Sports games regularly sit at the peak of top-selling charts in the video game industry, and none more so than 2K Games’ NBA 2K. Last year alone, NBA 2K18 was the second highest-selling video game, right on the heels of Call of Duty: WWII. NBA 2K’s classic basketball gameplay has placed it as one of the highest-selling series of the past two decades. From the first games on the Sega Dreamcast to the current games that sport NBA superstars like Lebron James and Stephen Curry on their covers, this series has sold more than 68 million copies.
So, to commemorate the recent release of NBA 2K19, here’s a brief history of the NBA 2K series, from 1999 to 2018.
Let’s Start with a Jam
Before we go full-on 2K’s series, it’s important to take a quick look at its goofy predecessor: NBA Jam.
It all begins in the nineties, a decade when the NBA was at its peak performance. The king of the NBA himself, Michael Jordan, was still in full stride as the star player of the Chicago Bulls, and the viewership of the NBA finals steadily grew year by year. It was a good decade to be a basketball fan. Coincidentally it was also a great decade to be an arcade fan! Capcom’s Street Fighter 2 had kickstarted a revival of the arcade industry, incurring an onslaught of fighting and beat-em-ups from Midway, Konami, and Namco.
So what happens when you mix these two cultures that were both so prevalent into a single package? You get NBA Jam, an off-the-walls 2 vs. 2 arcade game from Midway, the publishers of Mortal Kombat.
NBA Jam was the sports game for everyone; it didn’t matter if you liked professional basketball or not. The cartoonish characters and over-the-top animations made it so goofy and fun to watch that you couldn’t help but smile along with your three friends as you played. And of course, there’s that infamous announcer: “Can’t buy a bucket!” “Rejected!” “He’s on fire!” Lines like these, shouted from the top of voice actor Tim Kitzrow’s lungs, highlighted NBA Jam’s cartoony nature like nothing else could. If you’ve never heard NBA Jam’s famous announcer lines, watch the video below. You’re in for a treat.
NBA Jam blew up in the arcade scene, quickly surpassing Tecmo Bowl and John Madden Football as the pinnacle of sports games. It brought high-school basketball jocks and arcade nerds together in an experience that everyone loved and is still loved by both communities more than two and a half decades later.
More importantly, it proved that sports video games could be extremely popular, and extremely profitable…
EA Gets Real
Say what you will about NBA Jam’s greatness, but it isn’t exactly the most realistic basketball simulation. As stated earlier, players have crazy animations, superhuman speed, and grasshopper jumping physics, not to mention the basketball literally lights on fire! NBA Jam never tried to take itself too seriously, and while that was fine for most, there was still a hunger out there for a realistic basketball simulation.
Enter NBA Live 95, EA’s take on the basketball video game. Released in 1995 (two years after NBA Jam), NBA Live 95 attempted to simulate what NBA Jam couldn’t: a realistic experience. It was much slower, more precise, and less enthusiastic than NBA Jam was, but for some people, that was absolutely perfect. Some gamers and sports fans cherished the slow-paced realism more than the speedy goofiness, so NBA Live garnered a moderate following. EA continued to release annual entries until 2009, eventually going from 16-bit Genesis graphics to 3D PlayStation 1 polygons and beyond. It never has been as beloved as what would follow it, but NBA Live did prove that there’s an audience for not just sports games, but realistic sports games.
Sega Ups The Ante
Fast-forward half a decade to 1999. The new millennium was almost upon us, and video games were launching full-force into the 3rd dimension. Sega was no exception to this: their new console, the Dreamcast, attempted to push the graphical envelope with games like Sonic Adventure and Soul Calibur. But they also wanted something a little more grounded, something that proved video games could be realistic, both graphically and fundamentally. So Sega acquired Visual Concepts, developers of the popular Madden NFL series, to try something Sega had never before attempted: a realistic sports simulation. It was to be a brand new series under the moniker “Sega Sports”, and it all began in ’99 when Visual Concepts released football simulation NFL2K, hockey game NHL2K, and of course our topic of discussion: NBA 2K.
Released in 1999 exclusively for the Dreamcast, NBA 2K took everything that NBA Jam did before it and made it “realer”, if you want to put it that way. New 3D graphics, true-to-life gameplay, accurate movement and physics: it was truly one of the first “sports simulation” games. It also came with a wealth of customization options; you could set the camera angles, game speed, quarter length, and AI difficulty.
NBA 2K and its surrounding titles raised the bar for sports games across the industry, and set a globally-recognized franchise into motion.
Seeing the success of the first NBA 2K, Sega and Visual Concepts kept the ball rolling with NBA 2K1, the second and final game to be released exclusively for the Dreamcast. 2K1 largely kept the same gameplay from the first game, but added in a street basketball mode that put players on the street of Franklin Park and The Cage. More importantly is that this is the first NBA game to feature online multiplayer. Through the power of a phone cable and Sega Net, players could hook up with other Dreamcasts and shoot hoops with people across the globe.
