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Flex NBA feels like a formative step in the marriage of augmented reality and board games.

From Sequoia Games, Flex NBA pits two squads of players in a turn-based spin on basketball. It uses tiles with varying styles of striking artwork to represent the player. These are like Pokémon cards.

What makes Flex NBA special is that it also has a smartphone app, and not only does this bring an AR component to game (watching your players pull of moves and such), it also levels up your cards. Your steps, for example, can power up your copy of Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. And this would make your copy different than your friend’s.

It’s an intriguing concept, one with potential for a variety of gameplay mechanics and brand tie-ins and promotions. Sequoia took the concept to Kickstarter, where slam-dunked its goal of $15,000 in less than a half-hour.

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Recently, I interviewed Daniel Choi of Sequoia Games about the project and the possibilities that come from mixing traditional board games with AR. Because of the pandemic setting back shipping schedules, Sequoia won’t be sending out Kickstarter and preorder boxes of the game until September.

This is an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: Tell me about Sequoia Games? Is this your first project? Is this something you’re building the company around?

Daniel Choi: Initially, we’re going to build our company around Flex. Our first iteration is pro basketball. We’re focused on creating a platform that crosses the physical and digital worlds. I think the game world is too split. Either you have 1960 Monopoly or you have iOS and PS5. There’s a world that exists in between. The genesis of all this was being a father and a world ranked CCG player. You fuse those two things. I’ve also played a ton of games since I was 10 years old. For me it was like, get my kids off the devices, but I still want to enjoy and consume some of my favorite things, like basketball. I didn’t have time to play a 48-minute NBA2K game. It was frustrating having Steph Curry wide open for a 3 and missing because I couldn’t time the joystick correctly. I started thinking there was an opportunity here.

A few years ago, we also saw some neat stuff coming out with AR becoming more readily available. In 2017 we started looking at that, as well as technology where we can bind ownership to individual, unrepeatable physical items and assets. We started that engineering in 2018. That’s how we got to here today. I have a lot of other games I’d like to build in the future, but right now we’re focused on launching Flex NBA.

GamesBeat: Where does the name “Flex” come from?

Choi: I didn’t think of it as a gaming terminology, but it’s become pretty common in battle games. I’m flexing on you. Nice flex. When I named the game a few years ago, I didn’t know it would turn out to be so appropriate. But at the time I thought, this is something that’s not a basketball simulator. It’s creating a fantasy metaverse where we superhero-ize the athlete. These guys are icons to people with iconic moves. I have childhood heroes that, in my mind, are still my guys. I mean, no matter who comes along today, they’re my guys. I’m very loyal, just like most sports fans are. To me it was, OK, let’s create a game where you’re able to flex these guys’ moves. They’ve been working on these moves their whole life. You know what they are. We all know what they are. Lebron James has his tomahawk dunk. Steph Curry has his three-pointer. Damian Lillard has his Dame Time. These are flexes. I wanted to simplify the gaming experience. I wanted to address some of the concerns in the gaming community as a gamer myself. I think we’ve built something where we addressed a lot of those things, putting a fresh new spin on some tried and true genres, which are very popular, very lucrative, but bringing them into 2021 with technology and creating some wow factor to it. We want to make some noise.

GamesBeat: Is it fair to say this is an AR evolution of NBA Jam?

Choi: I didn’t want to make it too cartoony. But it’s NBA Jam also — a little bit? The difference is, NBA Jam, I could dunk with John Stockton in NBA Jam. This is really designed to be very specific to individual players. We have 207 players we’re launching with, each of which have — almost 90 percent have three flexes. Very few have two. There’s a strategic reason for that. We’re talking about 700, 800 moves. They’re all individually named and all specific to that player. I have NBA trainers and an NBA writer who helped me develop each signature move for each player in the game. For us it was making sure that the flexes were accurate. In NBA Jam, everyone kind of has similar moves, to different degrees. But in our game we wanted to make it somewhat real as far as their signature moves.

GamesBeat: In a way, then, it’s more like a strategy game?

