“Game of Zones” is an animated show about the NBA mashed up with references from HBO's smash hit show Game of Thrones. In the four years since it was created, it has become a phenomenon, beloved equally by fans and the N.B.A. players it parodies. Kerr and Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have both requested special episodes, and players including Joel Embiid, C. J. McCollum and Lonzo Ball have tweeted their approval. I assisted as a creative consultant for the show, helping give feedback on the writing and developing the NBA references and easter eggs that our hardcore fanbase came to expect. I also assisted in the overall youtube programming and distribution strategy along with specific experimental initiatives such as a Game of Zones Augmented Reality Filter and helping our kicks and brand marketing team with the Adidas Damian Lillard "Game of Zones" color way of the Dame 5.
110,000,000+ Youtube Views
My role in helping shape the storytelling of Game of Zones was primarily on the side of adding additional writing support for NBA references that would be built into the world of the show. The challenge here was finding creative ways to work in layered and complex references and jokes that would resonate on different levels. This included visual gags and storytelling that would be a nod to certain drama or jokes that occurred throughout the course of an NBA season or during a player's career. Then once the episodes were completed by our talented animation team, my role was to help find ways to optimize the programming and promotion of the show in different and innovative ways.
Game of Zones is an original animated series I had a chance to work on with it's creators Adam and Craig Malamut where pro hoops drama gets medieval in a mashup of the many dramatic NBA storylines with epic parallels from the hit HBO show Game of Thrones. The New York Times calls it the "Funniest Sports Show on the Internet" and it has a 9.5 rating on IMDB with hundreds of millions of views across the series and multiple Sports Emmy nominations. It's irreverent humor and next level layering of NBA references was something that I had an opportunity to contribute towards and it lead to a number of opportunities to develop animated content under the Bleacher Report Banner. Game of Zones was developed under our Media Lab departments that I helped launch when I joined the company and it became one of our flagship properties that would consistently go viral.
My role in the Game of Zones production was often to come in as a creative consultant on episodes during the early writing process to suggest layers of NBA references and deep cuts that would resonate with some of our more hard core fans. I was given the opportunity to work with the creators of Game of Zones, Adam and Craig Malamut, from the start of the series as a creative consultant who gave them insight into deep seated NBA narratives. From the earliest episodes I was able to influence the direction of episodes and contribute ideas in the writers room and throughout the animation process to further refine concepts and make them more relatable to our fanbase.
Sports coverage is such a saturated area that digital media publishers like B/R must constantly hunt for new ways to drive new audiences, while sustaining existing ones. Making original animated series that take a satirical spin on the sports they cover and their players has proved an important way for B/R to differentiate itself in a crowded landscape. Richard Barker, joint managing director of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment actually said of the show, "There is absolutely nothing like it. It’s incredibly funny, and it differentiates in quite a powerful way.”
The first episode of “Game of Zones,” which debuted in May 2014 on YouTube, depicted the then-defending NBA champions the Miami Heat as the Lannisters, power forward Chris Bosh as a dragon, and the San Antonio Spurs as the White Walkers. It was an instant hit — accumulating more than 2.2 million video views within the first week. The show’s success has made it a vital part of Bleacher Report’s efforts in creating entertainment video series while establishing itself as a sports and culture publisher for millennial men.
I would be brought in during the early writing stages of episodes to work with the brothers while the animatic was put together. Working with talented illustrators with years of industry experience like Pat Keegan and Richard Silvus, it was awesome to get animatics of the episodes together. Animatics are used to plan an animation, and use low-resolution images to convey timing, rather than the look and feel of the final piece. An animatic is the pre-cursor to the final animation, and is a key part of the planning process. They are essentially rough drafts that are in progress as audio, scene storyboards, character design, soundtrack, or script is in flux. It is a way to see the project slowly come together and was a way to test jokes and references and find places to bake in cool little visual easter eggs in backgrounds in different scenes.
