Basketball video games are a staple in the sport at this point. The 2K franchise has positioned itself as the king of the console, but there have been tons of basketball video game series, from EA’s NBA Live games to the college basketball games from EA and 2K to NBA Jam and so many more.
You may be surprised to learn this, but there were basketball video games even when your parents were kids (probably). And your parents are old (probably).
Let’s look back at a brief history of basketball video games and where we find ourselves now.
Basketball Video Games: A Historical Timeline
TV Basketball (1974)
Created by Taito and licensed to Midway, TV Basketball was the first hoops video game to incorporate human figures into the game. It was also the first Japanese video game released to a North American audience. The game wasn’t played on a console or PC like people are used to now – it was a standalone arcade machine like you’d expect for 1974.
NBA Basketball (1980)
This was the first basketball video game to be officially licensed by the NBA, even though it didn’t include any actual players or teams. It was produced by Mattel for its Intellivision video game system, one of the earliest consoles on the market. The game did not include a three-point line even though it had been established in the sport beginning with the 1979-80 season, and it offered only 3-on-3 utilizing a full court.
One-on-One: Larry Bird vs. Dr. J (1983)
Coming from EA for the Apple II and a whole host of other platforms, One on One: Larry Bird vs. Dr. J is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The game featured Julius Erving and Larry Bird battling it out on a court 1-on-1. It was one of the easiest big successes in basketball video games, and it helped launched what would come down the line, even if it only offered a 1-on-1 option.
Double Dribble (1987)
Developed and published by Konami as an arcade game that could later also be played on the NES and other platforms, Double Dribble changed the game by incorporating elaborate dunk animations, something that wasn’t popularized before.
Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs (1989)
When the Lakers-Celtics rivalry was as hot as ever, EA came up with mouthful of a basketball video game for MS-DOS and later Mega Drive/Genesis. It featured actual teams and actual players, who also looked like themselves, or at least as much as they could in 1989. This kicked off a “versus” series from EA.
Team USA Basketball (1992)
EA released this game for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis in an attempt to capture the spectacle that was the 1992 Team USA squad, dubbed he Dream Team, that went to Barcelona and absolutely worked the rest of the world on the court. The game allowed players to use the greatest basketball team ever assembled against 13 other national teams.
NBA Jam (1993)
A cult classic, the cultural impact of NBA Jam can still be felt in the modern game. The game didn’t try to replicate gameplay exactly – it was known for its over-the-top, aggressive and physics-defying qualities. It used some real NBA players – and some not real NBA players, like an unlockable Bill Clinton – to give players some 2-on-2 action.
NBA Live 95 (1994)
The beginning of the NBA Live series, this game signaled the end of EA’s “versus” series. It brought into focus some of the concepts that became staples in basketball video games and allowed players to manage rosters in ways previously unseen, including player comparisons and trades. It was a major moment in basketball video games.
Coach K College Basketball (1995)
Using the same engine as in NBA Live, EA released its first college basketball video game with an endorsement from Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. It featured 32 teams, plus eight classic squads, though no names for the players, as is customary in college sports video games. The game did its best to capture the raucous environment college basketball is known for, helping it become a success.
March Madness ’98 (1998)
EA made this game and included 107 teams, including nine of the best women’s squads at the time. Fight songs and cheers that are specific and unique to programs entered the fold, and a momentum meter was introduced, which became a cornerstone of college basketball video games moving forward.
NBA 2K (1999)
This was the debut of the series that is now the king of basketball video games. With Allen Iverson on the cover and with better, more detailed ball handling, it was huge. Players even had tattoos! NBA 2K completely changed the game and have since come to dominate the game.
NBA Street (2001)
Available on PlayStation 2 and later GameCube, NBA Street focused on the culture of streetball. Utilizing a three-on-three format, which you’ll see in the Olympics for the first time this summer, you can play on a circuit that spans America and add teammates from NBA teams during your journey. It’s all ones and twos, first to 21, win by two.
NBA Live 2003 (2002)
For a brief moment, EA regained the spotlight in basketball video games through the Freestyle Control in NBA Live 2003, which allowed you to use the right stick to do a variety of incredible moves offensively and control your hands defensively. It was a big hit – big enough that 2K ended up using the same concept years down the road. It was an innovation that changed the basketball video game landscape.
College Hoops 2K8 (2007)
This was the last college basketball video game 2K made, and it still lives on with diehards. It is widely considered one of the best college basketball games ever created (though it helps that they stopped being produced just a couple years later). The crowds are serious and impactful on game play, almost every DI team is included, the sim feature is excellent, and it properly feels much different from the NBA games from 2K. It truly has stood the test of time.
Oh, and it was used for Reddit March Madness in 2020 when the real March Madness was cancelled, and that should mean something to someone, somewhere.
NBA 2K11 (2010)
This iteration of NBA 2K stands out for its utilization of Michael Jordan. He was featured on the cover, and the game offers opportunities to replay some of the greatest moments from his career as him. The Jordan Challenge mode also gives players several situations in the Jordan Challenge mode and asked to accomplish 10 of His Airness’s greatest achievements, like scoring 69 points in a game.
NBA 2K17 (2016)
College basketball video games had disappeared by this point, and 2K became the preeminent force in the industry. If you want to play a basketball video game, you’re probably playing a 2K game. The annual updates don’t always come with massive changes or anything special, but NBA 2K17 has been widely regarded as in a league of its own.
“In the world of sports sims, no other game feels like it’s even on the same level as NBA 2K17,” wrote Matt Bertz of Game Informer in 2016. “Visual Concepts continues to embrace innovation and add benchmark-setting features for hardcore fans. With unrivaled gameplay, presentation, and games modes, 2K Sports’ latest hoops game is a must-play for all sports fans.”
NBA 2K21 (2020)
The latest basketball video game to come out, NBA 2K21 has set the modern standard for the genre. MyCareer has updates, seasons have been adapted in the MyTeam mode, NBA G League games are playable in Franchise Mode, and the drafting in the Franchise Mode has been tweaked to be more realistic.
It’s probably not the best basketball video game ever made, nor even the best NBA 2K game, but it continues the consistency that 2K has shown over the more than 20 years of dominating the scene.