The Friday Five: 5 Landmark Basketball Games of the 2010s

The Friday Five

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five is a list of five basketball games that were landmark releases during the 2010s.

It’s the final Friday Five of 2019, and indeed, the final Friday Five of the decade! As the 2010s draw to a close and a new generation looms on the horizon, it feels like a good time to reflect on the decade that was in basketball gaming. Originally, I was going to compile a Top 5 countdown of the best basketball games of the decade, but it’s difficult not to omit some worthy candidates in a list of five. It’s also potentially a very boring countdown, given NBA 2K’s dominance and NBA Live’s struggles over the past ten years. The more I thought about it, the less appealing the idea became.

As such, I’ve decided to talk about landmark releases, as there have been a handful of those during the 2010s. That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but to me, a landmark game doesn’t necessarily need to be one of the best or the absolute pinnacle of its genre; just one that had a great impact and was very influential. Of course, there is some overlap as the games I’m listing here are great releases and could be candidates for a “Best Basketball Games of the Decade” countdown, but the point is that wherever you rank them, there’s no denying their importance and effect. These games represent important milestones in basketball gaming over the past decade.

1. NBA 2K11

Michael Jordan celebrates title number six in NBA 2K11's Jordan Challenge

There’s no point pretending that NBA 2K11 isn’t a shoe-in for this list. Many people still call it the best basketball game ever made – I mean, it says it right there in the title track by Snoop Dogg – and there’s no denying that it was a fantastic release. Great as it was, I would disagree that it still holds that distinction. I’m reminded of how a lot of gamers still cited NBA Live 2000 as being the best game in the mid 2000s, when it had been surpassed in many ways. That’s often how it goes with landmark releases. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t great for their time, or even that they don’t hold up years later, but our nostalgia makes it all too easy for them to remain the yardstick.

That’s not to say it’s entirely inappropriate to consider NBA 2K11 as being the gold standard, though. As the first sim game released in the 2010s, it immediately raised the bar for all games that would follow it. On top of continuing NBA 2K’s dedication to an authentic sim experience, it became a landmark release thanks to the inclusion of The Jordan Challenge. It established retro teams as staple content, rather than just appealing bonus content. Selling a then-record five million copies, it also firmly established NBA 2K as the dominant brand, and boosted its mainstream appeal. 2K couldn’t have started the 2010s on stronger footing than it did with NBA 2K11.

2. NBA Jam: On Fire Edition

Blake Griffin in NBA Jam: On Fire Edition

Although the NBA Live series has struggled to regain market share and widespread critical acclaim following the disaster that was NBA Elite 11, EA Sports did have a landmark basketball game in the 2010s. After rebooting the NBA Jam series with the 2010 release – itself a fine and often underrated game – EA produced a masterpiece in its sequel, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition. While I have great reverence for the original NBA Jam games and NBA Hangtime, and they hold up amazingly well given their age, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition is arguably the best arcade basketball game ever made. Its quality unquestionably makes it one of the 2010s’ landmark releases.

What makes NBA Jam: OFE so great and a landmark release is that it addressed many of the downsides of arcade basketball games, and marked an evolution of the genre. EA had attempted that with the 2010 release, but in trying to faithfully re-create the original classic, they replicated a few aspects that hadn’t aged as well. With OFE, EA introduced sophisticated and adaptive AI, which made for a more challenging and less repetitive gameplay experience. Combined with a deep and creative campaign mode, and classic NBA Jam elements such as Tim Kitzrow’s commentary and crazy dunks, On Fire Edition remains a superior game to the newer NBA Playgrounds titles.

3. Basketball Classics

Basketball Classics, a landmark release of the 2010s

In an era where we’re so often bemoaning NBA Live’s shortcomings and NBA 2K’s greedy approach to recurrent revenue mechanics, Basketball Classics is a breath of fresh air. Along comes a game with a 90s aesthetic, yet plays better than any of the games it was based on ever did, and the 2010s has itself another landmark basketball title. On more than one occasion I’ve described it as a game I never knew I wanted, yet one that makes so much sense to have. With all the drama and disappointment that is increasingly going hand-in-hand with Triple-A releases, indie developers have been stepping up to deliver satisfying gaming experiences across a variety of genres.

Games like Shovel Knight have proven that we don’t need cutting-edge graphics when fun and engaging gameplay is combined with a 16-bit aesthetic. In fact, that style of graphics now feels timeless, especially since it can be done in higher resolution. Josh and Dave from Namo Gamo have essentially done for basketball games what titles like Shovel Knight did for platformers. It’s a loving tribute to old school basketball games, and it achieves what they did in their time, being a fun representation of the sport. It’s not a cynical cash grab with freemium mechanics; it’s a work of art, made for basketball fans who love video games. In the 2010s, that really means something.

4. NBA 2K13

Michael Jordan on the Dream Team in NBA 2K13

While the PlayStation 4/Xbox One version of NBA 2K14 is a landmark release in its own right thanks to the OMG Trailer, as far as being a great all around product that had an impact on the series and genre, I’d consider NBA 2K13 as more of a landmark game. It’s the game where NBA 2K finally adopted right stick dribbling, taking one of the major concepts that NBA Live had been doing better for two generations. It made NBA 2K13 far more accessible to any NBA Live gamers who were still struggling to make the switch, and was a huge improvement over the clunky Isomotion approach. It speaks volumes that 2K not only borrowed the idea, but has stuck with it ever since.

Then there was the inclusion of the original Dream Team, celebrating the legendary squad’s 20th Anniversary. Considering the conversation at the time regarding who was better – the 1992 team or the current 2012 squad – having both in the game to “settle” the debate on the virtual hardwood made a lot of sense. My Player mode was also re-branded to MyCAREER, a naming convention that has since expanded to NBA 2K’s other modes. NBA 2K13 was a great game across the board, and a lot of gamers do actually still prefer it to newer releases. At a time when NBA Live was struggling to return and NBA 2K could’ve rested on its laurels, 2K strove to innovate.

5. NBA 2K16

Kobe Bryant shoots the basketball in NBA 2K16

Looking back, NBA 2K16 is the year that the game began evolving into what it is today; for better or worse. NBA 2K16 wasn’t the first game in the series to feature a story-driven MyCAREER mode, but it did bring us “Livin’ Da Dream“. This set the precedent for a more cinematic story involving big name talent, as well as tipping off the divisive tradition of giving MyPLAYER characters weird nicknames. 2K Pro-Am made its debut in NBA 2K16, expanding on the online team play concept of previous games and establishing a mode that would become the basis of an official eSports league. Unexpected but nevertheless welcome new retro teams were also added.

I think in many ways, NBA 2K16 was a turning point for the series. Not in the same way that NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 was for EA, as NBA 2K is still going strong and has a lot of positive traits. However, you can see the game shifting in the direction of appealing to a wider audience, and in particular, online gamers. It’s moving beyond being just a basketball sim, to being a bigger part of basketball and gaming culture. That’s had its advantages and disadvantages, but whatever your opinion of the current direction of NBA 2K as we leave the 2010s behind, it began with NBA 2K16. If that doesn’t make it a landmark title in basketball gaming, then I don’t know what does!

What are your thoughts on these games from the 2010s? What other games would you consider landmark releases during the past decade? Have your say in the comments section below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.

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