I like to think of the animatic as the blank coloring book stage of any animated show or cartoon, and it is amazing to see the transformation that an episode can take from those early stages as all the various moving parts come together to form a coherent and highly polished episode, it is like watching the coloring book come to life in high definition. The brothers and the animation team were kind enough to let me sit in on these early stages of the process as the episode came together and help drive some of the narrative and visuals from the perspective of adding in those extra layers of meaning and jokes that would help it resonate so deeply with our audience.
It is in between these two stages where a bulk of the writers room process I participated took place in where we could take established concepts the brothers had come up with and pair them with NBA storylines that were relevant and come up with bits and easter eggs as an organic process. As episodes and storylines quite literally took place on the canvas you could make decisions on tone or whether or not a joke was really hitting correctly. Furthermore, as the season went on, being able to grasp on a day to day basis what analytical differences the placement of certain jokes, like end cards could make on our concurrent or repeat viewership statistics was a helpful insight.
Another thing the animatics enabled us to do is be better at responding to the real time nature of sports and adjust storylines on the fly. Although the time to make Game of Zones episodes was pretty long at around 6 weeks per episode, the rough draft animatics would allow us to know what parts of the episode were done so that we could launch certain clips for the trailer Say a KD storyline was super viral that week we could finalize a KD scene from the animatic and publish it in the trailer to build up hype for the episode.
This actually ended up proving to be very helpful when we released our NBA Draft Lottery special episode where we actually had multiple animatics ready for different endings with player models created for the most likely outcomes to limit the speed to market for the finalized episode. Because of the flexibility that the animatic allowed we were able to come up with jokes based on the broadcast and have them integrated into the episode in realtime, which would be a precursor to some of the more innovative animation experiments the team would tackle down the line.
My extensive knowledge of NBA culture and the type of things r/nba would notice was useful in shaping storylines and layering in jokes that the biggest NBA fans would understand. The first couple of episodes were more focused on taking direct Game of Thrones scenes and filling in NBA players as analogs, and as the series would develop into more of its own lore and storyline I was able to provide a deeper level of feedback. As the show evolved it became more of a self contained NBA drama that drew story elements from Game of Thrones, but focused more so on creating its own universe.
Game of Zones launched within our digital incubator called the "Media Lab" where the Malamut Brothers and I were a part of a small 5 person team charged with building out innovative content experiments for the company. The brothers worked with myself and the two other members of our team on our animated content such as Sports Gods which was our first experiment with serialized animated content or even the Superbowl Stereotypes video we did as a quirky fun animated project was more of a one off.
What is interesting about Game of Zones is that it was actually originally planned to be an NFL crossover show when we initially pitched and discussed the concept, but we ended up calling an audible to go with the NBA as the league had more drama, the players faces were more recognizable and perhaps most importantly, Turner had broadcast rights and that was something that would prove to be extremely helpful down the line as we continued to grow the show. These early conversations really shaped what the show would become and being a part of the process at such an early time period really helped me gain the trust of the brothers as someone who had a pulse of what was happening in and around the NBA and thinking of creative ways to implement it into the show.
I helped develop storylines and references in episodes and then consulted throughout future seasons as well. Furthermore, I helped build out more digital touchpoints for the brand, whether that would be promotional material for lower thirds on NBA on TNT or a Game of Zones Augmented Reality Filter. Another aspect of the show that I helped in was the analytics and programming of the show on youtube. I helped develop an effective strategy to build audience for the episodes and gain early traction to increase engagement.
Having experience with the brothers in our Media Lab department I had previously had opportunities to help them come up with ideas for videos like "Fan Safari" or "Sports Gods" and figuring out the right way to program them for our fans. Treating our fans without kid gloves and letting them in on the joke was a key aspect of being able to program this content in a friendly and comedic way.
The various techniques that we implemented improved viewer retention by over 40% and increased overall watch time by 32% season over season. These insights allowed the team to build release plans and organize a better posting cadence based on user behavior and audience expectations. The scale of Game of Zones and its ability to draw in audience really amplified the influence of these decisions as even small increases in initial trajectory would lead to big results from an engagement standpoint.
