The greatest NBA basketball player ever hasn't appeared in a video game since 2003. But over the years since, 2K Sports' NBA 2K team built a contingency plan to bring back Michael Jordan, and will see it realised in October.
"With our development team, the reality is Michael Jordan has been a part of the discussion for years," said Jason Argent, 2K Sports' vice president of marketing. "This wasn't some discussion where we woke up and found out we had him and now we had to figure out how to put him in. There has always been this loose design out there to how this could happen, and as it came to be more realistic, our development team got more and more excited."
In some ways, getting Jordan for NBA 2K11 was more daunting than shelling out whatever it cost for the endorsement of basketball's only truly global superstar. The current top player in the NBA is still featured in the game as an active player. Jordan, retired since 2003, must either be a very expensive figurehead, or must be integrated meaningfully into the game, and the latter means more money and time on top of the cover art deal.
But 2K Sports is unafraid to pop the flash, however costly, for its major releases - the $US1 million bounty it placed on a perfect game for MLB 2K10 is a great example. For the cover of its marquee franchise, the publisher has made a recent practice of going hard after the biggest player in the game at the moment - Kevin Garnett, leading a Boston Celtics resurgence, graced NBA 2K9; Kobe Bryant, arguably the biggest player in the game, was on the front of NBA 2K's 10th anniversary edition, immediately after winning a league title.
Outdoing that trend becomes problematic, as there are only so many five-star names in a sport. LeBron James absolutely was part of the discussion for NBA 2K11, Argent said. "He always will be as long as he is a premier player in this league, and he definitely is," Argent said. "But we all had a different level of excitement over the opportunity of putting Michael Jordan in the game this year."
Why is it so important to get His Airness back into a video game? Few are clamouring for Wayne Gretzky to be playable in NHL 11, or for Henry Aaron, Willie Mays or Nolan Ryan to appear in any current baseball series. "Michael has an extremely unique point of view in the basketball culture," Argent said. "If a fan now thinks of Charles Barkley, he thinks of Charles Barkley playing golf and commentating on TNT; when a fan thinks of Michael Jordan, he still thinks of him winning championships.
"You can't really say that applies to a non-active player in another sport," Argent said. "The relevancy of Michael Jordan, even in the eyes of 13-year-olds, is still as a champion and a superstar out there on the court today."
Jordan also remains current in the NBA by virtue of his majority ownership of the Charlotte Bobcats. This will be the first time an NBA owner has graced the cover of a video game. Will it be the only appearance of an NBA owner in a video game? Argent laughed when asked if this meant the voluble Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban would also be playable in NBA 2K11.
"Well, on that one, we'll just have to wait and see," Argent said, neither confirming nor denying, but with tongue evidently in cheek. "We have a lot of good, fun surprises coming in October."