It took about four minutes into my first game of NBA Playgrounds for me to finally connect on an alley-oop, with the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin tossing the ball up for George Hill of the Utah Jazz to throw it down with a wicked reverse dunk. But the game put a smile on my face long before that.
With the arcade-style game NBA Playgrounds — which launches May 9 for $19.99 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One — developer Saber Interactive is looking to fill a market niche that publishers like Electronic Arts have left wide open. And from what I’ve seen so far, the independent studio may have a hit on its hands.
“There’s a real opportunity for an arcade-style basketball game,” said Matthew Karch, president of Saber, in an interview with Polygon during a demo of NBA Playgrounds this week. Karch described the goal as a game inspired by both NBA Jam and NBA Street, although he said “it’s definitely more Jam than it is Street.”
Indeed, NBA Playgrounds is a two-on-two experience à la NBA Jam, rather than NBA Street’s three-on-three setup. The action ends up playing out very similarly to NBA Jam on both offense and defense. For example, you can swipe at the ball to try to steal it from an opponent, or simply shove the player to knock it loose (as long as you’ve got some of your sprint meter left). If you shoot while sprinting toward the hoop, your player will attempt a dunk. Even the animations for actions like jumping to contest a shot evoke the ’90s arcade classic from Midway.
And boy, those dunks. Karch told me that there are over 300 different dunks in NBA Playgrounds, and they’re exactly the kind of physics-defying thing you remember from previous arcade basketball games. Right after my Griffin-to-Hill alley-oop, Karch came back down the court for a dunk in which the Chicago Bulls’ Dwyane Wade spun like the Tasmanian Devil while flying toward the basket. Certain NBA stars tagged as “epic players” have unique dunk animations.
The controls for everything are simple and easy to grasp. On the Xbox One, where my demo was, the A button passes and the X button shoots, while the right trigger controls sprinting; on defense, X attempts a steal, B does a shove and Y jumps. One option that didn’t exist back in the day in NBA Jam is a crossover dribble move, which is controlled by the right analog stick.
As far as arcade basketball games go, NBA Playgrounds doesn’t have something as splashy as NBA Street’s “Gamebreaker” mechanic or as iconic as NBA Jam’s “on fire” feature. But as you sink baskets and play good defense, you’ll build a Lottery Pick meter that, once full, will give you a random special ability for a limited time. One of them is actually a debuff for your opponents rather than a boost for you: Their shot clock runs twice as fast, giving them only six seconds instead of the game’s usual 12. Another boost puts star icons in various locations on the court; if you score from those spots, a multiplier will double, triple or even quadruple your point value.
As a two-on-two game, NBA Playgrounds can be played by four people in the same room. It will debut with two-player head-to-head play online, with four-player support coming soon in an “early update.” The studio has big plans for post-release content additions, including roster updates.
Saber will launch NBA Playgrounds with a roster of more than 150 NBA athletes, including current players such as LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard as well as retired legends like Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing. The game’s progression mechanic is focused on unlocking the entire roster gradually — you start with three card packs, which give you five players each, and you earn a new pack each time you level up. (If hearing about virtual card packs sets off alarm bells in your head, don’t fret: There are no microtransactions in NBA Playgrounds, although Karch said that if there’s a demand for the ability to buy card packs, Saber can always add that feature later.)
Each of the 30 NBA teams has at least three active players, plus retired athletes, and Saber aims to add hundreds more in post-release updates. You also earn experience for individual players, which gradually unlocks new moves like dunk animations. At launch, NBA Playgrounds will offer tournament modes for offline and online play, in addition to one-off exhibition games. Planned additions include a dunk contest and a three-point contest.
“I have access to pretty much everybody,” said Karch of roster possibilities, noting a few exceptions such as Charles Barkley and Kobe Bryant. As you can see in the video above, the art style goes for a caricature look that, while exaggerated, makes the players recognizable without requiring photorealistic graphics (which, of course, would be much more difficult for an independent studio like Saber to pull off).
Saber is a 16-year-old studio with a resume that includes Halo: The Master Chief Collection, the package that brought the first four Halo games to Xbox One, but it’s not a household name. It’s no small feat for an independent developer to secure a license for a marquee sports league like the NBA; Karch said he was “shocked” that Saber pulled it off, and believes he was able to do so only because he knew the right people at the league.
As a game that was tucked into a Nintendo Direct presentation for the Switch in mid-January, NBA Playgrounds caught a lot of people by surprise — including NBA 2K publisher 2K Sports, which was not necessarily thrilled to hear about an NBA-licensed product coming to consoles. Karch and the Saber team flew out to 2K’s headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area to reassure the company.
“We sat with him, and [...] he thought it was really cool,” said Karch of Greg Thomas, president of NBA 2K developer Visual Concepts. “And when he saw it, he said, ‘You know what? There’s a place in the market for a game like this.’ And this certainly is not a threat to what they’re doing on 2K.”
Indeed, NBA Playgrounds is different from NBA 2K in just about every way except using real teams and players, and it’s even launching during the NBA playoffs — about four and a half months before 2K’s simulation game traditionally debuts. But this game is something you can enjoy regardless of how much you care about basketball, and that’s the real key to its appeal.
Correction: Blake Griffin’s teammate in the video is George Hill, not Grant Hill. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.