NBA Jam esports? Arcade1Up hopes to make it happen

Arcade1Up revealed its NBA Jam at-home arcade during CES 2020 in January. The company has designs to try to create a competitive field in the game. Provided by Arcade1Up

If you've visited an arcade, you've probably played NBA Jam once or twice, or 500 times. And even if you haven't, you surely know some of the iconic callouts from voice actor Tim Kitzrow.

"He's on fire!"

"From downtown!"

"Boom-shaka-laka!"

Kitzrow's calls are as memorable as any of the most famous lines in gaming, and the game he voices is one of the most successful arcade releases of all time. Many place it on the Mount Rushmore of sports games, of arcade games, of retro games. You could make a case for it on any of the three.

One place the game doesn't seem to fit, though, is in esports. Hearing those same shouts in an esports setting for the NBA Jam World Championship? That seems far-fetched at best. But arcade machine manufacturer Arcade1Up wants to make it a reality.

But why? Why would a game from 1993 even be considered for a competitive title with prize pools, regular tournaments, sponsors and broadcasts? And how? The original machines definitely weren't connected to the internet; Wi-Fi hadn't even been invented.

To get to the esport, you first have to go to the company that is bringing the game back.

Arcade1Up, owned by New York-based Tastemakers LLC, primarily manufactures classic arcade machines. Built at three-quarters scale (around 4 feet for many of the machines, but risers are also available to boost them an extra foot), its products go for around $299 to $499 depending on the machine and seller.

Several games reside in each cabinet, all in the same "family" as the main draw, which the cabinet art is fashioned after. For example, the Mortal Kombat II machine also has the original Mortal Kombat and MK3 as playable games, but boasts the cabinet art from MKII. Similarly, the Pac-Man machine also hosts Pac-Man Plus, Pac-Land, Pac-Mania and even Galaga. Other main titles available in Arcade1Up's lineup of 20-plus machines include Street Fighter II, Star Wars, Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders and a Marvel digital pinball machine.

But one game that was on Arcade1Up's initial target list when the company began in 2018 was finally unveiled at CES 2020 in January: There, on the show floor, stood a 16-foot-tall arcade cabinet with the words "NBA Jam" on the front, with fans filing up to test out the game and get photos and autographs from NBA Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who's on the Portland Trail Blazers in the game.

Arcade 1Up could now create and sell machines for one of the most revered retro sports games of all time, along with NBA Jam: Tournament Edition and NBA Hangtime in the cabinet.

NBA Jam was an overnight success when it first hit the market in 1993 and generated revenue of $1 billion in quarters in its first year in circulation, one quarter at a time.

"The gameplay holds up extremely well, and we felt releasing this cabinet would be hugely popular with not only retro arcade fans but sports fans in general," said Scott Bachrach, the CEO and founder of Tastemakers LLC. "Many people thought we wouldn't be able to release this game with the myriad of licensing issues involved with player rights, but we're extremely happy we were able to navigate through this and bring this beloved game to the fans."

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The challenge of licensing for Arcade1Up fell to John Diamonon, the senior vice president of licensing, and it involved a lot of moving parts, including working with the now-defunct Midway, which went fully out of business about a decade ago.

"It was a very complicated process because of how many parties were involved," Diamonon said. "We had to work with the NBA for approvals on gameplay and artwork, the retired players' association for all the players' likeness in the game and individual players who aren't represented by the retired players' association as well. We even worked with Midway since they originally released the game to include their logos and have their stamp of approval because capturing the essence of the authentic game, we believe, was tremendously important."

Arcade1Up declined to comment further on whom it needed to reach out to in order to bring the game together -- EA acquired the rights to the name "NBA Jam" in 2004 after Acclaim folded; Acclaim had obtained it from original developer Midway. Mark Turmell, the original creator of NBA Jam, confirmed to ESPN that he was also contacted by Diamonon about acquiring the rights to the secret characters in the game.

Arcade1Up has garnered financial success across the board with its retro offerings; the company recently celebrated 1 million units sold across its existing offerings.

"Based on early numbers, resale value and consumer demand, we could potentially see those numbers with just [NBA Jam] alone assuming we continue the momentum we are on," said Robert Pellarin, Arcade1Up's manager of marketing and communications, "as well as enter the esports arena with some of the huge collaborations we are currently working on with NBA and partners."

NBA Jam is the first Arcade1Up machine that is Wi-Fi-enabled, meaning players can compete against each other remotely. The company added this functionality, Turmell said, by integrating read-only memory firmware in the cabinet with Wi-Fi -- a "very impressive" feat in the eyes of the game's creator.

"If we could pull this off," Diamonon said, "we knew that this would make one of the best arcade games of all time even better."

It took a while for Arcade1Up to incorporate Wi-Fi into its cabinets, Pellarin said, because the company wanted to get it right.

"We needed to conduct extensive research into the development of this feature as well as conduct ample product testing to ensure users get the experience and playability they are looking for from the Arcade1Up brand," he said.

