4 out of 5
This is a big story, and thus, fittingly, it’s Boss Fight Books’ largest volume to date, topping 200 pages. As a cost of that expansiveness, the scope of it isn’t always clear: why author Reyan Ali starts things off from such an aerial view; why the story keeps going past the point of its covered game’s release and legacy; why it keeps tabs on almost every player in the development and management team. This simply goes against the grain for most video game stories, which highlight principle leads, and track the specifics that brought them to game X, and then dig in to game X’s nitty gritty and we’re done. But when allowed the room to explore, Ali makes it clear: the story of NBA Jam is the story of a whole team, and even a company, and it takes these pages to understand why this historical footnote is worth being a historical footnote.
It’d be easy to follow NBA Jam via the path of of Mark Turmell, who was a bright and bold personality often associated with the game. He definitely gets his page space here – one of many people Reyan not only researched, but reached out to for new interviews – but Jam’s 13 chapters require us to start back before Jam was Jam, and its company – Midway – hadn’t yet partnered with pinball manufacturer Bally. This, too, is an important step, at least in building up to the rather roundabout path the team took to making a sports game with Jam’s particular flair, and also allows Reyan to explore the cross-networking of the various talents whose enthusiasm and camaraderie would eventually push the game to its final, known state. Unlike a lot of BFB focuses, which can be said to be about passion projects that followed linear progressions from one game to another, or sequels which had developers assigned, NBA Jam grew out of disparate elements and the need to push beyond what was available at the time. All of the things that became highlights – being on fire; Tim Kitzrow’s animated voiceovers; the crazy dunks – were ideas that were iterated and debated on, and we get to hear about that slow (and possibly risky) crawl to success.
When Ali steps back to track how Midway and Acclaim would split over NBA licensing, and the downward spin of Midway (…and Acclaim) thereafter, it again, initially, seems rather puzzling: not uninteresting, but unclear how it ties into NBA Jam directly. This is brought back around when members of the team reconvene for a successful reboot in the Wii era; without the context of the highs and lows of the franchise – and a game that could be said to have built and, when not necessarily iterated on successfully, broken the company – the importance of this reboot wouldn’t be clear. It’s also a testament to personality versus corporate driven gaming: NBA Jam (and some of its spiritual followups, like NFL Blitz) were designed by individuals, and things started to crumble when higher ups wanted, instead, to drive by market goals.
While there are points in NBA Jam where the immediate focus isn’t clear, the endgame of Reyan Ali’s 200 page march – starting from the very start and taking it past the ‘typical’ conclusion – is very much worth it, highlighting not only the bright personalities that were mainly aligned with the game, but also the many key people in the trenches who were just as important, and showing how important a contextual view can be when studying a piece of history.