Outside of helping come up with storytelling elements and helping build the plot of the episodes, I also took an advisory role in developing the programming strategy for much of the show. Game of Zones was programmed on Youtube as a serialized web show and I played a part in building out and optimizing the social programming strategy that led to the show becoming a staple on the youtube trending page. The techniques that I was able to help our team develop would become the standard across all serialized programming.
The show reached the highest possible Google Trends search index score of 100 during the 5th season with a perfectly timed and categorized release of one of our more easter egg laden episodes in the "NBA 1K" video and we continued to reap the rewards of category centric programming. Being in the writers room in early stages and working in references that we would utilize and highlight in the programming strategy allowed me to help us amplify key sections of the video that would resonate with our audience.
Following our youtube analytics, I was able to pinpoint the All-Star Break and Christmas day as two of the biggest engagement days for Game of Zones playlists and video content we had programmed on our youtube channel, and we were essentially able to reverse engineer the release of special episodes tied to these key dates to help amplify and elevate this process as a way to help get more eyeballs to the content.
Pretty much any episode with a focus on the Lakers or on a LeBron or Kobe storyline, you are able to see my influence and fingerprints on multiple scenes throughout the episodes. (Fun fact, I am actually in the crowd next to Kendall Jenner in the Kings Landing episode if you look closely!) Adam and Craig would bring me into their studio and we would workshop ideas for hours often brainstorming different scenarios and easter eggs for episodes. The great thing about working with the brothers is that they would give me a chance to come in and help out at pretty much any stage of the process and I would be able to shape episodes from their early stages to even just suggesting the smallest of edits or additional visual jokes in a rough draft before we finalized it for publish.
Certain episodes like "Raid on Stables Castle" which featured extended dramatic sequences including an appearance from Kendall Jenner showcase chances that I had to influence visual gags for episodes (Such as the little CP3 and Matt Barnes photo bit early on in the episode) to more complex written bits that I workshopped with Adam and Craig along with the help of Matt Hill who worked on his own viral series loved by reddit, Spurs Secret Forces. It really did become a dual role where I had a chance to work with the creators of the show during the process of episode creation and then was able to work in conjunction with our broader social teams to develop a release strategy and techniques that amplified the launch and ensured maximum viewership.
This led to an evolution in our programming plan where we would work in instagram story sticker releases or pre-made clipped GIFs of the show to aid in user engagement. We also implemented a marketing push for the show featuring targeted lower thirds graphics on NBA on TNT along with in app house ad promotions. On a platform like GIPHY alone the Game of Zones content has consistently been able to drive hundreds of millions of digital impressions and engagement. Despite the series having been finalized, the GIFs continue to rank among the top results for NBA player search terms and are used quire a bit on various platforms like Instagram stories or Snapchat.
The coordinated multipart marketing campaign for GOZ touched every corner of culture and got people searching for more by the millions. The ability to work with multiple departments that were a part of our organization in an effort to amplify the conversation happening around our best content really was a strength of Bleacher Report and something that I helped move smoothly with my ability to communicate across cross functional departments to achieve our business and content goals.
In addition to this, the multifaceted strategy also featured a honed in youtube programming plan and implemented new end cards which increased overall view time by over 32%. The promotional strategy for the show led to an increase in viewer retention and overall season by season engagement on a per episode basis. Game of Zones eventually became a staple of the Youtube trending page while averaging a total of 5 Million+ views in 24 hours for each new episode along with over 350K+ engagements across all platforms in the same time period.
Another aspect of this strategy was maximizing on promotional value provided through house ads on Inside the NBA and leveraging youtube programming to build on search interest generated from the television features. We coordinated in app push notification programming and efficiently scheduled the alerts to coincide with a second screen experience for those watching the game or following along in the team stream app. This worked especially well with things like trailers where we were able to amplify our social messages to build up hype in anticipation of the release of a new season of the show.
So for instance, the alerts worked when we were broadcasting the Lakers game on NBA on TNT prior to the NBA draft and we had just released our season 4 finale featuring Lavar Ball, we were able to provide fans content to watch during halftime by driving them to our app during the broadcast. This would be followed with coverage around the TNT team's reaction to the content giving us shoulder content to the animated series as well.
