There’s no question that the premiere basketball gaming franchise is NBA 2K. Appropriately debuting with NBA 2K, it became an instant threat to EA Sports’ NBA Live, which was at the top of the food chain at the time. Over the years, 2K so routinely beat Live that EA canceled games and rebooted their series.
With more than two decades’ worth of entries, it’s interesting to look back at when NBA 2K was at its best. Using the ratings found on Metacritic, these installments scored the highest in the history of the franchise, as it’s the best NBA 2K games, ranked.
Updated on September 11th, 2022, by Kevin Pantoja: The new release of NBA 2K23 has added another installment to the history of this iconic sports gaming franchise. Ever since it debuted with the original entry, it has become the top basketball game on the market. With the newest game out there, it’s interesting to see how it lines up when you look at the NBA 2K games ranked. Their Metacritic scores are the best way to find the best of the bunch.
19 NBA 2K19 (2018) – 83
When a gaming series has been around for so long, it is bound to run into traps of sameness and even staleness at points. That’s kind of what happened with NBA 2K19 as reviews were certainly not poor but it missed the mark compared to some other recent entries.
The game mostly nailed everything that it had in the past but by this point, it was a lot of what fans had come to expect and know. It needed something to rejuvenate things though it didn’t happen. Scores got lower with 2K20, 2K21, and 2K22, so they need to right the ship with 2K23.
18 NBA 2K9 (2008) – 84
By this point, it was abundantly clear that the NBA 2K franchise was lightyears ahead of NBA Live. Although the 2009 version of the EA Sports game was solid, NBA 2K9 just kept adding to an already impressive legacy. NBA Champion Kevin Garnett was on the cover of this installment.
The main reason for the positive reception was how realistic the experience was. Not only was the gameplay up to par but things like halftime shows and commentary were fantastic, while the HD visuals were easily the best to that point. The only negative was that it didn’t add many new modes.
17 NBA 2K7 (2006) – 84
The aforementioned graphics in NBA 2K9 were a welcome boost because one of the issues that gamers had with NBA 2K7 was that the player models and animations missed the mark. While that was a clear problem, the game shined in almost every other area.
The gameplay was again a hit but this also had well-received aspects like Association mode and Street mode. One cool but small addition came on the PlayStation 3, where gamers could shoot free throws by mimicking the real-life motion of taking a shot. Shaquille O’Neal was the cover athlete for this one.
16 NBA 2K6 (2005) – 84
NBA 2K7 actually marked the second straight year that Shaq was on the cover, as it first happened in NBA 2K6. He joined Allen Iverson as the only two players to get multiple solo covers at the time. The praise was very strong for elements like the soundtrack, presentation, and gameplay.
On the flip side, there were some issues with some of the controls and it felt kind of like the previous entry since not all that much was added to improve or build upon it. It might not seem like a big thing but the menu style was heavily criticized, with some even calling them downright ugly.
15 NBA 2K10 (2009) – 85
It could be argued that the greatest player to ever grace the cover of one of these games was Kobe Bryant in NBA 2K10. This was actually a very important entry in the series for one key reason. It was the installment to mark the debut of the MyPlayer mode, which remains a favorite over a decade later.
Of course, the mode had some kinks to work out but it was still a well-received addition to the franchise. Summer League and sideline reporter Doris Burke were also welcome inclusions. Alas, the game did have a handful of technical problems, especially upon release.
14 ESPN NBA 2K5 (2004) – 85
The ESPN license was added to the series in a big way with ESPN NBA Basketball before ESPN NBA 2K5 arrived. This was a historic entry as it was the final NBA game released by SEGA before the company was sold. The ESPN presentation was arguably the show-stealer but it was gone after this installment.
The game featured Ben Wallace on the cover, making him the first player other than Allen Iverson to do so. This featured modes like 24/7 and Association but both got a mixed response. Still, the gameplay was great and it only had a $20 price tag, which made it a great value.
13 NBA 2K15 (2014) – 87
In a lot of ways, the mid-2010s was the golden age for the franchise as NBA 2K kept adding new features to keep things fresh and spice up an already great game. With NBA 2K15, they made MyCareer better than ever before and added a coaching advice feature.
There was also a big boost with the inclusion of a scanning system. That allowed gamers to scan their own face and put it into the game, making their created NBA player look just like them and adding an extra sense of realism to their career mode.
12 NBA 2K16 (2015) – 87
A year after the success of NBA 2K15, 2K Sports looked to up the ante once more and they mostly got it right. Reviews were again very strong for NBA 2K16, which featured the great Stephen Curry as the cover athlete.
The coolest new addition this time around was the ability to relocate a team while playing MyGM or MyLeague. That meant gamers could bring back iconic franchises like the Seattle SuperSonics and get really creative with how they played the game.
11 NBA 2K14 (2013) – 87
NBA 2K14 through 2K16 all scored the same, which helped show the consistency of the franchise. 2K14 brought in the LeBron James: Path to Greatness mode, Euroleague teams, and a stellar soundtrack.
