In 1993, Midway released the game-changing arcade basketball title, NBA Jam. At the height of Michael Jordan mania and the NBA’s rise to global popularity, Jam was a defining sports game of the era. In this episode, lead designer Mark Turmell, along with author Reyan Ali and other Midway names, take you back to the arcade to learn how the $1 billion basketball hit swept the world.
JAMES PARKINSON: It’s 1992, in an arcade in Chicago’s Lake View neighbourhood, and a brand new game is making its debut “on test”. That is, an incomplete game that’s exposed to the public, to give developers an idea of how it will be received by players.
MARK TURMELL: We would do this all the time in the arcade business. You would get a game to maybe 50-60%. And you know, just to the point where it could collect coins, and you would bring it to a local arcade, you would wheel it in, one Friday night. And you would sit back and you know, just kind of watch.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Mark Turmell, and the game...NBA Jam.
Game Audio: “WELCOME TO NBA JAM!”
MARK TURMELL: And the first night, some player picked Utah Jazz, which had John Stockton and Karl Malone. And his opponent had another team.
Game Audio: “Tonight’s match-up: Jazz vs Cavaliers!”
MARK TURMELL: And I heard the kid say, you know, “don't even put it on the floor next to Stockton, he'll take it every time.” Because you know, Stockton was a great, quick point guard, you know, his steal is one of the all-time greats. And I looked at my friend and I said, “man, you know, there's no stats in this game, there's no distinction between Stockton and Shaq, in terms of, like, stealing”. And yet, the players were, you know, imagining that all those stats were there and everything mattered.
Game Audio: “At the buzzer...it’s good! Cavaliers win the game!”
MARK TURMELL: And so that night, I remember we went back, it was after midnight, and we implemented the four little stats that appeared under the mug shot at team select time, where we had speed, power, steel and three-point ability.
MARK TURMELL: And so we immediately put in that small UI, and then I embarked on adding all of these checks everywhere in the code, you know, over the next several weeks. And then that's the tuning that happened for the next few months. But the very first game that went out and my intent was to not have stats, and that was just silly in retrospect.
JAMES PARKINSON: The game had a lot going for it already, but these tweaks to the mechanics would take the fun and competitiveness of NBA Jam to the next level.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, a show about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: By the early 90s, the video game industry in the United States was slowly recovering from the market crash of the mid-80s. Home consoles were starting to dominate, thanks to Nintendo, but coin-op arcades still played a big role in American pop culture. Most of the big titles came out of Japan, as American companies adjusted to this new landscape. Midway was one of these companies, who spent much of the 80s licensing and distributing Japanese arcade games like Space Invaders and Pac Man. But by the end of the decade, they were developing more original games.
REYAN ALI: Midway was an arcade company over in Chicago that made tons of classic games. I mean, they had their hands in all kinds of different stuff. Rampage was one of their most famous games.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Reyan Ali, author of the book NBA Jam.
REYAN ALI: And at that point, they were creating some games in the States, but it was still a pretty small division. And there was this one team, in particular, these developers named Brian Colin and Jeff Nauman, who made this game called arch Arch Rivals. Now, they were also the developers of Xenophobe, of Demolition Derby, some other late 80s arcade games. And they made all kinds of different games for different genres, but sometime in the late 80s, they were trying to come up with what the idea would be for their next game, and one of them decided that they should do a basketball game. So they made this simple basketball game called Arch Rivals, that ended up being a big hit. And what's funny is that they were working on it at this company called Midway, that was then acquired by Williams during the development of the game.
JAMES PARKINSON: Midway had been owned by another company called Bally since 1969, who manufactured pinball machines. Williams Electronics then purchased Bally/Midway, as they were known, in 1988. This group is often referred to as Williams Bally/Midway. But for simplicity, I’ll just call them Midway from here.
REYAN ALI: So they released this game, it was a simple two-on-two basketball game. Very different in style from NBA Jam. But you know, there were all those key trademarks over there, at least you can see glimmers of them. You know, the pace of the play was very fast, there's kind of this lighthearted feel, and it was definitely a quarter muncher. So yes, this game did really well. And there was this possibility of it being a four player game, because of its success, but Nauman and Colin didn't want to make a four player game. Arch Rivals was a two player game, and that was that. And then around the same time, Mark Turmell came along, and he started working on several games over at Williams Bally/Midway.
MARK TURMELL: Yeah, I started at Midway back in 1989. And I've always been a fan of the arcade games, you know, coin operated games. And so I went out and joined them, with the intent of making a dual joystick shooter game, which turned out to be Smash TV. Robotron is my favourite game of all time, so I came out and worked on that.
