By taking a new approach to the basket each year and stumbling into the lane each time, NBA Live is dangerously close to fouling out as a franchise. Whether it was producing realistic sweat on player models, the Made Fresh Daily player tendencies that were supposed to make superstars act like their real-life counterparts, or the largely useless NBA Academy, the core gameplay has always taken the back seat to an easily marketable secondary feature. Basketball fans could see through the advertising smoke, and walked away from the franchise in droves hungry for a better hoops game. Determined to (yet again) give its NBA game a fresh perspective, EA Sports has rebranded the game Elite and turned the reigns over to David Littman, the man responsible for turning the NHL franchise into a category leading innovator.

Littman, a former professional goaltender with no basketball background, admits his knowledge of the sport is only cursory. But as his success with NHL proves, he knows gameplay. When he started examining past iterations, he concluded that basketball gameplay has been stuck in a rut for decades. Too often player control is sacrificed for the sake of a pretty lay-up animation or a dice roll that determines whether a shot hits nothing but net or careers off the rim. His solution? Ditch the dedication to authentic television broadcast, return to a north-south camera perspective, and rebuild the game controls around the analog stick scheme that revitalized the NHL franchise.

Littman hopes the new control scheme increases NBA Elite’s accessibility while at the same time offering the depth hardcore fans demand from sports games. Like NHL, the left stick controls your player movement, and the right stick controls your hands. When the ball is in your possession, flicking the right stick left or right results in a crossover, rolling the stick from left to right dribbles the ball behind your back, and pushing the stick forward hoists the ball toward the hoop.

Gone are the days where a behind-the-scenes math equation determines whether your shot finds the netting – player skill now determines whether or not your shot clangs off the iron or lights up the scoreboard. Depending on the timing of your release and how straight you push the right stick forward, your shot can miss to the right, left, short, or long. Release the shot a little late and you can even manually bank the ball off the backboard. When in the paint, pressing analog stick up triggers a dunk, while rolling the stick upwards to the left or right to activate a lay-up in the direction you press. The left trigger is used for jump steps and euro steps. To turn your back to the net for a post-up, simply tap the A button. The new animation system also lets you break out of your shot at any time to manually adjust your shot by changing hands during lay-ups.

Defense is also radically changed by the new controls. Like NHL, the sprint button is gone, so you no longer need to time your bursts with that of the player you’re guarding to keep him from driving the lane. Staying in front of your defender is much easier with the north-south perspective, and it also enables you to better spot opportune times to strip the ball. Pressing the right analog stick down activates a steal, and pressing up sends your player in the air for a block or rebound. To keep your hands in passing lanes, you can roll the stick left and right.  

To complement the new controls and camera perspective, NBA Elite is taking a few more pages from NHL playbook by integrating the Be A Pro mode and the EASBA, a five-versus-five online league.

Adopting another drastically different approach to its basketball franchise may seem like a bad move given NBA Live’s slow but steady increase in quality, but given the series’ abysmal sales EA has little to lose. If Littman and the development team can give the on-court action the fluidity of its NHL counterpart, however, it could breathe new life into a sports genre desperate for gameplay innovation.