Alex Kennedy and Bryan Kalbrosky are joined by Adam Malamut and Craig Malamut, who are the creators of Bleacher Report’s “Game of Zones.” Adam and Craig talk about how they came up with the show, what goes into making each episode, the hardest NBA players to draw, their favorite episodes, what they have in mind for their next project and more. Listen to the conversation above or read a transcribed version below.
How did you guys first come up with the “Game of Zones” idea?
Adam Malamut: The first inkling for it happened when we were making a show before “Game of Zones” called “Sports Friends,” which was on Yahoo Screen. That was just athletes hanging out and talking, and it was just a silly show. We were watching “Game of Thrones” at the time and we thought it’d be funny to do a Tom Brady spoof with the Patriots as the Lannisters or something like that. We just kind of had that idea, but it was too off brand for the show “Sports Friends.” And so we had a meeting with Bennett Spector, who worked at Bleacher Report and who was a fan of our stuff, about maybe working together and we pitched him on this idea of doing a “Game of Thrones” mashup cartoon initially for the NFL. Then, he suggested that maybe it should be the NBA. From there, we made the first one and then people seemed to like it. The Venn diagram of “Game of Thrones” fans and NBA fans was large enough to make it a hit.
Initially, you guys thought it would be a one-time thing rather than a series. How did it morph from a single video to a show with multiple seasons and many different episodes?
Craig Malamut: When we were asked to do a second episode, because the first episode had done so well, at first we were like, “How are we going to make this?!” We’d already used all the obvious players from the NBA and matched them up with the obvious storylines from “Game of Thrones.” So, we were digging deeper into storylines. But then, after a while, like the following year, Bleacher Report wanted us to do it again. For a few episodes, we kept doing the same thing and then we decided, “You know what, we’re going to break free a little bit from being really strict to Game of Thrones and instead try to develop our own universe and our own canon.” And so we put together a show Bible and sort of developed the show in the opposite direction that you normally develop an animated series. Normally, you would pitch it with all the pitch materials and the structure of it ahead of time. Instead, we figured that out after we started making the show…
AM: Yeah, we had to reverse engineer a viral video into a series. And it wasn’t just that, there are all these rules that we had to deal with because it was like, “Okay, part of this is referencing the real world (NBA stuff) and part of this is referencing a show (“Game of Thrones”). And then, how can we also tell a story in some way?”
CM: (laughs) We had this absurd document where we were like, “Okay, so how does the economy work? I guess if your team is doing well, your city is wealthier. So the Heat, that’s why they’re the Lannisters! But the Nets or the Sixers are Flea Bottom.” Then, we’re like, “Okay, what’s religion like in this world? Well, you know, different cities have different types of religions, sort of like in early-medieval times, where if you go to a different area, they all believe in the Hinkie-Faced God!” (Sorry for all of the Sixers references, we’re Sixers guys) “But then, if you go to New York, everyone worships the triangle.” That was a lot of fun, figuring those things out.
You guys do such a good job of fusing NBA storylines and players with “Game of Thrones” storylines and characters? What’s your process for coming up with new ideas and different scenes to parody?
AM: That is the million-dollar question that I wish I had an answer to, because it would make our lives a lot easier. We wrote these things, but I don’t know. We don’t know what our process is. (laughs) It’s always like, “Okay, crap, we have to do another one of these… How do we do this again?”
CM: I would say what we do is we’ll just watch a ton of “Game of Thrones.” What I do, at least, is just write, “Oh, this kind of seems like this guy,” or, “This would be funny.” What I’ll generally do is see the structure of a scene and I’ll be like, “Okay, this would be good for [two people] who have a status difference between them like Tywin Lannister and Arya, who’s serving him. We could do that with a rookie and a coach or something; that could be similar…” And then Adam is often better at figuring out more of the basketball specifics because Adam is a little bit more into sports than I am, so he’s generally more fluent in those things. And so he’ll say, “Oh, you know, Doc Rivers is a lot like Stannis,” or something like that. Eventually, we throw enough ideas onto a document and then something will stick and we’ll be like, “Oh, okay, that’s funny. Let’s see if we can make that work.” And it’ll keep snowballing from there.
