Sports titles just aren't supposed to be game-of-the-year contenders. Their annualized nature sends the message that this year's game, no matter how great, won't be worth owning in 365 days. If anything could rise above that, it is NBA 2K11.
Michael Jordan is as timeless a figure in sports as they come. People still think he's going to come running out of that tunnel, as he does in NBA 2K11's spellbinding opening sequence. Even if he or the 10-game recreation of his greatest moments appear in future games, it's hard to imagine they will dedicate themselves to him in this way. That makes NBA 2K11 the rarest of sports games, the one that will be worth playing over its successors.
For non-sports gamers, NBA 2K11 may not be as easily grasped as a shooter, a role-playing game, or an action-adventure sandbox. But if all you know to do is pick the superstar on the floor and take him to the basket repeatedly, The Jordan Challenge can be won by doing just that. It may not be a tutorial for playing basketball, but it is a powerful invitation to video game sports.
The prize for completing the challenge is to unlock Jordan in the My Player career mode and reincarnate him in the present NBA. By undertaking that, you come to understand how Jordan often defied reality, because the easiest way to recreate his signature performances is to approach the game as unrealistically as possible. Feed No. 23 the ball every time. Shoot without a screen. Drive straight at the teeth of the 1986 Celtics defense. You'll have to score 63 points against one of the greatest teams in basketball history. And it may not be the hardest thing you do, either.
None of this addresses what is still a technically brilliant sports simulation without Jordan or even before his arrival, but that's somewhat the point. To deliver a transformative work atop years of excellence is an expectation faced by no other game we've nominated - not Call of Duty: Black Ops, Mass Effect 2, nor Red Dead Redemption. Nor is it one they fulfilled.
And if that does not qualify a sports game for Game of the Year, then nothing ever will.
Luke Plunkett's Reply
For the sake of future sports games that deserve a tilt at our "Game of the Year", I'm a little disappointed this is the one being touted as the genre's best ever shot. Because while I agree with you that it's an amazing sports game, and that it's easily the best basketball game ever made, those two things don't really count for much.
Sure, it's got Michael Jordan in it. And a whole host of other retro superstars. Sure, it looks (and sounds) like a TV broadcast. But for a basketball game to be worth nominating for the big prize, it needed to do more than that. It needed to be, as you put it, truly transformative in terms of how it played, not just how it was dressed.
But it's not. Adding Jordan doesn't change the fact that this is just another basketball game. It may be the best one ever, sure, but until the series stops pandering to a niche and finds out why the sales of basketball games don't match the global appeal of the sport, that's all it'll ever be.
Brian Ashcraft's Reply
Okay, to get a few things out of the way: I don't like basketball, and I haven't enjoyed a basketball game since NBA Jam. Both of these points might discount my opinion entirely, then again, they may not.
The issues I had with NBA 2K11 were not gameplay per se. Once I started to get the hang of that, I enjoyed playing the game. The stumbling block for me, and for this game's GOTY chances, is the bar for entry is just too high. There's too much navel gazing.
The menus make little to no sense, and it was off-putting to figure out where I could learn the ropes, practice, change the settings, etc. The interface was largely counterintuitive, and because of that, it makes NBA 2K11 feel like yet another entry in a series, but with added Michael Jordan, and not a solid stand alone and definitely not Game of The Year.
Mike Fahey's Reply
The opening to NBA 2K11 was the most satisfying sequence of any sports game I've played. Where I was expecting music and menus I was immediately thrust into the role of one of the greatest players in basketball history, playing in one of the most important series of his career. The music and menus came eventually, but I was indeed spellbound in those opening moments.
I'm not much of a sports gamer, but I can appreciate the excellence of NBA 2K11. The gameplay is slick and addictive. The atmosphere is second-to-none. The presentation rivals broadcast television. Hell, I spent a half hour building my custom baller for the game's My Player career mode. Packed with modes and special features, it's a ridiculously deep sports game.