Choi: Absolutely. Turn-based strategy. We’d like to brand ourselves as the world’s first TTG, trading tile game. You’re going to be able to assemble and gather your favorite players. You can imagine, with 207 players and 52 FX tiles just for Season One, the permutations and combinations are endless. It’s in the millions of different combinations. We think the community is going to embrace that, try new things out, both in game and in AR, which is going to be neat. Certain players and certain combinations will trigger different things. We feel like the engagement with the app is going to create a crossover experience that will keep people coming back for more. But being familiar with this gaming space, the combinations are what make it fun. Trying different players with different FX tiles. We think that’s going to create a depth that will keep people interested.

Flexin’ with the NBA

GamesBeat: The players are those on current rosters, right?

Choi: The NBA has been an amazing partner. There’s a reason they’re one of the premier leagues in the world. One of the things they said was, launch with the base group first. If you want to build retired players later, absolutely, go ahead. We had some creative ideas to put certain players in armor or in different gear, like streetball gear, but they just said, hey, let’s cross those bridges down the line. Let’s make sure the product is out there. I thought that was a good direction.

But retired players, WNBA, other sports, we’ve engaged some other leagues and we plan on expanding this into something we think will be really neat. If you can imagine Tiger Woods and Joe Montana and Derek Jeter taking on Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, it could be pretty fun.

GamesBeat: Why did you start with the NBA?

Choi: We got a license for MLB as well around the same time. It was one of the toughest calls of my life, because I love both. I enjoyed watching baseball growing up more than watching basketball. I played basketball, though. It was a tough call. I just went with basketball. My kids both play, so that was kind of a determining factor. Quite frankly we had — at the time, a couple years ago, if we had a bigger war chest financially, we probably would have done both. But it was mainly for personal preference. Either league would have been fantastic to work with.

Look and feel

GamesBeat: From my point of view, as someone who’s been involved with sports all my life, it feels like if you’re making a strategic game, basketball would be easier than baseball, just because you have fewer players and fewer other elements. Did that factor in?

Choi: No, I envision one day being able to put five baseball catchers playing against five [NFL] linemen. I wanted this to be sports-agnostic. If you notice the 11 player classes, they can fit any sport. If you have a marksman in basketball, it’s a shooter. A marksman in golf would be someone with a lot of greens in regulation. A marksman in baseball could be a location pitcher. I wanted to make this so that it can embrace a lot of different IP. Now, that’s way down the line. I’m dreaming with you a bit here. But that’s the way I designed it. It wasn’t in terms of complexity at all. In fact, I thought baseball might be a little easier in terms of identifying flexes, because Clayton Kershaw has that big curve ball. Power hitters like Vlad Guerrero Jr. are snatching the ball out of the ballpark. It didn’t factor in, really.

GamesBeat: Did you have to deal with the players’ association as well as the league, or just the league?

Choi: Absolutely. The NBPA [National Basketball Players Association] is an amazing partner as well. They’re very specific that they may be changing eye colors. All the art is hand-drawn. We went with an anime style, manga style. I don’t want it to be photorealistic. I don’t want this to be like NBA2K. I wanted this to be different. We had to change eye color, and the PA was a great partner in saying, hey, their eyes are a little too brown here. Fix the hairstyle, it’s updated now. They’ve been great. We have seven artists. The art set that you received was a little limited, just because sending 207 would have not — we don’t have all the product yet. There’s a variety of styles. We have seven artists that we commissioned. In fact, I can even recognize them now, because I’ve seen them so much. But some of them have a real — I don’t know if you’re familiar with Goon, the comic book. Some of them look like that. Others have a different flair, a more Western style. It’s interesting. These artists are all over the world. They’re not all U.S.-based.

GamesBeat: When I look at the token for, say, Bradley Beal here, it looks like someone who’s worked on Image comics.

Choi: Yeah, we have different styles. It’s interesting. We have a team, and I ask them who’s their favorite. Everyone has a different take on it. We want the customer to help us guide that. By the way, 14 new artists, since we’ve gone to the public and gotten some coverage, have asked to be part of Flex.