AM: I would also add that a lot of what we build around is just something that we laugh at or think is interesting. We’ll get [together] in the morning and we’ll talk about what’s going on and read Twitter and Reddit and get a feel for what people are talking about. I’ll usually listen to podcasts on the way in and just kind of start thinking. Then, I’ll just throw a raw idea out and if we laugh at it, there’s something there. If there’s a raw emotion there, from that spark, we just continue to iterate every step of the process. Part of it is the idea, but a lot of it is just the process of continually iterating. It’s like, “Okay, let’s talk about it some more, let’s have another writer’s meeting, let’s build out some things for this, let’s start working on a script.” Then, the script sucks eight versions later and then it’s like, “Let’s bring in the experts from Bleacher Report. Let’s make sure this resonates with fans of this team. Who would be the right guy for this?” Then, we record. When we’re recording, we’re also like, “Say it this way!” or, “What if we said this?” “Oh, that’s funny improv, let’s go with that.” It’s continually iterating all the way through animation and directing and acting. I think, ultimately, it’s just little changes, little changes and constantly distilling it. And that’s sort of the process.
CM: Yeah, and sometimes we get lucky. We have this metaphor that Adam uses a lot, which we call “loose Jenga pieces.” You know when you’re playing Jenga, some pieces really don’t budge and other pieces just pop right out? Sometimes, we have scene ideas that just click and we just know that it’s going to work, like the tampering scene with L.A. and pushing Bran out of the tower (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen episode one of “Game of Thrones”); we had AD and LeBron pushing Lonzo out. It just clicked and it all flowed perfectly from there. But the Carmelo Anthony one where he’s on the Rockets and then he gets thrown out by a catapult, that one was a tough Jenga piece. With the lottery one, we just couldn’t figure out; that one was a tough Jenga piece and we just kept tapping on it and tapping on it. We just couldn’t get it through.
AM: Dirk was easy.
My co-host, Bryan Kalbrosky, loves “Game of Zones” even though he’s never watched “Game of Thrones.” How have you been able to keep this show interesting for NBA fans who haven’t seen “Game of Thrones” and don’t understand the references?
CM: I like to stick to “Game of Thrones.” I’m a little bit more of a “Game of Thrones” purist than Adam, whereas Adam is more of a basketball-prioritization mindset. And I think Adam is ultimately right on this because I think what’s more important is getting the basketball right than getting the “Game of Thrones” stuff right. I want to be like, “No, we made this character Bran, so he’s got to stay Bran forever, no matter what, and the basketball will bend.” But, ultimately, people will know the medieval tropes and we can’t make stuff up about what’s happening in the NBA (too much) or else it’s going to be frustrating and not resonate with people… I think you can enjoy it if you just know the NBA and not “Game of Thrones,” but you won’t enjoy it if you just know “Game of Thrones” and not the NBA.
AM: When thinking about the show and writing the show, I think about how it has to work for basketball fans. That is who I picture in the audience. I picture NBA Twitter, I picture Reddit, I picture just internet basketball fans and that’s who I hope finds this funny. It’s hard for me to envision what the experience is like for someone who hasn’t seen “Game of Thrones” because we write it as people who’ve seen all of “Game of Thrones” and who know the NBA (to some extent) as fans. It’s hard for me to model out how the experience is for someone who doesn’t know those “Game of Thrones” references. It’s actually interesting for me to think about because it’s written for fans who know both and we just hope that it plays for everyone.
For each episode, you guys do all of the writing, animation and voices. How long does a single episode take and can you walk us through that process?