This process required working in concert with our team of social programmers to find and develop incentivized measures that highlight a comprehensive growth strategy for App downloads. Whether this was focusing on linear and digital coordination, or more digital focused initiatives such as youtube annotations and poll features, exclusive content that would be gated behind the app download, or exclusive content available on specific social channels to drive consumer engagement and excitement. Working in conjunction, these features allowed for an expansion of the show's user fanbase and eventually a deeper connection with fans.
Having such an extensive and loyal following across various social platforms allows you to have many touch points through which to share varied content, and this lead to us pushing more individualized and exclusive content behind social platforms on snap or on the app or even exclusively available through a push notification. With assets like bonus scenes, animatics, GIFs or stickers, and other interactive elements that built an entire universe around the show we were able to turn the viewing experience into something much greater. When the Game of Zones season was in full swing and episodes would drop weekly, people would build routines around the release of episodes, eager and excited to see if their team made the cut this week.
One of the specific youtube packaging innovations that I pussed in resonse to user feedback was listening to all the people who would comment on our youtube channel saying they wanted episodes that were the length of your typical animated show like the Simpsons or Family Guy. As the brothers detailed in their appearance on NBA on TNT with Ernie, Chuck and Kenny it takes about 6 weeks to make each episode, and so it is a bit unrealistic to make longer episodes of this 20-30 minute length, but I realized that we were missing a programming opportunity from a content perspective to stitch all the episodes of each season together and sharing them as a package. These extended binge watch episodes would become some of our most popular youtube uploads of all time.
The interesting thing about these longer combined episodes was that even though it didn't give users the longer episodes they wanted, it did give them a viewing experience of the same length, and this allowed Game of Zones to become lean back programming. One of the interesting things the analtyics will tell you if you look into these specific videos is that they are generally watched far more often on linear screens and larger devices like desktop computers of even on TV screens or apps like Apple TV or Roku.
The great thing about these videos was that we were not only essentially able to double dip with the content by programming it a second time and driving engagement and monetization, it was that our fans actually welcomed this content from us as it gave them something longer they could sink their teeth into and truly sit back and enjoy for an extended period of time.
As one youtube commenter very aptly and succinctly put it, "This isn't what we asked for when we said we wanted 30 minute episodes, but no one is going to complain about 30 minutes of Game of Zones content." The watch time numbers and viewer retention for these longer episodes is really through the roof and it truly proved to our audience and to our partners that there was a chance to truly do something in the animated content space at Bleacher Report.Game of Zones really opened the floodgates in terms of building out new shows with similar perspectives or styles.
From a monetization and revenue perspective Game of Zones was an absolute monster, pulling in upwards of 8 figures for the company across it's content licensing and title sponsorship deals along with the merchandise sales. State Farm was the brand that came on as the title sponsor and to celebrate that we created our own working with their ad team and our branded content team to craft an original storyline within the universe. Through four episodes we follow Lord Basketball, the State Farm agent, James Harden, and Chris paul on a quest to rid themselves of an ancient curse. This type of partnership was not only innovative and elevated traditional sponsored content but it really helped turn our animations into vehicles for major sponsorships.
In early 2017 our branded content team was actually able to come to a deal with Nike on an animated series partnership called "Small Ball" which featured endorsed Nike brand athletes like Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Ben Simmons, and more off the strength of Game of Zones as an animated series and our team's ability to put together a high quality show with social references for an NBA audience. Featuring voice over work from NBA legends like Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, and Gary Payton the show allowed us to turn animation into a monetization opportunity which would allow us to integrate even more endemic sponsors to our animated content like State Farm with Game of Zones, or Sony and PS4 in Gridiron Heights.
With “Small Ball,” which ran for 11 episodes, Bleacher Report’s growth in sports and culture can be witnessed by the caliber of guest voice actors the company recruited, including “Saturday Night Live” cast member Michael Che. A year ago we could not have gotten Michael Che on the phone — it would have been a foreign concept, but as people see what we’re doing with ‘Game of Zones’ and other projects, people are starting to see Bleacher Report as a fun sweet spot between sports and culture. This allowed us to expand our storytelling and collaboration opportunities and I helped scale the ideas for these types of shows from a creative perspective to maintain that initial energy.
