Michael Jordan might be the greatest basketball player to ever lace up a pair of kicks (with his name on them, of course), but his virtual hoops history ranges from sketchy to sublime.
Sure, 2K Sports features His Airness running, jumping and kissing the rim in “NBA 2K11,” “NBA 2K12” and “NBA 2K13” with stunning accuracy, simulating everything from the reflection off his bald head to the patented fadeaway jumper (only thing missing is the ability to push off against the Jazz).
But it wasn’t always this way, as Jordan dropped out of the virtual scene when he opted out of the National Basketball Players Association's shared licensing agreement after ushering in sports gaming on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo in the early '90s.
This caused video game companies to get resourceful, and through various codes, create-a-player features and special individual licenses, MJ appeared sporadically in pixels and polygons, until finally signing with 2K Sports for a series of games that lived up to his legacy.
In celebration of Jordan’s 50th birthday, we break down the most famous and infamous moments of MJ’s virtual career.
"Jordan vs. Bird: One-on-One"
The first video game featuring Jordan was a classic, featuring both a 3-point shootout (Bird only) and a slam dunk contest (Jordan only). I was always hoping to find a code to help Bird kiss the rim, but it never happened.
"Lakers vs. Celtics," "Bulls vs. Lakers," "Bulls vs. Blazers"
This was a series that turned sports fans into instant gamers as EA Sports captured everything we love about the NBA in three cartridges. Players were captured like never before, from Kareem’s goggles to Charles Barkley’s gorilla dunks, with certain stars given signature moves that were triggered from specific areas on the court (Tom Chambers could dunk from the 3-point line!). Jordan’s signature move was a baseline air reverse that was tough to pull off, but made you feel like you could sky for real when your cyber superstar finally took flight. Unfortunately, after “Bulls vs. Blazers” and “Team USA Basketball” in 1992 (Dream Team versus Angola!) came the dark days of virtual MJ, as Jordan opted out of the players’ association license in order to negotiate his own more lucrative deals.
This led to bunch of really strange games like …
"Michael Jordan In Flight" for DOS, "Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City" and "Space Jam"
Yes, in this period of time, you could no longer play as Michael Jordan on the virtual Bulls, but you could team him with Bugs Bunny or try to rescue kidnapped teammates by throwing exploding balls of fire and ice. This really happened.
You don’t know "Jam"
Around the time of "Chaos in the Windy City," Midway took over arcades with the high-flying two-on-two sensation “NBA Jam.” And while everyone remembers their favorite duos like Stockton and Malone, and how the game introduced “Boom-Shacka-Lacka” and “He’s on fire!” into the video game vernacular, one of the game’s most glaring omissions is the lack of Jordan. Play as the Bulls and you had Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Sure, Jordan and Pippen would’ve made the game completely unfair, but how ridiculously fun would it have been to see Jordan corkscrewing through the air while the announcer screams out, “Is it the shoes?!” Well, one person knows, but the answer might surprise you.
According to “NBA Jam” creator Mark Turmell, there are a few special machines still out there with Jordan actually in the game. I had always heard rumors about these machines, but never knew if it was just some arcade urban legend until I sat down and asked Turmell about his favorite two-man team.
“The most interesting one was the team of Gary Payton and Michael Jordan,” he said. “Payton didn't make the cut to be in the game, and of course, Jordan pulled himself out of the licensing of the NBA, so we had to pull him out of the game. But one day, I got a phone call from a distributor out on the West Coast who told me that Gary Payton was willing to pay whatever it cost to get into the game. So we told him what to do in terms of taking photographs, so he sent in photographs of himself and Jordan, saying, ‘We want to be in the game, hook us up.’ So we actually did a special version of the game and gave both players superstar stats. There are only a handful of these machines, but Jordan and Payton did end up being in one version of the game.”
With Jordan officially out of the mix in NBA simulations, companies like EA Sports and Konami were forced to get creative, shamelessly getting around the lack of a license thanks to the world of (not-so) secret codes. In “NBA Live 96,” for example, all you had to do was enter the code “JORDAN,” and there he was, virtual MJ ready to ball (along with codes to bring you other greats like Dr. J and Rick Barry). Konami followed suit by offering Jordan thanks to the code: X, Circle, X, X, Circle, X, Circle, X, X, Circle, X, X, Circle, X, Circle, X, X, Circle, X. Simultaneously hold "select" and "start" after entering the button combination, and again, Michael magically appeared. Word is, the NBPA wasn’t too fond of how EA Sports and Konami skirted the system, so from that point on, you were stuck with generic players like M. Guard in “NBA In the Zone 2” and of course, Player 99 in subsequent EA games, until, of course, the create-a-player feature took off.
Back when "NBA Live" mattered
Jordan finally returned to the land of sims as a boss character in “NBA Live 2000,” then appeared as a player on the Wizards through “NBA Live 2003.” Funny how when everybody begged to play as him when he was winning championships in Chicago, we got a side-scrolling adventure and a basketball game filled with Looney Tunes characters, then once the brand started to cool, we got to play as MJ on the Wizards. Luckily for us, if you wanted to play as the Jordan of old (and not just old Jordan), all you had to do was beat him in the game’s one-on-one mode.
Taking it to the "Street"
While it was great to see MJ back in video games thanks to “NBA Live,” it wasn’t until EA’s outstanding “NBA Street” series debuted that we finally saw the dominant virtual player (and stylin’ shoes) fans had been clamoring for. “NBA Street Vol. 2” featured three versions of Jordan: rookie Mike (complete with gold chain and old-school Jordans), Bulls Mike (the guy with all the rings) and the still not-too-shabby Wizards Mike (who still had mad hops in the game). Best of all, you could team every Jordan together in one breathtaking three-man squad that’s almost impossible to defeat, especially when you’re slamming the ball “off the heezay.”
What’s better than three versions of Jordan? How about an experience that encapsulates every great moment of his career and lets you relive clutch shot after clutch shot, from the flu game to the “God disguised as Michael Jordan” masterpiece when he dropped 63 on the Celtics.
2K Sports signed Jordan to an exclusive licensing deal, then went all out, creating what is arguably the greatest replication of an athlete in video game history.
“It's a long way from the first game I was in, but it just shows you the technology that's evolved over the years,” Jordan told me during a recent interview. “The fact that they can come as close as they have to the way that I played the game, my tendencies, my tongue out, my pants being short, my running technique, my fadeaway ... all the things I've done that they've been able to illustrate in the game just shows how technology has evolved.
“I didn't want them to put me in there if it didn't look like myself, and I didn't want them to put stats that weren't my stats. The guys at 2K are very smart, so they know a lot of things about the game of basketball, and obviously, the things that I've done to the game and the way that I played. I wanted my character to be as close to the way I played as possible, so that it's not something that's false-promoted. I wanted something real.”