GamesBeat: Who was the writer you worked with?

Choi: Jim Park, who used to write for Sheridan Hoops. I think he’s doing more YouTube stuff now. But he used to do a lot of coverage for the Warriors.

Next dimension

GamesBeat: How does the AR work?

Choi: A couple things. We wanted to, number one, look cool. A game I really loved was Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes. I still play that today. I wanted it to look like the 3D chess that Chewbacca and Threepio were playing. But then I needed functionality behind it. What we’re able to do with the AR is do video game stuff in the physical world. Meaning, because we know you’re the registered owner of, say, Steph Curry, and you decide to buy a jersey and add it on, buy shoes, and walk 10,000 steps with your iPhone to power up that Steph Curry — then you can go look at the secondary market and say, wow, I’m the first owner. There’s a chain of custody. Anyone can see that. The tile is in great condition. I’ve powered it up six times. The value of that would theoretically be tremendously higher than just the fourth owner of a Steph Curry that hasn’t been upgraded. Normally you’d only be able to do that on a video game console, but now you’re able to do that with a physical tile without us having to reproduce it and send it out to you, which financially doesn’t make sense. We’re able to display stats, videos, highlights, everything on AR, so that you can come back, check and see, okay, check it out, my tile is better because you can see that right there on the mobile device.

GamesBeat: But this isn’t using a blockchain, correct?

Choi: We have some patents pending. I can’t divulge too much of our secret sauce. What I can say is that when you buy our player tiles, it’s fully transparent. The ownership is registered to the user. You see a trackable log of ownership. That allows us to do this upgrading. It also could disrupt the secondary market as well, because now there’s a history. You can see that with each one. We’re coming to some conclusions on our IP coming up here in the next couple of months. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fully explain how we do this.

GamesBeat: So I buy a pack and get a Steph Curry tile. You also have a Steph Curry tile. Their bases are the same, but you’ve level-up yours. What would you have to do to do that?

Choi: Here’s the AR viewer. You’ve seen some of the videos. We’ll see Steph Curry come right out. We have a video capability. I don’t know if you remember the old MTV VJs, but we’re bringing that back. Congratulations, you’ve unlocked so and so. Promotions, that sort of thing. They’re drawn to scale, so Jimmy Butler is 6-foot-7, a little bigger. Of course our reigning MVP Nikola Jokić is a lot bigger. Not only do they have their own standalone animations, but they interact together. You’re a Warriors fan, so am I, lifelong. Here’s Klay Thompson with his signature move, that follow-through. Now they see each other, the Splash Brothers, what’s up, let’s do our little pre-game routine. There are little teasers. Eight combos in the game that we want you to discover as the customer. And then you can do cool stuff like add shoes. Might put some Jordans on Steph, the Under Armour leg wrap. His animation changes. You end up with quite a few different cool things you can do with this. Again, we can display right on here upgraded stats, all sorts of stuff. This is where the magic happens on the roster screen. If I hit register your tile and take this Steph Curry tile, yours and mine could look exactly the same–let’s say I make 1000 of these. As soon as you flip that over, there’s a unique code on here that allows me to register these and securely, in an encrypted database, allow me to be the only owner of this unrepeatable tile in the world. There will be only one of each, even though you and I may have the same one. Then you can go ahead and continue to build your roster as it continues to read the different ones.

Smartphone as power-up

Above: Steph Curry’s crosshairs takes advantage of the Warriors’ 3-point shooting skills.

Image Credit: Sequoia Games

GamesBeat: One thing that caught my interest earlier, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you said if I got my 10,000 steps today, it’ll power up this tile. Are you able to do things in life with your phone like that and power up the characters?

Choi: Yes. Which will be really fun. The mobile game, we’ll be launching in the next several months as well. That’ll allow you to play a digital version of the game. But we wanted to cross over the two worlds. You’re doing things in real life. I know there are apps where you can do basketball drills. Maybe we could do a partnership with them. You do basketball drills and your power-ups are there.

GamesBeat: Do you use anything else from, say, Healthkit on iOS?