In the 2015 NBA offseason, coming off the heals of their championship run, Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr requested a custom Game of Zones episode as something to show the team during training camp. We were tasked with creating an episode featuring specific jokes and references directly from the players themselves. I helped organize a behind the scenes look at the players reacting to the episode along with a programming plan for the release of the clip and putting together an article that looked at the making of the show. Kerr's idea clearly worked, as the players were laughing hysterically and the screening was a light-hearted, fun gesture, and one that helped keep the Warriors loose and focused going into the regular season. He actually requested a subsequent animated piece the next season when they signed Kevin Durant and were coming off a fresh 2016 Finals loss to the Cavaliers and LeBron James.
Working with Adam and Craig was great because they would always bring me onboard their zany ideas and allow me to bring my NBA expertise to the table to help shape some of the ideas and influence the creative. This extended to projects in the animation department that were outside of the scope of Game of Zones as well, such as our Superteam Warriors Musical that Coach Kerr requested that I was able to help give ideas and help give feedback on character design elements while helping the team program the finalized assets on social and youtube as well. The superteam musical expanded the scope of our animation department and really showed the versatility of what we were capable of producing. One of the other more memorable early projects I had a chance to collaborate on with the brothers was a Johnny Bravo Parody for Texas A&M star Quarterback Johnny Manziel.
A Game of Zones special was actually created at the request of Daryl Morey to open the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference where Barrack Obama was the keynote speaker, and getting a chance to help influence this small clip was a fun project to take part in with the team. It really showed the impact that Game of Zones had within the basketball world and gave even more credibility to the series.
Around this time we also began programming episodes of the show on our snapchat discover editions and had to find unique and creative methods to integrate longer form widescreen content on a largely vertical video platform. One of the incentives to programming episodes on our Discover channel was releasing them at 8am rather than the time we would make our youtube links public at noon.
This drove audience to our discover editions at a very high clip and we would often see over 1 Million views on episodes programmed there. This strategy was later applied to our IGTV uploads. The strategy there was to do a vertical cut for the 15 seconds, before displaying a "Tilt to Watch" bumper to encourage users to experience the show in widescreen. Between Discover and IGTV we would accumulate upwards of 2-3 Million extra views each episode. These views translated into numbers we could take to our lead sponsor for the show and get even more buy in from them to do deeper integration and to drive larger sponsorship revenue from State Farm.
This type of strategy also was amplified through channels such as reddit or youtube where we encouraged discussion and built in special incentives to find and discuss easter eggs. Following the 80-20 rule, we focused on the small subset of Game of Zones super fans who interacted with the content at a much deeper level that required multiple viewings and analysis to breakdown the layers of references and jokes packed into every frame. The show was really built to be rewatched and rich enough with references that you would still see new things on your second or third or even fourth or fifth watching.
Not only did this result in a cult like following where the early snapchat premiere would be discussed on twitter and then the youtube publish would be screen-shotted and subsequently broken down on reddit before being analyzed by other youtube creators such as NAK who grew their own fanbase solely as someone who found and explained easter eggs in the show. In this way the community that formed around the show had multiple touch points to interact with our content. Eventually with a partnership in conjunction with our Marketing department we would seed some of our most engaged fans on youtube and twitter or reddit with merch through our "Squad" influencer seeding program as well to build up anticipation for releases.
An infusion of pop culture was often times my role in the writers room for Game of Zones whether it is advising certain easter eggs like the Travis Scott Astroworld head in the background of Rockets episodes, Drake's story arc in the Raptors episodes, the introduction of Kendall Jenner in the Clippers episodes with Black Griffin or various sneaker references such as the Kobe 9's that Demar DeRozan would wear, the Spongebob Squarepants inspired Kyrie's or the custom gold plated PG13's that were shown in the show. This cultural thread was something that would tie tougher the inherent NBA drama and rich characters of the league with the epic Game of Thrones references and storylines, creating a triad of referential humor that our audience ate up.
