Looking back at NBA 2K’s history

Brian Domingo

We live in an age where top selling titles in the gaming industry comprise annually released long running franchises. From your Call of Dutys and Assassins Creeds to Madden and FIFA; rarely do we get to see new intellectual property make great strides in the scene.

There is a reason for this and it boils down to one thing, consistency. Not to throw shade against developers coming out with new titles with hopes of making that next great franchise, but for some regular gamers, consistency in quality is key.

That’s where the NBA 2K franchise comes in. A title developed by Visual Concepts, it caters to this generation’s masses.

Please put away the pitchforks and tiki torches, we all know how infamous the title is given its recent clout over the ‘surprise mechanics’ industry.

We are going to take a look at the franchise’s rich history and evolution pertaining to its evolving core gameplay mechanics, player animations and innovative features in mainline titles, sans the less desirable additions.

NBA 2K20. PHOTO: 2K SPORTS
The original NBA 2K (November 1999) and was initially available exclusively on the Dreamcast. PHOTO: SEGA
NBA 2K series, which has sold over 90 million units, emulates actual basketball play conducted through official rules of the National Basketball Association. PHOTO: 2K SPORTS

The NBA 2K series was first released in 1999 and was published by Sega through 2004. It was assumed by 2K Sports in 2005 which became the publishers until now. NBA 2K series, which has sold over 90 million units, emulates actual basketball play conducted through official rules of the National Basketball Association.

2K Sports has released its series in several playing formats. It has released on the Dreamcast, Xbox, GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS, Wii, Wii U, and Nintendo Switch.

The original NBA 2K (November 1999) and was initially available exclusively on the Dreamcast. The cover athlete for the first release was the great Allen ‘We Talkin bout Practice’ Iverson. Iverson would go on to be the cover athlete for the franchise until NBA 2K4. Fictional announcers Rod West and Bob Steel, Rod Brooks and Bob Fitzgerald, delivered play by play commentary for the initial four games.

The first game, NBA 2K1 (October 2000), featured eight modes of play: season, franchise, exhibition, network, tourney, practice, quick start, and street. These modes would be a mainstay in future titles with some tweaks here and there to improve on the content.

NBA 2K2 was released in 2001 throughout the first part of 2002. The new version was available for Dreamcast along with GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2. This iteration of the game included regular teams and players from the 2001-2002 NBA season and incorporated features of past players including hall of famers Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving and Bill Russell along with their teams. This iteration would be the final title released for the Dreamcast console and it was also the first time the series was offered in multiple platforms.

The series’ third entry, NBA 2K3 (October 2002) was released on the Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube. This would mark the last time a game in the franchise would release on the GameCube.

ESPN NBA Basketball (October and November 2003) was released only on two consoles, the Xbox and PlayStation 2. This iteration was the only game that did not feature the well known 2K indication in the title. It is one of the two which featured ESPN in their titles. NBA players were more customisable and the game for the first time introduced the 24/7 mode featuring player created avatars. This iteration also featured pre-game shows that were hosted by well known sports personalities at the time Kevin Frazier, Tom Tolbert and Bill Fitzgerald.

The following year, ESPN NBA 2K5 (September 2004) released on the Xbox and PlayStation 2 and was the final game published by Sega before moving to another publisher. Ben Wallace featured as the cover athlete. He was well known for playing and winning a championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004. Presenters Stuart Scott and Bob Fitzgerald delivered play by play commentary while Bill Walton and Michele Tafoya were on board as second and sideline commentators.

NBA 2K6 (September 2005) was the first to be published by 2K Sports. It was made available for the Xbox, PlayStation 2 and it was the first in the series to be made for the Xbox 360 as well. Hall of famer Shaquille O’Neal featured as the cover athlete. Kevin Harlan featured as the play by play commentator along with Kenny Smith and Craig Sager as expert commentator and sideline reporter. The trio would dominate the next two installments in the series as well.

NBA 2K7 (September 2006) released on the same consoles with the addition of the PlayStation 3 for the first time, and was also the last to be released for the original Xbox. NBA 2K8 (October 2007), featuring Chris Paul as the cover athlete, introduced the Slam Dunk contest game mode for the first time along with a 23 song licenced soundtrack. This would pave way for more well-known music artists to feature in succeeding titles in the franchise.

