As over 20 years of NBA 2K draws to a close, we’re continuing our look back into the iconic athletes of the premier basketball simulation’s covers as well as where they were during that point in their career.
This is a continuation of our previous article documenting the start of the NBA 2K so if you’d like to start with that then click here.
At the start of the new decade, 2K would come out strong with NBA 2K11 blowing every other sports game out of the water. 2K11 sported next-gen touches that would form a lot of the essential building blocks of NBA 2K as we know it today. The slick presentation style, iconic soundtrack, improvements on beloved game modes, and fun, dynamic gameplay all represented the best basketball simulation game in the market at the time.
It’s quite fitting since it’s cover athlete was arguably the single greatest player of all-time, Michael Jordan. Nowhere else on the entire NBA library was the cover athlete so well integrated into the game that Michael Jordan was in NBA 2K11. Everything in the game from the color choices in the UI, the bevy of Jordan-specific challenges and game modes, and collectible Jordan Brand shoes just screamed MJ and the 90s Bulls. They even had the iconic Sirius by The Alan Parsons Project playing in the background most of the time. This was as close as we could get to a love letter to the GOAT in videogame form.
Impossible as it might seem, NBA 2K12 managed to improve upon its predecessors’ greatness. The presentation style is as close to real as you could get, Players behaved more realistically on the court, the stick controls gave more flexibility to how you play and Franchise and MyPlayer were better than they ever were.
On top of all that, 2K12 expanded on its Jordan Mode with NBA Greatest, celebrating the greatest teams and players of all-time with challenges replicating their finest moments–complete with Black and White Broadcast style for some of them! As such, 2K12 had 3 different cover athletes which is a first for the franchise, namely: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
After celebrating the greatness of the past, NBA 2K14 shined its spotlight to its present day superstars in Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, and Derrick Rose. Griffin was already selected for the NBA All-star Game, Team USA, and won Slam Dunk Competition in the previous years while in the middle of a promising season with a scrappy LA Clippers team. Durant was also a consistent NBA All-star at this point even becoming the All-star MVP and the youngest NBA scoring champion while making his team the Oklahoma City Thunder a legitimate playoff contender. Rose was brilliant and on the way to stardom despite being plagued with devastating injuries. He became the youngest player to become NBA MVP and brought prominence back to the struggling Chicago Bulls franchise.
Over on the videogame side of things, 2K13 continued its virtually unimpeded excellence by improving upon their now-classic formula as well as add some crazy, off-the-wall features like having rap icon Jay-Z curating the official soundtrack, having a custom shoe generate that you can have shipped to you IRL and having the likes of Justin Bieber, Bow Wow, and Sean Kingston hoop it up right next to your favorite mid-00’s NBA superstar.
In many ways, Lebron James being selected as the cover athlete of NBA 2K14 was very indicative of where both the game and the player were in history. For many years, James has dominated the competition thanks to his consistent excellence. James had just come off winning back-to-back championships with the Heat, earning four MVP awards and two Finals MVP Awards while being widely regarded as the new “Greatest of All-Time” 2K14 was also in a similar boat being the undisputed king of Basketball simulation games at this point, year after year.
Also like Lebron, 2K14 was ushering in a new era of greatness onto a bold new frontier as it became the first NBA 2K to land on the then next generation of consoles, the Playstation 4 and the Xbox 360. Along with the big jump would come a bevy of huge improvements in the gameplay as well as the of course the gorgeous visuals, animation, and player likenesses that we’ve now grown accustomed to but was absolutely jaw-dropping when we first laid eyes on it. Ahhh, sweet 1080/60 fps!
Kevin Durant returned to grace the cover of NBA 2K once again with 2K15 and it’s hard not to imagine why. The then 5-year veteran had just added the NBA Most Valuable Player Award to the impressive list of accolades that we mentioned earlier and was right on the cusp of championship greatness. However, just like Durant, NBA 2K15 had a fair share of hiccups barring them from all-time glory. 2K15 experienced crippling server problems in the early going leaving game modes such as The Park, MyTeam, and PlayNow a lot to be desired. There were also a few technical bugs and glitches that poked at the armor of the always stellar franchise. It wasn’t all bad though as 2K15’s core gameplay was still rock solid and fun and fun additions like the new shot meter, and the MyCareer Story mode were well praised.
With its previous 3-cover iterations looking to both the past and the then present, 2K16 now sends its gaze in the stars of the future: James Harden, Steph Curry, and Anthony Davis.