Another aspect of cross promotion of the brand included working with the BR Kicks team to leverage our relationships with Adidas and Damian Lillard through our marketing arm to develop and release and exclusive pair of "Game of Zones" Adidas signature Dame 4 sneakers and social content that worked hand in hand to promote the sneaker collaboration. Our original concepts ended up being a bit lofty in that we were hoping to attempt having dry ice on the bottom of the shoe to replicate a white walker. However we were able to pivot to a more realistic custom color way and design quickly enough to be produced for a primetime matchup against the Denver Nuggets. Dame arrived to the game carrying the kicks in a custom bag and warmed up in the shoes pregame. 10 of these limited edition shoes were produced and seeded to influencers as a way to promote the launch of the new season. One of the pairs were sent to Kustoo, who can be seen unboxing them below -
The fact that Game of Zones was a big enough of an animated web series viral hit to warrant an exclusive super limited Damian Lillard Player Edition colorway collaboration sneaker is a pretty insane achievement. It is often rarefied air reserved for shows like The Fresh Prince with it's Grape Jordan 5's or large scale collabs like the one between the massive television mainstay Friends and Kyrie in their Nike collaboration. To promote the sneaker collaboration I even got a chance to put my social moments hat on and produce a motion tracked video edit featuring the shoes on a white walker from a recent scene on HBO's Game of Thrones show just days after the episode aired. This is why the realtime nature of these teams I helped launch and the ability to collaborate with other publishers and brands was such a powerful tool to B/R's growth.
Furthermore, I was tasked with coming up with creative and experimental methods of promoting the show, for which I worked on an augmented reality filter featuring Game of Zones character which was used and promoted around the launch part for the first episode of that season. It was launched during a watch party event for the first episode held at the Bleacher Report offices in New York City, and then launched worldwide along with the first episode of the 5th season. The filter saw higher than average usage rates and was used and engaged with by more people than even attended the launch party before we had even made the Snapcode public. This was one of our first experiments in AR and led to a myriad of other more interactive experiences as we delved deeper into the platform. Try out the Game of Zones Augmented Reality Filter.
As time moved forward and the show grew and we were able to build out the team working on the show the quality of not just the writing but the animation quality really just moved to a whole new stratosphere. As can be seen in the opening scene of the season 6 finale, the reflections and lighting on Kevin's throne along with the actual dialogue and it's parallels with the HBO show are really clicking on all cylinders. This is truly a testament to the full animation team on the show and how much we were able to improve the look and feel of the actual design assets from one year to the next. New improvements in the compositing, the background details, working with high fidelity animatic artists like Jack Perkins to build out the framework for episodes all came together to improve the quality.
This episode really is striking to look at in comparison to the earlier Summer Free Agent Odyssey episode also centered around Kevin Durant sitting in a similar throne. The animation improvements across seasons and how much better the character design models and textures are are super evident. The entire team from our lead character designer Hal Lee to the folks helping him like Meridith Nolan, Sean Sullivan and Matthew Rodriguez all contributed to the increase in quality. Not to mention the ability of lead animator Chet Knebel to work with Iona Nistor and Kristofer Wollinger and Thom Lunch as a team with Rober Arrucci and Mark Steinmetz on sound mixing.
One of the specific recurring bits that characterizes the type of comedic writing and sketches that we would develop and work on was the Space Jam 2 parody that we had developed in the episodes called Sea Jam 2 in the Game of Zones Universe. This type of joke that was mentioned in multiple episodes finally came to fruition in a highly layered musical number in the season finale episode as the final climax scene (And as a juicy misdirect section for the trailer). The payoff of finally seeing Sea Jam in the finale with puns like Bradley Beal or Mermario Chalmers, Sharq, JaWhale McGee, Lancet Stephenson, Seahorse that does Seahorse things, Ray Allen, or a nice reference to the warriors superteam musical cast and even references to Rondo looking like Franklin the turtle, LeBron's I Promise school, the Banana Boat crew, and even JR Smith smoking some seaweed. It is exactly the type of irreverent humor with layered jokes and references that Game of Zones was iconic for.
