed my favorite genre.
Eventually, EA Big simply ceased to exist; but not without leaving its mark on the gaming landscape. tweet
SSX was a Playstation 2 launch title released to critical and commercial success. Critics praised it for its graphics and gameplay, and it won the “Console Sports Game of The Year” and “Racing Game of The Year” awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. SSX played like no other game, combining a wide palette of colors and animations that put every snowboarding game that came before it to shame. The levels were multi-tiered and enormous, filled with secret paths and shortcuts that made every race feel different. The tricks, which were the hallmark of the game, eschewed realism for showmanship. It’s one thing to describe doing a 1260 degree spin move at seventy-five feet in the air, it’s quite another thing to watch it happen in real-time. And, it’s an even better thing to be the orchestrator of that move. Whereas previous snowboarding games were more reality-based, had a linear path down its mountains, and featured real-world athletes, SSX was an abrupt departure to the genre’s conventions. SSX’s carnival-esque color palette, multiple paths during races, and completely unrealistic trick meters gave the traditional snowboarding genre a swift kick in its ass. The results of that kick were a wholly original and fun product. The game was so good that is captured fans, such as myself with no experience with or love for snowboarding.
EA Big would find similar acclaim with NBA Street. Street was a 3-on-3 basketball game with a creative innovation—it took place on a blacktop instead of NBA courts. NBA Street can trace its roots back to Midway Games’ founding. Midway made games like NBA Jam and NBA Showtime which used a 2-on-2 mode on NBA courts with NBA teams. Due to the arcade button-mashing style of those games, there wasn’t much strategy involved. Also, outside of tournament modes, where players picked a team and played against the video game AI, or head-to-head matchups, where players played against other human players, those titles didn’t have much by the way of different game modes. Street, however, built on this arcade basketball tradition with an impressive array of crossovers, spins, off-balance jumpers, self alley-oops and an innovative feature called a “Gamebreaker.” Players initiating a Gamebreaker sequence were treated to an outrageous dunk and cinematic animation that predecessors, due to the technology at the time, couldn’t duplicate. The Street series also featured a create-a-player, and later a create-a-court, function, rivalries, and fully-fledged single-player storylines that could keep players entertained for days and weeks on end.
NBA Street Vol. 2 sought to move the franchise even further from Midway’s blueprint and improve on its previous iteration in every way. But––probably because of the success of the first game––it had competition. After the release of NBA Street in 2001, a new arcade-style basketball game, Street Hoops, hit the scene in 2002. Whereas NBA Street saw to create a version of hoops that worked alongside the NBA, Street Hoops threw a middle finger toward it. Instead of using NBA stars, they went the “AND 1” route and virtualized playground legends stars like A.O., Hot Sauce, Half-Man Half-Amazing, Main Event, and more. Street Hoops embodied everything about playground basketball. There were big chains, designer clothes, and side-bets on games for players to earn more cash. Street Hoops also boasted a soundtrack of Hip-Hop’s biggest stars with songs from Cypress Hill, DMX, Pharoahe Monch, Nate Dogg, and Talib Kweli.
EA Big released NBA Street Vol. 2 in 2003, a year after Street Hoops. EA Big sought to improve on the first NBA Street in every way and ended up creating one of the greatest arcade basketball games of all time. NBA Street Vol. 2 featured Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y.” as its opening song, was the first game to include Michael Jordan as himself and not as a “roster player” (there were actually three versions of MJ: 1985, 1996, and the Washington Wizards version), fully embraced the “street” aspect of its name, and boasted a soundtrack featuring original production by EA Big stalwart Just Blaze. NBA Street Vol. 2 was so well-received that it spawned spin-offs for football (NFL Street) and soccer (FIFA Street).
EA Big became one of my favorites because they laid the blueprint of how to intertwine hip-hop and sports in video games. tweet
After multiple successful entries in snowboarding and basketball, EA Big set its sights on wrestling. Instead of using the wrestlers fans knew and loved, they used rappers like Method Man, Redman, Xzibit, Snoop Dogg, and Joe Budden to create an original intellectual property, Def Jam: Vendetta. The game was built on the AKI engine used in classic wrestling games like WCW No Mercy and WWF Revenge. This was an important draw for gamers because No Mercy and Revenge were both landmark entries in video game wrestling due to the gameplay advances the AKI engine allowed. An engine gamers were familiar with combined with a powerful infusion of hip-hop was strong enough to make it its own game, selling well enough to spawn a fantastic sequel (Def Jam: Fight For New York).
