In foul trouble with NBA All-World

Niantic has a template and they’re sticking with it.

It’s been a quiet time for location-based games. We haven’t seen a new release in ages and unfortunately, publishers are probably taking the wrong lessons from high-profile failures like The Witcher: Monster Slayer and Minecraft Earth, making the chances of future releases even more slim. I’ll say it time and time again: stop copying Pokémon Go, and stop trying to make the “forever” mobile game. (They won’t listen to me.)

Niantic, high on their own supply and still trying to chase their own 2016 smash hit (the aforementioned Pokémon Go), has announced over the years multiple location-based games that were later quietly canceled and never released. So, when the game NBA All-World was announced I couldn’t help but think, “huh” and “sure”, and then go on about my day. It was hard to take the announcement seriously.

I think fondly of my young, child-free days when I closely followed sports. Being in Washington, D.C. I rooted for all our horrible teams, kept up at all times to follow games in progress around various leagues, and listened intently to various sports podcasts to fill in the gaps when there were no games to follow. 

Basketball was my main poison. I was at the University of Maryland when they won their championship so that joy was forever branded on me. For a long time I worked across the street from the Washington Wizards’ (NBA) arena and my job tended to conveniently let out at game time, so it was easy to grab a last-second cheap ticket for a bad team. I was in it! I was a sports fan!

Then my kid was born. The tag of this website is that, “I have too many hobbies” and that became all too true. It was impossible to take care of a newborn and keep up with my many, many interests. Something had to go. 

“Sports”, the whole of it, was on the chopping block and it was easy to lose. The University of Maryland had chosen greed over history and left the storied Atlantic Coast Conference to go join the Big Ten Conference. (Ohio State? Michigan? A Maryland school has no history with these places!) The Wizards, as usual, stunk. I had already stopped watching the Washington football team, no longer able to cheer for their racist name with a clean conscience. And finally, it was the money. The only reason we had kept our cable package was sports, and a fresh new technology of streaming TV had emerged. We cut that cord.

In the present day, the release date for NBA All-World stayed in the back of my mind, and I wasn’t so out of sports to be turned off by the theme. Shoot, I’ve played location-based games with terrible themes. But, life had one more hookshot: COVID-19 finally found me.

It’s been a rough few months. Illnesses have hit my kid’s school like a wrecking ball and he’s brought home every single one of them. He’s a great kid and wears a mask every day, all day, but after our county lifted their mask mandate, everyone else in his school stopped wearing their masks. Masks only work against disease if both sides participate, and we were doomed from that moment forward.  

I downloaded NBA All-World and rolled over on our basement couch trying to shiver myself back to sleep (my wife hadn’t yet caught it and we were trying to keep it that way). It wasn’t until much later that I could bring myself to boot up the game, finally starting to fight the illness. Even after my contagiousness had passed, I was still feeling pretty shaky, but I was determined to get back up to speed. A brand-new location-based game would be just the ticket to finally knock out the ever-present fatigue. (That first walk around the block was rough.)

It’s beginning to feel like I’ve written a blog post for a cooking website— an over-long, meandering intro before I get to the recipe. I should probably talk about NBA All-World.

NBA All-World opening message. It's trite and poorly-worded.
I love to visit banks.

NBA All-World has you wandering the real world, collecting in-game currency from the game’s digital map, and meeting and challenging NBA players to games of basketball. After beating those players you can add them to your team, and work to level up that stable of players to make them better at future challenges. Using the database Niantic supplies to all their games, some special locations out in the world feature famous basketball courts where you can embed one of your players to face challenges from other real people playing the game.

A screenshot of NBA All World. It shows your avatar walking around a game map rendered from the real world. On the map are different activities you can activate if you visit that location in real life.

If you’ve played Ingress, Pokémon Go, Wizards Unite—any of Niantic’s games—you’ll recognize all of these game mechanics, and NBA All-World doesn’t really do anything new here.

Screenshot of a mini game in NBA All World.
I’m sure the game will improve with patches, but the mini games have been pretty buggy for me (and they take forever to start.).

I’ll be blunt. There’s no way this game survives for more than a couple years, at most. I don’t know who this game is for. I don’t know why this game exists. I don’t know why anyone would care to play this game for any significant length of time.

I’ve been so out of sports that I have no idea of who any of these young men are, but I can imagine past me being somewhat tickled by encountering a random journeyman NBA player who, for some reason, is just hanging out on my suburban street corner. I level up my “Larry Nance Jr.” and he becomes the avatar for my other NBA All-World encounters. I hope he’s not a jerk in real life.

A screenshot of my "character", Larry Nance Jr, in the game NBA All World

Even for a hardcore NBA fan, though, how much lasting appeal does that actually have? Gotta catch ‘em all? Gotta keep playing until I manage to mirror my roster against the real Washington Wizards? Then what?

The game designer in me screams at this game. What am I, the player, doing here? Even if there were other people in my neighborhood playing this game (and there aren’t), are we just endlessly trying to take control of the nearby digital basketball court from each other? To what conclusion? At least in a game like Ingress there’s some artifice of an interplanar sci-fi story to justify the ceaseless conflict. 

Screenshot from NBA All World that shows the ranking of players in the nearby park. I lost to a bunch of bots.
Love to lose to a bunch of bots?

I’m filled with questions. They burst from me. Does the game update when a real life NBA roster change happens? What ramifications does that have for NBA All-World? (And if none, why not?) What happens if/when a player *does* turn out to be a jerk? What if they commit a crime in real life? These are real human beings, after all. Does their game “character” disappear with all the time and resources I put into them?

One day some incident will probably force the developers to post an explanation for some of these questions, should the game last long enough. To be fair, I don’t know what’s on the game’s development roadmap, and what compromises were made to ship the thing. Heck, the game hasn’t been out all that long—maybe there are features already in the game that I don’t get to see until I reach a certain level. I get it, Niantic, I really do. It’s so much easier (and cheaper) to pitch an organization like the NBA on a white-label copy of Pokémon Go than on something completely new.  

But, I could do so much better than this. I would turn NBA All-World into a fully gamified portal to participating in the NBA season. Players in the video game would grow and shrink in ability based on their real world performance. The game would be an incredibly-sized fantasy basketball league, with game players getting to roleplay as the general managers of NBA teams in an innovative, interactive way. By matching the real flow of the basketball season, it would give the video game a distinct rhythm you could develop content around. Heck, it would get me watching games again, as I’d be invested in Larry Nance Jr.’s performance in a way that would never, ever happen otherwise. (Give me a call, Niantic.)

In the meantime, however, I can’t help but think that location-based games are on the brink of extinction. (I continue to keep an eye on the beta of Orna as our last great hope.) Anyone with a large bank account is too afraid to innovate, and anyone creative enough to do something different doesn’t have the resources to ship such a resource-intensive product. We’re stuck with a templated game design that hasn’t seen success since the summer of 2016, but game companies keep trying it anyway. 

I’m the location-based gaming Cassandra over here and I hate it.

UPDATE: On September 22, 2023 Niantic pulled the plug on NBA All-World. Woof, not even a year.