As far as smoothness of online play, the feedback has been good so far.

"We have gotten high praise from the current beta testers and early units in the marketplace about the gameplay being smooth and stable in various connection environments," said Andres Quiros, Arcade1Up's head of product development. "We tried to make our system as lean as possible to provide low-latency gameplay even with suboptimal Wi-Fi conditions. It will work on a 2.4G Wi-Fi network with speeds as low as .5 megabytes per second."

Quiros added that the network is currently set up for online play in North America, but there are plans to install regional servers in all major markets where the game launches.

Arcade 1Up has designs on developing and cultivating a competitive scene around online play. One advantage the company boasts is Diamonon himself, who prior to joining Arcade1Up worked at Capcom for more than a decade. During that time, he held the title of senior director of esports, which entailed running the business and operational efforts of the Capcom Pro Tour, GFinity Series, Red Bull tournaments and ELeague.

Diamonon's focus in that role was getting Street Fighter into the front of players' minds as a competitive game. Eleague aired on TBS and ended up becoming the seventh most-watched esports event on linear television in America in 2017, with a total viewership of 335,000-- of which an impressive 55% was in the more coveted 18-to-49 viewer age range.

"I think John was a serious force in trying to get it on the verge of an acceptable esport," longtime Street Fighter competitor Joe "LI Joe" Ciaramelli said. "He was very involved with ELeague, which was a great idea along with top-notch production. He also looked out for me on a personal level a few times. Nothing but love for that man."

So how does Diamonon view NBA Jam as an esport?

"Traditionally, esport games are generally current console or PC games with millions of concurrent users," Diamonon said, "so having a retro game from the early 1990s become a true esport is a huge challenge. That said, we also have seen the success of esports leagues like Madden and FIFA and feel that a game like NBA Jam has the potential to mirror that success. There's an appeal with one-versus-one esports leagues like Street Fighter and Rocket League in that you can feature the individual competitor's backstory and journey as opposed to traditional team sports."

Currently, there is no real established NBA Jam competitive scene, though there are some tournaments here and there that primarily occur at retro gaming conventions across the country. Those events have been small scale, though: Hal Hawkins, the founder of Retro World Series, one of the larger retro gaming tournaments in operation in the U.S., said the best turnout he's seen for a free NBA Jam tournament is around 20 people.

Retro esports in general might provide nostalgic value, but most haven't had staying power. Games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike are over a decade old, but they are the exception and in their infancy compared to in-person-only 1980s and '90s arcade releases like NBA Jam. League and Counter-Strike are also continuously updated and were born in an era when online play was the norm, not the exception.

The closest event exists to a sustainable retro esport is Classic Tetris, which operates a world championship once a year that typically gets tens of thousands of concurrent viewers on Twitch and millions of views on YouTube. However, the scene beyond is that is still growing, with monthly tournaments with viewership in the hundreds.

Sports game competitions are a bit different from traditional esports, though. They often do better on TV because they're easy to digest for a casual audience, and the people now watching cable are often the same ones who played NBA Jam and huddled around arcade machines as they grew up. That's why Arcade1Up sees an opportunity here, one whose biggest logistical barrier is eliminated by the Wi-Fi compatibility of its new cabinet.

Arcade1Up believes NBA Jam can cater to the older demographic who loved the game in the '90s as well as current NBA fans who want a little dose of nostalgia.

"We feel that this positioning would make this unique in the crowded esports industry," Diamonon said.

The company's first step is to foster the online community; as gameplay ramps up organically through its NBA Jam cabinet, the company hopes the competitive scene will, too.

"We are planning to have smaller community tournaments, then expand from there," said David McIntosh, Arcade1Up's director of marketing and communications. "Having prize pools is likely premature at this point, but we'd like our community to compete with their friends and inner circle and then feel comfortable to compete with the larger community from there.

"The idea is, we are bridging the gap between esports and Gen X and baby boomers. That is truly where our core demographic lies, but there is a natural overlap between the competitiveness with your friends online and an opportunity to earn money and claim the best in your region, just like you would do at your local arcade. We are trying to capture the best of both worlds and making it as fun and simple as possible, all in the comfort of your own home."

Once the community becomes active enough, Bachrach said, Arcade1Up will begin looking for sponsors, organizers or consultants as internal staff or external partners to help nurture and take the business to the next level.

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The vision also reaches beyond NBA Jam. Diamonon said he could see a world where Arcade1Up is the preeminent presenter of retro video game competitive events, through its machines.

"There really isn't an esport that features retro arcade gaming," he said. "Since we are bringing this genre to the mainstream, the natural extension and next step for this is to become an esport in arcade subgenres like sports and fighting games. We also want to put other nontraditional esports or competitive gaming in the forefront for classic retro games with speed run and high-score tournaments."

So, while it might be some time before the NBA Jam competitive scene starts "heating up," it does have potential.

What better way for people make back the money they spent paying for the cabinet in the first place?