The animated web show Game of Zones has been beloved by NBA fans since the first of its sporadically released episodes ran three years ago. Brilliantly finding the comedic creases in basketball drama, then combining those storylines with a pop culture titan (HBO’s Game of Thrones, if you didn’t catch that), then throwing it all together in one slick-looking package, the show boasts the hallmarks of coming from a media powerhouse. 

Indeed, it is: Game of Zones is produced by Bleacher Report, a behemoth sports site owned by Turner Sports, which has a broadcasting partnership with the NBA. But the show’s roots are somewhere else entirely: With a pair of brothers who taught themselves animation, originally had a much different vision for the series, and — until now — did all the production work themselves. 

Spurred by Game of Zones‘ cultish popularity, Bleacher Report is for the first time launching an eight-episode, actual season of the show on Thursday. (Just eight episodes in total had previously run over three years.) The April 20 launch is the latest step in a surreal journey for Adam and Craig Malamut, the brothers behind Game of Zones, which takes prominent NBA storylines then reimagines them in a medieval, Westeros-like world. 

Game of Zones episodes are now consistently among Bleacher Report‘s most popular social posts, according to a company spokesperson. Its eight total episodes to date have been viewed millions of times, but this is all a far cry from the show’s origins. 

‘We had no idea what would happen’

The first Game of Zones episode hit in May 2014 with inside jokes galore for fans of both the NBA and HBO — Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat was cast as a dragon, Chicago’s power forward Carlos Boozer and frequently injured guard Derrick Rose had a Hodor-Bran dynamic going, and the San Antonio Spurs were essentially White Walkers. It was an immediate smash with NBA fans. 

Less than a year before, though, Adam was living in L.A. working freelance as a self-taught animator. Craig was getting his masters degree in astrophysics on the East Coast but would soon move west to join Adam. The two would sometimes collaborate on projects, including a cartoon called Sports Friends for Yahoo. 

When they first pitched Rory Brown, who’s now Bleacher Report’s president, on the Game of Zones concept, they imagined it crossing Game of Thrones with NFL storylines. But because of Bleacher Report’s NBA ties, among other factors, a basketball-focused approach won out. 

“We had no idea what would happen,” 27-year-old Craig says of the first episode’s release. “But then it went up and got like a million likes in 36 hours.” 

Turner Sports hosts also featured the episode and riffed on it during a broadcast of the popular TNT show Inside the NBA. That’s when the brothers really knew they had something. 

“We were just freaking out, jumping up and down all around our apartment,” 34-year-old Adam says of first seeing their creation featured on TV. 

Another surreal moment: Before the 2015-16 NBA season, as the Golden State Warriors prepared to defend their title, coach Steve Kerr asked the Malamut brothers to make a Warriors-specific Game of Zones episode. He thought it would help both loosen up and motivate his team ahead of their title defense, so he fed the brothers team inside-jokes to include and asked them not to worry about hurt feelings. 

The final product left Warriors players in hysterics, as proved by this clip of the team cracking up while watching. 

“We’re 76ers fans because we’re from the Philadelphia area,” Adam says. “But now we’re forever Warriors fans too because of how cool they were about that.”

What to expect this spring

When the eight weekly episodes begin Thursday, Game of Zones fans can expect more of the same — with a twist. 

Previously, Adam and Craig did everything from animation to voice-overs themselves, using their own self-taught techniques — what they call a “Galapagos of animation.” Now their team includes eight full-time artists and animators, plus editors, producers and others who work on Game of Zones as well as other video content. 

This added creative power allows for new possibilities big and small. 

For example, the show can now include galloping horses, which are notoriously hard to animate. And the Game of Thrones spoof universe has been expanded into a more general realm of medieval fantasy. Expect references to classics including Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, as well as, of course, GoT.

All in all, not too shabby for a couple brothers who taught themselves how to animate.  

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