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How the NBA 2K14 'Space Jam' mod came together

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If you're in the business of analyzing what makes a video go viral, the Space Jam mod for NBA 2K14 that became a YouTube hit in mid-February could serve as an interesting case study.

At a running time of more than 11 minutes, it's much longer than a typical viral clip, but it has a few important things going for it. NBA 2K14 itself had become a tremendously popular game by then, and searching the title on YouTube yields dozens of fan-created videos before official trailers come up. And the subject of the mod itself, the 1996 film Space Jam, is one that awakens a powerful coefficient of virality: the collective childhood nostalgia of the Millennial generation.

"The funny thing is, I didn't expect it," said Jermaine Gill, a co-creator of the Space Jam mod, in a phone interview with Polygon.

Gill didn't have much to do with the video itself; it went up on the channel of YouTube user "MkEliteWorksX," an individual who regularly posts gaming-related clips, including a variety of NBA 2K mods. MkEliteWorksX is the moniker of Muhammad Khan, a 21-year-old senior at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. A while back, he teamed up with Gill, a 40-year-old modder based in New York, and the Space Jam mod is the most recent hit in their partnership. According to Khan, the video racked up more than 1 million views in its first three days online.

Teamwork

"I subscribed to his videos on YouTube and he subscribed to mine, and we just linked up. We Facebooked each other, and we just talked about what would be interesting to do," Gill recalled. "He said, 'You're very creative and I believe that what you can do, it would go viral, because you're doing something different that can be explored that nobody [has] seen before.'"

Khan, a computer science major, is a budding modder himself. But he mostly handles the video side of the equation, while Gill does the modding; they both acknowledged each other's expertise in those respective areas. Gill began playing the NBA 2K series back on the Dreamcast, and started modding with 2008's NBA 2K9 after discovering a forum of die-hard fans of basketball games. A few years later, he put together an NBA 2K12 mod that pitted Marvel's Avengers against DC's Justice League and posted it on the forum. Khan happened upon the mod and used it to create a video that he published on his YouTube channel in April 2012; it has tallied nearly 2.73 million views since.

"We want to make it watchable by anyone"

The MkEliteWorksX channel contains numerous videos of mods, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views. The most popular clips are cleverly conceived with viral intent, sitting inside Venn diagrams combining various spheres of fandom. One puts Thor into Grand Theft Auto 4, where he unleashes a dragon shout from Skyrim. Another is a sports in-joke, devised by Khan and developed by Gill, in which Miami Heat star Chris Bosh morphs into an 8-foot-tall raptor in NBA 2K13.

"We have to make a video that can reach — that's going to be watchable by not just gamers, not just sports people. We want to make it watchable by anyone. You don't watch sports, you can still like the video. That's the goal," Khan explained.

To that end, Khan amped up the production value for the Space Jam mod video, incorporating footage from the film itself as well as its theme song from Quad City DJ's. Capturing the game footage itself was a rather laborious process: Khan played a few games between the Tune Squad and the Monstars, recording gameplay from a few different in-game camera angles to lend the final product a cinematic quality. But most of what's special about the video is the mod itself, Khan noted.

"If MGX wanted, he could've just made a really basic — just the players. That's what usually modders do," said Khan. "But MGX actually made it perfect, like, he rendered the advertisements going on and then the — every detail, wherever you look."

"It was actually teamwork"

Gill, for his part, gave ample credit to other members of the active mod community on the NLSC, a long-running fan site for basketball franchises like NBA Live and NBA 2K. There, someone else actually pitched him on the idea of a Space Jam mod. That person had already designed models for some of the Monstars, but Gill wasn't initially interested — he was busy building superhero mods, because his young son loved those comics characters. He did create a few of the Looney Tunes characters, and the other modder eventually released a version of the mod for NBA 2K13 with incomplete rosters. Earlier this year, a different user on the forums reached out to Gill saying he had created a special Space Jam court. That's what got the ball rolling for Gill, and he put it all together from there.

"It was actually teamwork," said Gill. "They did their little parts, and I finished it. I put my little touch into it." According to Gill, it can take an hour for him to create a face model, like the ones for the Space Jam characters; a complete mod may take a week of development. Gill has a day job, but has three off-days per week and will often spend as many as five hours in a day working on a mod. That dedication shows in the NBA 2K14 video, which features logos and jerseys for both teams; Space Jam art on boards in the arena; and a Warner Bros. emblem on the bottom of the jumbotron.

An uncertain future?

Modding is only possible for the PC versions of these games, and that could leave the NBA 2K mod community in a precarious position. Major sports titles have essentially died out on the platform; in fact, NBA 2K, EA Sports' FIFA Soccer and Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer are the only annual franchises that are still published on the PC, aside from management simulations. Piracy is an issue on computers, to be sure, but consoles are also preferable for sports titles because almost all of them are better played with a controller than with a mouse and keyboard.

"I am worried about that," said Gill, when asked about the possibility of 2K Sports ceasing to release a PC version of NBA 2K. "That's why I do a lot of my work and I put it out there — so 2K actually can see that there are PC users out there."

Gill also pointed out that the open nature of the PC platform will likely ensure the survival of NBA 2K mods even if 2K Sports stops making a PC version of the series. It's online communities like the NLSC, and the dedicated fans within them, that keep these games alive long after most other players have forgotten them. Just this week, members of the NLSC community posted updated NBA rosters — for the PC version of 2003's NBA Live 2004.