How Dr. J and Larry Bird Helped Build a Video Game Empire
This year, Electronic Arts celebrates its 35th anniversary. They might not have gotten there without the groundbreaking game 'One-on-One: Dr. J. vs. Larry Bird.'
Growing up, Trip Hawkins was a big fan of strategy board games; he's been a paying Strat-O-Matic customer for more than 50 years. While a student at Harvard University in the mid 1970s, he created AccuStat Football, blowing $5,000 of his father's money on a few hundred copies of a board game that found hardcore fans but not a larger audience. He loved his simulated pigskin creation, but for his friends it lacked a certain visual pizzazz.
"It was basically a computer game without a computer, and my friends didn't find it all that fun. They gravitated toward watching TV," says Hawkins. "I enjoyed the idea of a sports game that involved thinking, making choices, and living with the outcomes. When I first heard about computers, I thought, Someday, if I can combine the simulated gameplay with the pretty pictures of television, everyone will want to play it."
His first business venture may have been a flop, but he already had a plan to turn his beloved geeky football game into something bigger. Hawkins designed his own major with a focus on game design, and after the first retail store to rent microprocessors opened in Los Angeles in 1975, he began conceptualizing what his video-game company might look like.
After graduating from Harvard in 1976 and getting an MBA at Stanford, Hawkins spent a few years working for a small startup called Apple, eventually rising to Director of Strategy and Marketing before leaving to start his own company. Electronic Arts was officially founded and incorporated on May 28, 1982, with one major goal in mind: Hawkins, a sports nerd going back to his childhood, wanted to change the way sports games were played.
"It was hard to see the football game I poured myself into fail, but I realized two things. I loved being an entrepreneur, and I had a lot to learn about running a business," he says. "I'm not an engineer, but I was working with some of the best software developers in the world, who weren't seen as artists. The angle I decided to take was to embrace them as the creative divas that they were and treat video games as the new Hollywood."
As the company celebrates its 35th anniversary this week, it's worth noting one early title that proved to be especially pivotal in EA's transformation into the $4.4 billion juggernaut it is today, and did, in fact, fulfill Hawkins' dream.
The 1983 release of One-on-One: Dr. J. vs. Larry Bird brought professional athletes into the video-game realm for the first time. It was a big leap forward for the company, and for the industry. There had been games like MLB Baseball for Intellivision that slapped the logo on a box, but there had never been a video game that allowed people to play as the athletes they watched.
"Dr. J. vs. Larry Bird was a major breakthrough for us, and it held up really well over time," says Hawkins. "The all-time best games have mechanics players don't get tired of. One-on-One has that design elegance, and it stayed alive even past Dr. J's retirement when we brought Michael Jordan on board."
Over its lifespan, the game was a huge financial boon for EA Sports, but the biggest payoff was in how it shaped the company. Hawkins says One-on-One gave him the confidence to further develop team sports games, letting players live out their athletic dreams from the couch.
EA Sports now boasts best-selling Madden, NHL and FIFA franchises, but One-on-One was first.
"It's a fantasy streetball version of basketball, instantly appealing because as a fan, you know who Larry Bird and Julius Erving are," says Jeremy Saucier, assistant director for the International Center for the History of Electronic Games in Rochester, New York. "I grew up in Massachusetts, and in the early 1980s, it seemed like the Celtics and 76ers met in the Eastern Conference Finals every year. EA took the cultural currency of the rivalry to create a best-selling game the likes of which hadn't been seen before."
One-on-One was more than just a bridge from the rudimentary video games of yore to today's technical marvels. It was a unique gaming experience that's remembered fondly by kids of the short-shorts era. In a warm tribute to the game at the website Kill Screen, writer Abe Stein says One-on-One can be seen as "a piece of surrealist art" and "absurdist basketball" in comparison to naturalistic gaming experiences like NBA 2k17.
"I'm sure the game looks ancient now—today's games are almost like real life—but I'm proud I got to be part of an early success," Larry Bird told VICE Sports. "Knowing that Julius and I were the first guys ever involved in something like it is pretty cool."
