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Why "On Fire" Lives On, 20 Years after NBA Jam

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"On fire" has been in the basketball lexicon for years, but it wasn't truly born until 1993, when Midway's NBA Jam rocked arcades for the first time. NBA Jam brought "on fire" to life and made the hot hand literal. Allow Latrell Sprewell to demonstrate the power of fire, in the game's 1994 Tournament Edition update for Super Nintendo:

Super speed with infinite turbo. Automatic range out to the half-court logo. Enough strength to throw the biggest opponents (and your teammates) to the floor. The grip to rip the ball away from a Dominique Wilkins monster jam. And the most telling superstar trait of them all: the ability to make refs look away from your blatant goal tending violations.

Fire was a brilliant game mechanic for a number of reasons, the most important being it's just fun as hell to make it rain with impunity. But "on fire" has far outlived its mid-90s arcade origins. Linger around any college campus on a weekend night and you'll come across beer pong players using "NBA Jam rules" -- sink three in a row and you're on fire, just like in the game. And of course the franchise didn't get revived by Electronic Arts in 2010 without fire -- the new logo, after all, was a ball on fire, and the downloadable version on Xbox Live Arcade is titled "NBA Jam: On Fire Edition."

1990s sports video games were in a tough spot. The goal of most sports video games is to give the player the virtual experience of playing in the NBA or the NFL or the MLB -- or soccer, as the latest FIFA 14 ad campaign shows target="_blank">in a somewhat disturbing fashion -- but such a goal demanded a realism impossible with the comparatively puny computing power of the time. Some games attempted simulation -- think Tecmo Super Baseball, EA Sports' NBA Showdown, and the Nintendo-licensed Super Play Action Football and NHL Stanley Cup. And all four tried (and succeeded, considering the technology) to make the game look like its respective sport, but the game mechanics were invariably clunky and the feel of each game was lost.

Here's gameplay video from Showdown, also released in 1993:

Showdown looks more like the NBA than Jam -- there's five players on the court, none of them are jumping 10 feet over the rim, nothing is in flames, etc. But the pacing is all wrong. There's no soul to the action. And offense was too easy -- just run around a pick and you're free for a barely-animated dunk.

This is why we needed fire. Fire took one of the most transcendent parts of watching an NBA game -- the unstoppable player riding a hot streak -- and gave it life, allowed us to become a part of it. So what if there's nothing realistic about it? It was alive, and that's more than can be said about the games of this era, which have tried to find some Holy Grail of realism.

Technology now allows something approximating reality in sports video games. These days, Madden, 2K, The Show, FIFA , and all the other dominant franchises certainly look like the real thing. But I still find myself asking when I play them: does it feel real? There's no accounting for taste, but my answer has always been "no." There needs to be something else, something that captures the imagination of the player.

"On fire" and the rest of the concepts NBA Jam popularized have stuck with 90s gamers for so long for just that reason. I don't expect realistic sports video games to die. But I find it hard to believe there isn't room for something out there like NBA Jam -- remakes aside -- to exist in today's video game world. Sports fans and gamers need something imaginative, even wacky, to enthrall them the way "on fire" did 20 years ago.
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