JAMES PARKINSON: Mark Turmell broke into the industry after programming his own games for the Apple II as a teenager in his basement. He then developed titles for the Atari 2600, and worked for Hasbro Electronics, before arriving at Midway. Working alongside Robotron creator, Eugene Jarvis, Smash TV was his first entry in the coin-op business. It was based around a violent dystopian game show, where you play as a contestant who has to shoot their way through fellow challengers, in order to survive and ultimately win the game. The next title Mark worked on was Total Carnage, which was a similar directional shooter, before he got the chance to take the lead on one of Midway’s next big games, a return to the sports genre.
MARK TURMELL: Well, I've always been a big NBA fan, a basketball fan, I'm a big sports fan, just generally. But back in that era, you know, 1989-1990, that was really the dawn of digitised graphics. You know, there were no digital cameras, you didn't have the ability to kind of record things and put it onto a digital screen. And so that was the very beginning of taking, you know, we would take videotape and run it through a digitiser that would create frames, and we'd put it on the screen. And it was like, “wow, you know, look at that, that's a photograph right there on my computer screen, albeit, a low resolution and low color fidelity. But it was the dawn of that era, that technology. So we were more-so geeking out on what is a great application for digitised imagery. And that's how, like, Ed Boon and the Mortal Kombat team, John Tobias - John is a great artist. But the technology of digitising fighters to actually record a real character, a human and then put it into the game was a driving force to the game. And so likewise, with sports, that's a natural fit, to have players running around. It wasn't an NBA-planned game, right off the bat, I just assumed that that license would be too hard to acquire, too expensive. So we recorded athletes, just local, that I found on the streets of Chicago. So, it really grew out of geeking out on digitised graphics.
JAMES PARKINSON: The team that worked on NBA Jam was pretty small, compared to many dev teams today at similar sized companies. But they were a fairly tight-knit and collaborative group. Here’s Reyan.
REYAN ALI: It was a great office to work in. In that way. Everybody was very open with their ideas, they would criticise stuff. Turmell has always regarded himself as the referee of the development process. You know, he sees himself as the person in the middle who's figuring out what are the good ideas and where the bad ideas. And NBA Jam was one of the big times where he really got to showcase his leadership skills over there. Because he's going back and forth between these different ideas. He was definitely happy to delegate too. So yeah, it was a really interesting office in the way that you know, they were surrounded by video games, they all loved video games, they're all very into the idea of this. Just a handful of basketball fans on the team. So yeah, they ultimately wanted to make a really good arcade game, there were some sports fans and non-sports fans. But the end-goal of the project was always putting together a really fun arcade game, above all, whether it would appeal to sports fans or not.
JAMES PARKINSON: In addition to Mark Turmell as the Lead Designer, the team also included artists Tony Goskie, Sal DiVita and John Carlton, Composer and Sound Designer Jon Hey, and programmers Jamie Rivett and Shawn Liptak.
SHAWN LIPTAK: My name is Shawn Liptak, and I’m a computer programmer. I’ve been working in the video game industry for right about 30 years now.
SHAWN LIPTAK: Mark and I worked well together, because it was just him and I on Total Carnage. And he's a programmer, but really at heart, he's more a game designer than he is a programmer. So technically, Mark and I fit together well, because he always dreamed big, and had lots of ideals and stuff. And I typically was like, the technical person who was like, “Well, if we do it like this, it'll be even better”, and “we should do it like this.” And I didn't care as much about the design overall, like the gameplay, as like, just make it fun and cool and I'm okay.
SHAWN LIPTAK: I didn't care anything about basketball. I was like, “Why do you want to do a sports game?”. But Mark basically sold me on it. He was like, “oh, this could be a great success”, and basically just convinced me that this would be a smart thing to do, like, this could be very successful. And you know, and I was like, “okay”.
SHAWN LIPTAK: So he would worry about like, “Oh, we need all these dunks”, and you know, all this cool stuff, and all these different moves and all the bigger design type stuff. And I was over there worrying about all the technical stuff of, like, “how are we going to pull all this off and make it all work and get the programming done?”. So even though back then we didn't have titles like we have now on teams, typically, we were just programmers, and there were artists, and there was a sound guy. That's literally how we describe the entire team. And it so happened that our sound designer, Jon Hey, he was, like, a basketball geek too. So he would come down and play the game all the time and tell us what he liked and didn't like and that's how the whole team really was. We all just played it and argued and, “this was too slow, too fast, you’ve got to change this”, and we had some good, lively debates, but that's how the whole game was developed was, like just literally arguing about what's fun or not - “Well, you should do this. Well, I don't know”, and we went back and forth like that for a year.
