Every once in a while a video game comes along that imposes an enormous change on not only the industry but society as a whole. NBA JAM was most certainly an epoch in the history of our culture. JAM simply put, is my favorite game of all time.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss JAM with Reyan Ali, an American writer who has taken on the daunting task of documenting the history of a game that is still making its mark on the world. He has tasked himself with writing a book all about NBA Jam. Reyan and I connected on Twitter, where I discovered the book was being developed after the twitter account managed by Reyan liked something I tweeted. Reyan has spent countless hours interviewing, writing and researching the Midway-developed game. Be sure to check out the information at the end of the interview to find out where you can pre-order the book set to release later this year. Without further ado, here is that interview:
NJB: Tell me a little about yourself, where did you get your start in video game journalism?
Ali: I got my start in pop culture journalism a decade ago, doing freelance music stories for alt-weeklies and magazines, and then moving into more general pop culture pieces, which eventually got me to video games.
Over the years, I’ve written for Rolling Stone, Wired, USA Today, Complex, Spin, American Airlines’ in-flight magazine (which was cool to find when I was on a flight once), and a ton of alt-weekly free papers all over the country: The Village Voice in New York City, SF Weekly in San Francisco, the Boston Phoenix, the Hartford Advocate, Cincinnati CityBeat, Orlando Weekly, Houston Press, and more.
My travels took me to interviewing people from different walks of life, including Mike Tyson, Kesha, surf rock legend Dick Dale, hip-hop producer Madlib, GZA from Wu-Tang Clan, Seth Green, WWE wrestlers like Mick Foley and Daniel Bryan, Jim Johnston (the man who did all the iconic theme songs for WWE/the WWF), and more musicians than I can count. It was really interesting work.
After doing shorter stories for years, I knew I wanted to write a book and do something with substance. I pitched the music book series 33 1/3 books about two of my favorite records (if you’re curious, Operation Ivy’s Energy and Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose), but both pitches were rejected. Then, I found Boss Fight Books, this independent publisher of books about individual video games with a following on Kickstarter, and knew I wanted to try another pitch. I had only written about video games a handful of times, but as I racked my brain to find a game worthy of a book, I knew NBA Jam would be a perfect choice and something I could go nuts with.
In June 2015, after months of research, I wrote a 37(!)-page proposal for an NBA Jam book and sent it in. If Boss Fight weren’t feeling it — whatever, it’d be more experience. Then, Boss Fight Books editor Gabe Durham gave me a call one afternoon and changed my life. Since then, I’ve been writing this book on top of my day job in customer service.
NJB: What made you want to write a book exclusively about NBA Jam? There are obviously thousands of video games you could’ve chosen.
Ali: NBA Jam isn’t just one of the greatest basketball video games of all time and one of the greatest arcade games of all time — it’s one of the greatest video games of all time, period. People’s love for NBA Jam is deep and sincere.
At its peak, this game was Fortnite levels of popular. People were lining up to play Jam four, five, six deep. Glen Rice would wait in the arcade to play it. Shaq was playing it at his home on an arcade cabinet, then with the Magic in hotel rooms on the Genesis. ’90s icons like DJ Jazzy Jeff, Macaulay Culkin, and Matthew Perry were playing it. Guides were being sold in arcades with lists of secret characters. EVERYONE was playing it.
In 1993, Jurassic Park made roughly $350 million and was easily the biggest movie of the year. In that same timeframe, NBA Jam made a billion dollars and did it in quarters. These numbers seem outrageous and completely farfetched until you put into perspective how earth-shattering this game was.
This clearly left an impact on players and video games, and its creation and development deserved to be broken down. How did Midway come up with all these things that made this game iconic, and what was the peak of this game like? I learned all about this.
I also knew that since Acclaim took over the NBA Jam rights around ’95, the arcade business collapsed around 2000, and then Midway died in 2009, there had to be compelling stories behind these events. I found some genuine highs and lows.
NJB: How long have you been researching for the book and how’s the whole process been? Seems like it would be a major undertaking.
