This morning, NBA 2K11 revealed its box art featuring Michael Jordan, billed as "the greatest cover of all time." But there are many others also among the greatest in their respective sports who've graced a game's cover. Here's a sampling.
Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson
Fight Night Round 4 (2008)
Let's not forget who has the first lien position on "The Greatest." That would be Muhammad Ali, 27 years removed from boxing when he appeared on this cover, but still a part of the discussion in that sport like no other retired champion. Plus, joining him is Mike Tyson - who may be a punchline or a sideshow now, but anyone who had HBO in the late 1980s remembers how he completely dominated the heavyweight division - until one fateful night in Tokyo.
Pelé's Soccer (Atari 2600)
Both Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA have seen their share of global superstars in this sport, but none compare to Pelé, the only member of three World Cup winning squads, Brazil's all-time leading goal scorer, and a figure who truly transcends sport. Only Ali is comparable to Pelé in societal impact, and Pelé's is global at that.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour
Regardless of what is taking place this season, Woods is still the greatest golfer of modern times and still, arguably, the greatest golfer of all time. He won the "Tiger Slam" bridging 2000 and 2001, making him the first professional to be the defending champion of all four Majors at the same time. He has won 13 Majors, Jack Nicklaus has 18. Lee Carvallo has none.
Wayne Gretzky Hockey (1991)
No. 99 remains, without question, his sport's greatest talent. Unlike Jordan, he was active when he made this appearance. Like Jordan, he should return to video games this year as with NHL Slapshot, whose cover art is unannounced, but the game will feature a career mode starring The Great One.
Jerry Rice, John Elway and Barry Sanders
All Pro Football 2K8 (2007)
Not a league-licensed football title but unquestionably more football star power on one single cover here than in all of Madden's long run. That's the game's greatest wide receiver, one of its greatest quarterbacks ever, and arguably its greatest running back ever, all sharing the same cover. How the hell did I forget this? Props to commenter Lemstring for reminding us.
Joe Montana Football (1991)
Given the Madden Curse's proficiency at deep-sixing careers, and the fact American football is a team sport with different job descriptions, pegging down the greatest ever is a bit more difficult. Generally, people go with quarterbacks, and Joe Montana's four Super Bowl rings does plenty of talking. Montana appeared on stage at EA's E3 news conference this year to showcase Madden NFL 11's new features, demonstrating his continued appeal as one of the game's greatest stars, and relevance to games.
NBA 2K10 (2009)
Let's not forget that, immediately preceding Jordan, 2K Sports landed one of the sport's top stars, not just for that year. Kobe Bryant will absolutely be remembered as one of the NBA's all-time greatest players, in the company of Jordan himself. It helps that 2K also landed Bryant after winning his fourth NBA title. He added his fifth this year. Jordan has six.
Top Spin 3 (2008)
Pete Sampras had his own game (Pete Sampras Tennis, on the Genesis, a console that dominates this topic) but Federer's 16 Grand Slam titles are the most ever, and generally measure career impact in this sport.
Nolan Ryan's Baseball
Baseball is the sport most underrepresented by its greatest talents, probably owing to its long history and the fact it had few truly transforming talents in a time when stars were licensing their names to whole sports titles. Nolan Ryan makes it in here on career value, having struck out more batters and thrown more no-hitters than any other pitcher in history. A first ballot hall-of-famer, he was one of the greatest righthanded pitchers in history and sold plenty of tickets with his 100 mph fastball reputation.