The Five Best Basketball Video Games Ever

Photo: 2K Sports

The next best thing to playing basketball is a basketball video game. We’ve had some great times playing the NBA games with our friends, and we’re sure you have, too. At their best, the games are so good that they transcend the sport and become popular with people who don’t even watch it. The very first NBA Jam game was one of those games, becoming a massive hit in the UK even though the NBA has never been able to find a wide audience in the country no matter how hard it tries. 

We’ve had a lot of time to play basketball video games recently (as has everyone else), and it’s got us thinking about what the best basketball games of all time are. This is obviously a very subjective question. The games we like might not be the same as the games you like, and you might disagree strongly with our assessment. We’re already prepared for that, and that’s why we have a comment section at the bottom of all our articles. Feel free to post your take on the question down there. We might even join in with the debate!

In compiling this article, we’ve stuck to “traditional” basketball games. We haven’t included basketball-themed games or games that use aspects of the sport as part of their appeal. That means the “Basketball Star” online slots game hasn’t made the cut even though it attracts thousands of players every day. We appreciate that it’s made a big splash at online slots websites, but it doesn’t meet our definition. It has a special place on the long list of online slots that are based on mainstream sports, but it’s not what we’re looking for in this instance. Let’s put that aside and enjoy the best of the games! 

Tecmo NBA Basketball

It doesn’t matter how advanced video games are these days. Some of us will always have happy memories of simpler times, and in basketball terms, those happy memories revolve around Tecmo NBA Basketball, which was released in 1992. This was the first time that the NBA had ever granted a license for its teams and players to be featured in a video game, and playing with those real-life rosters blew our young minds. The game even featured cutscenes, which are taken for granted now but almost unheard of at the time. This was the first game to allow players to play through an entire season and also the first to feature individual player stats. Great players were faster, stronger, and more accurate than average ones. It might look basic now, but in 1992 this felt like witchcraft. 

NBA Live 2003

There’s only one popular series of NBA video games these days, but we don’t think that’s a good thing. There used to be competition in the market, and that competition pushed the companies involved to push a little harder and make better games. Back in 2003, the NBA 2K series was produced by Sega. EA Sports was busy making NBA Live games, and NBA Live 2003 was among the best of them. It’s still played today by enough people to justify this cheat code page staying online eighteen years later. NBA Live 2003 saw the debut of the freestyle control system, which used the Dual Shock triggers of the PlayStation controller used to their maximum potential by allowing you to pull off complicated skill moves and baffle your opponents. The soundtrack probably shouldn’t matter when you’re evaluating a game, but this one does. It was so good it went platinum!

NBA Live 1995

A cynic would say that when Electronic Arts made NBA Live 1995, they took the isometric view of their popular FIFA Soccer game, swapped the soccer pitch for a basketball pitch, and almost cloned the game. A more charitable person would point out that the FIFA Soccer game was hugely popular, and this was a smart move on EA’s part. This was a spiritual successor to the NBA Playoffs series, with improved graphics and arcade-like features, including a “turbo” button to speed your players up. NBA Live 1995 also made history by being the first basketball game to include a “create a player” feature and allow you to customize rosters. If you were prepared to put the time and effort in, you could keep it up to date for years. 

NBA 2k11

The negative reception to the past few NBA 2K games has made a few people forget just how great this series used to be. If you’re one of the many people who have soured on the series, do yourself a favor by firing up your old console and getting your hands on NBA 2k11. This is hands-down the best game in the series and still holds up today. It even stands up graphically, which is an incredible achievement for a game made a decade ago for consoles that are now two generations behind the times. 2011 was the year that the 2K series dethroned the NBA Live series, and it never looked back. The key to its success was the “Jordan Challenge” game mode. Who knew that Michael Jordan could still sell basketball games so many years after his retirement? Actually, it turns out everyone did. This game sold over five and a half million copies. 

NBA Jam: Tournament Edition

Quotable commentary lines. Dennis Rodman with different hair every time he started a game. Big head mode. Ridiculous slam dunks that started on the other side of the court. NBA Jam had all of these, and it should have made it a ridiculous game. Instead, it made it great. We mentioned NBA Jam at the very start of this article, and only a fool would have thought that we wouldn’t return to it. We’re doing so at the very end because, in our eyes, this is the greatest basketball video game ever made. It probably always will be. People were so obsessed with this game that websites get mileage out of writing “where are they now” articles about it almost twenty years later. We all used the cheat codes. We all spent more hours than we’d like to admit trying to unlock the hidden characters. “Is it the shoes?” No, it’s just the best basketball video game of all time.