Ali: I’ve been working on it since about April 2015, which was when I first started researching it for the pitch. It has been a major undertaking — I’m still learning new things about the game and the world of Midway until this day — and it’s required going through every possible source I could access for info: magazines, website articles, credits lists, forum posts, and, of course, interviews. I know this game and its world inside out.
Writing a whole book and piecing together dozens of accounts into one cohesive whole has been a monumental task. I’ve had my own highs and lows with the project, and finding the time and mental energy to concentrate on one subject over and over and over can get exhausting. But it’s all worth it.
I’ve done roughly 60 exclusive interviews for this book, and I’m still sitting on tons of material I couldn’t fit into the story. I talked to:
-The original development team
-Announcer Tim Kitzrow
-Kerri Hoskins and Lorraine Olivia (the NBA Jam cheerleaders; Hoskins was later Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat)
-A ton of Midway employees including Roger Sharpe (the marketing wizard who got the NBA license), Eugene Jarvis (the creator of Defender and Robotron: 2084), George Petro (the designer of the Terminator 2 arcade game), and John Tobias (the co-creator of Mortal Kombat)
-Acclaim staffers, including their CEO Greg Fischbach
-John Romero (the designer of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake)
-DJ Jazzy Jeff
-Kenneth Faried (current Brooklyn Nets forward)
-SHAQ! (who always plays as a three-point shooter)
NJB: What’s your favorite version of Jam that’s been released and why?
Ali: For sentimental reasons, I love the magic of the original coin-op NBA Jam. No one knew how big of a hit the game was going to be, and all this stuff was fresh and happening for the first time. I could sit there and just watch a game of NBA Jam and tell you how nearly everything in the game was made, or who was responsible for it. It’s like breaking down a fine piece of art. (And I definitely think NBA Jam is art.)
Play-wise, it’s NBA Jam: Tournament Edition in the arcade. This was Jam at its pinnacle. It’s the original but with more of everything.
NJB: There are so many different strategies for playing JAM at a high level. What is your favorite team to use and why?
Ali: I’m an okay NBA Jam player — I would get smoked in a tournament — so I play as my favorite teams just with the goal of having fun. My two favorites are the classics: John Stockton and Karl Malone on the Utah Jazz in NBA Jam, and Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp on the Seattle SuperSonics in Tournament Edition. They are both one-two punches and just so perfect. I was also a huge fan of those teams in the ’90s, along with the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves. But man, I just love all of 1990s NBA.
NJB: What types of games do you typically play and what are you playing lately?
Ali: Aside from NBA Jam, my favorites are pick-up-and-play games, especially pre-2002: the Mortal Kombat series (especially UMK3), Super Mario Bros. 1 through 3, Ninja Gaiden, the classic Sonic games, Twisted Metal 2, the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, the Marvel Vs. Capcom series, and any and AllStreet Fighters.
I haven’t had much time to play over the last year, but Injustice 2 and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 have been recent games I’ve spent a lot of time on.
NJB: Arcade style sports games seem to be a sub-genre that has been lacking new releases as of late. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Ali: Arcade sports games need a real vision or some inspiration behind them to take off — and some real marketing juice behind them. I don’t think game companies think there’s as much value in selling a pick-up-and-play franchise (which will have a much shorter shelf life than a sim franchise), so anything that comes out is just an extra. Video game companies are throwing you a bone with arcade sports games, not treating them like marquee titles. NBA Jam truly took off on the home console side because Acclaim put $10 million into marketing the game — a massive number back then — and knew how to get people excited for the game.
That said, people are clamoring for a new NBA Jam or NBA Street. I absolutely believe a new NBA Jam could sell gangbusters if was promoted right and if the gameplay and design were there. It’s like getting people to start going back to arcades to play new video games: It’s not just going to magically happen. You need something inventive to hook imaginations.
NJB: I’m sure you’ve gotten to speak with a lot of interesting people during your research for the book. Who did you find the most interesting and why?
