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Pokémon Go makers take on basketball with NBA All-World

AR mobile game brings familiar gameplay loops to street hoops

Basketball is getting the Pokémon Go treatment in NBA All-World, Niantic’s next augmented reality mobile game. The developer, the league, and its players association jointly announced the new title is in development Tuesday morning.

NBA All-World will take gameplay loops familiar to Pokémon Go fans and apply them to basketball, as both a recreational sport and lifestyle. In the free-to-play game, players will be able to collect star NBA players, buff and customize them with items picked up from visits to real-world locations, and take on other players in one-on-one matches at their neighborhood courts and other locations.

“This is where the NBA’s gaming and lifestyle meets the real world metaverse,” Marcus Matthews, the game’s senior producer, told media in an online briefing Monday. “We’re enveloping the world around you into a basketball universe, or what I like to call turning the real world into a basketball theme park.”

Matthews, a veteran of Sega of America’s sports publishing and the very first NFL and NBA 2K games, joined Niantic in 2021 to oversee NBA World. Adrienne O’Keeffe, the NBA’s vice president for global partnerships, said the league and Niantic began discussing a collaboration about five years ago, shortly after Pokémon Go’s summer 2016 launch made it a mainstream, global phenomenon.

“They came to us about the same time we were thinking about them,” O’Keeffe said. “From our first meeting […] it was clear that we saw where this could go, and ever since then, we’ve been working on the game and getting ready for this moment.”

Matthews said NBA All-World will touch most aspects of recreational basketball that he enjoyed growing up as a sports- and computing-obsessed kid in Jacksonville, Florida. “We used to walk to the park and I’d play basketball with my friends, and we were all there looking for bragging rights,” he said. “In NBA All-World, now you could do the same thing.”

The game will use a database of “hundreds of thousands” of real-life courts and other basketball-playing locations; players will also find stops at sporting goods stores or convenience stores, Matthews said. Swinging by those could pick up a new pair of virtual shoes for an NBA All-World street baller, he said, or top off their stamina for the next game.

“King of the Court” games, similar to playing and winning showdowns in Pokémon Go’s gyms, will be one-on-one contests, using swipe-based commands to shoot, block, post-up, and fake. NBA All-World’s challenges will also include minigames such as a three-point contest, Matthews said. Real-world NBA players who appear in NBA All-World will be recognizable not only in their appearance, but their behavior. “Chris Paul will play like Chris Paul, James Harden will have his step-back jumper in our game,” Matthews said. “Not only are we going to push the envelope on the AR part of the game, we’re also going to push the envelope on the gameplay experience.”

In addition to collecting rare or exclusive drops, similar to the limited-time events players have thronged since Pokémon Go’s launch, NBA All-World will also implement “location-based map storytelling,” Glenn Chin, Niantic’s head of global marketing, said in the call. For example, the game will point out the court in California’s East Bay where Portland Trail Blazers’ star Damian Lillard grew up working on his game.

“So it’s not just some random court that you’re playing,” Matthews added. “We feel like, with the diversity of players around the globe who now play in the NBA, and who grew up playing in different leagues, different cities, different college towns, there will be a prior context that a traditional mobile or console game cannot do.”

That said, Niantic is clear that it views NBA All-World more as a casual sports video game than a core gaming experience. Developers want it to appeal to casually interested fans as well as superfans of the league, which Chin noted touches millions through different channels — ranging from music to sneaker culture.

“Competitive one-on-one, the leaderboards, at real courts, will be an anchor of the experience,” Matthews said. “But it won’t be the only experience. I would love for someone like my niece, who’s in the sixth grade and who plays on her middle school team, to be able to get a player like Steph Curry, and play with him in our game, and customize her player. She may never go to the leaderboards or compete to become a top player, or brag among her friends, but there’ll be enough depth for her to have a great experience.”

NBA All-World does not yet have a launch date or release window, but Niantic is taking registrations at NBAAllWorld.com. It will be available on Android and iOS mobile devices.

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