A Puzzling Resurgence in Popularity for NBA 2K11

At first blush it doesn't seem to stand out: NBA 2K11 cracked the top 20 of most played titles on the Xbox 360 for the week of Jan. 16. But when you peel it back, that's actually quite astonishing, to see an old version of a sports video game resurface more than 15 months after its release.

This is not unprecedented. EA Sports' FIFA series routinely places its two most current editions in the Xbox Live top 20, especially around the time the new version is releasing. (FIFA 11 and FIFA 12 were top 20 from 12's Sept. 27 release to the end of the year.) FIFA's global popularity certainly explains its longevity here. Madden, EA Sports' long-running powerhouse, also does a double-dip in its release window, though it drops off more quickly.

But a look back suggests that when the old version leaves the top 20, it usually doesn't come back. Certainly not after a three-month layoff.

What's going on? I put this to some folks inside 2K Sports, who were just as surprised (albeit pleasantly) as I was. It doesn't track to the tip off of the new NBA season—that was Dec. 25. While 2K Sports announced it would extend online support for NBA 2K11, in light of problems with NBA 2K12's multiplayer features, that happened back in November, a month after release. And it's especially irrelevant as this figure concerns the unique users playing the game who are connected to Xbox Live, which has nothing to do with playing online multiplayer or connecting to the 2K servers.

It could be that NBA 2K11, whose "Jordan Challenge" series celebrates the career highlights of the NBA's greatest player, really is heirloom quality, as I called it in my review at the time. The Jordan Challenge is exclusive to NBA 2K11, not 2K12, and no doubt drives back catalog sales of that game—an absolute rarity in modern console sports gaming. I've suggested that 2K Sports, if it can, should cut this out and offer it for DLC, playable in the current game. But these numbers would put off that kind of action, probably until sometime next year.

It seems a little too easy to explain it that way. A sale, maybe? NBA 2K11 has a lower price tag by definition. The cover is similar to the Jordan cover (one of three) of NBA 2K12, too. The numbering may be confusing to those who don't normally buy the game, but wouldn't we have seen that influence before?

Who knows. NBA 2K11 was an unbelievable phenomenon for a sports title of predominantly North American interest. It was an NPD Top 20 seller, across all platforms, for all 12 months post-release. Maybe its staying power is just now becoming known.