MARK TURMELL: All the ideas kind of would go on to, you know, the table, so to speak, and I would kind of keep the things that I thought were the highest value. And so there was a lot of lobbying, a lot of people saying, you know, do this, don't do that, this sucks. And that's what makes a great game is when you have everybody engaged in being able to get their ideas into the game. And so while we couldn't do everything, and you know, some things would drop off the table, it was a really collaborative effort.
JAMES PARKINSON: Mark’s vision for NBA Jam was clear. It would take some inspiration from Arch Rivals, in that it was a two-on-two basketball game, but it would also go far beyond what people expected from a typical sports game or the era. This was an approach the Midway team called “exaggerated reality”.
MARK TURMELL: I'm not a fan of sim-style games, you know, dealing with all the numbers and you know, the subtleties of a simulation sports video game. And, and being a big arcade fan, you know, kind of the natural over the top approach was there from day one, you know, lickety split on the movement, you know, turn around 180 degrees in one frame kind of thing. And so that was just the mindset of, you know, playing video games.
JAMES PARKINSON: Mark wanted NBA Jam to be fast and exciting, so that when you walk by the cabinet in the arcade, you can’t help but put it in a couple of quarters and give it a try. And this manifested in those wild design elements that NBA Jam became known for. Players leaping high into the air for huge superhuman dunks, long three-pointers and downtown shooting, and the ability to push and shove your opponent. Balancing the gameplay was also important too, ensuring it was always a compelling experience for the player.
MARK TURMELL: That’s the most important part in any of these games, is the tuning that happens. The amount of time that I spend noodling with numbers for deflected passes or you know, bank shots or errant passes, air balls, the speeds, you know, the pushing, the variety and the animations, the launching points. the distances. And then eventually the CPU assistants, which would rubber band and try to keep the game tighter. I spent so much time, I mean, probably worked 18 hours a day, just tweaking once the game was all playable. Just tweaking numbers over and over and playing it non stop. And that's really critical, especially in these sports games, but I mean, in all genres, fighting. It's just so important to have the right tuning. So it was top of mind, then and it's still that way today.
JAMES PARKINSON: This mechanic known as “rubber-banding”, which Mark coded into the game, was perhaps the most important component to the gameplay. Here’s Reyan Ali.
REYAN ALI: And this is, if you ask me, is one of NBA Jam’s most brilliant moves. And this is one of the reasons that people still love to play NBA Jam. So there was an idea with an NBA Jam of this “rubber banding” mechanic, which was I believe, the way that it was described was that there are two different players that were connected by a rubber band. Like, imagine the two teams were connected by one rubber band, and as one moves farther away from the other, the other one will slowly, in turn, catch up too. So in the event that, let's say you're leading in a game, and you're just demolishing your opponent, your opponent will eventually be able to catch up, based on this rubber banding effect. And this created seesaw games. So unless you're a super skilled NBA Jam player, you're going to end up playing games that are going to end up with, you know, just maybe a couple points difference, if that. And those nail biters were such a huge part of NBA Jam’s appeal, because people would get so invested in the idea of this game. And you know, rubber-banding was really one of Mark Turmell’s master strokes.
JAMES PARKINSON: Another contributing factor was one of NBA Jam’s most memorable features, “On Fire” mode.
MARK TURMELL: When we got the game running, we were playing back and forth. And there was just something missing. And I was walking, I had one of the best engineers, in fact, I still work with him today, his name is Jamie Rivett. I actually brought him in from Melbourne, grew up there in Australia, and he did a Smash TV port to the Super Nintendo, and that's how we met. And we were walking to Burger King every day at lunch. And, you know, we were just lamenting the fact that there's something missing. And then he had the idea. He said, “well, why don't we have some kind of a ‘fire mode’, like an overpowered mode, where players can aspire to get on to it, and then it, you know it amps everything up. And we immediately recognised that that was just a fabulous suggestion. And over the course of that lunch, we kind of blocked out the, you know, ‘make three shots in a row’, you know, be ‘heating up’, be able to goal tend when you're on defence. You know, high percentage on scoring, add smoke trails to the ball. That aspect of the game really became key, of course, because it does change everything. You can be down, and now you can get “on fire” and come from behind. When you're “heating up”, it changes the behaviour of the defensive team, to try to prevent a particular player from catching on fire, because it was so powerful. And then of course, it impacted the UI with flames around your name and the effects. And that's what really led us to making more exaggerated dunks. So when you are “on fire”, we thought, “Hey, you know, we could amp up the excitement of the move”. And then we did that, and that kind of felt so good, that we sprinkled that in even more, when not “on fire”. And so it was really that walk to lunch, over to Burger King, that changed the game pretty dramatically.
