By Barry Janoff
September 10, 2012: NBA-related videogames have become as much a part of the hoops' landscape as the real games, with technology and graphics enabling people to fulfill their basketball Jones by transform themselves into the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and even Michael Jordan.
NBA Baller Beats wants to take this category to another level. By putting a basketball in the hands of videogamers, fans and basketball players alike, the plan is to get them off the couch and enhance their dribbling skills. The game, hitting retail September 11 for Microsoft's Xbox 360 Kinect, comes bundled with an official, full-size Spalding NBA game ball replica and challenges players to "master ball-handling skills by dribbling and performing moves including crossovers, pump fakes and flow dribble."
Videogame publishing company Majesco Entertainment describes it as "the first ever full-body motion-based NBA videogame that lets you perform like a pro using a real basketball." Players must have the Kinect Motion Sensor attached to their system. MSRP is $59.99.
NBA Baller Beats is played while listening to a soundtrack of 30 songs from such artists as Run DMC, Common, Gorillaz, Kanye West, B.o.B., LMFAO, Missy Elliot, Them Crooked Vultures and Queen. There are three difficulty levels available with every song: Rookie, Pro and Baller.
While scoring points against as many as eight challengers, NBA Baller Beats enables players to unlock songs, difficulty levels, environment accessories, more than 100 posters and Panini’s 2012 NBA Hoops trading cards, which showcase the moves of NBA players. As they play, gamers can also take pictures of themselves with the Kinect camera, which they can upload and share on Facebook.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Jesse Sutton, CEO of Edison, NJ-based Majesco Entertainment about getting NBA Baller Beats to market and the marketing being created to get the message to consumers. During a conference call with financial analysts and members of the media on Sept. 10, a day before the game was released to the public, Majesco said it spent about $500,000 on pre-launch actives during Q3.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What separates NBA Baller Beats from anything that has been or is currently available?
Jesse Sutton: There really has never been anything like this on the market and in the history of videogames. This is a product that is not only incredibly fun to play but one that you can use as a tool to improve your basketball skills. What we is done is created technology that works with the XBox 360 Kinect motion-sensor camera that really follows the movement of the ball alongside your body. Before, we've only been able to have interaction on the motion Sensor camera with your body. This is a proprietary technology that allows the camera to recognize the ball. With that, we have been able to create a product that essentially teaches you how to become a better basketball player in the area of dribbling: It forces you to use both hands. It forces you to keep your head up while dribbling. And you do it in an environment in which you don't feel as if you are working out because you are having so much fun.
NYSJ: How are you responding to critics who say that players won't be able to dribble a real basketball inside their home or apartment because of the noise, potential damage it might cause or because they have thick or shag carpeting on the floor?
JS: We have two responses. One is the practical response. We've tested the game on several different surfaces including all different types and thicknesses of carpet, and it works on most surfaces. We are offering a ball on our Web site that is more rubberized , so it is softer, quieter. It can bounce on shag carpets. It won't have the authenticity of playing with a real basketball, but you will still have the same game experience. Second, we spent the entire summer going to youth, AAU, college and pro basketball camps around the country and have had players, parents and coaches try the videogame. The feedback we received was incredible. The most telling feedback we received was people saying, 'We have to find a place in our home for this product.' Even kids who first thought they couldn't play the game then said they had to have it at home. That has been exciting.
"Once we got to the point where we were able to show the NBA an actual demonstration of the game, that changed everything."
NYSJ: What were the challenges early on when you presented the concept to the NBA?
JS: Many people who hear about the game for the first time, about using a real NBA ball when you play the videogame, either say, 'That's weird!' or 'That's interesting!' But it's a we have to see it to believe it attitude. Then they'll see a clip of the game and say, 'That's cool.' But they still might be unsure about it. Then when they actually play it, they are totally hooked. So we went to the NBA along with Microsoft, with whom we partnered to produce the game for their platform, with a concept. I felt that they got it, but they didn't truly get it. But we came away with a contract agreement and were able to advance production on the game. Once we got to the point where we were able to show them an actual demonstration of the game, that changed everything. Their level of interest and excitement jumped.
