Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! This is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to basketball video games, the real NBA or another area of interest to our community, either as a list of five items or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.
In last week’s Friday Five, I talked about five players who suffered from the proverbial “cover curse” after gracing the covers of various basketball video games. It was definitely a fun topic to talk about, and I was reminded of one or two other “cursed” players in the comments section. If you can think of any other players who were hit by misfortune after appearing on the cover of a basketball game, be sure to check out last week’s article, and let me know.
I’m looking on the bright side this week, as I’m offering up a list of who I believe to be the best basketball video game cover players that we’ve had so far. I’ve made these picks according to a few factors: magnitude of stardom, their level of success around the time they appeared on the cover, and yes, there’s some personal bias in there as well. So, without any further ado, I present my choices for the five best basketball video game cover players!
1. Michael Jordan – NBA 2K11
Regular readers, hands up all of you who didn’t see this one coming. As I thought…all hands are down. Putting aside the fact that Michael Jordan is my all-time favourite basketball player, getting him on the cover of NBA 2K11 was a major coup for Visual Concepts. As I mentioned in a previous Friday Five, MJ was an elusive figure in most basketball games during the mid to late 90s, generally absent or replaced by a generic Roster Player. In NBA 2K11 however, years after he played his final game, he was in the game…and, on the cover.
In 2010, I was still warming up to the 2K series – I wasn’t fond of the approach to Isomotion controls at the time – but after the announcement, I was really looking forward to NBA 2K11. As you’re probably aware, NBA 2K11 didn’t just settle for using His Airness’ likeness on the cover. The game also featured the Jordan Challenge, a mode that allowed us to play ten of his most memorable games, with rosters that included all of the major players involved.
MJ himself was spot on, from his face to his jumpshot, and even a unique tongue-wagging animation. NBA 2K11 was also the only game in town that year, following the infamous cancellation of NBA Elite 11. Unopposed and with Michael Jordan as a selling point, it became one of the most successful basketball titles ever, garnering acclaim from gamers and critics alike, and selling more than five million copies.
2. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson & Larry Bird – NBA 2K12
How do you top a cover featuring Michael Jordan? Why, offer three different covers featuring Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, of course. NBA 2K12 expanded on the historical content introduced in NBA 2K11 with the NBA’s Greatest mode, boasting teams and challenges for fifteen NBA Legends.
Michael Jordan was still considered the “main” cover athlete and his cover is the one you’ll find more frequently on shelves, as the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird covers had a limited run. To that end, some stores ended up offering all three covers – or at least, a choice of cover – to customers who pre-ordered NBA 2K12. With the lockout of 2011 placing the NBA season in limbo and the expanded historical content in NBA 2K12, Jordan, Magic, and Bird were perfect choices for the game’s cover players. They’re my top three players of all-time, and three of the best and most significant players in history, no matter where you personally rank them.
Visual Concepts would return to featuring contemporary stars on the cover with NBA 2K13, which was the right move. After all, you can only rely on nostalgia for so long, and the current generation deserves its day in the spotlight. Nevertheless, it was really cool to see them follow up 2K11’s Michael Jordan cover with 2K12’s trio of covers featuring His Airness, Magic, and Larry Legend.
3. Dwyane Wade – NBA Live 06
I have to admit something here. Dwyane Wade used to be one of my favourite non-Bulls players, and I was actually glad to see the Miami Heat win the championship in 2006. In fact, if you go back and look at some online discussions about Wade during his first couple of years in the league, you’ll find quite a few people talking about his potential as a superstar, and gushing about his highlights.
Due to questionable officiating in the aforementioned Finals, his joining forces with LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and a tendency to flop and flail, he’s garnered almost as much scorn as he has adoration in the years since, but for what it’s worth, I was a bit of a fan once, and I still think that he’s a great player. It was also cool to see Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton get a ring.
Indeed, it’s that championship that earns Wade his spot on this list. When the Miami Heat captured the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2006, Wade became the first player to grace the NBA Live cover and win the NBA title in the same season. As it happens, NBA 2K would achieve that distinction at the same time, as Shaquille O’Neal appeared on the cover of NBA 2K6. However, seeing as how NBA Live 06 PC is one of my all-time favourite games, and Wade established himself as the top dog in Miami with his Finals MVP, he gets the nod on this list. A rising star who was definitely coming into his own, EA Sports made a great choice for NBA Live 06’s cover.
4. Kobe Bryant – NBA 2K10
In 2009, Visual Concepts revealed that the NBA 2K10 cover would feature Kobe Bryant, while EA Sports announced that Dwight Howard would appear on the cover of NBA Live 10. The deals had actually been in place before the 2009 NBA Finals, so it was simply good fortune that those two stars also happened to square off for the championship that year; it wasn’t the result of that being the Finals match-up, as several basketball gamers suggested at the time.
In any event, they both felt like pretty good choices, given the circumstances. Of course, Kobe stood out as the better choice of the two, being the more successful player and the one coming off a championship, his first without Shaquille O’Neal. Following in his former teammate’s footsteps, Kobe became the second NBA 2K cover player to win the championship in the same season, while Howard’s Orlando Magic fell to the Boston Celtics (and NBA 2K9 cover player Kevin Garnett) in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As I’ve mentioned on the Podcast and a couple of times in the Forum, I’m not exactly a Kobe Bryant fan, but he is absolutely an all-time great, and his back-to-back championship victory in 2010 proved that appearing on the NBA 2K10 cover was no jinx.
5. LeBron James – NBA 2K14
LeBron’s not exactly a favourite of mine either, but similar to Wade, I was actually kind of a fan early on. However, following the “I’m a winner” rhetoric after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ elimination in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, stealing Nate Robinson’s thunder by declaring his future participation in the Dunk Contest only to back out a year later, The Decision, and the rivalry that developed with the Chicago Bulls, I’ve become somewhat less inclined to cheer for him.
I do of course respect his abilities, and only a fool would deny his brilliance. While I’ll respectfully disagree that he’s surpassed Michael Jordan, he is unquestionably an amazing player, and an all-time great in his own right. The King has done something that His Airness did not, however: he appeared on the cover of the top-rated NBA game, while in his prime. Granted, that’s not exactly a factor when discussing their legacy, but it’s certainly relevant to this list.
LeBron is widely considered the best player in the game right now, and in 2013, he was coming off his third straight NBA Finals appearance, and second straight championship. Path to Greatness didn’t exactly live up to the standards of the Jordan Challenge or NBA’s Greatest in my book – though it was well made – but the strength of LeBron’s accomplishments and brand, combined with NBA 2K being regarded as the premiere NBA sim, made him a logical choice. Given the result of the 2014 Finals, you might be inclined to say that he’d be a candidate for last week’s list, but frankly, he’s doing a lot better than Kevin Durant right now.
Going back and looking at the lists of cover players for NBA Live and NBA 2K, as well as other NBA titles, has made compiling these lists an interesting exercise. While I believe that some people (especially younger gamers) don’t appreciate how good NBA Live once was, owing to the series’ recent struggles and 2K’s outstanding product, it struck me that all else aside, 2K has had the best roster of cover players. On the other hand, NBA Live has a couple of candidates for the worst cover players, but that’s a topic for next week.
In the meantime, who are your picks for the best basketball video game cover players? Sound off in the comments below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! Thanks for checking in this week, please join me again next Friday for another Five.