Other factors helped lay the groundwork for EA's success. One-on-One came out in the same year that the great video-game crash of 1983 decimated the home console market. Some blamed the catastrophic release of Atari's E.T. the Extraterrestrial, thousands of copies of which were infamously buried in a New Mexico landfill. But E.T. was far from the only phoned-in title, and the glut of consoles and games flooding the market is widely believed to be the main culprit.
The Atari 2600 had been instantly popular since its release in 1977, but the company's glory days were over. EA came on to fill the gaming void.
"I considered the 2600 a toy, played for amusement, destined to be an electronic hula hoop that was dead in a few years," says Hawkins. "It only had 128 bytes of memory—notice I didn't say 'K'—so you couldn't do anything with it. What I was interested in was simulation, so we leapfrogged the 2600 and went to home computers. At the time, they cost around a thousand dollars, but were so much more powerful and allowed EA to do real software development."
Originally released for the Apple II, One-on-One would also become available for ColecoVision, Atari 800, Tandy TRS-80, and, crucially, as a floppy-disc game for the Commodore 64, the most popular computer in history. EA envisioned sports games as a staple from the outset, but Hawkins admits that baseball and football came before hoops in his hierarchy. His early focus was on the gridiron. He knew there wasn't enough processing power at the time to do a full 11-on-11 football game, but he had an idea based on his personal fandom.
"I'm a 49ers fan and EA launched the year of their first Super Bowl win, which followed 'The Catch,' Joe Montana to Dwight Clark. I thought maybe we could animate a quarterback, a receiver, and a couple of defensive players," says Hawkins. "The one thing I was certain of was that the game had to have the actual players in it, real-life heroes in a box. As it turned out, Atari made a deal with Montana to be an endorser of its entire product line, so I had to go a different route."
In considering how best to create a mano-a-mano game, Hawkins recalled a one-on-one basketball tournament sponsored by the hair-care product Vitalis. (Hawkins says he saw short black-and-white clips when he was a kid, but the only reference we found to the competition dates it to 1972, when Hawkins would have been 19. Check out the amazing title match between Bob Lanier and Jo Jo White. To honor the concept, the winner was paid $15,000 in singles!) Hawkins believed that a two-player basketball game could work because it would reflect a version of the sport people played in real life. Once he decided on the concept, he knew he wanted his favorite player in the game: Dr. J.
Julius Erving flew to the company's original headquarters in San Mateo, California, for principal photography and to give Hawkins and his team pointers. That was great, but Hawkins also needed to find the perfect stylistic foil to Erving, a sharp-shooting yin to Dr. J's sky-walking yang. And it would help if they were already NBA rivals.
"I played pinball as a kid, wasn't much for video games, but I remember when my agents explained what the concept was, I thought it was a great idea," Bird says. "I specifically remember the cover, it turned out great, really looked like Dr. J. and I just finished working out on a New York City playground… I can't remember if we shot it in New York. We must have. Sure looks like it."
Actually, both men had attended an event at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. EA photographers went to Massachusetts and grabbed Bird and Erving for a quick shoot afterwards. EA didn't have license to use Sixers or Celtics jerseys in the game, but luckily NBA jerseys wouldn't have fit with the playground motif, anyway.
Instead, EA told both players to wear street clothes for the cover shoot. They also instructed Erving to go shirtless and socks-up, and for both men to give their hardest-ass glare. It wasn't the Rucker, but it didn't really matter. It's not like they would've played an actual game.
"The photo features sprayed-on sweat," Hawkins says. "They both had lucrative professional basketball contracts, so they're not actually going to play one-on-one. If one of them got injured, EA would've had major issues."
Even the way the game shipped out to consumers was unique. Previously, floppy disc games were delivered in standard plastic baggies, no style whatsoever. Hawkins upped the flavor by going with a custom-sized cardboard record-album package. The 8-inch-square gatefold, with a sleeve for the game, was an entirely new presentation.
(For the record, Hawkins' favorite version was for the Commodore Amega, which included ambient sounds he and producer Joe Ybarra recorded live at a Warriors game. The hot dog and beer vendor sound samples were legit.)
