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The Virtual Mamba: A Brief History of Kobe Bryant in Video Games

kobe bryant video games

Operation Sports

The Virtual Mamba: A Brief History of Kobe Bryant in Video Games

On January 26, Kobe Bryant was in a helicopter with his daughter Gianna Bryant en route to a youth basketball tournament. He was one of nine passengers who perished when that helicopter crashed. The world lost nine lives that day. The victims included Kobe and Gianna Bryant, two of Gianna’s teammates, as well as parents who were coming along to root for their children. An experienced pilot and a coach Kobe called the “Mother of Defense also died in the crash. Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, Sarah and Payton Chester, John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan were all lost on that Sunday morning in the hills near Calabasas, California.

Those words still don’t seem real. The outpouring of love, grief and support from the basketball world has been both inspiring and devastating to see. The impact that Kobe Bryant had on the NBA and basketball as a whole is indelible. Kobe Bryant’s memory will live forever.

So, we thought it would be fitting to celebrate the impact Kobe has also had on basketball video games. Kobe’s reach was so overwhelming that it almost feels silly to talk about Kobe Bryant the video game character, but I think Kobe would be proud to know that he was a legend even in video games. The Virtual Mamba was an assassin on the court, on the level of the greatest virtual athletes the fake world has ever seen. It goes without saying that his virtual self was a baller too.

From NBA Courtside to NBA 2K and everything in between, here is a brief history of Kobe Bryant in video games.

NBA Action ’98

kobe bryant video games

Source: MobyGames

A lesser-known game for the Sega Saturn and PC, NBA Action ’98 is the first game to feature Kobe Bryant on its cover. It also features legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn on play-by-play, just to really please all the Lakers fans out there. Looking back now, NBA Action was probably the best basketball game on the 32-bit consoles, and reviewers at the time were certainly encouraged with some positive steps the series was making.

Please consider this excerpt from a Gamespot review from the long, long ago:

The players come alive through a 3D polygonal engine and texture-mapped faces, which is the future – if not the present – of computer sports games… It’s undeniable that NBA Action 98 is a great first attempt, probably the best competition NBA Live has ever had.. It still has a few kinks to iron out, but when it does… well, let’s just hope that Sega doesn’t bench NBA Action next year.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend I “have played this game” or “have ever been in the same room as a Sega Saturn,” but you can’t tell the story of the Virtual Mamba without his first cover shot. Also, 2K probably doesn’t exist without NBA Action, Sega’s answer to the then-dominant NBA Live from EA Sports.

NBA Courtside 1 & 2

The NBA Courtside series has been unfairly lost to history. Released on April 27, 1998, the first iteration of Courtside went on to sell over one-million units. Courtside 2 featured multiple additions such as a create-a-player mode, a three-point contest, the ability to play multiple seasons, new dunks, flashy passes and a playcall menu.


Oh, and for those scoring at home, that’s three video game covers for Kobe Bryant by the age of 21.

In general, the Nintendo 64 was wildly underrated for sports gaming titles (NHL 99 was fun, Courtside 1 & 2 ruled, Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. is still awesome and playable to this day), and Kobe Bean Bryant was at the forefront of the N64 charge. If you enjoyed those Courtside games back in the day, you might be surprised by how much you still get out of them now. But if you’re a 2K head who never played an N64 basketball game back in the day, you probably would not really enjoy these two games. Still, the Courtside games blow Fox Sports College Hoops 99 out of the water.

The original NBA Courtside was met with great reviews, scoring a 9/10 from Game Informer and a 4.5 from GamePro. NBA Courtside 2 sold a little worse and got a little less love, but it was a marked improvement over its predecessor. Courtside 2 is the one to play if you want to play either today. Regardless, I consider these the gold standard of NBA games on the Nintendo 64 (if we leave out NBA Hangtime since it was an arcade game).

One fun note about the original Courtside before we move on. The official NBA rosters reflect the 1997-98 season, minus two players. Michael Jordan is not in the game, but he has a replacement named “Roster Player #98” (Jordan was never in NBA games in those eras, only in his own games — the ultimate flex). Latrell Sprewell was pulled from the game entirely due to his indefinite suspension for choking head coach P.J. Carlisemo.

Kobe would later go on to rock the cover of NBA Courtside 2002 on the Gamecube, but I think it’s time to get to the main event.

NBA 2K-2K4

Kobe’s Ratings:

  • NBA 2K – 89
  • 2K1 – 98
  • 2K2 – 93
  • 2K3 – 96
  • ESPN 2K4 – 96

NBA Live was important as well, but Kobe became synonymous with 2K at a certain point. Starting with his gargantuan 98 overall rating in NBA 2K1, Kobe would go on to be an unstoppable force in 2K games for the next 15 years. This peaked with an ungodly stretch from 2K5-2K11 where Bryant’s character was never rated lower than a 97. Virtual Kobe was a Virtual Mamba right out of the gate.

For comparison’s sake, no current NBA player is rated higher than a 97 on 2K20, and only three (LeBron, Giannis and Harden) are at 97 themselves. 97 overall was Kobe’s bare minimum in basketball games from 2004-2010.

This 2K1-2K4 stretch is worth highlighting because the Shaq/Kobe Lakers were at the height of their dominance. They were the “final boss” in 2K the same way the Heat and Warriors were during the peak of their powers. Kobe got a lot of traction in those years by being the most fun player to use on the most dominant team in the best basketball video game.

Also let’s face it, wings are always more fun to use in video games than bigs. (Please feel free to loudly yell your agreement at me in the comments section.)

NBA 2K5-NBA 2K11

nba 2k11 sports game of decade

Kobe’s Ratings:

  • NBA 2K5 – 99
  • 2K6 – 97
  • 2K7 – 98
  • 2K8 – 98
  • 2K9 – 99
  • 2K10 – 97
  • 2K11 – 97

With 2K5 came another Kobe milestone, the first 99 overall. Trying to stop Kobe in NBA 2K5 was like trying to stop an earthquake with a strongly worded letter. You pretty much just had to stand in a door frame and pray that 2K5 Kobe didn’t destroy your entire house.

Another important milestone occurred during this time period:

Kobe’s first NBA 2K cover. Much like his one MVP award, it’s a mild shock that Kobe landed on only one 2K cover.

NBA 2K12-2K14

  • NBA 2K12 – 94
  • 2K13 – 93
  • 2K14 – 93

The swan song of Kobe Bryant, the Virtual Mamba. Kobe’s playing career was winding down during this time period, but trying to stop him in video games from 2012-15 was no cake walk. Mamba remained frustrating to guard and incredibly fun to use.

NBA 2K15-16

  • NBA 2K15 – 89
  • 2K16 – 85

For the first time since NBA 2K1 was released on October 31, 2000, A 2K game dropped with Kobe Bryant rated under 90 overall. He was a meager 89 overall.

While this was the end of Kobe as a dominant roster player, his impact on basketball was truly captured by the 2K franchise. We haven’t even touched on Kobe’s MyTeam cards or any of the Kobes on the legendary teams. We also can’t ignore his marketing impact on the MyPlayer story mode after he retired.


Video games have a way of binding us to players. Most people who play sports video games have an athlete they hold near and dear to their heart because they were fun to use in a video game. Kobe’s legacy is so immense that if you played an NBA game this century, you’ve either been dominant with or dominated by Kobe. Probably both.

How do you remember Kobe? What are your best memories of using Kobe or having to play against a Kobe team? What are your greatest Kobe video game moments? And how have the last few weeks touched you? Please feel free to sound off in the comments.

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