Perhaps my favorite episode to contribute to throughout my entire time working on the show was the penultimate episode before the finale where Kobe was given his farewell soliloquy. Writing a proper tribute that took into account the Mamba's personality while also doing proper justice to the show and Kobe's reputation as a Game of Zones character in the lore that we had developed over the course of 7 seasons. Featuring as the heart and soul of this nearly 12 minute episode that pits modern day NBA superstars against a zombified white walker dream team the segment was one that really brought home why the show was so special.
Not only did it layer in Kobe's illustrious career and his achievements but found a way to work in the wording of his final tweet sent out to LeBron for eclipsing his point total the night before his passing. The top comment on the youtube video reads, "The kobe reveal was better than the avengers coming back in infinity war." which is higher praise than I could ever imagine for working on such a segment, but I will take it.
Ultimately, the chance to work on a series like Game of Zones both from a content and writing perspective but also from a social media programming perspective and learning the ins and outs of digital content at a high level with a number of watchers across the globe was a very enriching experience. Not only was Game of Zones a flagship product for the company, it truly was a groundbreaking content model for the industry as well. It marked the first time Bleacher Report was really able to own a viral digital web series and it became the basis for an entire department and revenue stream for the company.
The fact that the show brought home a Grand Clio Award as well as got nominated three times for a Sports Emmy is truly an achievement for the entire team that had a chance to collaborate on this project and I am proud to say that I contributed a small part to such an epic tale. I love the line that as storytellers we have to options two ways to bring light into the world, we can either be the flame or we can be the mirror that reflects the light of the flame. If the NBA with its rich drama and personalities and stories was the flame, then a show like Game of Zones was the mirror that reflected that flame.
Outside of just Game of Zones, I also had many other chances to work on animated content at Bleacher Report, both from a social perspective but also from a one off content experiment standpoint as well. For instance, the brothers and I collaborated on a Kobe Bryant musical video parody of the super viral and catch title track off of the hit movie Frozen. Not only did I workshop the lyrics with them, I helped storyboard out entire scenes and even did motion graphics work on the video along with the social programming responsibilities.
From a social perspective, I actually had a chance to work with two of our most talented producers on our social moments team under the leadership of Jermaine Spradley in CJ Toledano and Dan Worthington to workshop and produce the hit animated series Gridiron Heights which took a ton of the learnings from Game of Zones and worked within a 1 minute run time to produce weekly episodes starring parodies of various NFL players, teams, coaches, executives, and other football-related persons or events.
The series premiered with The Flashy Rookie and the Forgotten Star on September 13, 2016, and has since been updated every Tuesday during the NFL season under the watch of Dennis Flynn. We worked with animation studio Flicker Labs to produce weekly episodes with employees doing the voice over work and us using quick turn NFL references to build out the short but layered scripts. Speed was always the key in these types of situations. Gridiron Heights ability to mirror a show like South Park in terms of turning around new content every week was made possible by automated content that was able to produce backgrounds and prep character models ina modular way to quickly put together episodes.
By limiting the amount of new assets we would need to create and focusing on the script and comedy writing and using our internal army of employees to help provide diverse voice over talent we are able to produce an episode every week which is a huge reduction from Game of Zones typical 6 week schedule to produce a single episode. These type of shows really are right at the intersection of our social moments work and the animation work we built up. The innovation that Gridiron Heights brought to the table for a sponsor like Sony and PS4 to come in as a native advertiser on a social animation series that was relevant on a weekly basis was a game changer.
One idea that I had always discussed with Joe and the larger social and content team was whether or not we could really push the limits on real time animated content by creating more static characters who simply had to be lip synced to react to super relevant content. Delete Your Account, combines sports commentary, animation, and comedy in a brand new way. Hosted by “King of the Comment Section” Deon Buggs and “The Dark Lord from the Dark Web” Kenny Mac, Delete Your Account delivers fast back-and-forth commentary covering the previous day’s games and news.
