What if NBA Jam were a fighting game? It’d be Ultimate Rivals
Ben Freidlin knows what folks are looking at first when they see a screenshot of Ultimate Rivals: The Court. It’s usually the licensing. The celebrities. They’re gazing at Alex Morgan from the U.S. Women’s National Team, soaring high over Hall-of-Famer Wayne Gretzky. Neither one plays basketball, but she’s about to jam one in the Great One’s face.
Freidlin, chief executive of Bit Fry Game Studios, doesn’t deny that inking 60 all-stars from five sports to a licensing deal for a mobile video game is a hell of a head-turner. (The late David Stern, the former NBA commissioner and an investor in Bit Fry, told Sports Business Journal that anyone who could pull together that many leagues and players’ unions “deserves to be canonized.”) And Freidlin, a high school dropout, can share some stem-winders about that, too — but he’d rather focus on the game now.
“We’re definitely at a point where I feel like that accomplishment, I don’t want to say it’s old news, but it’s about to be eclipsed, I think, by the work product that we’ve created,” Freidlin said. “And I would love to talk about that.”
Ultimate Rivals: arcade sports as a fighting game
So, let’s talk about it. Ultimate Rivals: The Court is the follow-up to 2019’s Ultimate Rivals: The Rink, a strong success in the earliest months of Apple Arcade. Freidlin expects this version, which has dozens of big names from five sports playing hoops instead of hockey, will launch on Apple Arcade sometime before the end of the NBA Finals.
That should be in two or three weeks, but “there’s always a possibility that could slip,” Freidlin told Polygon. “If it slipped, it would be by hopefully a very small amount, but that’s the goal.” The game also has a page on Steam with a third-quarter 2021 launch date, and Bit Fry has longer-term aspirations of bringing it to consoles.
That puts The Court’s development time at around 15 months, Freidlin said. The game shares an attribute system and an artistic style with The Rink, but it’s not a reskinning, he said. The Rink, according to Freidlin, was built in around eight months; The Court’s development team is roughly double the size, and has roughly double the time to do its thing, which Freidlin still considers “an absurdly short” span.
Conceptually, both games adopt an over-the-top arcade format familiar to games like NBA Jam or NHL Hitz. But when Freidlin talks about Ultimate Rivals: The Court, he prefers to pitch it as a fighting game. That explains its rather bold commitment to 60-frames-per-second gameplay, on Apple mobile devices. The promise means that the game will run best on higher-end iPhones and iPads, of course, but it’s there because Ultimate Rivals: The Court is striving for a fighting game’s almost frame-by-frame approach of move, counter, and result.
“When I talk to our lead animator, and his team, we’re almost never talking about sports games or sports animations,” Freidlin said. “We’re talking about, ‘Go load that Street Fighter video; go load that Tekken video; go to Tekken 7, go to that version,’ right? We’re always discussing the kinetic feel of those games, as it relates to the inputs and the feedback that you get.”
Currently the game is in a closed beta with about 1,000 players, Freidlin said. “All of the feedback we’ve been getting has been about the gameplay, more than the licenses, like 10 to 1. The licenses [are] a vehicle and a conceit under which you play this type of game, and it makes a lot of sense. And maybe it’s necessary. […] I think we’re going to feel very different. We’re going to feel more like a fighting game, even though the [gameplay] loop is really a basketball loop that everyone’s familiar with.”
Ultimate Rivals: The Court is a three-on-three game, as opposed to the two-on-two format many arcade basketball games take. Players may switch among any of their performers on the court — offense or defense. AI teammates are constantly moving, especially jumping toward the basket, making alley-oops a lot more common and a lot less difficult to trigger. Possession alternates on made baskets, of course, but there’s a score multiplier that ticks up for things like dunks, or scoring streaks, which reward defensive stops and offer the possibility of a big rally even if you’re trailing by a lot.
“If you go on hard difficulty, it’s much more punishing and requires that you play good defense, and really use the score multipliers to win,” Freidlin said. “The alley-oops are not always a given. We wanted people to be able to play in the most expressive way possible. What I mean is, there’s a gentleman who’s on YouTube, or Twitch, and he’s always saying, ‘Don’t just try to win by shooting 3-pointers; you can do that, but I’m winning these games by shooting 2s, layups, and dunking on people.’”
As in NBA Jam — or a fighting game, for that matter — there’s a buildup to a player’s ultimate move, a throwdown jam animation corresponding to their sport. For Morgan, the USWNT striker, her ultimate is called Strikeforce. After a brief cutscene (in which Morgan executes an “anime-style, like, crazy samurai kick,” Freidlin said), soccer balls rain down on the court, stunning the opposing players. (Freidlin, perhaps subconsciously, called them “your enemy opponents”). While they’re incapacitated, Morgan and her teammates dunk on their basket with impunity. “It’s like a power play, just in basketball,” Freidlin explained.
Still, Freidlin can’t help but use fighting games as a point of reference. “Some people might want to, you know, stand back and just play footsies in order to get the win; some people might just come out swinging,” Freidlin said. “I wanted that ability in the game where people can find their personality. If you just feel that satisfaction from an alley-oop, well, you want to be able to do that, you want to try to do that, often, even if you don’t necessarily succeed.”
Ultimate Rivals: The Court has touchscreen controls (it is an Apple Arcade title, after all), but I found that it played best with a Bluetooth-paired gamepad. The Steam version will support both the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 as well as the current Xbox line of controllers.
“What I’m seeing is that more and more of the Gen Z audience is looking for their mid/quarter-core games to be on phones in the next five years,” Freidlin said. “So in a way, we’re kind of set up for that. And one of the feedback items we get a lot from the beta was, ‘You know, this is a console game, running on a phone.’”
That raises the question of when this, or The Rink, will come to PlayStation, Nintendo, or Xbox. Freidlin said either Ultimate Rivals game needs the right publishing partner, prioritizing the game’s discoverability in a larger marketplace. “I want to make sure that it’s not another title that gets tossed in a bin for people to, hopefully, run into,” he said, “but that it’s something any platform holder is really going to embrace.”
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