JAMES PARKINSON: The inclusion of stats, as Mark mentioned earlier, was woven into all of this too, once the game was on test. And adding to NBA Jam’s appeal were the visuals. The digitised graphics were pretty revolutionary for the time, and the TV broadcast presentation complemented that as well. Here’s Shawn Liptak.
SHAWN LIPTAK: It did this, like, scrolling perspective effect. But in reality, that was a 2D game, it had a 2D graphics chip in it. And in order to scroll the court like that, we were having to move each line independently, each horizontal line of the court was scrolled separately, to give you that perspective, that parallax scrolling. And that was something I saw in Street Fighter, one of the Street Fighter games, and I was like, “oh, look how they move the floor on the ground there”. Because Street Fighter, that was a 2D game back then too. So I knew, “Oh, yeah, they're just scrolling the lines at separate speeds to give you that effect”. So I was like, “Oh, we could do that, too”. And that was one of the things Mark had said to me, like, “just think, if we work on this basketball game, you could make the court really cool”, and that was the kind of stuff he used to sell me on, working on the game. I was like, “Yeah, I could do that”. And so I ran off and did it.
JAMES PARKINSON: And you couldn’t have a broadcast presentation without an announcer.
Game Audio: “He’s on fire! From downtown! Great shot”
TIM KITZROW: Hi everyone, Tim Kitzrow here from NBA Jam.
JAMES PARKINSON: Tim Kitrow was a regular around the Midway office. He was friends with a couple of sound engineers, from playing in bands, and wound up recording voice overs for Midway’s pinball games. So when the NBA Jam team were looking for a basketball commentator, they knew who to turn to.
TIM KITZROW: People always ask me, “Did you know it was going to be hit?”, you know, “was there pressure? Did they audition other people?”. No, they didn't audition anyone else. It was just a couple guys in the back of the factory, in the little sound room. And we put the whole thing together. They just said, “yeah, give us - we need audio”. So Jon Hey, the guy who composed that great music score for NBA Jam, he was also in charge of hiring the talent, writing the script and putting the sound effects in.
JAMES PARKINSON: Tim’s NBA Jam persona was inspired by long-time NBA announcer, Marv Albert. Many of the lines were similar to what you might hear on a typical broadcast in the 80s or 90s. Some phrases were improvised, and other lines scripted around the various gameplay features. However, Tim also put his own flavour on things, giving much needed energy to those now iconic catchphrases.
TIM KITZROW: HE’S HEATING UP, HE’S ON FIRE! BOOMSHAKALAKA!
TIM KITZROW: And what I would do is, I would go into my head, you know, my acting training taught me to act with objectives and purpose and to have an inner life. So you know, there was improv. So yeah, there was improv where, you know, any session I do with sports, we all have a thousand things we've heard, in our head, from watching millions of telecasts. So things will just blurt out. But you know, that call, when it's done right and it's in the game, that's what gets people going. So trying to maintain that integrity, no matter how long a script is, how tired you are, to stay in that moment, is one of the things I pride myself in and realise that it's essential for making a good game.
MARK TURMELL: Well, I mean Tim's amazing, he's a genius. He's so quick witted, he’s always willing to iterate and improve and take feedback. And so he was friends with a couple of the sound engineers. And so, Jon Hey, he said, “Hey, I'm gonna bring Tim in. We're going to record some VO, we have all these NBA names that need to be called, with different inflections, you know. So Jon said, “hey, let's make a category”, you know, “give me - where do you want sound calls”. And so we created just a list of, you know, “big dunk”, “stolen pass”, “deflection”, “three-pointer”, you know, blocks. And so it was the obvious kind of categories that we needed to record samples in. And when Tim went into the studio, he would just ad lib. So would start with, “get that out of here”, and he would go from there. And it was magic, you know, immediately.
Game Audio: “No good!”
MARK TURMELL: It turned out, of course, to be one of the calling cards of the game, whether it be the “Boomshakalaka”, or “He's on fire”, it was a key component to the game.
TIM KITZROW: GET THAT STUFF OUTTA HERE! IS IT THE SHOES?!
JAMES PARKINSON: NBA Jam had all the makings of an arcade classic. But the final ingredient that elevated everything? The NBA. After the break, how Midway secured the NBA licence, on its way to $1 billion dollars in quarters. That’s next, on Gameplay.
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JAMES PARKINSON: In the early 90s, licensed sports games weren’t really a thing. As Mark Turmell explained earlier, he wasn’t hopeful of getting the rights to use the NBA name, so the project wasn’t even called NBA Jam initially.