Ali: When it came to learning about the game, I loved speaking to the original development team and the Midway staffers. Just going through and imagining the white walls and cubicles in the back of a pinball factory in Chicago–and all the arguments, decisions, and shenanigans that happened there–made me feel like I was writing a novel.
But for me, the revelation was DJ Jazzy Jeff. He was in a secret character in home ports of NBA Jam: Tournament Edition. He liked sim games more than arcade-style basketball games (He was more of an NBA Live guy), and he told me that he never saw a dollar off NBA Jam, but he understood the value and excitement of being part of one of the hottest games on Earth. Here he is, in his words.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: “You know what was funny, is back then, it was almost a badge of honor to be included. People weren’t like they are now, ‘You used my name and license without letting me know.’ It was like, ‘Holy crap, I’m in NBA Jam,’ especially as people were talking about it and there wasn’t a front door to get to your character. There was a secret code, and I didn’t even know it. I didn’t get much of a chance to play with myself as much as I had a secret character and there wasn’t much to get to it. I’m not 100 percent sure if they contacted [me about licensing my likeness]. It was just really cool, especially around that time, to walk around and hear, ‘Oh man, it’s pretty dope that you guys were hidden characters on this game.’ You just kind of said thank you and walked away.”
Also, Jazzy shared that Will Smith almost certainly played NBA Jam, but if he did, it likely wasn’t for longer than a few minutes.
NJB: Did you get to speak with Tim Kitzrow and if so is his voice always amazing?
Ali: YES! He still has it. He left me one voicemail that started with, “Shaq to the rim! BOOMSHAKALAKA!,” that was just incredible.
NJB: What was the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the development of the game?
Ali: Just how passionate and blunt the original NBA Jam team was. There was seven of them, and they argued and debated over the game a ton, and I’m pretty sure a chair got thrown once. Everyone was very opinionated. You had to be assertive to leave an impact on NBA Jam.
The first time Mark Turmell, the lead designer, asked Sal DiVita, an artist, to make “on fire” graphics for NBA Jam, DiVita said no because he thought it was a stupid idea. Turmell was stuck with using graphics from Smash T.V., one of his older games. DiVita quickly saw the light, but that was just how it was at Midway. You stood up for what you believed in and what was right for the game.
At the same time, there was great camaraderie among the team. Everybody also really got along and felt honest and comfortable with one another. They gambled hundreds of dollars on NBA Jam once it was finished. I have seen video from the session where they filmed their heads for secret characters, and you got the sense everyone got along and was having the time of their lives.
NJB: When and where can people purchase NBA Jam (The Book)?
Read the prologue at Kotaku: “The Night They Turned on the First NBA Jam Machine.” This is a blow-by-blow account of the very first night a member of the public ever got to play NBA Jam. The original NBA Jam team heads out to Dennis’ Place For Games, an arcade in Chicago, to sit and watch how people will play their game. The excerpt has received 41,000+ views so far, and a lot of positive feedback. Everything set up here comes into focus in the book.
Release date info is coming soon! Stay tuned at @nbajambook on Twitter. This project has encountered delays, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who has been supportive through my journey to write my first book and make it the best book possible. I guarantee you will learn something new about NBA Jam, Midway, and the amazing people and circumstances that led to this incredible game.
NJB: Where can people follow you and find some of your current work?
Ali: I haven’t written regularly since I started working on the book, but if you want read my favorite piece, try “The Incredible Power of Kidz Bop” at Pacific Standard. You know Kidz Bop, the CD series with the infomercials of kids singing their interpretations of pop hits? I get into where they came from and what Kidz Bop means. Turns out, the subject material is super fascinating. This is the kind of stuff I love writing.
Follow me on Twitter at @nbajambook. I’ll be posting tons of new NBA Jam and book-related content over the coming months, including quotes from the book and rare material. It’s going to be a ton of fun. And if you have burning questions about NBA Jam or the book, email me at nbajambook AT gmail dot com.
Cannot wait to get this out there. NBA Jam has a remarkable story that the world has never heard. BOOMSHAKALAKA!!!
Special thanks to Reyan Ali for the photos provided!
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by: Dennis Burkett