Solidly established as professional basketball's best player and a mortal lock for the hall of fame, LeBron James, after 10 years as an A-list superstar, will finally appear on the cover of a video game when NBA 2K14 hits shelves this autumn.
2K Sports has made a practice of luring MVPs of the present and all-time greats of the past to its cover over the past several years. Yet James' absence, to now, implied that even he was beyond the reach of one of sports video gaming's flagship brands. He will join previous all-galaxy stars Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson at a pivotal moment, as NBA 2K transitions to a new console generation and seeks to crush EA Sports' NBA Live insurgency there, once and for all.
"The fact he's never been on a cover before helped build the mystique of LeBron and perhaps built the anticipation for some day when he may appear," said Jason Argent, the senior vice president of sports operations for 2K Games. "We've been asked about it for years and years, and we think he picked an ideal time to partner up with us."
James, 28, came within one vote of being a unanimous selection for NBA Most Valuable Player this year. He has won the award four times in the past five seasons, and was the most valuable player of last year's NBA Finals, in which he won his first NBA championship.
The announcement of James' cover appearance was timed for today's Game One of the NBA Finals, in which James and the Miami Heat will seek to repeat as league champions against the San Antonio Spurs. This 30-second advertisement aired shortly before tip-off.
James will grace a packshot (full size at the end of this article) appearing on five different platforms—the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, arriving on the traditional first-Tuesday-in-October date of Oct. 1; and on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 when those new consoles arrive. Argent said NBA 2K14's Xbox One and PS4 versions will launch the same day those two consoles arrive. Their launch dates have not yet been announced.
2K Sports will not publish NBA 2K14 for Wii U. "We are not doing a Wii U version this year," Argent said. "The decision was made internally that our resources would be best put toward making a really amazing current-generation and next generation game, and we did not want to take resources away from making a great experience on those platforms."
Argent, in a conference call Thursday afternoon, teased a new mode of play called "Path to Greatness," but wouldn't elaborate on it or any other gameplay features, except to say that the mode "will involve LeBron." He said that the game's current and next generation console versions "will provide uniquely different experiences that harness the power of the platforms."
"We will have some more to see and hear next week at E3," Argent said, a curious choice of words as 2K Games will have no booth at the annual expo. 2K Sports could be appearing in a console maker's keynote, as it did with the PlayStation 3 in 2011.
"We have a lot more news coming out with regards to both games, on both console generations," Argent said, when asked if the next generation version of NBA 2K14 will have all of the features coming to its Xbox 360 and PS3 releases. "There is some overlap, of course, in the core gameplay. But both current generation and next generation will be uniquely distinct experiences. Both will be really, really great, in their own ways."
NBA 2K is, annually, one of the top selling video games across all genres, according to NPD sales figures. Its most recent release is the third straight edition to sell more than 5 million units (counting all versions) and is on pace to break its own sales record.
The headliner to last year's edition was not so much the cover stars—Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, representing a new generation of performers—but hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, who came in as the game's executive producer, and personally cajoled players from the 1992 U.S. Olympic "Dream Team" to appear. That seems to have been a one-year arrangement only.
"Jay-Z's not a prominent figure in NBA 2K14," Argent said. "He continues to be a great friend of the brand, and his work continues to inform some of the decisions we make with the game. But he's not directly involved to the extent he was last year."