CM: In the beginning, Adam and I did everything – with some help from Pat Keegan, who’s now a storyboard artist on “Rick and Morty” and stuff. He would do the boards for us, but Adam and I would write it, we’d voice it, we’d animate it, we’d export it and we’d make the marketing assets; we did everything, there was no one else. The first two episodes would take about three weeks, working 80-hour weeks, so that was nuts. But then we started getting our process down a little better. Then, the timeline stretched to, like, six weeks when we were making season four and we started getting more animation staff. Now, it takes about eight weeks per episode because we just keep making the process more refined. It’s gotten longer because we’re just trying to beef these episodes up more and more. We keep getting comments that people want it to be longer, and we want to make it longer. Like, we have ideas for hour-long episodes just about the GarPax, but we’re not gonna be able to make all that stuff, so we’re always pushing [our episode lengths] and, as a result, we had to plan ahead more. The eight weeks can be challenging because we want to stay as topical as possible. So, sometimes we try to think of things to put in at the last minute, so that it feels like it’s up to date. If a team loses in the playoffs that we had winning, we’ll update that; we had that issue with the Bucks last season. And we had the famous scene with Bryan Longcollars that we made in, like, a week. (laughs) So, there are some exceptions to that rule.
AM: Yeah, I would say it’s hard because we definitely aren’t working at the speed of the NBA conversation, which changes week to week. The memes feel old; we reference memes that you don’t even remember by the time the playoffs come around, that are from the All-Star break or early in the season. (laughs) And that’s why we kind of settled on the idea that our stories would be telling the story of the season and it’s kind of a fun look back at the season. So this scenes takes place back when this was happening. So if a scene makes fun of, let’s say, the Pacers for being mediocre, it’s because they were mediocre at that time and you’re kind of going through time throughout the season. That’s what the previous seasons were – at least four, five and six – so that was kind of how we dealt with that.
How beneficial is it working with Bleacher Report’s NBA experts and being able to bounce ideas off of them?
CM: It’s been super helpful, having the experts at Bleacher Report. These are people who know basketball inside and out and they just know it on a level of detail that we could never possibly achieve ourselves. We’ve integrated that into our process where after we’re done writing a first draft or coming up with the concept, we’ll run it by experts like Howard Beck and Chris Trenchard and these different editors. Also, there are other people in the office who have expertise in the game NBA 2K and we’ll talk to them or someone will know about a specific team; there’s one Phoenix fan who’s in the office that we talked to about the Sun Kings episode. (laughs) We’ll use them to varying degrees. We’ll consult with them about what Easter eggs we can put in the background or whether we have an inside joke right. With the Celtics episode, there were two diehard Celtics fans who we talked to a lot and they fed us the Time Lord jokes and all those things. They just get so excited to talk about these things and we just feel like, “Okay, this will really resonate with Celtics fans, so we want to get this right.”
AM: Yeah, we are obsessive about not making mistakes. I know it seems silly for such a silly cartoon, but I want every episode to feel like it’s written by fans of that team. I get frustrated as a Philly fan if something is written and it’s not right, like movies where the accents are wrong and stuff.
CM: *cough* “Silver Linings Playbook.” *cough*
AM: (laughs) Yeah! And that stuff bothers me, so we always want to run our episodes by the experts to just make sure that everything’s good. We’re not going to get [little details] wrong. We got a number wrong once back in, like, season four; we put Tony Parker’s number on Manu Ginobili once and it kills me to this day. We actually QC (quality control) everything; we have a great QC department that checks everything. We run everything by them. And somehow – we have so many people in that last episode, we have a room full of NBA players – we got Spencer Dinwiddie’s number wrong because he changed it midway through the season. We don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of these things, we just always lean on the experts. That’s what we’re comfortable doing.
After the Warriors’ first championship, Steve Kerr asked you to make a special episode that was full of inside jokes about Golden State’s players and coaches so he could play it on the first day of training camp. They sent you guys pages of inside jokes to include. What was it like to make that Warriors-centric episode?
CM: I would say it was both absolutely awesome and a tiny bit frustrating. The reason it was awesome is obvious; I mean, we were literally talking to Steve Kerr on the phone and he was telling us inside jokes. And Nick U’Ren, the assistant coach, was feeding us tons of stuff and giving us these emails that were these long documents of like, “Draymond is always yelling at this guy…” and, “Iggy always plays tricks on people where he does a fake trust fall” and all these things. So, we’re scrambling to integrate as much of that into it. But where it was frustrating was that – and this is my “Game of Thrones” purity that’s bothering me – we kind of had to break a lot of our universe in order to accommodate what they wanted to do in the scene, so we made them all sorts of different characters. And we put it out as if it was another “Game of Zones” episode, but it was really this special thing that diverged from the show. Also, there were so many inside jokes in there that we knew no one would really get. Like, Brandon Rush was the bartender and he always said to the players, “Get what you neeeeed,” in this high-pitched voice. Nick recorded it for us and sent us a clip, so we put that in there. But when you watch someone else’s inside jokes, it’s not that exciting if you don’t know what’s being referenced, so it just seems like a joke… But I think if it’s the Warriors, I guess that’s okay because people are dying to know what their inside jokes are. But, you know, that was interesting.