EA Big had a sustained streak of success on the PS2, original Xbox, and Nintendo Gamecube. Their trio of franchises, NBA Street, Def Jam Wrestling, and SSX, were all critically acclaimed.
Sustained excellence when creating video games, however, can be a difficult thing to come by. The challenge to sell games and create new features to make those games feel fresh is a delicate balancing act. Some publishers manage that pressure well while others wither under the ever increasing weight of expectations to innovate. Unfortunately for EA Sports Big, it seems like their franchises were crushed under that weight. Those failures were in choices to implement bad features in games or in prematurely ending some franchises.
After the success of SSX 3 two more sequels were released, the most egregious of which is the 2012 reboot of SSX simply titled, “SSX.” To be fair, the reboot did release to some commercial acclaim, but the game’s Metacritic score is more than ten points below the pinnacle of the series. Gamesbeat, owners of SSX’s lowest score, said the game “has ugly last-gen graphics, near-forced microtransactions, autopilot controls, and the Survive It! sequences all combine to create the worst snowboarding game in quite some time.”
The Def Jam wrestling games suffered a similar fate as SSX. The excellent FFNY was followed up by horrendous Def Jam: Icon. Icon, giving up wrestling for 2-D fighting, was a cornucopia of miserable ideas, shoddy gameplay, and flat-out substandard execution. IGN said it had “beautifully rendered” but had “inconsistent game mechanics.” The New York Times echoes these sentiments, stating “the combat system isn’t quite as entertaining.” Cheat Code Central parroted both, writing “the game just doesn’t deliver as well in the fighting as it should.”
NBA Street: Homecourt, the last entry in the Street series, fared a bit better than the Def Jam and SSX series. The revamped mechanics of Homecourt were for the better and I preferred its controls over its previous entries. There were noticeable graphical upgrades and a pretty good career mode to boot. The A.V. Club called it “a dazzling array of showmanship, visual glitz, and a hefty dose of fun make this an absolute must-play.” Detroit Free Press said, “the high-flying super dunks, crazy-killer crossovers and behind-the-back, no-look and kick passes are exaggerated to new heights.” But, there hasn’t been an addition to the series since 2007.
That’s not to say there weren’t black characters in any of the video games I played. I simply couldn’t relate to those characters. EA Big changed that. tweet
It was painful to come to grips with the demise of one of my favorite publishers. For a time, there was a dull, but aching, pain in knowing that some of my favorite franchises would never be seen on current or future consoles. EA Big made great games, but that’s selling its impact a bit short. For me, their greatness lies in something else. EA Big made it possible for me to see myself in the game.
Eventually, EA Big simply ceased to exist, but not without leaving its mark on the gaming landscape. For example, it’s roots and influences can be seen in the soundtrack and game modes of the NBA 2K series. Lately, 2K has been leaning toward traditional expressions of black music with soundtracks curated by Jay-Z, LeBron James, and Pharrell Williams. The “Blacktop” mode, 2K’s version of street basketball, also wears the NBA Street influence as it shirks the hardcore physics for a more free-flowing game of hoops. The Street series also laid the blueprint for games outside the genre like 50 Cent: Bulletproof and Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. These games aren’t direct descendants but were created after EA Big taught everyone how to create the perfect marriage of urban music and gaming without coming off as corny.
It was painful to come to grips with what happened to EA Big, but I understood it. Great developers come and go, with some leaving so quickly they never make an impact while others create a legacy that lingers long after its doors are closed. Video games are a business and if franchises aren’t making the business move forward then developers have to do what makes financial sense. But it isn’t always the games that sell the most which have the biggest impact. Some are able to leave a mark much bigger than the bottom line. I’ll always remember EA Big, not just for supplying me with hundreds of hours of entertainment, but for putting “me” into video games when nobody else would.