Ultimate Rivals: The Court wants to be the ‘What If?’ of sports games

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The concept behind Ultimate Rivals: The Court reminds me of playing with my action figures as a kid: The forces of the Empire would team up with Megatron and his Decepticons, with backup from Skeletor, to take on the Rebel Alliance flocking under Optimus Prime’s banner.

Ultimate Rivals is a mobile sports game that brings in athletes from a number of sports. Developer Bit Fry describers it as “NBA Jam meets Street Fighter.” It’s flashy, with bright neon courts, moves, and players. It takes place on a basketball court, but when you have hockey players involved, they’ll comes out wearing their pads and skates and wielding a stick. A baseball player may bat a ball into the hoop. It’s the studio’s second game (The Rink was the first). It’s on Apple Arcade and in beta for PC.

When I first saw this, I wasn’t thinking about game balance or mechanics. I was thinking how difficult it would be to get so many pro leagues and players associations to sign on. Licenses that Bit Fry has secured include:

  • NHL
  • NHL Players’ Association
  • MLB
  • MLB Players Association
  • NBA
  • NBA Players Association
  • NFL Players Association
  • Women’s U.S. Soccer
  • WNBA
  • WWE
  • Wayne Gretzky

“It definitely took a lot of time and it is a testament to our CEO, Ben Freidlin — he is the one that, along with Todd Zeile [its chief business development officer], went league-by-league and had the conversations,” director of game design Arjun Rao said over email. “It was not an easy lift by any stretch, but I think they all saw the value in the concept. It’s truly something that’s never been done before.”


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Bit Fry had to do separate deals with the National Basketball Players Association, as that’s a different license than the NBA. Same goes for other players associations.

It has players from the NBA, NHL, and MLB. With the Olympics capturing the sports world right now, I asked why it doesn’t have the likes of gymnast Simone Biles or swimmer Katie Ledecky.

“We put a lot of time and effort into creating a new sport-type athletes because there is an implication on past/present/future installations of the interconnected Ultimate Rivals franchise. As a result we have to be able to take our time and be very careful with who/what we bring in — it also makes it very hard to justify one-off additions to the roster,” he said.

He cites an example of Bit Fry’s future wrestling partnership.

“Take, for example, the WWE Superstars & Legends that we will be adding to the franchise in a future update. Those characters will have their own unique moves, animations, models, and even a brand-new Ultimate Ability. That’s what is required to add them to just one game, let alone [two-plus] games when you consider The Rink,” he said. “That said, we are always looking into new additions to the brand, but in any case we would need to do it in a way that makes sense from a business/franchise perspective.”

Homage to arcade sports

Above: Steelers star WR JuJu Smith Shuster can be a star on the virtual court, too.

Image Credit: Bit Fry

Ultimate Rivals’ look reminds me of the likes of NBA Jam and other arcadey sports games, just with more neon. That’s intentional.

“When it comes to arcade sports games, it doesn’t get more iconic than basketball with the likes of NBA Jam, Street, etc. After proving ourselves with The Rink, we figured it was time to establish ourselves in the pantheon of great arcade basketball games … which a number of us grew up playing,” Rao said.

I was curious about the lasery neon look — why did Bit Fry make this choice?

“We’re unapologetic in just about everything we do, including the visual direction of the game,” Rao said. “Ultimate Rivals takes place in an alternate future, sci-fi world complete with dystopian corporations, rogue AI, and simulated worlds. The Ultimate Rivals universe is something that we’re excited to reveal more of as we continue to expand on the franchise, but the visual tells have been there since day one in The Rink.”

I just wonder how much brighter this neon style makes Angels’ superstar Shohei Ohtani’s smile look.


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