Imagining New Twists on ‘NBA Jam’
NBA gaming is heavily concentrated on the NBA 2K series these days. The series isn’t perfect, but it’s settled on a formula that works, and which can be updated in minor ways with each annual release. Recently though, the folks at 2K unveiled a fairly major new feature, revealing that players will be able to pursue hip-hop side careers in NBA 2K22.
Save for the decision to incorporate the WNBA more heavily a couple years ago, this is the biggest twist in the series in a while, and it got us thinking about how other basketball games could also be updated. That pretty much means NBA Jam, which despite being a retro arcade game is almost certainly the most popular basketball game outside of the 2K series today.
The game has been updated throughout the years, both with new versions of the same beloved, over-the-top, high-flying concept, and with transitions to new formats (such as the creation of the NBA Jam app). But what could this series still deliver that would be new?
A Huge Console Game
It’s kind of bizarre, really, that there hasn’t been a major console evolution for NBA Jam. That doesn’t mean you can’t play the series via console; you absolutely can. When you do, however, you’re basically playing a version of the old arcade game that you happen to be using a console controller for.
That’s perfectly fine, and the console versions do look a little more modern (which some may not even like given the love for the retro original). But these adaptations are still lacking in scope. What would really be interesting would be the creation of a console-based NBA Jam involving gigantic rosters of players, uniform and accessory (and even stadium) customization, multiplayer tournaments and leagues, and so on. Basically, there ought to be game that falls somewhere in between 2K and NBA Jam.
Virtual reality sports games haven’t really gotten off the ground in a big way, and even a fairly optimistic take on VR basketball at VR Scout makes the games look pretty weird. Though there are some titles that appear to be promising, they by and large consist of armless animations, blocky graphics, and relatively little resembling real basketball. Not to mention they have no licensed content or NBA connection.
So why not try an NBA Jam adaptation to spice things up a bit? This could go one of two ways. First, it could work like other VR basketball games, allowing players to embody NBA legends and soar through the air for monster dunks. More feasibly though, it could also mean jumping into a virtual arena to control players as if from the stands — essentially making a regular NBA Jam game feel like a lived experience. The latter, frankly, sounds amazing.
Slots may not come to mind if you’re not used to them, but the truth is that today’s slot ecosystem has come to include a massive array of themes and mini-games that makes a basketball game a pretty good fit. From some of the earliest games of the modern slot revolution (when the games got good, basically) to today, there have even been a lot of sports-related or sports-adjacent titles. Playtech, one of the biggest developers in the genre, has produced titles based on soccer and ice hockey; NetEnt has similarly worked in soccer, racing, and horse racing themes. Foxy Games makes perhaps the clearest statement, working in sports titles despite a broader focus on more fantastical and adventurous themes. Amidst games involving ancient pyramids and off-the-map explorers, there are still games that deal with racing, horse racing, and martial arts — showing that there’s always a place for sport in slots.
Now combine this with aforementioned mini-games and you can quickly start to get the idea. We’re imagining an NBA Jam slot reel in which certain slot outcomes result in the chance to throw down a high-flying dunk for bonus cash, or a challenge to win two minutes of regular NBA Jam against automated opponents to double winnings. There’s simply no way this wouldn’t be a hit.
Finally there’s the potential for an NCAA version, which has been made possible by the recent shift in policy regarding NIL. For those who haven’t followed the issue, NIL stands for “Name, Image, Likeness,” and it basically means that college athletes can now profit off of commercial ventures using their identities. Per Polygon, this means video games are now on the table, and while much of the focus regarding this issue has fallen on the potential for an NCAA football game, basketball games will undoubtedly be released also.
That will likely mean a straightforward NCAA basketball game before anything else. But an NCAA version of NBA Jam would be a huge hit with fans also, and would enable millions of passionate college basketball followers to play with their favorite stars. Plus, if classic players were involved, there might even be a way to retroactively pay some older college players for their likenesses (though we can’t say for sure that’s how it would work). Who wouldn’t enjoy picking a Duke duo of Christian Laettner and Zion Williamson to go up against Michael Jordan and Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina? Or what about a Kentucky squad of John Wall and Anthony Davis versus Gilbert Arenas and DeAndre Ayton from Arizona? You get the idea…. This would be another guaranteed hit.
In the end, NBA Jam is timeless, and small updates will always keep it going. It’s hard to imagine the original concept falling out of favor. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be able to enjoy some fun new twists on the concept though, and the suggestions above would all do well with the basketball gaming community.