Jai alai’s heroes: Orlando duo rethink classic sport in video game

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Caris Baker and Brian Stabile sat on the Free Play Florida stage in November, a sparse crowd before them.

During a 50-minute panel, the duo tried to tell as much of their journey of building an arcade video game cabinet of their game, Throwback: Jai Alai Heroes, as they could.

The shared laughs over silly ideas that eventually made it into the game.

Baker’s initial intent of building her digital art portfolio by giving Stabile her standard three weeks of work – which has turned into a 7-year partnership.

And Stabile’s anxiety over delaying a game about a niche sport even another month, week or day.

“We were scared someone else was going to release a jai alai game before us,” he said. “People who had played my other games came up to me and said, ‘This is your best game, you need to do something with this.’”

He has, now partnered with a downstate arcade leader to build a cabinet and install the game at multiple locations in Florida.

The milestone brings Stabile and Throwback: Jai Alai Heroes to a high point in a journey that started about 30 years ago, whether he knew it then or not.

THE PROGRAMMER

As he sat in his local roller rink as a boy in Old Bridge, N.J., about an hour northeast of the state’s capital of Trenton, Stabile could see the owners unveiling a new arcade machine.

A crowd had gathered.

The then 8-year-old Stabile stood on a chair, hoping for a better glimpse.

As the crowd parted, the owners revealed the game: Mortal Kombat 2.

“You couldn’t go online to look at trailers then,” the now-38-year-old Stabile said. “You had to look through a sea of other people crowding around the machine. You’re just desperate to see what is there.”

When he saw it, he marveled. “Hey, that’s Scorpion in there! Cool!”

That feeling of community-engaged reveals and game announcements drives Stabile to this day, three decades after that fateful visit to the roller rink, during which he saw the debut of series staples like Mileena, Kitana and Baraka.

So, once the game was at an advanced state, he chose to make Throwback: Jai Alai Heroes an arcade-exclusive release, encouraging gamers to play alongside each other and duke it out on the virtual “fronton.”

THE ARTIST

Baker had one hard-and-fast rule.

As a budding artist with a gaming passion – and a full-time gig at Full Sail at the time as a studio artist – she would work on three-week projects, quickly building her portfolio.

With that strategy and position, Baker racked up a whopping 100-plus titles in a roughly three-year span before she met Stabile.

“What I really wanted to do was show what I was capable of in a medium that I really cared about,” she said.

But there was one project she ran into that pulled at her, making her reconsider her own self-imposed three-week rule.

The appeal of Throwback: Jai Alai Heroes had as much to do with the subject matter as it did with Stabile’s passion for the game.

“The niche of the product was a way to showcase my artwork in a unique way,” Baker said. “I also saw the passion of the jai alai community. In the end, it was (Stabile’s) fortitude and work ethic that has carried us through.”

That’s why a 3-week contract has become a 7-year journey to develop a video game that has become a staple on the Central Florida indie game scene at conventions like Free Play Florida and others.

Kent Ward helped coordinate this year’s musical acts at Free Play Florida and regularly organizes and promotes local video game events with his organization Ongaku Overdrive.

He said video game development can be a tough gig, especially if you do so while maintaining a full-time job and social lives.

“It’s very easy to give up and many developers do,” he said. “But they have stuck it out for years until it was ready to go out into the world. It has been impressive.”

REGIONAL IDENTITY JAI ALAI

Jai alai – pronounced “hi-lie” – originated centuries ago along the Basque region of Western Europe.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the sport made its way to the West, first landing in Cuba and then in St. Louis in 1904.

The first fronton, or jai alai court, in Miami would open 20 years later, with the first match there taking place nearly 100 years ago in 1926.

Now, the sport has become the subject matter for an arcade game that is making the rounds in the region.

“There is a really cool Venn diagram of people who live in Florida, love arcade games and know what jai alai is, actually,” Baker said. “A lot of them were at Free Play Florida.”

More recently, jai alai has had an up-and-down existence in the region in the last few decades.

According to a 2022 article in Cigar Aficionado, the sport at one point was “almost forgotten.”

However, the same December article said an updated version of the sport has given its ambassadors hope that younger players can revive its popularity.

On the video game side, Stabile said he modeled Throwback: Jai Alai Heroes on other faster-paced versions of top sports like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, but with jai alai.

“There is a quickness to it,” he said.

JAI ALAI: A FAMILY PASSION

Stabile did not exactly stumble into the sport blindly.

As a boy in South Florida, he would attend matches with his grandparents, who lived across the street from the local fronton back when the sport was a staple in the region. In fact, his grandfather worked the ticket booth.

When he wanted to do a sports game, he wanted to do a sport that had not been done to death.

Originally, Stabile built the game for mobile platforms.

However, there was an innate problem building a jai alai game for these platforms.

“Have you ever played a mobile game with a joystick?” he recalls asking.

So, once he built the game, he essentially shelved it for several years, letting it sit in his portfolio.

While teaching game design at Full Sail University, he would show prototypes of projects to students as a way of showcasing the possibilities.

One prototype was a working version of Throwback: Jai Alai Heroes, which he used as a way to illustrate the concept of a collider in video games.

These colliders essentially establish the shape of an object in a video game, determining how other elements interact with it.

Almost invariably, he’d be asked about the game that has become Throwback: Jai Alai Heroes more than any other.

As more people asked him about the game, he realized something was missing from the game.

“Now I need some art.”

FULL SAIL’S JAI ALAI CONNECTION

Stabile had heard about Baker before they ever formally met.

Being a huge fan of pixel art, Stabile heard from several people who recommended he connect with her.

Once he did, the pair quickly decided to work together.

The intersection of an artist eager to expand her portfolio and a game designer ready to make a push for one of his more sought-after and promising projects proved perfect.

“I wanted to make a lot of games quickly to get experience under my belt,” said Baker, a 2023 inductee into Full Sail University’s Hall of Fame. “So,  I was giving everyone the same deal. I was in a mode to consistently deliver, bringing games from prototypes to a showable state.”

Within 4 weeks, the duo had a game ready to show off at Free Play Florida in 2016.

MUTUAL PASSION PROJECT

There is no shortage of passion involved in the project.

At 7 years old, Baker recalls finishing the game Jazz Jackrabbit.

Upon reaching the end, the titular character speeds off in a cab with the princess he saved.

However, Baker didn’t see them get married in front of a Disney castle. So, she drew it.

That was the start of her journey toward becoming a computer animator and game artist.

She and Stabile have now spent the last seven-plus years building their own arcade game, an homage to a sport with a passionate fanbase.

Now, Throwback: Jai Alai Heroes has become a passion project for both creators.

They spend downtime from their jobs – Baker a senior technical artist at Unity and Stabile a course director at Full Sail University – working on the cabinet, tweaking it and moving it toward a finished product.

As they worked the crowd at Free Play Florida, Baker and Stabile played the carnival barker’s role.

A crowd gathered and young and old gamers from across the region lined up to take part in a Throwback: Jai Alai Heroes tournament.

The crowd at that regional event in Lakeland had some of the duo’s more ardent supporters.

Still, the journey has not been without its detractors.

Stabile said some who knew him have wondered aloud about his direction, fielding questions about why he’d make a game about such an obscure sport, one many people cannot even pronounce.

But he remains confident that the game is going to show doubters that it was the right game for him to pursue.

“We are just going to do it anyway,” he said. “We will prove them wrong. We’ll prove them wrong.”