Harden back then was closing into the player that we know him as today. Already being one of the league’s prolific scorers, Harden had only just received his third All-star selection and his Sixth-Man of the Year Award. He had yet to become the MVP and 3-time scoring champion at this point but that was soon to come. Davis was already promising young big-time during this time, doing his best to shape the New Orleans Pelicans into a viable playoff team with his scoring and defensive intensity having led the league in blocks and chosen for just his first All-star appearance. Curry at this point was still also on the cusp of taking over, being a brilliant shooter and player having only the rookie skills challenge and Sportsmanship awards to his name but working on a breakout season that would see him become the Most Valuable Player as well as lead his the Golden State Warriors to a Championship.
NBA 2K16 felt like a reinvigorated and inspired return to form for the franchise having smoothed out the problems from the last and recapturing the greatness that was truly theirs to begin with. They took some risky steps this year with the Spike Lee written and directed story for MyPlayer but despite how shaky that turned out it was still a promising new direction for the franchise.
Paul George’s story is definitely one of the most inspiring in the history of the league. After suffering from a horrific injury that broke his leg at the 2014 FIBA Team USA Showcase and missing almost all of the 2014-15 season, he returned spectacularly in the 2015-2016 season was just as, if not better than before. NBA 2K17 was essentially a tribute to George’s dedication and hard work by having him as the cover athlete. George would go on to become a multi-time All-star and NBA Steals Leader.
Kyrie Irving had a momentous season with the Cleveland Cavaliers along with a returning LeBron James as they finally brought home a championship to the city of Cleveland, ending a 52-year Major sporting championship drought.
Irving was already an up and coming superstar in the League reinvigorating hopes in the Cavaliers franchise as then 2-time all-star and All-star Game MVP was brilliant on the court. Irving was stellar during that season, averaging a career-high 25.2 points per game as well as 5.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds. He moved on to the Boston Celtics after the game had come out hence a nifty alternate cover featuring Irving in a Celtic jersey was commissioned.
There were also big moves being made over on the game side but not all of them actually ended up paying off. While NBA 2K18 introduced smarter AI and saw the birth of The Neighborhood, the ramped up prominence of microtransactions and the experimental MyGM text-based story was less than desirable.
To say that Giannis Antetokounmpo is a game-changer. His versatility on the court is only matched by his sheer drive to be the absolute best. In the 2016-2017 season, Giannis led his team the Milwaukee Bucks in all 5 statistical categories (Points, Assists, Rebounds, Blocks, and Steals) on the way to becoming the Most Improved Player that year. Antetokounmpo also earned the moniker the “Greek Freak” because of near-impossible feats of athleticism as well as how he defies the limits of what a player of his size and build can do.
NBA 2K19 was yet again another excellent addition to the franchise. Apart from the usual suspects of excellence, 2K19’s MyCareer, A Way Back, with its charming story, kooky cast of characters and heartfelt journey was a definite game-changer just as much as Giannis is.
Anthony Davis once again graced the cover of NBA 2K but this time as a Six-time NBA All-Star, Three-time All-NBA First Team, three-time NBA All-Defensive Team, and 2012 Olympic gold medalist. This was also right after he made sports headlines with a blockbuster trade to the LA Lakers joining another former 2K cover Athlete Lebron James.
The big story this year though as far as the game was concerned was the inclusion of the WNBA teams and players into NBA 2K. It’s an unprecedented choice and once that serves as a fantastic gesture in support of the NBA’s sister franchise.
5-Time NBA All-star, former Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard is the latest to be the NBA 2K cover athlete in 2K21. Lillard represents a superstar right in their prime where their drive and motivation to be better will dictate where they’ll go from here. Lillard is still on a continued chase for glory while NBA 2K has already been the best in class for a very long time. However, both stories are still far from over and their epic legend on the court is very much theirs to write.
So that about does it for our look back into the NBA 2K Cover Athletes of the last two decades! Which one was your favorite? Let us know in the comments below. For more NBA content check out My NBA Success has Caused Me and My Virtual Best Friend to Drift Apart and Cover 2 Cover: A Retrospective on 20 Years of NBA 2K Cover Athletes | Part 1
And while you’re at it leave us a like on the GG Network Facebook Page so we can keep you entertained with more videogames and geek stuff! Take care and stay safe out there!
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