MARK TURMELL: I do have an early sheet of the ideas and the control schemes, the mechanics that were intended. And on that I actually had it called Showtime, which eventually, I did a game called NBA Showtime a few years later. But Showtime was the original name, even before the NBA was involved. But then, eventually NBA Jam was my first thought, when we got the NBA license.
JAMES PARKINSON: As development got underway, Midway were actively pursuing a deal with the NBA, but it took some time to convince them.
MARK TURMELL: We put together a video in that first month or so that we had started to develop the game. You know, we had a couple of guys running back and forth on the screen, the ball was kind of glitching down to the ground and back up to their hands. And we put together a presentation, you know, “hey, we're making a basketball game, we would like to have the NBA license. There's this new digitised technology. Here's an example of how good a player can look”. But it was just our local athletes. But you could see flesh tone and lighting. And you could see it was a digitised image, versus a hand-drawn game, which is all they were used to. And we sent it to them, and we got a response back pretty quickly, about a week, that said they were declining the opportunity, because they did not want their NBA logo to be displayed in arcades. And we had a licensing guy at Williams Bally/Midway there, Roger Sharpe, and he called them up. He said, “what, what do you mean?”. And the guy there, in charge of licensing at the NBA said, “Well, we have this arcade, right here in Times Square, that has a lot of rough things happening there”. I think there's probably drug sales and they're open 24 hours, and it's kind of a rough place. “And we don't want to put our logo right there in the midst of that”. And so we realised what the problem was. And while, no doubt, that arcade was rather rough, and there were others, the majority of arcades in the country were more family entertainment centres and the bowling alleys and Aladdin's Castles and, you know, things in malls. And so we put together a video that more accurately represented the arcade business of that day. And included, of course, families playing, skee-ball, and kids playing pinball machines, in nice family entertainment centres. And we sent that off. And luckily, they responded, and said, “okay, we get it”. And surprisingly, we got the deal, we got the license, and they were supportive. They tried to send us any materials that we thought would be helpful. Some photos, things like that. And so it was a “no” at the start, and then it became a “yes”.
JAMES PARKINSON: By the time NBA Jam was on test in Chicago arcades, its cabinet was adorned with the orange dotted pattern of a basketball, and the instantly recognisable red, white and blue NBA logo. The heads of real NBA players were also then put into the game, using the same digitised process, replacing the faces of the local basketball players from earlier builds.
JAMES PARKINSON: Game development can often be a long process, but remarkably, NBA Jam was completed in just 10 months.
MARK TURMELL: The 10-month timeframe was key, because inside Midway, we would get, like 50% more royalties, if you got it out in 10 months, versus 12 months kind of thing. And so we were rushing to get to that stage. But we played the game, in my office, just non-stop, we would tweak some things. I would call over Jon Hey, who was doing the sounds, I would call over Sal DiVita, who was working on art. We would always have games running. And we were big gamblers, I'm a big gambler. And so we would be playing for either cash or vending machine products, you know, anything we could. And so during those last three or four months, the game was just being played non-stop, and I tweaked it, non-stop, I would pause, fix it, call people back, play it. Pause, fix it, call people back. And so that was kind of the daily routine, to improve it.
JAMES PARKINSON: NBA Jam was introduced at the NBA’s All Star Weekend in February 1993, ahead of its official release in April that year. And it was the beginning of something special. Here’s Reyan.
REYAN ALI: The NBA Jam team always believed in the game, and they had a good feeling that it was going to do well. But then at the NBA All Star Weekend 1993, in Salt Lake City, the NBA had shipped out some NBA Jam cabinets to put on site for fans to play this All Star weekend. And when the Midway representatives saw that people were lining up to play the game over here. And these passionate NBA fans loved it, not just those arcade players in Chicago, you know, they really knew it was something special then. And in fact, that was when the NBA recognised that NBA Jam could really be big.
MARK TURMELL: In the coin-op business, if you can get somebody to put quarters in, reach into their pocket, go to the cash machine, the change machine and put money in, that's really telling, it's very democratic, whether you like it or not. And so we saw this time and time again, as we would develop games out of the Chicago studio, where some would roll in, and you know, people just walk right by it, they just don't get engaged, they play it once and they walk away. Another game would go in, and then you've got a line of people putting quarters on the cabinet. And that happens the first night, it is truly amazing. And in the case of NBA Jam, you know, they saw it, they recognise, like, “oh, wow, look at this NBA”, and they put their money down, and it was an expensive game, it was a 50 cents per period game. And, you know, $2 for a full game. And so we knew instantly, that it was going to be a hit.
