By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted December 14, 2010)
Back in the early 1990s, a company called Midway released NBA Jam, a video arcade game that was advanced for its time and subsequently changed the dynamics between games and gamers. EA Sports has brought back a videogame version of NBA Jam, staying close to its basic attributes but applying, as director of marketing David Le relates, some activation that was not available back in the day, including Twitter, Facebook and Dwight Howard.
People who play videogames are always looking forward to the next big thing. EA Sports wants them to look back to the next big thing. NBA Jam first reared its hoops-centric head in 1993-94 as a video arcade game and then versions that played on such consoles as Genesis, Game Boy, Sega, PlayStation and Atari. It featured two-on-two play and was among the first to get a license from the NBA to use team logos and digital versions of real players. The new game features current stars and also brings back stars who appeared in the original series, including David Robinson, Karl Malone, John Stockton, James Worthy, Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Dominique Wilkins and Scottie Pippen. (The NBA's biggest star, Michael Jordan, was missing due to a contractual situation.)
EA Sports resurrected NBA Jam in October and November for the Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, updating the two-on-two rosters but retaining many of the original highlights, including announcer Tim Kitzrow and his over-the-top comments: "Boom-shaka-laka!" "Slam-a-jamma!" "He's on fire!" "Get that outta here!" and "I'm the bus driver and I'm taking you to school!" Where EA Sports went new school was in marketing, which has included promotions on Facebook, Twitter and an extended video commercial on FunnyorDie.com, a comedy Web site founded by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.
The video, "Uncle Boomshakalaka," stars comic Colton Dunn babysitting his nephew, who is a dedicated videogame player. On the first night, the uncle gets whipped in boxing and a warfare game. "You should retire," says the kid, who at one point plays with his eyes closed. "You're too old for this. What is wrong with you? Is this what adults are like?" When Uncle Mike returns the next night to babysit, he has a secret weapon: The new version of NBA Jam, which he had mastered when he was a younger. "That's me dunking on you," Uncle Mike yells as he returns the whipping. "Boom-shaka-laka!" After his victory, he sarcastically consoles his nephew. "That's an important lesson you just learned. About what life is really about. Me beating you at things."
However, with its marketing plan in place, EA Sports had to make a significant change on the fly. Originally, three modes of NBA Jam were going to be made available with the purchase of EA Sports NBA Elite 11. However, when the company announced the cancellation of the release of NBA Elite 11 due to technical difficulties, they reorganized by putting together "a significantly more robust NBA Jam experience for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners."
Even more than 15 years removed from the game's original marketing, EA Sports has found that one activation remains tried and true: Get as many gamers as possible to play it and then let them spread the word. As such, EA Sports used Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder to conduct giveaways via his Twitter site and has put Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic on the streets of New York to engage passersby in a console version of the game. And speaking of the iconic console, EA Sports on Dec. 18 will award one of what it said were only ten authentic cabinet recreations to the winner of a promotion being conducted at its dedicated Facebook site.
David Le, director of marketing for EA Sports, Vancouver, spoke with NYSportsJournalism about how the past, present and future of NBA Jam converged first to support the game's release and now as the nucleus of a campaign intended to keep it relevant through 2011 and beyond.
NYSportsJournalism: How is everything going inside the EA Sports complex?
David Le: Very good. Very busy. It's that funny time of the year where we are working hard on the holiday season but also looking at 2011 and the products we have coming out and how we will support them.
NYSJ: NBA Jam seems to fit right into that category. You've been activating behind it for the 2010 holiday season but also supporting it with activation that will carry well into 2011.
DL: Yes. And the response to NBA Jam has been even better than we anticipated. It's more of a sports arcade title, and those are fewer and farther between. The fact that we've been able to tap into the nostalgia of NBA Jam and get it out there and reinvigorate the whole genre with basketball consumers has been absolutely fantastic.
NYSJ: Is the response to the game mostly from consumers or have you also heard from athletes?
DL: We definitely hear the majority of responses from consumers and our engaged community. But we are working with athletes, musicians, actors and other celebrities who have been hired on to do things. And when they ask for free games, NBA Jam always seems to be on their list.
NYSJ: Are you hearing "old school" stories from people who remember when the game came out in 1993 from Midway?
DL: We are getting that, which is part of our overall activation. When we built our marketing and communications platform for NBA Jam, we really focused on a few things. We wanted to unleash the passion and nostalgia for the NBA heritage and NBA Jam brand and work with gamers, sneakerheads and other basketball lifestyle enthusiasts who had a lot of heart for NBA Jam. We wanted to create a lot of talk about NBA Jam using social media for a lot of the initiatives. One of the really cool things we did from a nostalgia perspective was we actually created the old school NBA Jam arcade cabinet. A lot of the response from people seeing it was, 'That's NBA Jam. My NBA Jam is back.'
"We actually created the old school NBA Jam arcade cabinet. A lot of the response from people seeing it was, 'That's NBA Jam! My NBA Jam is back!'"
NYSJ: Are you seeing a good mix of people who remember or played it back then and new, younger fans and consumers?