Kevin Garnett featured as the cover athlete with Harlan and Clark Kellogg as commentators and Cheryl Miller as the sideline reporter in NBA 2K9, which released in October 2008 on the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 while a new version for Microsoft Windows was also introduced.

November 2009 saw the release of NBA 2K10, featuring the late and great Kobe Bryant as the cover athlete. The game came out on the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows. Also, for the first time, it released on the Nintendo Wii and the PlayStation Portable. The game featured a rebirth of the career mode called ‘MyPlayer’. The feature would be a series mainstay leading to several innovations that would get players hooked on to the franchise even further. It was eventually retitled to ‘MyCareer’. Harlan and Kellogg return as commentators, while Doris Burke replaced Miller as sideline reporter. The licensed soundtrack comprised 30 songs.

Hall of famer Michael Jordan was the cover athlete for NBA 2K11 (October 2010), which released on the same platforms as the previous edition with. Features and modes were added focussing more on Jordan, including ‘the Jordan Challenge’ which allowed fans to recreate significant moments of Jordan’s storied career including his 69-point game and that time when he played with the flu. It created more exciting game play challenges. This iteration also introduced more historic players and teams from the NBA.

NBA 2K12 (October 2011) was offered on all the previous game’s formats with the inclusion of an iOS version. With three different covers, this iteration marked the first for the series featuring multiple cover athletes. The cover athletes were Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. It introduced the ‘NBA’s Greatest’ mode where players use a plethora of historic players and teams. The soundtrack comprised 28 licensed songs. Steve Kerr along with Kellogg and Harlan featured as expert commentators while Burke returned as the sideline reporter. The team would remain the same for the next three releases.

The subsequent year, NBA 2K13 (October 2012) released on all the previous platforms while the Wii U version came a month after. The cover athletes for this edition were Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. A selling point of this release, aside from improved player animations, was the Jay Z curated soundtrack which comprised 24 songs. He is credited as the executive producer of the game.

Lebron James featured as the cover athlete for NBA 2K14 (November 2013). This iteration was also released on Android along with the other previous platforms. It was also to the first to introduce EuroLeague teams.

Kevin Durant was next to feature as a cover athlete for the series with NBA 2K15 (October 2014). It also featured pregame shows presented by Shaq and Ernie Johnson with a new player creation feature that allowed players to scan their faces into the game. This new feature would prove to be more of a boon than a bane as the usually funny (at times horrendous) results would make players feel more connected to their avatars.

NBA 2K16 (September 2015), again was released on all previous console and mobile platforms and featured eight cover athletes: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Michael Jordan (Special Edition), Pau and Marc Gasol brothers (Spanish version), Dennis Schröder (German version), and Tony Parker (French version). A companion app was also developed by Cat Daddy Games which released simultaneously with the game. Director Spike Lee worked on the MyCareer mode and provided a feature film quality story for the game’s campaign. Some favoured the introduction while others wished it had not been developed due to its cliché story. Either way it was doing something innovative for the franchise at the time. The soundtrack also featured a whopping 50 songs curated by DJ Khaled, DJ Premier and DJ Mustard.

This formula of featuring contemporary basketball stars as cover athletes, updating player animations and team rosters would be maintained for the sports franchise in succeeding titles from 2K17 to 2K20. Save for the latter which finally featured WNBA teams. Fans of the NBA counterpart were mostly pleased with the addition as female representation for the sport was finally featured in a successful franchise. Truth be told, WNBA representation was first made in EA’s NBA Live franchise, but we don’t talk about that here.

Who knows where the NBA 2K franchise will head next in terms of gameplay innovation? It has already dabbled in VR with the NBA 2KVR Experience (November 2016). That proves to be a good sign of determination by the developers to shake things up albeit not as frequent as it could have been.

The developers have created several annual releases with incremental improvements consistently and this is what the franchise seems to take pride in. For a number basketball gaming fans, the money making aspects (insert another ‘surprise mechanic’ joke here) seemingly forced by the publishers tend to take a backseat among the list of issues. As long as the game provides a solid basketball experience, it just may be enough for fans to annually bite the bullet just to get that fix.

Now if only they can adjust the asking price a bit to justify the annual purchase that would finally make things gravy.