This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at NBA 2K11 with a tenth anniversary retrospective.
Monday marked the tenth anniversary of NBA 2K11, so I feel a retrospective is only appropriate. Before we get to that though, the fact that ten years have passed since the release of NBA 2K11 is, for me at least, mind-blowing. It doesn’t feel like a whole decade has gone by since basketball gamers were sinking their teeth into a title that many still consider to be one of the best (if not the best) hoops games ever made. Like NBA Live 2000 before it, it’s managed to hold a special place in our hearts long past its release, because it was such a great game for its time.
Of course, being a great game for its time doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s still the benchmark, which raises a few questions: just how good is NBA 2K11, and how well does it hold up? What makes it so special that a vocal contingent of basketball gamers opine that no game since has been able to top it? They’re pertinent questions for an NBA 2K11 retrospective to explore, so let’s take a look back…way back…
It’s difficult to know where to begin with a retrospective of NBA 2K11, but I feel the most appropriate place would be its cover player. During the preview season, word leaked that Michael Jordan, who hadn’t played in the NBA since 2003, would grace the game’s cover. The news was confirmed on June 2nd 2010, and later on June 22nd, the inclusion of The Jordan Challenge was announced. Not only was MJ the first retired player to appear on the cover of NBA 2K, but he would be playable along with an assortment of his Chicago Bulls teams and their opponents. It was a celebration of his career, coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of his first championship.
I’ve written about The Jordan Challenge several times for Wayback Wednesday, from my experiences going back and finishing the mode to a retrospective of it, and even a reimagining of the concept if licensing a couple of other players had been feasible. I’ve also compared it to NBA’s Greatest, itself a fantastic follow-up in NBA 2K12. For the sake of a comprehensive NBA 2K11 retrospective, however, I’ll note that The Jordan Challenge consisted of eight historical games from MJ’s career, a non-specific match-up with the Hawks, and the 1991 NBA Finals. We were tasked with meeting statistical goals to clear each challenge, and unlock MJ: Creating a Legend mode.
To say that The Jordan Challenge was revolutionary and a huge milestone in hoops games is an understatement. We’d had Legends and All-Decade teams in both NBA Live and NBA 2K, but never full retro squads. The concept was considered for NBA Live 08 but ultimately fell through, presumably leading to the inclusion of the FIBA teams. It finally became a reality in NBA 2K11, complete with authentic players and team branding. Michael Jordan’s tongue even wagged as he soared for dunks, and moments such as “The Shrug” were re-created with unique animations when the appropriate conditions were met. It was simply an outstanding retro challenge mode.
One thing that I do have to mention is that if The Jordan Challenge has a drawback, it’s that the retro team rosters are the thinnest of any NBA 2K game. That isn’t too surprising due to it being the first year that retro content was added, but given how fleshed out the rosters were the following year in NBA 2K12, it’s easy to forget that the opposing teams only had five real players apiece. It’s certainly something that I’d forgotten until I went back and explored the possibility of making some retro roster mods for NBA 2K11, but at the end of the day, it hardly spoiled the experience. More importantly, it set the table for what was to come in future iterations of NBA 2K.
The Jordan Challenge was a huge addition in NBA 2K11, and the ability to play a special career mode with a rookie MJ was a creative reward, but as we all know, gameplay is paramount. NBA 2K11 wouldn’t have the reputation that it does if it didn’t deliver on the virtual hardwood. Even all these years later, the game is not only fun, but also impressive in its depth and realism. While right stick dribbling controls were still a couple of years away, Isomotion in NBA 2K11 felt polished and intuitive. Pulling off dribbling moves feels easier and more logical than it did in NBA 2K10, and across the board, many of the animations still hold up impressively well.
When it comes to the Xs and Os – the task of simulating NBA basketball on the sticks – NBA 2K11 is likewise still impressive. Even without mechanics such as Signature Skills and Badges that have been introduced in subsequent titles, the game did a good job of representing player skill and allowing the stars to stand out. While it does have its lapses and a couple of quirks, the AI is very solid for the most part. There’s enough depth to the player attributes and tendencies, as well as the coaching logic, to provide a realistic depiction of NBA basketball as it was in the 2011 season. On top of that, it feels good on the sticks, and is simply a lot of fun to play…well, for the most part.
There are a few issues with the gameplay. As I noted, the game was still utilising the old modifier plus left stick movement approach to dribbling controls, which felt much clunkier than NBA Live’s use of the right stick with Freestyle Control. CPU players intercepted passes way too easily, though that’s an issue that remains in NBA 2K to this day. The shooting mechanics will also make you miss the shot meter and timing mechanics of recent games, as it’s possible to brick well-timed releases thanks to the dice roll. That wasn’t uncommon in games of the era, but it’s an aspect of NBA 2K11’s gameplay that hasn’t aged quite as well, and feels primitive compared to newer titles.
Despite its strong points, I believe that many people slightly overrate the gameplay in NBA 2K11, at least when they hold it up as the current benchmark. The addition of right stick dribbling, refined shooting controls and mechanics, and enhancements to AI and player differentiation that we’ve seen in subsequent releases, have continued to raise the bar. Of course, NBA 2K11 had more of a singular focus on being the most realistic sim game it could be, unaffected by the balancing act recent games must attempt with their offline experiences and competitive online play. I’d suggest that gameplay has been improved upon since NBA 2K11, but it still ranks up there.