2K1 is where the series really started to hit its stride. It received “universal acclaim” from sites like IGN and GameSpot, and currently sits at an average of 93/100 on metacritic. NBA 2K even managed to get its own NBA Betting Guide.
Over the next 4 years, the Sega Sports branding started to move away from Sega’s own console. In 2001, NBA 2K2 came to all of 6th generation consoles: Dreamcast, Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube. But by 2002, the Sega Dreamcast was a thing of the past. The reality is that Sega’s 4th console did not sell very well at all, forcing them to shut down their console-manufacturing business and focus solely on software. By result, NBA 2K3 came to GameCube, Xbox, and PS2 in late 2002.
In 2003, the series hit it big with ESPN NBA Basketball (effectively known as NBA 2K4). Moving away from the GameCube entirely, ESPN NBA was the first to implement 24/7 mode. Think of 24/7 as kind of a basketball RPG, if you’d like. You choose and customize a character at the start, and slowly rank them up by performing tasks and achievements throughout basketball matches, eventually improving your reputation and letting you play against harder teams and bosses.
In 2004, Sega released NBA 2K5 for the Xbox, PS2 and the brand new Xbox 360. After that, however, the NBA 2K brand would be meeting a new parent…
Take Two Takes NBA
You might have heard of this little company called Rockstar Games before. Sounds familiar? I’ll give you a hint: they’re the developers of Grand Theft Auto. Yeah, those guys! Well, back in 2005, Rockstar’s parent company, Take Two Interactive, bought ownership of Visual Concepts for $24 million USD. The Sega Sports brand was remodeled into Take Two’s new division, 2K Sports, and visual concepts continued to make NBA 2K games from that point onwards. Side note: 2K Sports’ sister company, 2K Games, has developed BioShock, Borderlands, and the recent Civilization games.
Even though Visual Concepts had been transferred to another label, the games they made remained very similar, fundamentally. NBA 2K6 served as a graphical upgrade to 2K5 with improved AI. 2K7 added a mode where you could move the DualShock 3 controller in a lay-up motion to shoot free-throws. 2K8 added in an association mode that let you pick and choose your team members like a Fantasy Football League. 2K9 added 5-v-5 online multiplayer for the first time.
Through the years, Visual Concepts continued to tweak and tweak their annual releases, refining the concept and building on the controls and mechanics they implemented in the past.
Into the 2010’s
NBA 2K10 marked a major addition to the series: MyPlayer mode. In MyPlayer, you would create a character and follow their career as they jump from team to team and progress in skill. The way you gain skill? Training! No, really: real training. We’re talking squats, pushups, sprinting, and other exercises that you would perform to raise your characters and rank and give them better stats. In turn, this would give your character a better shot at being recruited onto better teams. Think of it like a story mode of sorts.
NBA 2K11 set you in the shoes of the NBA’s most famous player in “The Jordan Challenge.” This mode challenged you to perform some of Michael Jordan’s most notable career achievements, such as scoring 63 points in a single game. It’s similar to the prior year’s MyPlayer mode, except with Michael Jordan as the star and not your player-creation.
The 2010’s continued on, and Visual Concepts continued to tweak their formula. 2K12 showcased the “NBA’s greatest” mode, which let you live through some of the most famous games in basketball history. 2K13 tweaked the MyPlayer mode to be a little more story-orientated and transformable. 2K14’s “LeBron: Path to Greatness” mode gave you a chance to see the potential future of LeBron James’s career. 2K15 totally reworked 2012’s MyCareer mode to let players operate undrafted. 2K16 saw the addition of MyLeague mode, a basketball team management simulation with a plethora of customization options. 2K17 made various tweaks and improvements to MyCareer, MyPlayer, and MyLeague.
Finally, for the most recent titles. Last year, 2K Sports’ “The Neighborhood” mode gave a fresh polish to NBA 2K18. Neighborhood let’s you explore an open space of city blocks and interact with other players online. It’s basically a basketball-themed MMO! You can jog around town, stopping at corners to play some street basketball or “horse” with whoever happens to be nearby. And this year, 2K19 added the takeover system, a meter on the side that fills up based on how well you play. If you shoot three-pointers, throw dare-devil passes, or land a stylish slam-dunk, your meter fills closer to the cap. Finally, once the meter is filled up completely, you can raise all of your stats temporarily to greatly increase your character’s performance. 2K19 is shaping up to be solid game, so definitely go check out a review if you’re interested.
A Sporting Legacy
NBA 2K just might be the most consistent video game franchise in the industry. Since Sega started the franchise way back in 1999, developer Visual Concepts has pushed out a game every single year to date. And what’s more surprising is that critics always receive these games well when they release. Every NBA 2K game ever made has received a minimum score of 80% on Metacritic, with the highest being NBA 2K2 at a cool 93%. Even through the reallocation from Sega to Take Two, NBA 2K has never skipped a beat. Considering how expensive video games are to develop, that’s an impressive feat. So as we go into the 20-year anniversary of the NBA 2K franchise, be thankful for developers like Visual Concepts that keep their promises and stay consistent. That’s a rare trait in any industry.