AM: It was weird from a broad perspective because I don’t know how appealing that episode was since we’re not using jokes that everybody knows. But it was certainly a bizarre experience to see [the players react to it]. We got a video of them all watching it, and it was crazy to see Steph chewing on his napkin and cracking up. He’s watching us do his voice, it was so weird.
CM: Yeah, it was so weird. We spent weeks drawing all their faces. You study their face in such detail for, like, a full day. You’re just staring at Steph Curry’s face. And then, all of a sudden, you see his face laughing and it’s this bizarre experience.
How do you guys split the duties when making the show? Is one of you more the animator and one of you is more the voice actor? Or do you split the work 50/50?
AM: That’s an interesting question. Craig and I do a lot of the same [stuff]; we overlap on everything. We both do everything. But there are parts of the process where I’ll take more initiative and parts of the process where Craig takes more initiative. I would say that, generally speaking, I’m more of the writer and Craig’s more of the director, meaning I’ll be in charge of the script. I’ll handle the script and all that stuff, but Craig has a big part in that too. Then, the transitional part is recording, so we’ll do the voices. Once we’re recording Craig is saying, “Do we read it this way?” or, “Don’t do it this way,” or, “Try it like this.” A huge part of this is the audio assembly, and our process is very unique. But that’s when Craig takes days and he is just in his computer and putting all the takes together because so much of the choices that make something funny is the timing and choosing which take to use. From that point on, I think Craig is more in charge. As an older brother with creative ADD, I’ve always been a starter or an idea guy. I’ll have a million ideas. Craig is a finisher; he finishes things and he’s very detail-oriented. That means we fight a lot and there’s a lot of stress in the process, but we’re also very lucky that we have this complete package together.
CM: I would say in terms of voices, Adam does a majority of the voices. Like, it’s probably a 60/40 split or maybe even a 70/30 split because I oftentimes will just prefer to sit at the computer recording him. Adam has a little more versatility, so he could do more of the deep and raspy voices.
AM: *lowers voice* “It’s sort of like this! This is the Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler voice!”
CM: Yeah, and I’ll be like… *raises voice* “I’m Kyle Lowry! And he’s my friend! Shush, Norman!” And then what we’ll do is we’ll modulate our voices up and down so that we can like multiply what we can do, so then we’ll have like a Scottish voice variant and then we’ll have like a Cockney accent…
AM: Or I’ll be like… *lowers voice* “Form a fu**ing wall!” That’s my Stan Van Gundy. (laughs)
CM: That’s Stan uncensored! That’s what you’re getting today! (laughs) It’s basically Fat Bastard from “Austin Powers.”
AM: I always thought it sounded more like Shrek.
CM: Well, they’re the same guy. (laughs)
Yeah, it’s Mike Myers’ G-rated and R-rated Scottish accents.
AM: He’s the only Scottish voice I know. (laughs)
CM: That’s our only exposure to Scotland. (laughs) But yeah, Adam is more of a starter and I’m more of a finisher.
AM: Well, as far as the animation, when we started, I did more of the design and Craig did more of the animation. So, I would do a lot of the designs and the heads and things like that. And Craig would then build the mouths and we kind of split the animation. But now, we don’t do any animation, basically, because we have a team for that.
CM: Yeah, I like to focus on a lot of the acting – the character acting – and so I like to build the expressions. Because a lot of times, so much is communicated with proper expressions and our style is so realistic that if you don’t give them good expressions, it looks really stiff and off. So that’s been a big part of the process, especially now. I do these videos that take forever, but I like to act out every single shot and put that over the storyboards just to help the animators know what each character should be doing in each scene. There’s not a lot of time to iterate and revise shots, so we kind of have to get it on the first try. That’s been helping, but it’s super laborious.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from players who have seen themselves in the show?
