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Admit it, you really want to play sports video games like it’s 1989

How indie studio Bit Fry is reviving the sports video game.

Admit it, you really want to play sports video games like it’s 1989
[Image: courtesy of Bit Fry]

Things were getting a little too real for Ben Freidlin.

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The former software engineer for Microsoft and JPMorgan Chase saw an opening in the gaming space to break from the hyperrealistic sports franchises that have dominated the category (NBA 2K, Madden NFL, etc.) and resurface the irreverent, arcade-style games he grew up with in the 1980s and ’90s, à la Blades of Steel, R.B.I. Baseball, and NBA Jam.

Freidlin created the indie Bit Fry Game Studios in 2013, and through a partnership with Apple Arcade launched the company’s first title, Ultimate Rivals: The Rink, in 2019.

With real-life athletes licensed from across the NBA, NHL, WNBA, and more, The Rink is a cartoonish mishmash of hockey and fighting gameplay. Bit Fry recently released its followup, The Court, with the same premise, except the sport of choice is basketball.

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“I started the studio with the goal of recapturing that opportunity for gamers to be able to play games that were very easy to pick up and play, but had a lot of depth to them and put more premium on their kinetic reactions to what was on-screen,” Freidlin says. “It’s going back to what I always perceived as the origin of video games, which was arcade cabinet experiences that tested your ability to combine hand-eye coordination and raw gameplay skill.”

As it turns out, Freidlin may have made a smarter bet on campy nostalgia than he may have thought.

Last year, FiveThirtyEight charted the decline of sports video games among gamers, stating, “Sports gamers have fewer choices now than ever before, and the games they’re left with—while typically looking great on current-gen consoles—have stalled out in quality, eliciting fan revolts over a lack of innovation and a frequent use of microtransaction services.”

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Here’s how Bit Fry could be the innovation the sports game space needs right now.

The “Natural” pivot

Freidlin’s original conceit for a sports video game was an arcade-style version of the 1984 baseball drama The Natural starring Robert Redford. While scouting possible voice-over talent, Freidlin reached out to former professional baseball player turned film/TV producer Todd Zeile through a mutual friend.

Zeile produced the 2012 Charlie Sheen sitcom Anger Management (and racked up more than 2,000 hits and 250 home runs in his 16-year MLB career), and Freidlin was eyeing Sheen to lend his voice to the game. While that idea didn’t pan out, Zeile was pulled into Freidlin’s vision of disrupting the gaming space by breaking rank with titles focused on realism.

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“He recognized that sports games had really consolidated among a few major publishers and towards ultra simulation, and that fun pick-up-and-play sports games had sort of gone away—but he didn’t believe that audience went away,” says Zeile, who is now a Bit Fry cofounder and its chief business development officer. “There was, in our opinion, some daylight to be able to navigate that very competitive gaming world without directly competing with the other sports games on the market because they were very different.”

Through his connections in the sports world, Zeile became an integral part of one of Ultimate Rivals’s biggest selling points: licensing its roster of real professional athletes across multiple leagues.

“Being able to cross these athletes into the same universe, you might draw fans in from other sports. And you also create a year-round seasonality,” Zeile says. “Madden or NBA 2K are very popular during [football and basketball] season, but they wane during the seasons of the other sports. We thought this collective universe would create a 365-day season.”

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While there is an awe factor in watching soccer powerhouse Megan Rapinoe square up against NBA star James Harden, Freidlin was intentional in ensuring that the irreverent gameplay of NBA Jam or NHL Hitz that served as Ultimate Rivals’s inspiration was elevated and not just a direct, nostalgic regurgitation.

“We really kind of pride ourselves on our technical slash artistic capability,” Freidlin says. “We’re not trying to slap a bunch of jerseys and team marks on a thin layer of gameplay and market it and cash grab.”

“What’s unique about this game is that when we think arcade, it’s more of the core experience,” adds Arjun Rao, director of game design at Bit Fry. “It’s less of a snapshot in time and more like, How is this like a fighting game? How does this compare to Asteroids? We obviously pay careful attention to the authenticity of the sports loop, but everything else that we layer on top of that, the science fantasy elements, the ultimate moves, there’s all sorts of things that come from all over the world with video games.”

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It’s that kind of innovation that sports gaming needs.

A real opportunity for fantasy

By FiveThirtyEight’s estimation from analyzing recent reviews of popular sports titles, gamers have fallen out of love with the more mainstream options due to a lack of choice:

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to see each major league sell its license to multiple publishers at the same time, across multiple consoles. For instance, in 2002 alone, there were four pro football simulation games available on the PS2 or Xbox—Madden, NFL 2K3, NFL GameDay, and NFL Fever—plus an arcade option (NFL Blitz 20-03) and a more kid-friendly offering (Backyard Football) as well. The variety meant gamers had options to choose from; if Madden didn’t suit their style of play, they weren’t simply stuck with it. And the competition meant that each game had to improve over time, which led to the addition of countless new features—ones that Madden has been known to recycle even today.

FiveThirtyEight hinted at a salve through the reemergence of arcade-style games—and Bit Fry intends to capitalize on gamers’ desire for choice by expanding beyond mobile to consoles in the future. In fact, Bit Fry launched with console gaming in mind before landing its Apple Arcade partnership, which Freidlin believed to be an ideal platform to get Ultimate Rivals to market and then expand down the line.

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“Console has a tremendous audience of sports gamers. So there’s a natural, untapped market in the space that we’re leading right now, which is the arcade sports,” Freidlin says. “And then I do think that [Ultimate Rivals’s] gameplay on a large-screen TV is phenomenal. A lot of people who play it on a controller attached to their phones say it’s a fantastic experience. So to leave out console would be a lost opportunity.”

Bit Fry plans to release The Rink and The Court on the video-game streaming platform Steam in the near future. But outside of console and streaming, Freidlin is thinking even further down the line for Bit Fry’s future, namely creating its own intellectual property.

Even though licensing the image and likeness of professional athletes is a core part of Ultimate Rivals’s experience, Freidlin acknowledges the limitations that can impose.

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[Image: courtesy of Bit Fry]
“You’re limited in the sense that you are developing an entertainment experience around something that preexists,” he says. “So if you veer too far off of that, it doesn’t really make sense anymore. If you want a blank canvas to do something that was really radical from a gameplay standpoint, it’s a lot easier to start with something of your own making.”

Freidlin says his team has already started developing a comic-book backstory for an undisclosed project that could have the potential to expand to TV and film franchises alongside gaming. It may seem like a lofty ambition for an indie developer, but the appetite for innovative games and platforms like Apple Arcade spotlighting games from startups certainly gives a studio like Bit Fry more than a fighting chance.

“We’re almost at a point where it’s peak games,” Freidlin says. “And it’s a really fun time to be part of it.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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