NYSJ: Were you able to get commissioner David Stern to play the game and dribble a basketball?
JS: [Laughs.] No, not the commissioner. But we have had NBA players. Deron Williams is on the cover and he has played the game many times and is a big fan. We were at Dwyane Wade's basketball camp, Kevin Durant's camp, and they played it and loved it. And they have gotten other players to play the game. Michael Strahan (former New York Giants defensive end and new co-host of TV talk show Live! with Kelly Ripa) has played it and was fantastic at it. So even athletes who dribble a basketball for a living have found it to be fun and have recommended it as a teaching tool.
NYSJ: What are you looking at as far as marketing support?
JS: We will be doing everything. We have been demonstrating the product for a while, but really began our grassroots marketing in June. We went out to the basketball camps. We partnered with Kenny Smith (former NBA player and current NBA analyst for TNT), which has been tremendous. He had it at his own camps, and he has been talking to players and basketball fans about it. We partnered with the WNBA's New York Liberty and were able to have their fans play [a demonstration version of] NBA Baller Beats at an Interactive Fan Zone at home games [at Prudential Center]. We were at New York Knicks and Liberty summer camps and part of events where the [fan-interactive] Knicks Groove Truck appeared, as well as Liberty Fit community events.
NYSJ: What about marketing now that the game is hitting retail?
JS: Beyond the grassroots efforts, we have been working with such retailers as GameStop, Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy; and Amazon and other major e-tailers. Our Web site is very robust, and we expect traffic to continue to grown once the game hits retail. We are getting the word our via social media, which is very important to reach a key demographic. We have almost 700,000 followers on Twitter. We have had more than 450,000 visits to the initial trailer on YouTube and more than two million hits among all of the [advance] videos we have put out. Facebook is getting more followers. Sometime after launch we are looking at a major TV campaign. And building that up as the NBA season begins, either with the NBA or specific teams.
NYSJ: With Deron Williams on the cover, is there anything specific activation you can talk about as far as working with the Brooklyn Nets?
JS: Deron already has done some advance promotion things. This is the perfect time to work with the Nets since they are opening up their arena in Brooklyn, which is where I grew up. So we see that as a major opportunity, both with the Deron and Nets as well the Knicks.
NYSJ: Music has become important to videogames, but how much of a role does the NBA Baller Beats soundtrack play?
JS: It's really dynamic. And its an integral part of the game. When you are bouncing the basketball, it's almost as if you are [a musician] playing along with the songs. You are not just playing basketball but dancing along to the various beats. We did not just pick random tracks. We have an array of music from great artists that really expand the dimension and quality of the game itself. It's a choreographed dribbling game. It's almost as if you are dancing with the basketball. And the more advanced the song and the more advanced the routine, the cooler you are going to look playing it. (See the full playlist and sample all 30 tracks here.)
NYSJ: This is initially intended for home play but would it work in a much larger venue such as Dave & Buster's?
JS: Absolutely. We have been approached by companies in the arcade market because the game suits itself so well for that type of environment. The idea is that if someone has Kinect, they have room in their home to dribble a basketball and move and dance around. We've had kids as young as six play on the rookie level and really get it. They get the moves and start dribbling with their left hand, their right hand, watching the screen, and they are having fun and don't even think about the fact that they are enhancing their basketball skills.
"Sometime after launch we are looking at a major TV campaign. And building that up as the NBA season begins, either with the NBA or specific teams."
NYSJ: What do you see as the future for NBA Baller Beats?
JS: There are many ways in which we can leverage the product. We will add downloadable content as far as new music and new routines. Enhance each of the challenge experiences. As far as sequels, one of the most amazing things I have found on this journey is that so many people come up with so many great ideas, ways to enhance and expand the game for the next release. We've already started to put together ideas for the next generation of the game.