AM: Well, we haven’t gotten any feedback on players’ likenesses from the players or anything like that. We did get feedback in the first-ever one we put out that people thought my design of Derrick Rose was Mario Chalmers, and that bothered me. (laughs) So, that’s why it’s so realistic now, as far as the designs go, because I didn’t want people getting that wrong or spending any time thinking about that. As far as the players who are in it, everyone’s been a really good sport; I’m actually amazed. Craig says that it has to do with the fact that these guys are criticized in serious ways all the time; they’re so used to criticism. With a cartoon, there’s something just disarming about it. But we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how good of a sport everyone is. And I think if we do receive criticism, it’s probably more in the form of just not speaking about it or silence than like people actively [complaining]. I think it’s kind of a bad look for someone to, like, lose their mind over our portrayal. I will say though: We have two more episodes left and there is one person where I’m like, “Ehh, hopefully they don’t get upset…” (laughs)
We’ve become friendly with Daryl Morey through this process; we found out he was a fan of our cartoon “Sports Friends” that we did before. We made that joke in the last episode about something “disappearing like James Harden in a meaningful playoff game.” Even though we’re friends with people, we can’t pander, we have to make the joke that’s there. But he posted the stats that show that James Harden does not disappear in playoff games, so he retorted us with the evidence and that’s fine. That’s fine. Yes, it is true. The joke was not an evidence-based joke, it was a culturally-based joke. (laughs)
I know you said you guys have help from animators now, but which NBA player or coach has been the toughest to draw?
AM: For some reason, I think it’s the white guys with wrinkles. I did a horrible Pau Gasol face or, like, Jack Nicholson. A lot of the older guys who have wrinkles are hard. And we don’t have many women in our cartoon, but I have a tough time with women for some reason. But I haven’t done designs in a while. I haven’t done designs since season four. But back in those days, it was difficult with older white characters for some reason.
CM: Yeah, because the gradients don’t look good. I would definitely say the wrinkles and facial hair [are tough]. Basically, the ideal head to design is, like, a Richard Jefferson or someone who is smooth and just shaved everywhere. That helps. (laughs)
Do you think your next project will be sports-related?
AM: It’s weird. We’ve kind of carved this niche of sports cartoons and we’ve gotten really good at it, and it’s an interesting, specific genre. But, for us, we want to test out whether or not our storytelling skills and comedy skills translate more broadly with our own original characters. Having your main characters be such notable famous people like LeBron James and James Harden gives you rocket boosters to get your stuff noticed more easily and more accessible, but we want to see if we can swim without those swimmies on. That’s our next challenge. One of the reasons that this is our last season and then we want to try something different is just that we feel like we’ve taken this as far as it can go. The challenge this season was, “Can we tell a cohesive story with our final season and wrap this up elegantly?” That was a new challenge for us. Then, the next great challenge is to see whether or not our stuff translates and try something new. Because we feel like we’ve made all the medieval basketball jokes we can possibly make. (laughs) And there are some inherent challenges with sports cartoons. There are problems with having your main characters be celebrities; one is that you don’t own their likenesses and there’s there’s some stuff there, but also you never have to worry about, like, Cartman’s real feelings or what Cartman is going to do in real life or the narrative on Cartman changing, just to give one example. You have a little more control [if they’re completely fictional].
CM: Adam and I have always had a lot of interests outside of sports, especially me. I really like science. I like history and philosophy and politics. And it would be fun to have a canvas or a cartoon concept that allows us to dip into whatever we’re interested in talking about more broadly. There’s a lot that goes on in the world and we’re only in the basketball sliver of that. So, yeah, I think that’s something we’re excited to do.
