NBA All-World hands-on: Taking basketball video games back to the streets

Niantic's latest AR app might be the best use of its location-based tech yet.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Niantic has created some of the most popular augmented reality games like Ingress and Pokémon Go. But this week the company is launching a new title called NBA All-World that might be the best application of its location-based tech to date.

For people who have played one of Niantic’s previous titles, NBA All-World features a very familiar formula. After installing the free app (available on Android and iOS), you are given a starter player and from there you can use the in-game map to navigate to real-world locations in order to collect items, earn cash or battle other players. The big twist for NBA All-World is that, instead of visiting random points of interest to battle others, you’ll need to visit real-world basketball courts to earn your spot on local leaderboards. And, of course, there’s a roster of big-name ballers like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George to collect.

That might not sound like a major change, but it results in some very notable differences in how you play the game. The first is that instead of hanging out on random street corners like you often do while raiding in Pokémon Go, the need to go to local courts makes NBA All-World feel more grounded in reality. That’s important because Niantic says there’s actually very little overlap between people who play its other titles and more traditional sports gamers (just 10 percent according to Niantic senior producer Marcus Matthews). And after years of people playing basketball game series like NBA2K (or my personal favorite NBA Street) at home, Niantic sees All-World as one of the first games that encourages players to get off the couch and go back outside.

Because you have to physically go to real courts to take part in battles, NBA All-World feels better connected to the basketball community at large. While I didn’t get to try this out myself prior to launch, it’s not a stretch to imagine people going to a park to play All-World only to hop into a real pickup game. Then, when you sub out, you can go back to challenging leaderboards or playing minigames in NBA All-World on your phone while you catch your breath.

Here's a screenshot of a player's profile in NBA-All World

As for the game itself, Niantic has also worked to integrate basketball culture into every aspect of the app. This includes partnering with companies like Adidas and Puma (but not Nike just yet) so you can buy virtual clothing or footwear that matches what star ballers wear IRL. Players in game are also modeled after their real-life counterparts, so centers like Domantas Sabonis are better at blocking while smaller guards are faster and better at stealing the ball. And while Niantic is keeping many elements of NBA All-World’s gameplay pretty simplistic (like defense, which is mostly automatic), the ability to move and juke in various directions, step back for a jumper or drive to the basket provides a surprising amount of depth.

I also really appreciate that because Niantic already has tons of info provided by users from its other AR games, NBA All-World is populated with tons of in-game locations and hot spots, from courts to places like banks and stores where you can grab items, energy and more. And when the game goes live this week on January 24th, gameplay won’t just be restricted to the US as NBA All-World is getting a full global launch, which really speaks to the international nature of the sport.

However, at this point it’s important to mention that while I think this might be the best use of Niantic’s location-based gaming tech so far, building a new community and playerbase of gamers is a challenge for any developer. This includes some of the company’s previous stumbles, like its ill-fated Harry Potter AR game which got canceled last year, or its Catan spinoff, which was discontinued in 2021 before ever seeing an official release. But for those looking to dive deeper into the basketball community, NBA All-World looks to offer the best blend of real life and AR integration yet.