JAMES PARKINSON: When Jam was rolling out into the arcades in Chicago, there was a part of Mark that was skeptical about whether the game would resonate beyond the city. This was the early 90s, at the height of Michael Jordan mania, and the same year the Chicago Bulls completed a Championship 3-peat. So Mark travelled to LA, to gauge how the game was going elsewhere.
MARK TURMELL: And the same thing was happening in LA, in Westwood, except that the players were picking the Lakers. And so it really was that moment, where I said to myself, “wow, this is going to happen in every NBA city, at the very least. And this is going to happen around the country”. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened. And so that was the moment where I realised that we had something special.
JAMES PARKINSON: In its first year, NBA Jam made $1 billion, in the arcades alone, which is just incredible.
REYAN ALI: A billion dollars, one quarter/token at a time. Which is just crazy to think about. But that was just the level of excitement there was for the game. I mean, people were writing NBA Jam strategy guides, there were all these little arcade rivalries being built up for it. Mark Turmell talked about fistfights happening over NBA Jam. But due to a combination of that game’s really appealing license, and the fact that it was such a great game itself. People were so interested in playing it, that NBA Jam’s success, just hit a completely different level.
REYAN ALI: Making $1 billion with an arcade game is very hard to do, especially in the timeframe that NBA Jam did it in. And just to contextualise it, what that meant was that not only did this game reach a certain level of criteria, that meant that Mark Turmell would be paid more, you know, a certain royalty level that was just so sky high, nobody really thought that you could get there. You know, NBA Jam got there, and then, Mark Turmell managed to reap some of the benefits of that. But it actually made more money than Mortal Kombat. And of course, Mortal Kombat was everywhere in 1992. And to think NBA Jam came in on top of that was just crazy.
JAMES PARKINSON: NBA Jam had it all. Great visuals, awesome sound, and compelling and highly competitive gameplay to match. But the official NBA license is what helped its popularity soar.
MARK TURMELL: Oh, I mean, it had to be, 70%, 80% of the success probably. That's at the same time that the number one movie of all time had come out, Jurassic Park, was obviously known around the world. And that was like a $300 million box office. And so when you think about 4 billion quarters going in, to play those games, to make $1 billion in revenue, it just touched so many people.
JAMES PARKINSON: The game was also popular with NBA players, something that Mark took a lot of joy from, being such a huge basketball fan himself.
MARK TURMELL: And so I immediately started getting feedback that, “hey, how come I'm not in the game? How come this guy's not in the game?”. And so there became, kind of a communication channel into Midway. And one in particular was Gary Payton, who didn't make the cut. He was a rookie that year. I knew of him from, I believe he played at Berkeley. So I was aware of him as a player, and he was good, but he was a rookie, I didn't know if he was gonna pan out. And he did, of course, he became a superstar in his first year. So he was mad, right off the bat, that he wasn't in the game. He sent me all of his photos to get put into the game. And we eventually did that. But the best story was probably in the first month of the game being released. We got contacted from the distributor in Orlando, and said that Shaq wanted to buy two games.
JAMES PARKINSON: For the non-sports fans, that’s Shaquille O'Neal.
MARK TURMELL: And this is a crazy story, what they did. This is the beginning, where a lot of teams started to buy their own private jets to fly two or three times a week, as they were traveling. And so the Orlando Magic had recently purchased their team jet. And they brought one of the NBA Jam cabinets onto the jet. And it traveled with them on the road, and they would wheel it up into Shaq's hotel suite. And the players, instead of going out and partying or clubbing, they would go in - and I eventually talked to him a year or so later and he said, “yeah, it just became this big gambling circumstance, where everybody would come in and we would just plays as each other on the teams”. And even the opposing team would come in, the night before the game or after the game and play. And so they kept one at home and then they kept one on the road. And so that's probably the best kind of NBA connected story that came out of it.
JAMES PARKINSON: The league’s biggest player though was actually missing from NBA Jam entirely.
REYAN ALI: Well, when the Midway team was originally designing NBA Jam, and they were asking the NBA for them to sign off on the players that they wanted for the game, of course they asked for Michael Jordan. But you know, the reality was that Michael Jordan's branding, rather his licensing was separate from the rest of the league's. Now, if you wanted to get a game featuring Michael Jordan, you had to go through Michael Jordan. And in that case, you were talking about paying a whole lot more money. And for Midway, that just wasn't feasible at the time. So they scrapped the idea of Michael Jordan being in the game. And then, lo and behold, NBA Jam became so popular that somebody from Michael Jordan's camp actually reached out to Midway, to ask them to make a special version of the game that featured Michael in it. So Michael Jordan went from not appearing in NBA Jam because of this licensing/money issue, to wanting to be in the game because the game was so big. So the developers of Midway heard this, and of course, they said, “Yeah, we'll make a special version for him”. So they created a special version of NBA Jam. They then shipped it on over to Michael Jordan's place. So Michael Jordan's real connection to NBA Jam went from it being an urban legend that he was maybe hidden in the game, to the actual version of the game being made, that was just for him, that still, unfortunately, hasn't seen the light of day.
