Article 44—NBA JAM NBA license pitch video (1992)

Midway’s NBA JAM ruled the arcades during the summer of ’93. Millions of people—myself included—pumped token after token into its coin slot, trying to decipher its cryptic secret codes and searching for the hidden “hot spots” on the court where a
player’s shot accuracy would mysteriously increase. It still holds the all-time record for most earnings from a single arcade game in a single week…and considering the current debilitated state of the coin-op industry, it will never lose that title.

But for all of its success, there was really nothing revolutionary about the basic concepts behind NBA JAM. Midway had previously developed the technology to convert video footage of live actors into character sprite data, refining the process from NARC to High Impact Football and Mortal Kombat. The blueprint for combining two-on-two basketball action with roughhouse antics had already been mapped out by 1989’s Arch Rivals. The missing ingredient, then, was the
National Basketball Association. If Midway could obtain an official NBA license to include popular teams and pro players, the game would greatly benefit from the increased realism and the star power of a league that was surging in popularity at that time.

This video was an important element of Midway’s pitch for an NBA license. It was shown to NBA executives while the game was in development in mid-1992 and has never been seen by the public until now.

The video offers a glimpse at an early version of NBA JAM as it looked before the NBA license was acquired. Described as only “a quarter of the way to completion,” it already looks very similar to the final product. Even though the players’ appearances are
generic, note that the onscreen placeholder names are “Jordan” and “Barkley”—which is kind of ironic, since Midway never obtained legal clearance to include Michael Jordan in the game or its sequels, and Charles Barkley was removed from most home versions of NBA JAM after a legal dispute.

In addition to behind-the-scenes footage of original NBA JAM athletes Willie “Air” Morris Jr., Todd McClearn and Stephen Howard (or is that Tony Scott?) performing for the cameras, the video also mentions a number of features that never made the final cut. “The game will incorporate many different points of view,” the narrator promises. “During slam dunks, three-point shots and free throws, it will cut to a series of other camera angles, bringing players closer to the action.” The footage does
include a mocked-up version of a slam-dunk close-up, which is not all that different from the cutscenes in previous basketball games like Double Dribble.

But those aren’t the only features that were left out of NBA JAM. “On breakaways,” the narration continues, “the point of view will be from the eyes of the ball handler himself. Similar to a helmet cam, you will in effect see through the eyes of the player as he runs the length of the court, eluding defenders on the way to the basket. We also plan on having instant replay, and coaches’ critiques, which will appear in pop-up windows.” I honestly don’t know if these claims were disingenuous, or even if they had any impact on the NBA’s ultimate decision to grant the license. But I do know that they were completely unnecessary to the success of NBA JAM.

I did pick up on one little fib, however. Don’t believe the narrator’s claim that “real
professional football players were used as models” in creating the digitized characters of Midway’s football game Super High Impact. The game’s programmer Ed Boon once told me that he was the lone character model used for all of the player animation in the High Impact games. The NBA JAM athletes were not pros, either, but one of them eventually did play in the NBA: Stephen Howard was still in college when his moves were immortalized in the game, and he signed with the Utah Jazz as an undrafted rookie before the game was released in the arcades. I’ll bet it was strange for him to see his signature moves being performed in the game by his real-life teammate Karl Malone, knowing that his own face could not be seen unless he entered a secret code!

© 2011 Chris Bieniek. Certain video game images, characters and logos on this Web site are copyrighted or trademarked by their respective publishers.