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Madden creator has an ambitious plan to disrupt sports games

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

It's rare these days to see a successful sports video game that isn't based on expensive licensing agreements with real-life leagues and teams, at least on consoles and handhelds. Both arcade and simulation sports titles are marketed as ways for players to step into the sneakers, cleats or skates of their favorite athletes — to "be like Mike," as it were.

The current console generation has also seen the rise of single-player career modes in sports games. Akin to a role-playing game, these modes allow players to put themselves into a sports title and play alongside virtual athletes rather than play as them. Modes like Road to the Show in Sony's MLB The Show series and Be A Pro in a number of EA Sports titles make you the star of the show, and they're all about improving your skills and building your own legend.

That's one of the focuses of Grudge Match: Street Basketball, an arcade basketball title being developed by Robin Antonick (photo above), the creator of Electronic Arts' Madden NFL series. Antonick is launching a Kickstarter campaign for Grudge Match today along with his business partner, Bob Lindsey, a veteran of the video game industry with executive experience at publishers such as Capcom and Eidos. The game is one piece of their ambitious plan to upend the sports gaming industry by focusing on, and depending on, players.

"Millions of people can be LeBron, but who can you be?"

"We're placing the player at the center of the game. It lets the player become the legend themselves through their own creativity and competition, and also through commerce, rather than you playing a legend," said Antonick in a recent phone interview with Polygon. He pointed out 2K Sports' NBA 2K franchise as a counter-example, citing the mode in this year's NBA 2K14 that features cover athlete LeBron James and noting that there's definitely fun to be had with such experiences.

"But we're flipping it upside-down," Antonick continued. "Millions of people can be LeBron [in NBA 2K14], but who can you be? And we're going to give you the tools so that you can [...] use your own creativity to become your own legend within the league."

Grudge Match is the foundation of a project Antonick calls the Indie Sports Network, which he envisions as a network for community-oriented games for multiple sports. Grudge Match will launch as a fun, arcade-style basketball title, but it will be completely customizable. Users will be able to tweak settings such as jump height in order to alter the gameplay experience on a spectrum from realistic simulation to NBA Jam-esque arcade gaming. And the entire game will have a basis in "hard science," according to Antonick, which is where the players' input comes in.

Players can go into Grudge Match's back end and change the way they move in the game. Using a programming language called Scratch, a relatively simple tool developed at MIT, they'll be able to edit their virtual athlete's animations in accordance with the laws of physics. In the Indie Sports Lab (image below), you might add a behind-the-back dribble to your arsenal of fake-out moves or create a high-flying one-handed dunk, then take it to the Indie Sports Gym and test it out.


Antonick told Polygon that Grudge Match will be enjoyable on its own. But players can gain a competitive edge in two main ways: the traditional method of simply getting better at the game as they play more, or diving into the development side and working on their avatar's basketball fundamentals. This piece of the Indie Sports experience is very important to Antonick: the idea that a fun video game can be educational, that it can teach players math and science skills that are applicable in real life.

This leads into another part of Antonick's vision, the Indie Sports Market, which he characterized as "eBay and iTunes for gamers." Grudge Match players can take the content they create — animations, teams, jerseys and more — and earn money by selling it on a marketplace. Of course, that's optional: Users can keep their proprietary moves to themselves as their own secret sauce. And as they play Grudge Match, they'll move up through the ranks of the Indie Sports League, whose multiple divisions resemble farm teams in baseball.

"people really do want to make a contribution"

Antonick worked with EA during the late 1980s and early '90s, during which time he created the original John Madden Football and developed subsequent entries in the multibillion-dollar franchise. He is currently embroiled in a legal battle with the company, a breach-of-contract lawsuit in which he stands to be awarded millions of dollars in unpaid royalties. But when we asked if his bitter dispute with EA contributed to the Indie Sports Network, he told us that he had bigger concerns.

According to Antonick, he pitched EA in 1984 on developing a full 11-on-11 football game, an unprecedented proposition at the time, because he believed that together they could "change the world" — which they did. Changing the world, he said, is "my passion and my lifelong work."

Some of the drive for the Indie Sports Network comes from Antonick's dissatisfaction with the current state of sports games, almost all of which are big-budget, annualized titles from major publishers such as EA and 2K Sports. But what irks Antonick more is that those companies don't use those games to truly bring players into the fold.