In the end, however, I have to agree with Luke. The game's surprising depth makes it far too easy for a basketball novice like myself to get lost in a sea of game terminology that I just don't understand. For a sports game to be truly worthy of Game of the Year, it needs to cater to all gamers - not just those already familiar with the subject matter.
Stephen Totilo's Reply
I occasionally agitate for a Best Controls awards category to become standard across all gaming awards galas, because good controls are more valuable than good graphics, good sound effects or good just about anything else. So I'm praising NBA 2K11's controls as among 2010's best. They feel good.
I'm also praising 2K11 as one of the year's best role-playing games, partially because I refuse to consider the "role-playing game" classification the way tradition has defined it. No, I will stubbornly adhere to the way the English language defines it. NBA 2K11, in letting me play as Michael Jordan across a series of historically accurate games of elite basketball, enables me to believably inhabit the sneakers of a a real man whose physical accomplishments were damn near super-human. It's more fun to Be Mike than to Be Like Mike.
But given basketball games' trajectory toward matching the realism of basketball or a basketball broadcast, I can't consider even as polished a basketball video game as this as anything more than an incomplete advance toward a distant goal. I can't help but hold the example of what it aspires to be but is not against it, killing its chance of getting my GOTY vote.
Brian Crecente's Reply
That's funny, I see this as a role-playing game too. That was the biggest draw for me this time around.
I played a few games with known, pro-players, including Jordan, but what really captivated me about the game was the notion of starting from nothing and learning and earning my way to a top position in the draft.
I know this isn't a first for a basketballer, but it's the first time it's been combined with so polished an experience. But it's still a very specific core, inwardly looking experience. It may be at the top of its game, but it's a game that is often an overwhelming experience, one that seems to embrace just how insular it is.
And I completely disagree with the notion that the latest Call of Duty, Rockstar epic or top role-playing game somehow skates on gamers' expectations of a transformative work. The difference here is that 2K11 is built around a set of rules that rarely change.
Michael McWhertor's Reply
As the champion of 2009's game of the year outlier, Demon's Souls, I sympathize with your plight in arguing for NBA 2K11. If I could approach this basketball simulation as a role-playing game, one in which I was somewhat invested, we'd share a mutual appreciation of the game's merits.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to role-play as one of the sport's most accomplished athletes holds no special meaning for me. With no emotional attachment or nostalgia for Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls, or their dynasty, I find myself simply playing an enjoyably accurate sports game, but experiencing none of the emotive, immersive qualities of 2010's other nominees.
While I was fascinated by the depth and breadth of NBA 2K11, as a sports game rookie, my enjoyment suffered from diving into a well-established franchise that I found unfriendly to those without basketball simulation expertise.
What NBA 2K11 made me appreciate was the vocabulary I've established playing non-sports games. Sports sims are a language I do not yet speak. I haven't been convinced that this is a game worthy of my vote, but it has been a fine introduction to a genre more worthy of my attention.
Owen Good's Rebuttal
Admittedly, this nominee was our longest shot and the one most vulnerable to one's taste in games and broader lifestyle. Luke's rebuttal stings but rings true. NBA 2K11 doesn't pull far enough away from the assumption that interest in a sport equals familiarity with or proficiency in it. If this is an invitation, it's still to an exclusive party.
But I was pleasantly surprised to read the praise for NBA 2K11's role-playing game qualities. I may have missed an opportunity in my advocacy. Stephen's praise of the controls also points out something many sports gamers take for granted annually.
On NBA 2K11's behalf, I'll consider that making it this far before losing is still a tremendous achievement. But Jordan himself, if this were one of his seven playoff years without a championship, wouldn't take that for much of a compliment. He'd come back next year more determined than ever. I hope NBA 2K12 - and all sports games - will too.
This is the first of four debates surrounding our final choice for 2010's game of the year. All four will run this week. The winner will be announced Monday.