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NBA 2k is the average gamer’s go-to title for virtual basketball, but they’re not the only franchise producing roundball games. The last three decades or so have produced some memorable games, so it’s worth asking what are the best basketball games of all time. There are so many options, but we’ve narrowed it down to six games.
What Are the Best Basketball Games of All Time?
Let’s get right into it. Here are the six best basketball video games of all time based on perfectly unscientific criteria.
6. NBA Live 2005
It’s hard to imagine now, but once upon a time, EA Sports competed with NBA 2k and was arguably better at producing basketball games. The peak of the franchise came with NBA Live 2005, debuting in late September 2004.
We could be looking at the past with rose-colored lenses, but NBA Live 2005 felt like the peak of mid-2000s sports games. The game introduced better dunks and layups to make it more realistic than your average simulation game. EA Sports also used a new graphics engine to make the images look better on your TV screen.
NBA Live 2005 was also memorable for introducing All-Star Weekend during the season. The dunk contest, the three-point shootout and the all-star game are fun to spend time with the boys on Saturday night. Plus, you get to hear from Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith in the booth.
5. NBA Jam
We shouldn’t always expect realistic play when playing a basketball video game. If you want a legitimate basketball experience, grab a basketball and go down to your local LA Fitness. (If you go in May or June, you’ll probably see Joel Embiid and James Harden when they return from Cancun.) Put your NBA Jam disc in if you want to sit down and have relaxed basketball fun.
NBA Jam is the quintessential arcade basketball game. For about six years, you could play as Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp and the other greats of the 1990s and take them to extreme heights. The players would jump super high in the air and perform insane dunks. Is it realistic? No — but that’s the point.
4. NBA 2k17
NBA 2k is a monster franchise and essentially the only way to get basketball video games nowadays. Take-Two Interactive, the parent company of 2k and Rockstar Games, has sold 135 million copies of NBA 2k since 1999, and some say NBA 2k17 was the last great game of the series.
NBA 2k17 had big shoes to fill after its predecessor, which we’ll get to later. The game holds its own with an excellent MyCareer story with none other than Michael B. Jordan by your side. One of the most exciting features is the opportunity to represent the United States on the Olympic team. Who would turn down the chance to play with Melo, KD and Jimmy Buckets?
This game was also the first time you could play with Durant on the Golden State Warriors and make your opponents online groan out of despair.
3. NBA Street Volume 2
The NBA Street series took what NBA Jam did and elevated the best basketball games for arcade lovers. The first NBA Street was a good game on its own, but Volume 2 went above and beyond.
NBA Street Volume 2 debuted in the spring of 2003 — just in time to watch the Spurs win their second championship. The game contained 29 teams and legends like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Dr. J and other notable Basketball Hall of Fame members.
The pick-up games were the most popular because they took you back to the playground. There were rules, but were there referees to enforce them? It was a quintessential street ball, encouraging you to show off your handle and take the pill to the hoop any way you wanted.
2. NBA 2k16
If you had to pick one title from the best basketball games list, many modern gamers would pick NBA 2k16. Steph Curry graces the cover after winning the Finals for the first time, and the game preludes to his magical 2016 NBA season.
NBA 2k126 was unique because Spike Lee was the director, with DJ Khaled and DJ Mustard composing the music. Even today, players laud this 2k iteration because it felt realistic in the gameplay. You had to put in work and actually play basketball instead of taking advantage of the simulation. In some 2k titles, it feels less like basketball and more just exploiting the AI. This edition of 2k had a great feel to it on the court.
A big boost for 2k16 was the introduction of team relocation. Are you a Seattle native who misses the Supersonics? NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says he wishes the NBA were in Vancouver due to its growing market. NBA 2k16 allows you to take your team to Las Vegas or any other city you desire.
1. NBA 2k11
NBA 2k has been around since 1999, when Sega Sports published the game. 2005 was a turning point because 2k released its own game for the first time. The next significant mark in the series was NBA 2k11, debuting in the fall of 2010. NBA 2k11 separated itself from the NBA Live series and set the ground for simulation basketball as we know it today.
NBA 2k11 ushered 2k into the new decade with much better graphics and gameplay than its predecessors of the 2000s. You also get the great Michael Jordan on the cover and the Jordan Challenge in the game.
In the Jordan Challenge, you relive history from his rise to fame in the 1986 playoffs to the 1998 NBA Finals when he hit the game-winning shot over Bryon Russell. Can you match his playoff record of 63 points and beat the Celtics? Can you rewrite history and take down the Detroit Pistons in 1990?
What Makes the Best Basketball Games So Great?
The best basketball games all have fun features that make them legendary in our eyes. What criteria do we base games on? Here are three factors.
The year the video game comes out is a snapshot in time, so the rosters are crucial to a game. If you’re a Celtics fan, you may enjoy NBA 2k9 because it came out after their title run. Lakers fans can pick up the early 2000s games and play with Shaq, Kobe, Rick Fox and those guys. Studying the rosters is also great for partying with your guys, and the time comes to start naming random athletes. Who remembers Eddie House and Adam Morrison?
It’s not the most important factor, but a game’s soundtrack can really set itself apart from the other games. Imagine it’s a cool fall day in 2012 when you put 2k13 into your PS3. You hear “Run This Town” by Jay-Z on the loading screen and get hyped. That’s what the best basketball games are all about.
The ability to squad up with your friends makes 2k a special basketball game. How do you and your buds fare against others worldwide? The online community for each title is crucial because it drives players’ interest in the game. In 2022, NBA 2k announced 2k22 had nearly 2 million players, ensuring you’ll find somebody to play with each time you fire up the game.
Ranking the Best Basketball Games of All Time
Sports and video game lovers have been fortunate to see many great basketball games over the years. What titles do you consider the best basketball games of all time? Did we miss any? We’ll give honorable mentions to NBA 2k12, NBA 2k2 and NBA Live 2003.