JAMES PARKINSON: NBA Jam has had its fair share of rumours and myths that have circulated amongst fans over the years, regarding various cheat codes and hidden secrets in the game. Many of them, like the appearance of Michael Jordan, weren’t true. But they were likely fuelled by the ones that were, like secret playable celebrity characters, and Big Head Mode.
SHAWN LIPTAK: Oh, and then the other one that was actually like, this was really a goofy thing that just happened. There was this hidden tank game in NBA Jam.
JAMES PARKINSON: Again, this is programmer, Shawn Liptak.
SHAWN LIPTAK: So I'm the one who wrote that. And I did that as just a fun side project in the middle of the summer. We were about halfway through the game. And we had these guys who were working on a 3D graphics chip, of our own. And so I was just messing around, and 3D graphics had always fascinated me. So I was like, “I wonder, I could draw triangles on the screen. You just need to be able to draw triangles”. So I'd figured out a way to use our graphics chip, the scaling of the graphics chip, to just draw an arbitrary line across the screen. And then I would draw a whole series of them, to fill in a triangle. Well, that's turned into the tank game, because I've always liked tanks and little crappy ‘drive around, shoot each other’ type things. So I just turned that into this little tank game. I was literally just a graphics demo or whatever. So then it was basically just done or whatever. But at some point, by the end of the project, we were like, “Oh, we could make that a hidden easter egg”, kind of thing. So that's when we put in the whole, if you push the stick a certain way, and the buttons, it would launch you into the tank game. And you had to do it right before the game screen loaded.
JAMES PARKINSON: Another glitch was actually completely unintentional, experienced by Mark and some of the Midway team, but it led to an urban legend about ghost stories around NBA Jam.
MARK TURMELL: Yeah, super spooky. When the first NBA Jam came out, New Jersey had a player, you know Dražen Petrović, that made the roster, made the cut. And he was a really great player. And, you know, he died there in that era, must have been in ‘93 or so. And we took him out of the game. And we put in, you know, the next player. As we advanced, we went into NBA Jam Tournament Edition and expanded the roster. But we would have arcade games in our warehouse. You know, at night, we were working till you know, one to three am and we would walk through the factory where they're building the games, building the pinball machines. In every once in a while. The game would just scream out, “Petrovich”, you know, “Petrovich!”. And it was really crazy and everybody started to hear it. And there was no reason for it. And so it was kind of spooky, as part of that story.
JAMES PARKINSON: Petrović’s death in a road accident in June, 1993 was sudden and shook the NBA at the time, so you can understand the eerie feeling the Midway team experienced, as the game was taking off that summer. But Shawn Liptak may have an explanation.
SHAWN LIPTAK: That is weird. I've actually never heard of that. Although I do kind of remember the soundboard, because it was its own little board that had its own processor on it. And it was, like a separate little computer. That I think did occasionally have a few - some little bit of glitchiness, were like it would sometimes make sound calls that I wasn't supposed to. So that's probably the same thing. It's probably a variation of that.
JAMES PARKINSON: Jam arrived at a time when the NBA was experiencing huge growth, both in the United States and around the world. The Bulls were dominating and Jordan fever swept the globe. That excitement certainly contributed to the game’s success, but in turn, NBA Jam also boosted the popularity of basketball. Here’s Mark.
MARK TURMELL: And I've had a lot of people over the years, especially younger kids, that said, “You know, I was never really into the NBA. I was not a fan, until I started playing NBA Jam. And then it led me into being a fan of the NBA”. And so, it seems crazy to think, but I think in some small fashion, NBA Jam actually did inflect the popularity of the NBA. And I really believe that it had a positive impact on the NBA, just generally.
REYAN ALI: NBA Jam was the just the perfect storm of ideas at the right time. And because of its success, I think it really opened a lot of people's eyes to what the NBA was too. So aside from it being a great game, it introduced a lot of people to basketball. In fact, I'm one of them. The very first time I really remember ever paying attention to the NBA, was because of an NBA Jam Tournament Edition ad on the back of a comic book. And that love, rather that interest in that comic book then led me to try NBA Jam. And I loved it. And then I got into the NBA because of that. And stories like this are actually not that far fetched. I mean, there's people out there that are only going to recognise Detlef Schrempf from the Seattle SuperSonics because he was in NBA Jam. And there's certain players that are going to live in history because of that. So, the game’s effect was just really widespread. And I don't think it was something that, you know, Mark Turmell, even in his wildest fantasies, never thought that NBA Jam would hit the levels that it did.
