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It must be the shoes

If it's on their feet, it's on their feet.

Electronic Arts, the company whose mantra stressing realism is "If it's in the game, it's in the game," has taken it to the next level in NBA Live 2004.

Not only do the players and arenas look like they do in real life, now the footwear is accurate. Nike, Reebok and adidas all have presence in the game.

Vince Carter is wearing his soon-to-be released VC Shox III's, Allen Iverson is wearing his Answer line, while Tracy McGrady sports his T-Macs.

Nike, which formed a strategic partnership with EA for the game, benefits the most from the additional advertising.

Looking to capitalize on the "sneakerhead" culture that has become a huge part of NBA fandom, 40 different Nike shoes appear in the game, 130 in all, if all the different colorways are counted.

"We didn't want this to just be product placement," said Glenn Chin, EA's senior director of marketing. "We felt gamers needed yet another level of detail, so we decided not only to add the brands of shoes, but to add excitement by relating to the 'sneakerheads,' who know when all the shoes come out."

Not only does the game boast a store, where gamers can use points they rack up to purchase a host of items including shoes the Nike Shox Supremacy, the Air Max and, of course the most expensive, the first Air Jordan, but Nike and EA plan to release 50 cheat codes throughout the year to allow players to unlock old retro favorites or shoes that are hitting the market.

"When making the games, we not only look at the rulebook to make sure we have everything right, but seek to touch on relevant cultural hot points," Chin said. "And shoes definitely fall into that category."

So far, three codes have been released -- for the Nike Shox BB4's (the shoe Carter was wearing when he dunked over poor Frederick Weis in the 2000 Olympics), the famous Air Jordan III's (the first Jordan's featuring the now very recognizable Jumpman logo) and the LeBron James' Air Zoom Generations, which became unlockable on the night James plays his first game on Oct. 29.

Upcoming codes will be released in Nikebasketball.com's newsletter, Hoop Chronicles, or on EASports.com. Those that go to the Nikebasketball.com site can also see clips of Nike athletes wearing their particular shoes in video game clips.

"This is another great way to communicate to our target audience," said Ricky Engelberg, Nike's digital innovation specialist. "We want basketball-crazy kids who are playing the game over and over again to be wondering what shoes will come out next."

The most anticipated releases are expected to be shoes like the Foamposite I, Penny Hardaway's first signature kicks, and the Air Jordan XI, with its famous patent leather.

James, who signed a seven-year, $100-million contract with Nike in May, will be wearing many different colorways of his Air Zoom Generation throughout the season, most of which will be available in the game.

There's only one catch to all of this shoe madness.

Gamers can't put Nikes on Chris Webber, who ditched his deal with the company years ago and don't expect to pop the retro Blazer shoe, which George Gervin wears on the game's 80s All-Star team, on Ben Wallace -- who endorses And 1.

Only Nikes are interchangeable and they can only go on Nike athletes.

"We wanted to make sure that everything was as authentic as possible," Engelberg said.

Now that EA and Nike have gone this far, gamers will be expecting even more from the alliance next year.

Perhaps the current mode of create-a-player could turn into create-a-shoe? Or how about the idea that hard-core gamers can rack up so many points on NBA Live 2005, that they can go into an actual store and redeem real shoes?

"It's hard to say right now," Engelberg said. "But we feel that there are endless possibilities going forward."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.