There was a time when the feet of every player in video games was indistinguishable, but my how things have changed.
About a month before the official release of NBA LIVE 15, the EA SPORTS team shared a preview of the sneakers incorporated in the video game. The preliminary showing revealed the unmatched intricacy of the shoe designs and showed some of the greatest technology work on a game in quite some time. Ryan Santos, a senior designer of NBA LIVE 15, has been one of the leading men behind this charge ever since he stepped foot on the EA SPORTS game tester in March of 1997.
Roughly a week after the official release of NBA LIVE 15, we caught up with Santos to discuss his beginnings at EA SPORTS, the evolution of sneakers in the NBA LIVE series, the always-increasing technology behind the game and much more.
Nice Kicks: When did sneakers become a focal point in the NBA LIVE series?
Ryan Santos: It wasn’t until about 2001 – which was the first NBA LIVE installment on PS2 – that we started bringing in something authentic sneakers and we actually started with Reebok. That was probably the first time we placed a real emphasis on authentic sneakers in a game. We tried to get all of the brands at that time, but Reebok was the official licensor of the NBA at the time so that was the easiest process.
Nice Kicks: Can you identify an exact breakthrough point as to when sneakers became a thing in the series?
Santos: We expanded it to adidas in 2002, but the breakthrough for us came in 2004 because that is when we were able to get Nike and Jordan on board. It was then that we were really able to blow out the sneaker integration in LIVE. I remember us putting sneakers on guys like LeBron James; it was his rookie year then so we had the Nike Air Zoom Generation One on his feet. We also had unlock codes for a bunch of the sneakers like that, and we just continued to build on that year after year with each LIVE game, each Street game and even in NCAA Basketball.
Nice Kicks: As it pertains to sneakers, the graphics in NBA LIVE 15 are pretty awesome. What is the key to the increased attention to detail over the years?
Santos: That, for us, has been a benefit of what the art team did with our player heads first and foremost. We had guys internally build a custom rig and custom software to scan player faces and then we used the same philosophy and process and applied it to the sneakers. We had an artist back in Vancouver named Gary Carlos – who works remotely with us – and he’s a big-time sneakerhead. We literally grabbed a bunch of stuff from his closet and scanned it for the game. Obviously we have a great relationship with the shoe brands, so they give us a lot of product for the game. But that’s how it initially started.
Nice Kicks: Is there anything else you’d attribute the graphics to?
Santos: I think one half of it is the technology and the scanning process to get that level of detail, and the other half is the guys here who are extremely passionate about sneakers. I think it really helped the process that we had sneakerheads working on that type of stuff. It’s not just the scans; it’s the people behind it who may say, ‘Hey, this Kobe 9 Elite would look amazing if we nail the exact shape of the silhouette, how the Flyknit looks and the pattern and texture right down to the laces. Case in point, if you zoom in on some of those sneakers, you’ll see that some of the laces even have patterns on them. That’s the level of detail we got down to with this stuff.
Nice Kicks: In your opinion, what’s the most intricate shoe in NBA LIVE 15?
Santos: They’re really all great, but I would say the Nike Kobe 9 Elite. It’s such an intricate design and interesting silhouette, so that one probably needed that extra attention to detail to get it right. And obviously, some of the Jordans are killer too. When you look at some of the retros, you can see the buttery leather and the creasing. I think the scans really represent those classics.