DL: Our faithful following is pretty strong. But we continue to build and get new people on board with the events we are doing through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And we also had an 'NBA Jam Invasion Tour' that covered a lot of the country, where we took a trailer with 15 NBA Jam stations and went to colleges, universities, Best Buy locations and other places and set up events, got players out who would have been too young to play or remember the original game. Or maybe they heard about it or had seen it but never actually played it.
NYSJ: The new version also updates some of the Easter eggs by unlocking people such as President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush.
DL: That was part of the entertainment value in the original version: Being able to have President Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton play other politicians. So now you can have President Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Dick Chaney, John McCain, Sarah Palin . . . and we have back Bill and Hillary Clinton. That aspect of the game has gotten a tremendous response from consumers.
NYSJ: Dwight Howard has been the spokesman for EA Sports and NBA Jam. How have fans and consumers reacted to him?
DL: It's been a great plus working with Dwight, [rap musician] J. Cole, [producer] 9th Wonder and the whole creative team. We work with a variety of athletes: Kevin Durant, Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings and Dwight. We wanted to find guys who are genuine gamers and could help us in the development of NBA Jam. So we showed the game early on to most of these guys, months ahead, to get their feedback. And then we started to work with them through their own social media networks. They genuinely represent themselves in social media forums and giving them assets with which to work.
NYSJ: What worked particularly well?
DL: KD, for example, asked for an early copy of the game so he could create his own promotion. He spent a good portion of a day on Twitter getting people to submit their own NBA Jam 'dunk face' and giving away copies of the game. That was a great response. Knowing that there is all of this genuine interest in NBA Jam and seeing how the players were responding to the game, getting their feedback about the game, and then wanting to get copies of the game to leverage their own fan base was great.
NYSJ: When Dwight was in New York as part of EA Sports' event to unveil NBA Jam [in September], he was playing the game and talking about the specific details of the game. What sort of feedback did he offer?
DL: He had the game early on, and he was able to request some tweaks, which we actually did. The big thing for him was [getting us to improve] his dunk rating. I think it was an '8' in the original game, and we were certain to bump up his dunk rating to '10.' [Laughs.]
NYSJ: What are you seeing in social media activation with NBA Jam that you might translate to other franchises, such as Madden NFL?
DL: There are a few things. Early on we used Facebook to solicit NBA Jam-isms that consumers wanted to hear in the game. We received more than 3,000 responses, and took the top 64 and had Tim Kitzrow, who was the voice on the original NBA Jam and who came back to be the voice for the new NBA Jam, record them. Consumers then voted for the top four, which we actually used in the game itself. We then came back with Tim after the game came out. On his Twitter account on Nov. 18, we had the bevy of athletes with whom we are working, but more importantly the long-time and new fans of NBA Jam tweet the NBA Jam-isms they would want Tim to say in the game. We then went into the studio and he actually recorded those lines, and we had our team incorporate the lines into new video segments. We then sent back to those people via Twitter links to their videos on YouTube. From that particular project we got more than 160,000 views, more than 66 million impressions and we ended up being the No. 1 trending Twitter topic of the day.
NYSJ: So you can see working that into upcoming videogame launches?
DL: I think the whole idea of taking the spirit of the game and activating behind the [tagline] of EA Sports, 'It's in the game,' and literally trying to put people in the game. Or making the experience unique in a way that it becomes personal, so that when they talk about EA Sports they talk about it being a unique and a personal sports brand. So I see that as something that we can try to use across all of our sports franchises as we move forward. In terms of the various social media elements to the campaign, they weren’t just tactics. They added 'talk value'” in that the mediums enabled us to engage with NBA Jam’s passionate fan base.
NYSJ: We haven't talked about the alliance with FunnyorDie.com, the comedy Web site founded by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, where you ran an extended video commercial with comic Colton Dunn. How did that engage consumers?
DL: The use of social media is an important element, because the various efforts allowed EA Sports to connect with people both young and older who are passionate about NBA Jam. The Funny or Die video is a good example of this because the Uncle [played by Dunn] brings into the message the nostalgia from the original game, and the nephew against whom he is playing represents the younger generation experiencing the game for the first time.
NYSJ: Do you plan to do anything with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and the other athletes moving forward?
DL: I can't divulge all of the details. But we are looking at things such as new covers of NBA Jam for giveaways that would tie into other promotions with partners. The thing about NBA Jam is that, unlike the traditional sports simulation-based product where you get a mad rush on Day One and then the interest is harder to maintain, NBA Jam has a much longer shelf-life that is not specifically tied into the season. So we are going to continue to work with players, especially those who are enthusiastic about the game, and continue to use social media to reach and expand the fan base.
NYSJ: Has EA Sports made any plans for the NBA All-Star Game this February in Los Angeles?
DL: Our plans have not yet been finalized, but we plan to be there in a big way, especially with a product such as NBA Jam, which is such a great sampling product. We want to get it into the hands of as many NBA fans as possible, and the All-Star Game and the Jam Session is certainly all about NBA fans.
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