In the summer of 2016, Kelsey Plum, then a rising senior at the University of Washington, drove to Vancouver with former teammate Talia Walton. EA Sports, the sports division of video game producer Electronic Arts (EA), had invited them to do motion capture at their British Columbia-based studio.
EA Sports needed data from a woman who was good at basketball for a project, and Plum, who had just led her team to an NCAA Final Four appearance a few months earlier, was definitely good at basketball.
Plum and Walton's data would be incorporated into "NBA Live 18" as part of the WNBA Play Now mode.
The game, which is being released before the end of 2017, will include all 12 WNBA teams along with their full rosters. It's first time in the history of the video game series (which has existed for more than two decades) that WNBA players will be featured, and an opportunity exclusive to the "NBA Live" franchise this year. Rosters will be current as of Sept. 9, 2017, with league superstars Jewell Loyd, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne and others included in the game through a separate scanning process done with EA Sports.
"It's a pretty long work day," Plum said of her motion-capture experience in a phone interview. "We probably spent seven hours on the court doing stuff."
Fitted head-to-toe in motion capture equipment, the athletes conducted layups, shooting drills and played some 1-on-1. They even simulated a bit of trash talk and did some celebrations.
Plum and Walton were joined by a handful of men who routinely do motion capture with EA now that they are "retired." The male athletes played college basketball and some professional ball, but they weren't the elite level draft picks that Plum turned out to be. Plum was asked to participate because of her proximity to Vancouver, and because most WNBA players are busy playing in the summer. As it turned out, she ended up being the first pick in the draft a year later. In that sense, the fact that the WNBA mode will have motion capture from Plum makes it unique.
"A lot of the animation that you're going to see was captured by a pretty good basketball player in the WNBA right now, which is not always the case on the NBA side," "NBA Live 18" executive producer Sean O'Brien said of Plum's motion-capture session.
The fact that "NBA Live 18" is incorporating a WNBA game mode isn't a matter of O'Brien simply enjoying women's basketball and believing in gender equality, though he made it clear those things are true. In truth, the "NBA Live" franchise has struggled as "NBA 2K," which is produced by a competitor, has become the dominant NBA video game. The last iteration of the game, "NBA Live 16", came out two years ago, and was preceded by "NBA Live 14." The new WNBA mode creates buzz, while featuring women in video games is becoming increasingly good for business.
"We've found that through research of a lot of different games in different genres that [both] men and women like playing as women," O'Brien added. "So that's something we're committed to moving forward." For example, three months after the launch of "FIFA 16," the United States Women's National Team (USWNT) was the 23rd most popular team to play with out of 600 possible options. Forward Alex Morgan has scored more than 1 million goals in the game.
The WNBA Play Now mode is an extension of that commitment. The goal is to incorporate the ability to create a customizable character in upcoming installments of "NBA Live", similar to what is offered for NBA players.
Over the past two years, O'Brien has worked to make a playable WNBA mode a reality. He and Matt Holt, vice president of global partnerships at the NBA, discussed the possibility following the incorporation of 12 women's national teams in "FIFA 16." NBA and WNBA fans were interested in seeing something similar for women's basketball players moving forward. O'Brien, a self-professed fan of women's basketball, was on board.
"We wanted it to be authentic to the WNBA and women's basketball," O'Brien said. "We wanted to do it properly."
A top priority for O'Brien involved representing WNBA players as they are: Accurately reproducing Griner's tattoos was necessary, as was ensuring that Taurasi and Bird's handles were authentic. Perhaps most importantly, it's clear to anyone playing the game that No. 23 of the Minnesota Lynx is Maya Moore, rather than some generic player.
"It's not just some random people in the game. It's full rosters," Seattle guard Jewell Loyd said in a phone interview. "To be able to expand the game that way is unique, and we're excited."
"I think people should also be patient because, whenever someone puts a game out like this, there are corrections and different improvements you could make," Plum said. "But I think even the initial start of [putting WNBA players in a video game] is really encouraging to women."
Getting the data to fill in the rosters required reaching out to teams and sending a camera rig around the country to capture facial and body scans of as many players as possible. With so many WNBA players going overseas in the offseason, the scans had to be taken while they were in the United States, a feat that required working around a hectic summer WNBA schedule. Teams and EA Sports collaborated to set up time at hotels or practice facilities, and the players took turns sitting for the camera. Not every player from every team has been scanned at the time of publication, but the process is not yet complete. "We will go out there and get every player that wants to sit for us," O'Brien said.
Loyd has seen the finished product of her likeness. She only has one complaint: "The socks are a little bit too high," she said. "I look tougher in the game than in real life, but I'll take it. We just gotta fix the socks."
For WNBA players, being featured in a video game is about more than just seeing their faces in the series. EA Sports got the uniforms and the courts right, too. Plus, there's that whole business of player ratings. Who will be the highest-rated passer and 3-point shooter? Griner will be able to dunk, but will others have the same capability? That will provide some fodder, and perhaps even some trash talk for players heading into the playoffs.
"Will people care? I don't know," Loyd said. "Will they look? For sure."
"Unless there's, like, a dance-move rating, I don't want to see my rating," said Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson. "Although my jump shot would be 99, or maybe a 95."
WNBA players have never had the opportunity to play a video game as themselves, and the significance of their avatars being introduced to a wider audience is truly exciting. It also provides another way of connecting with existing fans.
"I grew up playing pretty much any basketball video game on any system, and you envision yourself as those players while you're playing," Loyd said. "Now, little girls playing can see themselves."
Plum, for her part, doesn't really play video games anymore, but she thinks this opportunity might induce her to start up again.
"Maybe I'll see a handshake I did or something," she said.