For all of its early-80s technological innovation, One-on-One would've had all the lasting cultural cachet of Double Dunk had it not been a monster hit. The game starts, like so many amazing basketball careers, with two competitors, one ball, and a playground. It was as cool as Dr. J. from the jump, opening with a Mooged-out version of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" with options to play against the computer, and four levels ranging from "Park and Rec" to "Pro." Or, of course, the version that whiled away many a sunny afternoon indoors, the head-to-head showdown, played either timed or to a certain score. Players even got to choose "Winner's Outs" or "Loser's Outs" on the possessions. (Law of the hooping land: half-court games are winner's outs.)
" One-on-One hit at a time that allowed it to be successful, but it wouldn't have had the same impact if it didn't have such great playability," says Saucier, one of the early video-game historians. "It wasn't that long since Pong, the original sports game, but One-on-One seems like decades ahead in graphic advancement. Compared to Atari Basketball, which also featured two players, the game play of One-on-One has sophisticated movement. It's an extraordinary upgrade."
One-on-One didn't miss a trick. It features "Hacking" fouls called by a diminutive ref, traveling, 24-second shot-clock violations, instant replays (believed to be a video game debut), turnaround over-the-head baseline jumpers, 360-degree pirouettes in the lane, fallaways, putbacks, plus the sartorially correct vintage kneepads, accurate non-NBA jersey numbers, and, depending on your vantage point, rec-specs. There were also nifty audio details: dribbles that sound like a metronome, swishes that sound like rustling leaves, and a referee's whistle that sounds like nails on a blacktop.
"I'm an entertainment designer, it's what I do. I knew if we got Erving and Bird you already have built-in dramatic tension," says Hawkins, who currently teaches entrepreneurship and leadership at UC-Santa Barbara, and mentors men in recovery at his local rescue mission. "We kept the layout simple, half-court with a three-point line, so we could use all our animating power on these two spindly guys and their advanced moves. We wanted the shooting to be realistic, the matchup to have organic flow, and to have the attacking and defending be authentic, so you couldn't just run into a player and nothing happens. Physics had to be accurate. We also added the feature of making the jump and the release of the ball, at its apex, two separate motions. It was the game's most beautiful feature. I used it later with the John Madden 'Oomph' button."
As smooth as the gameplay was, there is one glitch that runs contrary to the popular collective memory of One-on-One. As it was being created, a young undisciplined developer was tasked with using accurate shooting percentages for Bird and Erving to highlight their individual skillsets. He failed to do so, which means they both have the same moves. It's true. Dr. J. didn't dunk more than Larry; Bird didn't make more threes than Erving.
Still, the legacy of One-on-One endures. Sure, it's graphically antiquated when stacked up next to the just-released NBA Playgrounds (which, side note, looks awesome as hell), but its hip-hop vibe is as relevant as ever. EA's statement game dropped right as rap records moved beyond the simple party songs that defined the genre's early years. It was released the same year as Kurtis Blow's "Basketball," which named-checked both Erving and Bird, and came hard on the heels of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's classic "The Message." One-on-One's packaging shared the gritty graffiti-strewn, baked-asphalt Rucker Park ethos of the song that took hip-hop in an entirely new direction, capturing the hard realities of urban living. The lettering looks just like the chalk scribblings on Gotham's streetball meccas. You could totally see The Get Down crew playing it at Shaolin Fantastic's crib.
Electronic Arts cleaned up. In 1983, One-on-One sold for $40 and reached No. 2 on the Softalk magazine bestseller list. (Over the long tail, it kept selling at annual sales cycle reductions to $30, $20, $10.) Hawkins estimates the original version sold more than a million units, with sales numbers of several million over its lifespan. It paid off for the Atlantic Division foes, as well. Both Erving and Bird signed deals for $25,000, and a 2.5 percent royalty rate, according to Hawkins. Dr. J. also got a bit of company stock, a perk not offered to his Indiana counterpart.
In return, the Larry Bird and Dr. J helped turn EA into a powerhouse.
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