Ultimate Rivals: The Court interview: Sports' biggest stars prepare to jam

The entire sports world is set to collide on the basketball court in Ultimate Rivals: The Court. To learn more about it, we spoke with Bit Fry Games founder and CEO Ben Freidlin.


Gaming has hit new heights over the past several years across many genres. However, sports hasn't been one of them. Sony's MLB The Show hits a consistent quality level every year, but that's become the exception rather than the rule. Annual franchises like Madden and NBA 2K have left fans disenchanted and hungry for better sports games. BitFry Games has heard the call and is stepping forward with a new line of sports games, the second of which was recently announced. Ultimate Rivals is coming back for a sequel with Ultimate Rivals: The Court.

Game Informer first broke the news last week, revealing an arcade 3v3 basketball follow-up to BitFry's first outing, Ultimate Rivals: The Rink. Ultimate Rivals: The Court features pros from across the leagues. Not "league" singular, but "leagues" plural. BitFry Games has a deal in place with players associations from all over the sports worlds, including the MLBPA, NBAPA, NFLPA, NHLPA, and more. That means The Court will be welcoming superstars from other sports, in addition to the NBA's best.

We love our sports games here at Shacknews and we were interested in learning more about Ultimate Rivals: The Court. That's why we reached out to BitFry Games founder and CEO Ben Freidlin to ask about development on The Court, working on the Apple Arcade platform, expanding to PC, and more.

Shacknews: You're coming off work on Ultimate Rivals: The Rink. What made you want to go from the hockey rink to the basketball court for Ultimate Rivals: The Court?

Ben Freidlin, BitFry Games CEO: This was never an easy choice, but there are aspects to the environment of hockey and the [gameplay] loop that make it slightly [easy] to solve and a great place to start. I would say though, I fought against the conventional wisdom to launch basketball first, due to its wider global footprint. However, I believe hockey represents an incredible arcade game loop opportunity, and the first deal we ever signed was with the NHL and our first highlight athlete signed was [Wayne] Gretzky, so it was a real honor to be able to bring their sport to the market first, and a decision I remain confident in. I'm proud of what we did with The Rink, which we built in eight months flat, and plan to continue to support and evolve.

Shacknews: What fascinates me about your games is that you have licensing deals with almost every major sports league's players association. What was your pitch to them? How were you able to make this happen?

Freidlin: My co-founder Todd Zeile (MLB) and I spent four years threading the needle to wave together the largest sports licensing matrix ever created, and it was literally thousands of calls, many dozens of meetings, and more ups and downs than we can remember. There were plenty of times where it seemed like one of the deals wouldn't work out, and we needed almost every single one of them to be done in order for the concept to really be strong. I think one of the advantages we had in achieving this was that the vision was perceived as a really cool evolution of anything preceding it, but more importantly, incredibly improbable.

I think the fact that we were all in, and committed to making this happen, and that nobody else in the market could be insane enough to seriously attempt it, gave it the lift it needed. We just refused to give up on it, because there was not a single person who heard about it and even challenged it on the basis of merit, merely on the basis of feasibility.

But we made sure the feasibility really came down to our willingness to not rest until it was done. More practically speaking to your question, we built the company early on with a network of pro athletes, a former MLB team owner, and eventually secured the support of David Stern, the then Commissioner Emeritus of the NBA. All of those relationships really helped and we're grateful for their belief in us.

Shacknews: Will the full Ultimate Rivals: The Rink roster make it into The Court? Can we expect to see some new faces?

Freidlin: Yes, at launch of The Court, every player in The Rink will be playable in The Court. That is one essence of the vision of the franchise, and we have more planned thereafter.

Shacknews: Why did you decide on 3-on-3 basketball, as opposed to a full 5-on-5 or the 2-v-2 arcade style used in games like NBA Jam?

Freidlin: We have always been committed to an arcade experience, and have great respect for what the existing players in the market are doing with simulation 5-on-5. As for why we went with 3-on-3, it began with a bit of a differentiation constraint. There already were two other 2-on-2 licensed titles in the market, and it felt like we were going to dilute our differentiation and lose the ability to really flex the crossover of so many other sports, by having just four. We also found the tactical depth of 3-on-3 eventually made for some compelling choices and gameplay longetivity that is harder to maintain in 2-on-2. There is no purely right answer here, both options have their design strengths and weaknesses, but 3-on-3 is a semi-fresh mode by today’s market standards, and really spoke to our vision in the end.

Shacknews: How much of an influence did NBA Jam have on this game?

Freidlin: Look, I always say that Jam is the Abbey Road of arcade basketball games. The influence is there whether it's conscious or subconscious. I think we see our work in this market as funk to the mainstream pop rock. I mean in the end, we wanted this to be more of a contrast to what is safe and typical, while still maintaining a great deal of mass commercial appeal. You can combine these facets in commercial art, and if there is a musical holy grail equivalent contrast to Abbey Road, is it Purple Rain? I mean that’s not for us to judge, but if we had a north star, if we are idolizing a contrast that has lasting power in the hearts of gamers in this market, that would be a dream come true artistic result.

We didn’t feel the need to constantly check where we were in comparison to the games that came before us. We look near the end, where did we end up? Certain benchmarks can’t be ignored. Speed, tempo, appropriate irreverence, and so forth. But we were more actively influenced by Street Fighter in how we made The Court, than really by any basketball game, per se.