Aesthetically, NBA 2K11 still looks very good, though once again I feel that opinions in this area are somewhat tainted by nostalgia. I’ve seen some gamers suggest that it looks better than games on the current generation, and a side-by-side comparison does disprove that. The faces aren’t quite as good, the player models are a bit bulky, and overall the graphics aren’t on par with what newer tech has facilitated. It has aged, but admittedly not terribly. The presentation isn’t as deep as far as rotating commentators, post-game interviews, and so on, but is top notch for its time. This is especially true in The Jordan Challenge, with unique commentary based on the original broadcasts.
Although it’s lacking the connected online experiences of recent titles, NBA 2K11 had plenty of modes on offer. In addition to the new Jordan Challenge and MJ: Creating a Legend, The Association returned to cater to franchise enthusiasts with depth that NBA Live’s Dynasty mode sorely lacked. Meanwhile, My Player – the original career mode in NBA 2K – was expanded with the inclusion of press conferences, trade requests, and endorsements. NBA 2K11 also featured the popular Crew mode, along with Online Leagues, a standalone Playoffs mode, Situation mode, Practice, and of course, Blacktop. In short, it had plenty to keep basketball gamers occupied.
Rounding up some of NBA 2K11’s other features, it had a full complement of roster editing functions including the ability to create players and teams, sign and trade players, adjust rotations, modify playbooks, and customise Draft Classes. Once the necessary tools were developed, modding took off, resulting in some comprehensive retro roster projects. The game also features a memorable soundtrack, with a title track performed by Snoop Dogg. To this day, it’s awesome to hear Snoop Dogg make references to gameplay sliders and attributes. His declaration of “NBA 2K11: best game ever made” is one that obviously resonates with a lot of gamers, then and now.
In the interests of being completely transparent in this NBA 2K11 retrospective, it took me a while to warm up to the game. As a Michael Jordan fan, I was naturally excited by the inclusion of The Jordan Challenge, and impressed by many of the features I wished NBA Live had, such as the comprehensive franchise experience offered in The Association. At the same time, I struggled with Isomotion, and had a hard time making the switch after spending so many years with the NBA Live series. It wasn’t until I’d played its successors and grown used to some of its concepts that I was able to return to NBA 2K11, and truly appreciate what an amazing game it was.
Even though it lacks right stick dribbling, it features the best iteration of the original Isomotion approach, and I’ve found it easier to pick up in the years since. It’s still not my preferred approach to dribbling controls, but it’s functional and more intuitive than its predecessors. I wish I’d spent more time with the game when it was new, sinking my teeth into The Association and perhaps getting into My Player a little earlier. It’s one of the reasons I’ve wanted to complete a roster update for the game. It’s a title that many of us can dust off and enjoy again – even after ten years have passed – and it’s never too late to create some fond new memories on the virtual hardwood.
At the same time, there are areas where NBA 2K11 shows its age, and not just in outdated rosters or graphics. Its immediate successors made advancements, and the current generation has seen further improvement and innovation. I wouldn’t say that it’s definitely, objectively still the best basketball game (or at least, the best sim title) to date, but I would agree that it belongs on the shortlist. If it still remains one of your favourite hoops games, then I won’t argue with your taste! It’s absolutely a high point in basketball gaming that raised the bar for all of the releases that would follow it, and established features that have allowed the series to go from strength to strength.
It’s also worth noting that at the time, NBA 2K11 was the most successful game in the series. By August 2011, it had sold around 5.5 million copies, then a sales record for 2K. The cancellation of NBA Elite 11 undoubtedly afforded NBA 2K11 a tremendous opportunity, but even if EA Sports’ re-branded game had come out, it’s very difficult to imagine that 2K Sports’ release wouldn’t have achieved similar success. The tide had already turned in both sales and reviews, and the addition of retro content on top of further refinements to gameplay would’ve ensured victory for NBA 2K11. There’s a good chance it would’ve still been the first game in the series to top five million sales.
Looking back, NBA 2K11 represented so many great things about basketball and basketball gaming at the time. In an era before VC and microtransactions, it was all about providing the best, most realistic virtual basketball experience possible. It introduced retro teams, a feature once believed to be impossible due to issues securing all the necessary likeness rights. It was the game for the 2011 season, which in my view was a very memorable NBA campaign. It’s impressively sophisticated even when compared to games on the current generation, offering a quality experience that is still capable of entertaining basketball gamers a full decade after its release.
Returning to the questions posed at the beginning of this NBA 2K11 retrospective, the game truly is one of the best we’ve ever seen. Its combination of retro and current content was very appealing, and established a new trend for the series. It’s special because it’s such a well-rounded product that delivered in just about every way that it could. Is it still the benchmark, though? Personally, I believe it has been surpassed, but not eclipsed. Its greatness is still apparent, and it’s aged well enough that it can still be enjoyed to this day. Even if it’s no longer the GOAT of hoops games, it’s at least in the top five. Ten years later, NBA 2K11 can truly be considered a classic.