After developing the look of the show and creating the animated puppets with Animate CC, the team exported them to Adobe Photoshop and then imported them into Character Animator for rigging. The animation team was then ready for its pilot episode. Writers gathered during an NBA playoff game, pulling jokes and commentary into a two-minute script. In the wee hours of the morning, the script was ready for the next step — acting. Two actors recorded their lines while our animation team puppeted the animated characters using Character Animator. It would normally take us several weeks to create this two-minute piece. We did it in under 10 hours, start to finish. The idea would be to eventually even try to use live animated broadcasts using this technology. Being on the cutting edge like this was super important to me.
Working with Dan Worthington was really a pleasure as he was someone with a creative instinct similar to my own and we continued to collaborate with Six Point Harness animation on his "Sunday" miniseries concept for a show featuring Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown in a parody of the classic movie "Friday" featuring Chris Tucker and Ice Cube. The four episode arc featured scenes from the famous movie and mashed it up with drama from AB's now infamously tumultuous career. Getting a chance to workshop ideas and lines in the show with Shakir Standley who was a comedian who had appeared on Last Comic Standing and had been a part of the Wild n Out cast was also an amazingly enlightening exercise.
Working with Dan I actually got to work on two very interesting animated pieces that were socially directed towards filling a need for content during one of the biggest days on the NBA content calendar, Christmas. The first of these projects leveraged a classic animation style from the iconic Charlie Brown comic series by Charles Shultz with Carmelo Anthony as the New York Knicks star discusses his desires with a distracted Kristaps Porzingis and piano-playing Derrick Rose.
The second one of these one off animation experiments that I collaborated on with Dan as a part of our predictive social moments team against our tentpole Christmas day trigger was for Lonzo Ball and his cast of misfit family and friends in a cartoon Home Alone parody featuring Patrick Beverly and John Wall as the wet bandits. The video has garnered over 5 million cross platform views and shows what we are capable of in terms of producing quick turn animated content around a social trigger in a short period of time. The animation capitalized around the conversation happening around Lavar and the Big Baller Brand and was written in the voice that B/R had become known for.
Along with Game of Zones and Gridiron I also helped on Bleacher Report's next animated series around the sport of soccer when Turner acquired the broadcast rights to Champions league. The concept is essentially one where all 800 UEFA Champions League players and their managers live in a chateau together while being filmed in a mockumentary reality show style. Each 5-minute episode is a parody that follows real narratives around the players and managers and their real-life match performances. So if a player is injured one week for instance, following episodes will be updated to reflect that. I got to play the same role with the writing team on this show, occasionally helping them with storylines and bits that rang true with football fans.
Working in partnership with our BR studio department I was actually able to serve a similar role in the writers room in influencing the content production on future shows such as our next collaboration with State Farm, our "Role Players" series which parodied various television shows and movies in each episode while mashing them up with NBA storylines. Each episode averaged over a million cross platform views and drove revenue during a rough period for Bleacher Report when live sports were at a standstill. Animation was one of the things that was actually capable of being produced remotely and this strength led to it becoming the backbone of much of our programming during this time. It was essentially a chance to take the playbook that we had developed and refined with shows like GOZ or Champions or Giriron and applying that to a new property for an interested brand willing to agree to a 7 figure deal.
None of these animated shows or one off experiments would have been possible without Game of Zones bursting through the open door and blowing open the floodgates for this type of content bucket at Bleacher Report. Not only did the show drive millions dollars of revenue to the company, it truly impacted our audience and gave NBA fanbases something to talk about. The opportunity to be a part of a project and a legacy like that is very very dope and I am very humbled to be a part of the team that made the show a reality.
Key Collaborators: Adam Malamut, Craig Malamut, Kristofer Wollinger, Chris Perez, Tracy Rivas, Tyger Danger, Courtney Vincent, Evan Matthews, Sarah Lowen, Bennett Spector, Dan Worthington, Shakir Standley, Will Leivenberg, Dennis Flynn, Sam Toles, Joe Yanarella, Hal Lee, Chet Knebel
Tools: Photoshop, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Spark AR, Lens Studio
Deliverables: Programming assets, Script Notes, Episode Deliverables, AR Filters, GIFs
Category: Creative Direction, Art Direction, Production, Writing, Marketing, Development, Animation