There is literally no shortage of NBA games because the biggest video game companies make sure to produce a couple every year. And in each and every year that passes by, they generally come up with a game that is as life-like as technology can get. Who doesn’t want that? But the question that comes up is: What are the best NBA video games regardless of the year it was released? We came up with a list of our favorites, and we’re pretty sure some of these are in yours, too.
If you want to get back to playing basketball, get our top pick for the best NBA video games here.
Our Favorites for the Best NBA Video Games
Nobody touches the 2K franchise right now when it comes to NBA video games and to nobody’s surprise, the latest installment, NBA 2K20, makes the cut in our favorites. It is the best-selling NBA game of all time, reportedly making $858 million in net revenues and almost $75 million in operating income in the second quarter of 2022 alone. Let’s see why NBA 2K20is a cut above the rest.
What Makes It Unique:
- The player renderings are the best it has ever been.
- Includes NBA All-Decade teams and WNBA rosters
- Realistic MyCareer storyline, which also features Hollywood stars like Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, Rosario Dawson, and Anthony Mackie.
What we like best about NBA 2K20 is they always find a way to improve. Just when you thought, “How are they going to make the graphics better?” and they come up with something that is totally gorgeous! Of course, like any other game, not everything is perfect.
Although the Halftime Show features the always-colorful Shaquille O’Neal (with Ernie Smith and Kenny Smith), it was a little bit lackluster, to say the least. We thought the developers and creators of the game programmed Ernie, Shaq, and Kenny to be as opposite as possible to their fun-loving personalities.
Another glaring weakness of NBA 2K20 is the brainfarts of the AI (Artificial Intelligence). It does not affect the gameplay much (in fact, the gameplay is one of the game’s most prominent attributes), but the computer sometimes does things that baffle you. Big men who don’t know how to shoot begin firing jump shots like Dirk Nowitzki. Or point guards waltzing in the lane for a layup that gets easily blocked. Like we say, no game is perfect, and these aspects of the NBA 2K20 right here proves precisely that.
Why Choose NBA 2K20:
- If you prefer simulation over an arcade-style basketball video game, NBA 2K20 is probably the best in that category.
- The gameplay is as realistic as you can get. An example of that is you will undoubtedly feel the difference when you’re handling a smaller player than the bigs. You can feel each other’s advantages and disadvantages.
- A plethora of game modes such as 3-on-3 Pro-Am, PARK, MyGM, and others.
- Best in class graphics & gameplay, groundbreaking game modes, and unparalleled player control and customization
- NBA 2K20 is a platform for gamers and ballers to come together and create what's next in basketball culture
- 1 to 4 players; Network Players 2 to 10 : Full game requires PlayStation Plus membership to access online multiplayer
Now, if you’re more into arcade-style gaming and wanting to relive your childhood, then one of the best NBA video games to play is because it is meant to be enjoyed with friends. There wouldn’t be no fun doing basketball tricks with Magic and then shout to nobody else as you score. That’s why the arcade-style of NBA Street Vol. 2 is so different from the 2K series. You should probably be left alone, in wholesome concentration, while you’re playing MyCareer; in NBA Street, Vol. 2, it is the opposite.
Why Choose NBA Street Vol. 2:
- No-holds-barred, anything goes basketball. Brutal, but so much fun!
- Classic hip-hop as soundtracks
- Fluid, dynamic, and fast-paced gameplay
Our Runner Ups for the Best NBA Video Games
Make no mistake about it, Live has always been second fiddle to 2K since perhaps 2011 (and even earlier). But if you want a change of pace to what 2K20 offers, NBA Live 19 is not a bad choice at all.
What Makes It Unique:
- The halftime show is better than what 2K offers
- Graphics is much improved, but sometimes comes off as over-the-top
- No micro-transactions on game modes. Progression is just smooth.
Like we said, Live has a lot of catching up to with 2K. Maybe the cancellation of the NBA Live 20 could do just that, and EA can come up with an even better product that could rival that of 2K. Regardless, NBA Live 19 is not as bad as some would like you to think. Compared to Live 18, the latest rendition has improvements to show across the board– from gameplay, graphics, to the lightings of the court, halftime shows, and animation.
Why Choose NBA Live 19:
- The best NBA Live in terms of animation and graphics.
- The One mode is well-accepted by many basketball video games enthusiasts.
- Create your own player and rise to legend status in THE ONE
- Build Your Squad, and challenge others for global dominance in THE LEAGUE and on THE STREETS
- Experience the most authentic feel NBA LIVE has ever had
Our Value Picks for the Best NBA Video Games
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say there is no complete “Best NBA Video Games” list without the classic NBA Jam. Every basketball video game– arcade or simulation– starts and ends with NBA Jam.
What Makes It Unique:
- First to introduce the Create-A-Player concept
- Also, the first video game to introduce the no-rules, everything-is-allowed basketball
- The game is rigged. Seriously.
If you’re too lazy to read the link, yes, the creator and lead designer of NBA Jam, avid Pistons fan Mark Turnell admitted: “Making this game in Chicago during the height of the Michael Jordan era, there was a big rivalry between the Pistons and the Bulls. But the one way I could get back at the Bulls once they got over the hump was to affect their skills against the Pistons in NBA Jam. And so I put in special code that if the Bulls were taking last-second shots against the Pistons, they would miss those shots. And so, if you’re ever playing the game, make sure you pick the Pistons over the Bulls.”