James did more than just simply pose for the cover. He also helped curate the soundtrack and work as something of a producer on the game, helping to really make it feel like a true NBA experience. Reviews were strong for all of these aspects and more.
10 NBA 2K18 (2017) – 87
The fourth game tied with an 87 rating is NBA 2K18. It gets a spot on its own since the lowest score it received on a platform was a 74 on the Nintendo Switch, which is higher than the previous games’ worst. This installment features Kyrie Irving on the cover.
The game made minor changes because 2K was in an « if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it » situation. Still, they added interesting things like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett as guest commentators and more classic teams. The real kicker was the addition of All-Time Teams, putting together squads of every franchise’s greatest players.
9 NBA 2K23 (2022) – 88
The latest entry in the NBA 2K franchise, NBA 2K23, still has reviews pouring in so this rating could change in the near future. For now though, it looks like it has righted the ship of some of the recent entries which had reviews that were less than what the series is used to.
Praise has been given to The City, which is said to be a very immersive experience. The real highlight is the MyNBA mode which allows gamers to take over the league during different eras, meaning you can rewrite history and see what would’ve happened if Michael Jordan was drafted by Portland or if the 2003 Draft went a different way.
8 NBA 2K3 (2002) – 89
There are three games tied at 89. First up is NBA 2K3, which is from the early days of the series. They were off to a good start and kept many of the same gameplay elements that had scored them positive reviews to this point. They also kept Allen Iverson as the cover athlete.
While a lot stayed the same, there were key changes. Things like Franchise mode were updated to be more in-depth than ever but the big change came with the presentation. NBA 2K3 marked the start of a partnership with ESPN, making the game feel more real than ever.
7 ESPN NBA Basketball (2003) – 89
The only game in the entire franchise to not have 2K in its title was ESPN NBA Basketball, which would’ve basically been NBA 2K4. This one went all-in on the ESPN aspect of the presentation and saw Iverson make the cover for the final time.
This was the penultimate installment published before the formation of 2K Sports. ESPN NBA Basketball featured unique facial designs for every player, improved the passing system, focused on the 24/7 mode, and included a lot of streetball aspects. It was heavily praised for gameplay, graphics, and presentation.
6 NBA 2K11 (2010) – 89
NBA 2K11 marked a turning point for the games. Although none had bad reviews, they did stagnate a bit as the 2000s ended. This entry was a step up for a handful of reasons. The most exciting was the addition of cover athlete Michael Jordan, who hadn’t been in a game in several years.
The Jordan Challenge mode was heavily praised as gamers got the chance to recreate his most iconic moments. That mode also meant the inclusion of many other teams and players from the past. Throw in a good soundtrack and things like the D-League in Association mode and it’s a winner.
5 NBA 2K12 (2011) – 90
How did 2K Sports follow up the greatness of NBA 2K11? They took what worked and added to it. Jordan was joined by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as cover athletes, showcasing that the series was diving deep on classic teams and honoring the stars of the past.
Many reviewers considered it to be the best basketball simulation in history as it felt more realistic than previous games. The MyPlayer mode got a major upgrade, helping to make it one of the most popular modes in any sports game. The use of updated rosters was welcome since rookies weren’t initially included due to the NBA lockout that year.
4 NBA 2K13 (2012) – 90
There are more ties as three games scored a 90. Once again, the series remained strong as NBA 2K13 kept up the momentum from the previous two installments. This time, the focus moved from the past to the future, with Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Blake Griffin sharing the cover.
Despite that, the game still kept upping the classic teams, including the phenomenal idea of having both the 1992 and 2012 United States Olympic teams. Jay-Z served as a producer, helping to add to the unique feel. The game also featured a Shoe Creator mode with legitimate name brands and an All-Star Weekend mode.
3 NBA 2K17 (2016) – 90
As noted, NBA 2K16 got a lot of praise for the MyLeague mode, which allowed gamers to do things like relocating franchises. NBA 2K17 took that to the next level. This time, all 30 existing teams could be relocated and expansion teams could be added.
Realistically, someone could create their own totally unique league with their own teams, cities, and more. They could also control and change the rules of the league, which was unheard of. The gameplay, presentation, and the other usual aspects were also heavily praised. All-Star Paul George was on the cover.
2 NBA 2K1 (2000) – 93
It’s kind of wild to consider that the highest-rated games in the history of the series both came so early into its run. It goes to show that these games helped changed things, even though these entries didn’t have nearly the customizable options or in-depth features that the future ones did.
The initial NBA 2K had solid reviews but NBA 2K1 bumped things up a notch. The gameplay was improved and it was the first to feature online multiplayer. Plus, it added iconic streetball courts like Rucker Park to enjoy if you wanted something different from traditional arenas.
1 NBA 2K2 (2001) – 93
When this series first began, it was exclusive to the Dreamcast since it was made by Sega. That changed with the release of NBA 2K2, as it came out for PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube, opening it up to a wider audience. That move proved vital for the series.
This entry was important in that it first introduced realistic player abilities, so taking shots at the right place on the court mattered for specific players. It would help birth things like player personalities in later installments. This game also added modes, improved the defensive side of things, and added legends.
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