AM: I sort of look at it like Michael Jordan going to play baseball. And that’s not to say that we’re Michael Jordan. (laughs)
CM: So, we’ll be back doing “Game of Zones” next year? (laughs)
AM: It’s sort of like, we want to go try to play baseball! And if you watch his reasoning for wanting to go play baseball, it was that he had done everything he felt he could do in the NBA and he was like, “I want to try this and I want to see if I can do it.” By that analogy, we could be making “Game of Zones” again in a year and a half. (laughs) But Craig and I sort of look at it like that – we’ve done what we could with this and now we want to try to see if we can succeed in something different and more challenging.
Since this is the final season of “Game of Zones,” what did you guys think of the final season of “Game of Thrones?”
CM: *fake enthusiasm* “HBO is a great company and we loved it!” (laughs) No, but I think after season five, we could really feel the show diverging from the books. I think George R.R. Martin is the secret sauce of why “Game of Thrones” is so special. He chooses scenes and things to focus on that I think no one else does, and he does it so well, and that under-girding the show made it what it was to me. Everyone’s talking about last season, but I think in the last few seasons, the show really changed. The characters got a little more like derivative; it used to be so nuanced. Then, it became every character having this internal struggle. Like, Jamie Lannister was so interesting and then, basically everyone kind of got polarized into good and evil in a very basic way toward the end. Everything got simplified. And instead of being this messy, realistic world, it became this clean, Hollywood world. That’s when all the magic kind of evaporated.
AM: I think Craig and I talked about this enough to know that my opinion is basically expressed with what Craig said. I thought the show was incredible – the best show ever – in the beginning and then it tapered off. I can appreciate the challenges that they had in trying to wrap up a universe that really wasn’t meant to be wrapped up. Like, they say George R.R. Martin is like a gardener and he let’s things kind of go organically. But the problem is, like in the real world, there’s no perfect ending that makes sense. It’s sort of like things just go on their own. I think it was a very, very difficult challenge to end it, but I was disappointed by the final season. We only hope that we can match the disappointment people had in “Game of Thrones’” final season with our final season. It’’d be the ultimate meta parody. (laughs)
Are there any other universes that you feel could be ripe for content and that you’d like to explore?
AM: We love history, in all forms. I’m interested in that. We toyed with doing… I’ll tell you this possible alternate ending that we had for “Game of Zones.” This is something we actually toyed with: We pull out wide and we see that it’s actually “Westworld,” and Adam Silver has like this “Game of Zones” world and it’s like Westworld’s Western world. (laughs) And then we do, like, the second universe outside of it where we do a Westworld parody and that “Game of Zones” was just their wild west.
CM: They’re all robots that look like medieval basketball players. (laughs)
That would’ve been amazing! Is there a certain episode that you feel was your best? Or if someone has never watched the show before, is there a certain episode you’d show them to win them over?
CM: I think our best episode – and I’m not just saying this as a way to promote the show – is the one that is coming out on Thursday. I really hate saying that because I never want to set expectations high, but in terms of the production challenges, it is our biggest accomplishment because it’s the longest episode we’ve done. We are actually calling it “the long episode.” There’s so much that happens, so I’m really proud of it from an animation standpoint. But in terms of [what first-time viewers should watch], I’ve always loved the lottery episode. I love the ones where people kind of chime in things from the background. I like the episodes that feature what we call the “lower houses,” the bottom 14 houses. There’s also the trade winds episode with Kyle Lowry trading for a horse; that one always has a special place in my heart. I just like the call-and-response episodes, but it’s hard. It’s like choosing a favorite child!
AM: One of the cool things that we’ve learned from this experience is that everybody has their different favorite episode. I’m personally partial to the Isle of Van Gundy’s because it’s so weird and silly; I love that episode. But if someone were asking me what episode they should watch if they’ve never seen it, I’d say the recent Raptors one where the Kawhi Leonard trade happens. That, to me, was one of the best overall episodes – and same with the Bucks episode from season five where Jason Kidd declares that he’s an a**hole. That’s another classic one. But I like them all. Every episode has its merits, so it is hard to pick one, but those two stand out for me.
I will say, recently, the stock is rising on the raid on Stables Castle; that one was so epic, but it was such a frustrating thing to write and we didn’t even get to finish it [how I wanted] because I felt like we had to turn in the script too early and I wasn’t thrilled with it at first. But, now, looking back, I think it’s a really good episode. That’s another underrated one, I think.