Shacknews: You even got Tim Kitzrow for this game! How did you pitch the idea to him and what was his reaction?

Freidlin: This is an idea that I long rejected, because again, we did not want the comparison to his prior work, because it’s impossible to live up to that. I had some people pressuring me to consider it, before even talking to him. And I felt for it to work we needed to bring him to a new place, not just rehash something. We finally envisioned a way to do that, and I just hit him directly on Twitter and showed him the game.

Tim is in a league of his own. I joke that he is like the Robin Williams of video game voice artistry and comedy, and what I mean by that is that he has that same effortless energy, where his ideas are flowing brilliantly and vigorously and it’s really quite genius. I think it's just a blessing that he saw in our work something that was new enough to inspire him to want to be a part of it, and I know that we're just beginning to scratch the potential of something special with him.

Shacknews: How long are you aiming for each game to be? How many minutes and will games be played in quarters or halves?

Freidlin: This is one of the great puzzles of what we're doing because each device platform has a different sweet spot. If you’re playing on a phone or tablet, you just might want to be done in 3-4 minutes. In the end, we're not making a sim, so short matches fit the sweet spot, even probably for console. But I think we hit on something unique recently, when while playing through a test of our first time user experience, I reached a stage where you have to score two layups and two jump shots. I deliberately failed to complete the layups, just so I could hang out and shoot jump shots. For two hours, hundreds and hundreds of points. I just found that fun, the mechanic is that tight.

And from that, maybe borne what we're calling Arcade Mode. Think a roguelike meets arcade sports, like Space Invaders or some type of hybrid where you start with four quarters, but unlock additional "quarters" and high score targets, and play potentially indefinitely, all along the way opening up ways to customize the rules, the environment, the look of the characters. Would you watch that? I would! I think all along our work has been about deconstructing these loops, like a tiramisu. Here's a piece of ladyfinger cake, here’s a scoop of mascarpone, here's a little ramekin of espresso on the side. Mix it up how you want. That's the age we're in. I think trying to religiously adhere to old tropes in how sports are translated into video games is going to lead you back down the path we all came from, not to anywhere new, not to where a new generation of gamers are looking for a journey to.

End of day, we need to deliver something that is at least honoring the sports and licenses we are building on, but this is arcade sports. And it's Ultimate arcade sports. That has to mean something, otherwise the word "ultimate" shouldn't be in the title.

Shacknews: Can you give some examples of Ultimate moves that players can perform over the course of a game?

Freidlin: I can’t get over the NHL ultimate. I mean, you invoke that while controlling any NHL player and having enough meter charged, and you then have the ability to freeze any opponent who you come into contact with, frozen, right there on the court, in motion pose, while you power play your way to the next basket. The soccer ultimate is also pretty amazing, kicking a hale of projectile pulses from high above the court, and aiming at the enemy team to incapacitate them temporarily.

These moves are fast and to the point, but pack a heavy impact and can really alter the course of the match. We spend a lot of time thinking these through, balancing them, animating them and adding VFX, but not making them too long, so they don't end up like a cutscene. Originally, when we scoped out our design for The Rink, we thought each team would have their own ultimate. Then reality set in. This isn't possible, not in the time we had, let alone the budget, and we knocked it down to 12. Then we laughed hard at that and realized we only could do one per sport and that, more than that, created a memory load that wasn't even a benefit to the product. Gamers already had so many permutations of athletes and sports to consider within the context of one game. In the end, I think we have a great balance between regular actions in each sport and the ultimates themselves.

Shacknews: You're mainly going to be on Apple Arcade, but you're also bringing The Court to Steam. What made you also want to bring this game to PC and is the door open for this game to release on other platforms?

Freidlin: We have always said this is ultimately intended to go everywhere, PC and console, which can mean PlayStation, Xbox, and Switch. We're incredibly proud to have our beachhead on Apple Arcade. That is a very innovative place to be, and one of the greatest companies in the history of companies, period. We have always intended to then bring it to console and PC, but at the same time we are very circumspect in doing that the right way, and not just rushing it out to every place it could potentially live.

These are serious pieces of work, even if the games themselves are meant to be fun and totally unserious. These aren't throwaway titles to us, and that means having the right partners and the right thought that goes into tailoring the best experience on each platform. Imagine if you put Mario Kart on other consoles. You would line up that shot very carefully, and treat each console as its own unique set of opportunities and challenges. It's no different here, we are going to focus on quality always over quantity and pure speed to market. That’s what the consumer deserves and what will lead to a lasting franchise.

Shacknews: Lastly, do you hope to keep this series going for other sports?

Freidlin: While I cannot officially announce any licenses beyond what's already been revealed (our NFLPA license press release does mention a football title and we were the first studio to ever secure a console football video game title outside of EA, that is not widely reported but it's a fact, we did that first), I can tell you we are planning to develop a football and baseball game inside the Ultimate Rivals franchise, so stay tuned for what that will look like and who’s involved in that. Those are very different types of game loops, semi-turn-based at their core, semi-asynchronous in their potential, in ways that hockey and basketball are not. We have an opportunity to really innovate this category as a total suite of titles, not just individually, and that too is fresh fruit to pick.

Ultimate Rivals: The Court is set to release later this year on Apple Arcade. Look for it to arrive shortly afterwards on PC.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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