The Future Is The Past, But Not For Long

Thursday's news of "The Jordan Challenge" coming to NBA 2K11 certainly felt like a trip down memory lane - of video games, as well as His Airness' career.

In the days when Michael Jordan was the premier athlete in the NBA, if not the world, sports video games were on the whole not fully licensed, and usually titled after a single superstar. And it wasn't just Joe Montana Football or Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball. Mario Lemieux, David Robinson, Riddick Bowe and Greg Norman all had games named for them.

With NBA 2K11's "Jordan Challenge" - recreating 10 of his greatest games ever - and NHL Slapshot's "Peewee-to-Pro" career mode starring Wayne Gretzky, two major upcoming sports titles have reached back into the 1990s to give more than just the cover of a game to a player. They've given a huge chunk of its code to a single performer of that era, and betting that it will mean big sales.

It is a step back in time that, along with that era's great - and lesser - players showing up in NBA Jam, has the feelings of being a trend. That's somewhat ironic, considering Tiger Woods has been the face of simulation-quality golf, on any platform, for more than a decade, and only now the game is having as bad of a year in sales as he is both personally and professionally.

The response for "The Jordan Challenge" was uncommonly positive. I'm accustomed to seeing sports posts, regardless of the subject matter, littered with complaints, often bemoaning a lack of innovation. Yet I've never seen so many people vowing day-one buys for an alternative game mode. Jordan, who hasn't played in seven years, clearly strikes a chord with gamers.

"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," 2K Sports' Jason Argent told me last month.

It's absolutely true, and it's probably why this will stop with both Jordan and Gretzky in their respective titles. In other sports, there simply are no retired or even active players that command fans' imagination, or are as widely accepted as their sport's greatest player ever.

The closest analogue, in terms of statistical performance anyway, would be baseball's Barry Bonds - but the freight on him is laughably overwhelming. Aside from the steroid controversy, Bonds has not appeared under his own name in a video game since withdrawing from the MLBPA licensing agreement - the only one to do so - in 2003. The cost of getting him into a game would be enormous, and considering how reviled he is by many baseball fans, eminently not worth it. And the next baseball player whose career might justify such a video game memorial? Roger Clemens, perhaps even more tainted and unlikeable than Bonds.

In football, Madden and FIFA have proven quite capable of selling a ton without giving a specific legend a game mode. All-Pro Football 2K8 put the NFL's greatest receiver on the same cover as one of the greatest quarterbacks and running backs of all time and still is largely forgotten. And the style of play isn't as given to the kind of role-playing-game achievement in "The Jordan Challenge" or the career progression of "Peewee-to-Pro."

Furthermore, 2K Sports went to a tremendous effort to licence the likenesses of all the players - most now retired - who faced Jordan in these games. A legal dispute over the appearance of old-time players on classic teams led to that feature being discontinued in Madden (and, for additional different reasons, in NCAA Football).

The question then is how 2K Sports and EA Sports can, if they plan to at all, continue this kind of special appearance mode in NBA 2K12 and Slapshot, if any sequel is coming there. This is more of a concern for NBA 2K. Right now, Jordan's appearance on the cover and in the game is likely to deliver a huge sales spike. Though 2K has never been afraid to do something big because of an argumentative obligation to top it later, one wonders how next year's Jordan-less game would do in comparison, and if the Jordan Challenge feature carries over there's the implication it should be updated.

Probably the last thing 2K would want is a situation where NBA 2K11 cannibalizes NBA 2K12 because it has a feature the new game doesn't. Some have also pointed out that maybe 2K Sports is being shrewd, and in spotting a potential lockout with the players' union contract set to expire, created a mode that doesn't depend on the current events or players of the league. That's perhaps giving them too much credit, but it could be a nice side effect.

I have no proof of this, simply speculation - and a notable no comment from Argent as to plans - but I think 2K will extend "The Jordan Challenge" with DLC. And if they have permission to use the likenesses of Dominique Wilkins, Karl Malone, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler and others, then why not create role-playing challenges specific to their great career moments, too? I'm not saying put Reggie Miller on the cover of NBA 2K12, but his epic showdowns with the Knicks would absolutely create enthusiasm among lifelong NBA fans.

That's what might be someday. For this year at least, we can kick back, controller in hand, and revel in what was, and party like its nineteen-ninety... five. Or two.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.


    "but I think 2K will extend “The Jordan Challenge” with DLC"

    COMING SOON: The SPACE JAM pack! Starring Bugs Bunny, Bill Murray, the LOONEY TUNES gang and the SPACE MONSTERS!

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