I can still remember where I was when I booted up NBA 2K11 and MJ appeared on my TV to ask me if I was ready for what was to come. I was more than ready, and I’m more than ready to talk about why the community and staff has voted to make NBA 2K11 our pick for best sports game of the decade.
NBA 2K11 was a turning point for basketball video games. It was simultaneously the beginning of the end for the NBA Live series, and the start of the true rise of the NBA 2K series. It was the game where people seemed to realize that NBA 2K was not just out there to make the next yearly basketball game, but rather become a series that was a love letter to the NBA as a whole.
The Jordan Challenge mode is remembered by so many not just because it was the first 2K game MJ was appearing in since his (second) retirement, but because the mode brought with it so many other things that would become staples of the 2K series. Things like team-specific playbooks, the classic players we now expect every season, and signature animations for players really started to blossom with this game.
And the genius of it all was that the developers wrapped up so much of this content within a singular mode designed around the most iconic basketball player of all-time.
With NBA 2K16, I talked a lot about how feature-rich it was and how it felt like a culmination of things for the NBA 2K series. By that same logic then, NBA 2K11 feels like the creation of a timeline that culminated with 2K16. It’s when NBA 2K transcended basketball and became a title that pushed into all aspects of video games. It’s a title that had people talking about sports video games who normally would not give them a second thought. Jordan has that impact on people, and the Jordan Challenge was deserving of that attention as well.
For true fans of the sport, what was perhaps coolest about the whole mode was how specific it could be. You could do specific things like make those six infamous threes with MJ against the Trail Blazers, and you would actually see MJ do his shrug on the court. On top of that, you had game-specific commentary that would also call out events as well as talk about what the game meant at the time. There was even some film grain on the screen to make it really give off that ’90s or ’80s vibe that you would have had watching MJ ruin lives on NBC.
The Jordan Challenge still stands out because it tapped into nostalgia while also feeling like you were getting to play out something you had previously only been able to see on NBA TV or ESPN Classic. It felt like a new idea for sports games, and it brought with it the novel concept of reliving history in a manner we had never seen before in a sports video game. The gameplay of the mode could certainly be cheesy at times because you had to complete some tough goals with shortened quarter lengths, but it was easy to forgive things like that because it all felt so new and fresh.
After all, you just felt like you were using MJ. It went beyond just his signature jumper (something 2K had already been focused on with prior games) and carried into the other animations as well. You had Jordan in the post with signature animations. You had signature MJ finishes. You had his tongue out on drives. It was all there. And it was not just specific to MJ. You had signature plays for classic teams. You had guys like Kobe and LeBron also getting signature animations now, and so it felt more and more like you really were playing with the stars of today and yesterday all at once.
And, again, I can’t overstate the significance at the time of seeing not just MJ (and his many alternate versions in the game), but getting Ewing, Stockton, Malone, Bird, Magic and so on. All of these legends we take for granted in today’s 2K games, we really had not been able to use them to such a degree before NBA 2K11. It felt special, and it’s a feeling I probably won’t get again any time soon in a sports game.
NBA 2K11 was not great just because of the Jordan Challenge or the legends. Beyond the main event attraction, the game was just packed to the roof with stuff to do. The online play could be spotty at times, but I still remember having a blast in OS online leagues (shout out to the OS Vets as there’s still plenty of classic footage up on YouTube). The Association mode got some needed buffs to its AI trade logic, and every team felt a little different to use within that mode.
MyPlayer/MyCareer was probably the one key area where the game fell short. It just felt stagnant from 2K10 to 2K11. I also have to mention the press conferences for being truly awful. I think at the time some people liked them because it was something fresh we had been begging for in sports games. However, it was the start of a trend that continues to this day of 2K writing some of the worst and most cringe-worthy dialogue around as it relates to press conferences for your player.
Regardless, the various presentation and gameplay improvements smoothed everything else out. There was a solid halftime show with Damon Bruce. There was a “pressbook” after the game where you cycled through tons of the best pictures from the game. There was a flashy player of the game video package that really popped. Plus, the commentary overall was really starting to hit its stride and make each game feel like a real broadcast.
Quality of life changes really helped moved things along in 2K11 as well. With gameplay, it was the first year we got pick and roll on LB/L1 rather than on the B/circle button. We also got a fake pass button for the first time, which resulted in another avenue of creativity. These two items alone really started to open up the pick and roll and make everything flow a lot easier. In tandem with more signature animations and more team-specific plays, the idea of there really being 30 teams in the NBA started to take hold.
The list goes on and on for why NBA 2K11 was so great, but the point is that MJ and NBA 2K11 continue to be a perfect fusion because it was the best player from one era meeting up with the best sports video game of its era. I will always think about the greatness of both because they’re linked via my experiences with NBA 2K11. So with no hesitation at all, it’s easy to say one last time that NBA 2K11 is the best basketball video game of the decade and our pick as the best sports video game of the decade.