Monday Tip-Off: How Much Does It Cost To Get Michael Jordan In A Video Game?

We’re at midcourt, the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Get your week started here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to basketball video games.

If you’re a basketball fan, you know who Michael Jordan is, even if you weren’t around in the 80s and 90s. Likewise, even if you were around in the 80s and 90s but weren’t a fan of basketball, you still knew of him, and at least a couple of noteworthy facts about His Airness. Such was his impact upon popular culture.

I was around during that era, and a basketball fan to boot. As many of you may already be aware, I was also a big fan of Michael Jordan, and he remains my all-time favourite player. I was therefore very excited when it was announced that MJ would grace the cover of NBA 2K11, a game which also included a celebration of his career in the form of the Jordan Challenge. Visual Concepts and 2K Sports were probably pretty happy about the arrangement too, as NBA 2K11 sold over five million copies, and was very well received by critics and the basketball gaming community alike.

Michael Jordan is still featured in NBA 2K, and indeed graces the cover of the Special Edition of NBA 2K16. 2K’s partnership with MJ has obviously been very beneficial to the visibility, sales, and reception of their game, but how much does that partnership cost them? While we don’t have any specific figures, some recent reports have given us fodder to speculate.

As some of you may know, Michael Jordan has been involved in a lawsuit with a grocery chain over the unauthorised use of his name and likeness in an advertisement. As a result, the chain will have to pay him $8.9 million.

Michael Jordan in NBA 2K15

Given some of the testimony that was reported on during the suit, that number probably isn’t too surprising. According to of one of his advisers, His Airness won’t do business with anyone unless at least $10 million is on the table. However, it should also be noted that subsequent testimony suggested that that figure is not always a deal-breaker.

Of course, if that’s what it cost Visual Concepts to get Michael Jordan into NBA 2K, I’d suggest that it’s been money well spent. It’s made for some great historical content in the games, and definitely helped out with sales, too. Partnering with MJ is a good business deal: his brand continues to move merchandise, and as such, Jordan is still making more in endorsements than any current NBA player. In his testimony for the aforementioned lawsuit, Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist noted how unusual it was for a former athlete to increase their income after their playing days were over. Then again, Michael Jordan is not your usual professional athlete, former or current.

The possible $10 million price tag is certainly an interesting tidbit of information for long-time basketball gamers, as Michael Jordan has long been an elusive figure in the medium. While he hasn’t been entirely absent from NBA video games through the years, his savvy decision to retain exclusive control over his likeness rights meant that as the games were gaining in popularity and prominence in the mid to late 90s, he was nowhere to be found.

Presumably, MJ’s asking price for any and all business deals has been in that range for some time. It’s therefore no surprise that Roster Player #99 (and other similarly named fake players) took his place for so many years. It also suggests that when he finally made his debut in the NBA Live series – as a Legend in NBA Live 2000 – EA Sports likely paid MJ a figure in that vicinity to get the deal done. Michael Jordan remained a Legend in NBA Live through NBA Live 2004, was featured in the early NBA Street games, then disappeared from basketball video games until his triumphant return in NBA 2K11.

Michael Jordan dunks in NBA Live 2000

So, is 2K actually paying Michael Jordan $10 million per year – or over the duration of their contract with him – to appear in NBA 2K? There’s no confirmation of that, so I’m not about to irresponsibly report it as fact. And again, it’s also worth noting that further comments made during the aforementioned trial have suggested that the idea MJ won’t do any deal for less than $10 million doesn’t always hold true. At the very least, however, it’s a ballpark figure that invites speculation. Of course, you may well ask: why speculate in the first place?

Beyond simply speculating on a famous person’s income and marvelling at an money that most of us will never see, this also gives us an insight into something I think a lot of basketball gamers still don’t understand: why certain historical players aren’t included in NBA 2K and/or NBA Live. The common cry is that 2K and EA “forgot” to include a certain player, have no respect for their achievements, or that they are simply clueless about the history of the NBA. This is absolutely not the case.

Former players who elect to retain full control over their likeness rights are free to name their price, as Michael Jordan has. Whether it’s $10 million, a little bit more, or a bit less than that, you can bet that it’s still a substantial amount. It’s also a significant amount of the budget, which has to be taken into account when signing agreements with other players…especially if those players also want to demand a similar amount of money to appear in the game.

And, to put it bluntly, they’re not worth the same money that Michael Jordan is. Yes, they may be great players in their own right, but their brand isn’t as strong, they won’t move a product like MJ will. And that’s assuming they’re interested in making a deal in the first place; if they aren’t, then the money on the table might not matter. Older generations don’t always “get” video games, and don’t care to get involved with something they don’t like, understand, or partake in.

As far as paying Michael Jordan so much money, though – whatever the amount is – I’d once again suggest that it’s been a sound investment. It remains to be seen how much longer 2K does business with MJ, but with the success of the NBA 2K series, and their commitment to not only developing games, but also developing a culture with endeavours such as 2KTV, it’s likely they’ll want to continue that partnership for years to come. As for Jordan, if the money gels with his uniquely long-lived market value – and so far, it would appear that it does – he’ll continue to be on board, and in NBA 2K.

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September 22, 2015 11:25 pm

The “seven figures” number has gone back to the late 90’s. I know that much at least. I assume he didn’t update it too much and that wound up becoming pocket change for 2K. I’m actually more interested in how much they’re paying for the other players. Especially since they disappear some years (Webber) or try to (Pippen) after being in the games.

He was actually in the 2002-2004 games because he had joined the NBAPA when he unretired and played for the Wizards, which is why he’s in 2K2-2K4, Inside Drive 2002-2004, etc.

September 22, 2015 11:26 pm
Reply to  benji

Should clarify, that’s why he’s in those games despite EA’s original deal.

September 23, 2015 4:29 am

Damm everywhere MJ goes he gets paid, I bet when he uses the rest room and they have an attendent in there working THEY have to pay Jordan instead lol