Choi: We haven’t fully explored this whole area. We’ve been so focused on just marketing and getting the base product out into people’s hands.

One thing we’re excited about is our social sharing feature, which will allow you to share these animations as you unlock them with your social media. Saying, hey guys, I just got MVP Steph Curry, check it out. You can share it to TikTok and all this stuff. We want this groundswell to form. And the iterations, as you’re mentioning, are really endless. We can do so many things with it. I want the community to help me decide. I want the gamers to help. As a gamer myself, a lot of times we feel ignored. Some of the bigger studios just build their own direction. I want the community to get involved just like with any other similar game.

GamesBeat: I see some marketing potential here. You can do a deal with Under Armour for gear and outfits and so on. But you could also do one that involves MyFitnessPal, which Under Armour owns. You can tie achievements you do there to things you do to power up your character.

Choi: Absolutely. Or in Home Court, the basketball app. There are so many things that track motion like Fitbit. A lot of things you can do. When I go to the gym with my Fitbit, it knows how many reps I do with a dumbbell press. It’s crazy. That’s where technology is going. We think just like you do. The ideas start coming into play. Theragun, the vibrating muscle relaxer. There are so many things we can do.

GamesBeat: Have you thought about tying it to attending games?

Choi: One thing that, per our license — location-based type stuff, there’s some, I wouldn’t call them restrictions, but guidelines we have to follow. We’ve thought about doing tailgate parties, which would be pretty fun. Having special releases that are only available there. We’ve talked to several basketball teams, pro-level teams, about their youth camps. Come to the youth camp and get an FX tile for attending, or power up your players by X percentage. Or being in a region, like in the bay area. We talked to the Warriors about some marketing opportunities. Dub Nation has an FX tile. We think it would be pretty cool. We did a mockup of a Run-TMC, Chris Mullen/Mitch Ritchmond/Tim Hardaway tile. It’s beautiful. Once we get retired players — for me, as a young kid, that would make me giddy. But I would absolutely envision doing some cool stuff in regions or in certain locations to unlock different things.

NBA players as Pokémon

GamesBeat: Why go to Kickstarter?

Choi: We just wanted a small test to see if we targeted marketing, could we drive sales? In 27 minutes we hit our goal. In one day it was 400 percent. OK, let’s not spend any more on ads now. Let’s just build a big marketing campaign, which we’re doing right now. We’re engaged with research and marketing agencies. We’re going to time this, hopefully, just after the NBA Finals end. But really, once we got that proof of concept — 9 percent of our buyers spent over $1000, which is crazy. The average spend was $249.

GamesBeat: Have you talked at all with Dapper Labs about doing something with Top Shot?

Choi: I think they’re in a different lane. They’re digital. I’m not really interested in that side of it. I wanted to create a kick-ass game and a kick-ass memorabilia experience. I want people to enjoy this. What happened with — it’s very sexy to talk about NFTs and all that sort of stuff, but to me, blockchain is going to be used by everyone in the next few months. It’s like back when the internet first came out. Oh my god, there’s this thing called the world wide web, it’s so cool. In a couple years, everyone, including the flower shop down the street, had a website. NFTs and blockchain are going to be a part of our everyday lives. It’s a way to have — I think maybe even voting one day might be through blockchains, so that no one can hack these results. It’s a phase. It’s great. It’s technology that’s coming to the forefront. But I also want to stay with our core, which is, let’s have more fun. We as a human race are too serious sometimes. I left a very lucrative career several years ago to be in this role, to have more fun and follow what I was passionate about. For me, that stuff is secondary. Partnering with them is really not of interest, because at this point — I can’t say never, but for me it’s all about doing what I love, and that’s helping this game studio to blow up.

GamesBeat: When I look at the board, the play area, it reminds me of the playmats for Pokémon. Is it fair to kind of look at this as a melding of AR and Pokémon for the NBA?

Choi: It’s in the same genre, absolutely. It’s a turn-based strategy type of game. I like the idea of Voltron. Five teammates coming together. That sort of anime, hand-drawn look meeting pro sports. I think that would be an accurate description.

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