JAMES PARKINSON: NBA Jam was swiftly ported to Super Nintendo, SEGA Genesis and handheld consoles in ‘93, before its sequel, Tournament Edition hit the arcades in 1994. And its success saw Midway become a leader in arcade-style sports games, with series like NFL Blitz, NHL Hits, and MLB Slugfest. And NBA Jam maintained a trend of intermittent releases through the 90s and early 2000s when Acclaim, the publisher of the home console versions, obtained full rights to the NBA Jam name in 1996. Eventually, Acclaim went bankrupt in 2004, as did Midway in 2009, and the rights were then acquired by EA, who went on to publish a reimagining of NBA Jam in 2010 for mobile and consoles, which Mark Turmell consulted on.
MARK TURMELL: And so I joined EA when Midway melted down and quickly after that, the team in Vancouver, they have a lot of the sports you know efforts happen in the Vancouver studio, including their FIFA Soccer. And they said “hey, we’re gonna pick up and do this NBA Jam”. And so being an employee and you know, being in the sports division, I flew out to Vancouver and stepped through the game and stepped through all of the little secrets, those camera modes, the timing, the percentages and the things that I had done previous, and went through all that. So I’m really proud of the team, they did a really good job, you know, reviving the brand, the game, and so I'm grateful for that.
JAMES PARKINSON: Unlike many of the big sports franchises, NBA Jam has never had annual editions, which doesn’t really work for arcade-style games anyway. But despite that, Jam continues to remain relevant. In 2020, Arcade1Up, who make 4 foot arcade cabinets with modern displays and sound, released an NBA Jam machine, for that classic arcade experience. And the company even has plans to bring Jam to Esports tournaments in the future. It’s a testament to just how good NBA Jam is.
SHAWN LIPTAK: I think it really comes down to the core mechanics of that game, because if you look at it, so many games are all flash. And it's just kind of like “yeah, those graphics look nice, but so what?”. I tend to have a very pretty high bar when it comes to games. And I've seen every type of game over the years, all manner of things and it's hard to impress me. And a lot of stuff I look at it, a lot of things are just very shallow. You play them for like, an hour and I'm like, “yeah, I'm bored. This is not fun”. And it always comes back to, you gotta make your game fun. If it's not a fun mechanic that you like repeating and doing, you're not going to spend the time on the product, you're not going to tell your friends, it's not going to become successful. And NBA Jam, I can look at it now and go like, “yeah, the graphics are dated and it looks kind of simple and stuff”, but as soon as you start playing that game, it's just fun.
MARK TURMELL: And then you when you do combine it with those catchphrases, the “Boomshakalaka” type things, then it just becomes even more memorable. But at the end of the day, I have to say that the game was fun. You know, if the game hadn't been fun, none of that would have happened. You wouldn't have the billion dollars, you wouldn't have the 6 million cartridges, it just wouldn't have happened. So it still boils down to, you know, the stories I always hear from now grownups say, “Yeah, I played with my brother, I used to beat my dad, you know, I couldn't beat my friend”. You know, “I became a grand champion, I beat all 30 teams”. You know, just the competition in the families, that's what also makes it connect and be memorable.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks so much to Reyan Ali, Tim Kitzrow, Mark, Turmell and Shawn Liptak. Reyan's book, NBA Jam is available now from Boss Fight Books. There is much more to the story that we couldn't fit into the episode, so I encourage you to check it out. It's an excellent read. And this is only Part 1 of our series on NBA Jam. On the next episode, the story of Tim Kitzrow, the voice of NBA Jam. We get into Tim's early days in acting and improv, how the "Boomshakalaka" catchphrase came about, and how he forged a career in video games as an iconic voice over artist.
JAMES PARKINSON: The song you're hearing right now is called ‘He's on Fire’ by BoomBaptist, from the NBA Jam-inspired album, Boom Shakalaka. You can pick it up on Bandcamp, and there's a link to that in the episode description and on our website, gameplay.co.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Epidemic Sound and Breakmaster Cylinder.
JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. And come and join our Discord, where you can talk games with me and your listeners. And if you’d like an ad-free feed of the show, become a Gameplay Member. You’ll find a link to join, plus episode transcripts and further reading on our website, gameplay.co. Thanks for listening.
• NBA Jam (the book), by Reyan Ali
• NBA Jam esports? Arcade1Up hopes to make it happen
• DJ Jazzy Jeff and George Clinton recall becoming NBA Jam hidden characters
• Album: Boom Shakalaka by BoomBaptist