Monday Tip-Off: Why Do We Care About Cover Players?

LeBron James dribbles the basketball in NBA 2K16

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games.

The reveal of the cover player for NBA 2K17 is just a couple of days away, set to coincide with the grand final of the Road To The Finals Pro-Am tournament in NBA 2K16. Stephen Curry seems like a good bet to appear on the cover for the second year in a row, perhaps joined by Klay Thompson, or maybe even the Golden State Warriors’ entire starting five. Paul George also seems like a distinct possibility, seeing as how he was the cover player of the MyNBA2K16 app, and appeared in the trailer announcing the Legend Edition of NBA 2K17 featuring Kobe Bryant on the cover.

Admittedly, for a lot of gamers, the player that appears on the cover of NBA Live and NBA 2K is largely unimportant. In the grand scheme of things, it has no bearing on the quality of the game, and is mostly only significant in terms of marketing. I imagine that under normal circumstances, very few people would flat out refuse to buy a game if a certain player was on the cover, and anyone who does was probably looking for an excuse not to buy it anyway. Yet, as often as it’s dismissed as an irrelevant topic of discussion, it’s something that we inevitably end up talking about every year.

So, why do basketball gamers care about who’s on the cover of NBA Live and NBA 2K?

The most obvious answer is that even though the cover player is a trivial matter that has no effect on the game itself, it’s still fun to speculate as to who it might be. As we await meaningful information on the games, we’re left to talk about what we want to see in them, and wonder about every little detail, cover included. As I said, I don’t expect a lot of people care enough about the cover player to have irrational preconceptions about a game’s quality, or refuse to buy it on principle, but it’s something to talk about before the preview season gets underway.

Could NBA 2K16 cover player Stephen Curry also appear on the NBA 2K17 cover?

To that end, it might be a stretch to say that basketball gamers in general actually care about cover players, as much as it’s a topic they may care to discuss in the lead up to a new release. It’s probably fair to say that for most people, it’s just a guessing game with little emotional investment. Unless there’s actually some sort of contest, the only prize at stake is bragging rights on a message board or social media, and chances are more than a few people will turn out to be correct.

Now, having said that, it appears that there are some basketball gamers who do actually take the matter of cover players very seriously. I have seen people express disappointment that their preferred player wasn’t chosen, and there are some who will claim that they won’t buy a game if or because a certain player appears on the cover. They’re a vocal minority, and a lot of the time I have my doubts about the strength of their convictions, but their response is much angrier than that of their fellow gamers. It therefore seems that some people really do care about cover players, but why?

Don’t ask me, ask them! Alright, alright, since I’m writing a column about this topic, I obviously have a few thoughts on the matter. To answer that question, I think we first have to ask another one: is there any good reason to really care about the cover players of NBA Live and NBA 2K, or place any importance on a seemingly trivial detail? Yes, actually. From a marketing standpoint, a popular and recognisable player can certainly help in moving copies. For someone who is really invested in the idea of a particular basketball game succeeding, or simply analysing the marketing strategy, they may well advocate for an appealing cover player.

Paul George dribbles the basketball in NBA 2K16

However, I’d suggest that the reasons usually come down to personal taste. As gamers and consumers, we get very caught up in branding, and brand loyalty. Since people who play basketball games tend to be very interested in real basketball as well, affinity for teams and players is also a factor. If a cover player aligns with your allegiances and fanaticism, it’s the proverbial cherry on top, even if you know that it ultimately has no effect on the game itself. Conversely, though you may realise that the cover player isn’t really an important detail, if you don’t care for said player, it may slightly dull your enthusiasm for a game.

Of course, cover players have arguably become a little more significant than they used to be, especially for NBA 2K. In the age of pre-order bonuses, such content is usually related to the cover player in some way, which may lead to some gamers caring more about the cover player than they normally would. Beyond that, certain games have included additional modes based on the cover player, such as the Jordan Challenge in NBA 2K11, NBA’s Greatest in NBA 2K12, and Path to Greatness in NBA 2K14. While the core gameplay and features remain unaffected, certain cover players have had more impact on games than just being the guy on the front of the box.

Personally, outside of the Michael Jordan covers for NBA 2K11, NBA 2K12, and the special edition of NBA 2K16, for me it’s never been more than a curiosity in the lead up to the preview season. I would’ve picked up the aforementioned games regardless of who was on the cover, but I will admit that MJ being featured along with the related bonus content was nevertheless appealing. Similarly, the cover player of NBA Live 13 was never revealed before its cancellation, so it remains a tantalising mystery. It’s heavily rumoured to have been LeBron James, but as far as I’m aware, that’s never been officially confirmed.

Michael Jordan dunks in NBA 2K16

At the end of the day, there are reasons to care about the cover players for NBA Live and NBA 2K, whether it’s personal taste, interest in the success of the brand, or a desire to see in-game content and pre-order bonuses influenced by the chosen athlete. As such, the cover player is a matter of interest to a lot of basketball gamers. Still, whether we’re just having some fun speculating, we feel strongly about the branding, or we’re concerned about bonus content, we need to keep things in perspective. The core experience, the gameplay and the game modes, is what’s ultimately important; thankfully, such crucial elements are not be affected by the box art.

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