We respect the pettiness and quite frankly if you can put this much bitterness into a video game, that’s the very definition of intense fun. One thing that probably most basketball fans don’t like about this is Michael Jordan was not really in the game. He backed out of the licensing agreement. However, that is added proof of how great NBA Jam is as a video game. It doesn’t need the GOAT to be in the game for it to be called a classic.
Why Choose NBA Jam:
- Crazy and exciting gameplay
- You can play with Drazen Petrovic in the classic game.
- Unlocks politicians and celebrities such as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and the Beastie Boys in the Xbox 360 version
- Fans can play Solo, Versus (against another player) or Co-op (with another player against the AI) modes. No matter how you like to play the game, you will have tons of fun playing NBA Jam.
- EA sports' version of NBA Jam has the off-the-charts fun factor of the original with updated gameplay that looks and feels better than ever - in full HD.
- Play Classic 2-on-2, Co-op Team Play, and Remix games online with a Jam-packed progression system, unlockable challenges, and hundreds of rewards.
If somebody still calls a game “the best ever” years after its release (considering the improvements in the subsequent versions), you have to include it here. Such is the case of the NBA 2K11.
What Makes It Unique:
- The first 2K to include Michael Jordan
- The MyPlayer mode allows you to take control and create the narrative.
- Soundtracks are on straight-up legendary
Many 2K11 patronizers said they skipped three 2Ks (2K12, 2K13, and 2K14) because it was that good. One even played eight seasons of MyPlayer and claimed he never got bored. It was just simple and fun, with no uninteresting storylines and slow holdups on your way to a 99 rating. These features are what made the NBA 2K11 one of the best NBA video games to play, ever.
Why Choose NBA 2K11:
- Features the NBA 2K11 - Xbox 360
- Your CPU teammates don’t do dumb stuff
- A perfect mix between the ability to score in isolation and teamplay
- Relive 10 different legendary games from Michael Jordan's career and replicate in NBA 2K11 what MJ did on the court
- Delivering the most realistic feeling and reacting dribbling system to date with seamless transitions between ankle breaking moves
- Take your offensive game to the next level with an unprecedented amount of control via the enhanced Shot Stick
FAQ on the Best NBA Video Games
What was the First NBA Video Game?
It was not an NBA video game technically, but because it features teammates that look eerily similar to the NBA, Double Dribble could be loosely considered the first NBA video game. It was not officially licensed by the NBA, so it had to get creative to get around that hurdle. They had team names such as the Chicago Ox (crazy, right?) and some others from well-known NBA cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston.
Now, if we are talking about the first NBA video game licensed by the NBA, the distinction should go to the NBA Playoffs. The complete title of the game was Lakers vs Celtics and the NBA Playoffs released in 1989 for MS-DOs and in 1991 for Genesis/Mega Drive.
What Do Reviewers Typically Look for in NBA Video Games?
The best NBA video games are called as such because of many factors. However, video game enthusiasts look for some standard components such as realistic gameplay, graphics, animation, storylines (especially on MyPlayer and MyCareer modes), and soundtracks. If an NBA video game has all that stuff, that should be enough to make it a hit.
How to Choose the Best NBA Video Games
Usually, choosing the best NBA video games to play, like any other video game, depends on personal taste. Generally, you can select either arcade-style or simulation-style. If we have to make an educated guess, most players like to immerse in video games at the comfort of their own homes. For that reason, many would prefer going to simulation over the arcade.
If you make that same choice, you would have to personally see for yourself what the various NBA video game franchises offer. As you may already know, the 2K franchise is dominating the space by a wide margin, but EA’s NBA Live may also provide something that would suit your taste. Regardless, you have to experience everything for yourself and make the decision from there. It would also not hurt checking out reviews like this one.
Wrapping Things Up: The Best NBA Video Games
Here’s a helpful table of the best NBA video games we looked at today:
We can choose from a long list of NBA video games, but only five have made the cut. And that’s for a good reason, though.
In terms of graphics and animation, the latest 2K installment, the NBA 2K20, comes as a runaway winner. NBA video game fans should expect more improvements from 2K as technology improves, and that’s an exciting prospect to watch.
Another choice for the favorites is the arcade-style, swashbuckling . Think of it as a better version of NBA Jam, littered with NBA greats from Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant and Julius Erving. Unbelievably fun!
What we feel like the only game making it in our runner-up list is NBA Live 19. This is, in fact, the latest version of the NBA Live video game series since EA opted to skip 2020 and focus instead to 2022. We think it is underrated on specific aspects such as graphics and gameplay but still fall short to the 2K standard.
Finally, NBA Jam and NBA 2K11 make their way to our value picks because they were the trendsetters of this niche. NBA Jam was a cultural phenomenon, and without NBA 2K11, we wouldn’t have simulation gaming as what it is now. Of course, many will tell you that NBA 2K11 is probably the best 2K game created, but if someone thinks it’s not, who cares? It wouldn’t be a crime to consider it one of the best NBA video games ever.
Did you find this helpful? Then also check out other basketball entertainment reviews here.