"The reason I'm back, eager, doing this is because of things like Kickstarter, this crowdfunding and crowdsourcing," said Antonick. "Those elements being as popular as they are indicate that people really do want to make a contribution [to games], and that that vision that we could change the world — that we could make a substantial difference — is becoming a reality. And the game industry just hasn't caught that."

"enjoying the game is part of the creative process"

Antonick and the Indie Sports Network want to tap into the best aspects of the "me" generation: the desire that young people have to build their own brand, and become media creators in addition to mere consumers. As it stands, sports gamers' individual input is limited to time-intensive, ancillary contributions. Hardcore sports gamers on community sites like Operation Sports submit sets of custom sliders to tweak gameplay settings, as well as comprehensive rosters for minor-league clubs.

"All of these third-party, sort of, unofficial support mechanisms out there that try to make the game better and try to improve it — we want to embrace that creativity," said Antonick. "It creates this symbiotic environment, rather than an adversarial role that says, 'We are the publisher. We are the creative force and the creative juice, and you are the people that we tap into, and you get the benefit of our work.'"

Instead, the Indie Sports Network's stance, according to Antonick, is to tell players, "'We're all in this together. If you buy this game and you play it, you're part of the creative process.' Enjoying the game is part of the creative process, and if you've got a good idea, we're going to give you the tools to benefit from being in that creative process."


The Indie Sports Network team currently consists of fewer than 10 people, including Antonick and Lindsey (above left), who have funded the project themselves to this point. They plan to establish a full studio in the San Francisco Bay Area to develop Grudge Match and the rest of the Indie Sports Network. Starting the project with a great game and creating that initial bed of content is crucial to the Indie Sports Network's chances for success, but Antonick believes that once Indie Sports Network users really get going, the developers will take a back seat.

"In the long haul, in the long run, we don't think any team of elites in San Francisco or wherever can compete with the creativity of the crowd, of the masses," said Antonick.

Antonick hopes to raise funds for urban renewal

Antonick's vision for the Indie Sports Network extends far beyond the video game sphere. He also wants the network to make a meaningful contribution to society, in addition to its educational potential. Grudge Match is built to rekindle the fire seen on legendary New York City street basketball courts such as Rucker Park, The Cage and Dyckman Park. That's the area of focus for what Antonick hopes will be an important piece of the Indie Sports Network: charitable fundraising for urban renewal.

Antonick's team has had "fairly in-depth conversations" with Urban Roots, a Philadelphia-based organization that is looking to renovate a run-down inner-city playground and turn it into Rucker Park Philadelphia.

"We're early on in that process," said Antonick, although the groups have an agreement in principle. The idea is for the Indie Sports Network developers to build a model of the proposed park in Grudge Match and perhaps sell it as a microtransaction, with the sales going toward the Rucker Philly project.

"you can be a legend in this game, and it'll help you be a legend in the real world"

Antonick believes "past and present and future legends of basketball are going to want to get involved" with Indie Sports Network once it takes off with initiatives like Rucker Philly.

"It's a way for them to say to kids, 'Maybe you're not as physically talented as I was, and that's OK. It's what's between your ears [that matters]. And here's that something that you can play; you can be a legend in this game, and it'll help you be a legend in the real world, regardless of what you choose to do,'" he explained.

In order to make all of that possible, Antonick and Lindsey are attempting to raise $500,000 in a monthlong Kickstarter campaign. The money would go toward the development of Grudge Match and the Indie Sports Network, including the Gym, Lab, Market and League. The team plans to develop on Windows PC, Mac, Linux and Ouya, and release version 1.0 by the end of 2014 or perhaps March 2015. The developers are participating in Ouya's Free the Games Fund, through which they could receive a maximum of $250,000. If the Kickstarter campaign isn't successful, Antonick and Lindsey will turn to venture capital, but they didn't want to start there because the Indie Sports Network is fundamentally a community-based project.

the team wanted to go to Kickstarter before pitching venture capital firms

The Indie Sports Network is risky because it's so ambitious, especially in light of the fact that it's mostly aspirational at this point. Antonick and Lindsey have a well-thought-out plan, to be sure, but that's what it is: a plan. So far, there isn't much that's tangible for them to present to prospective backers. Still, Kickstarter is the place to go if you want to get a big idea off the ground, and the Indie Sports Network's ethos of community involvement seems to fit well with Kickstarter, which is designed to give backers a role in the development process.

"The IndieSports Network is — how we see it is — a disruptive innovation for the sports game genre and the video game industry as a whole," said Antonick. "We're engaging the player as a co-creator of the game."