It seems difficult to get authentically fired up over a superstar who is so well known and whose career highlights are so familiar as Michael Jordan. But I invite sports fans to watch this trailer for NBA 2K23 and not get a lump in their throats, even if they know what’s coming — The Shot over Craig Ehlo, The Shrug at Marv Albert, The Flu Game, staggering off the court in Scottie Pippen’s arms.
The Jordan Challenge, the centerpiece of a landmark work in sports video gaming 12 years ago, returns in NBA 2K23 with a spared-no-expense level of detail and presentation that is, even from the preview slice shown to media on Monday, legitimately impressive. It’s not just the five additional moments that Visual Concepts’ designers have brought to the mode, for a total of 15. It’s also the testimonials from the figures so closely associated with Jordan and his career — from Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson to Mike Fratello and Ahmad Rashad — and the genuine affection they rekindle for a player with no shortage of admirers.
“In the past 12 years, we have an entirely new generation of NBA fans to retell these incredible stories to,” said executive producer Erick Boenisch, who worked alongside gameplay director Mike Wang on the first Jordan Challenge in NBA 2K11, for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. “This generation didn’t get the chance, necessarily, to see Michael play live, to see him play on TV, to see him play in person. So everything that they know about this person is from YouTube, from word of mouth, or their parents. This really is a chance for us to retell the story of Michael Jordan to a whole new generation of NBA fans.”
Not that the old generation of NBA fans won’t also swoon when they revisit Chicago Stadium, Madison Square Garden, Richfield Coliseum and the Great Western Forum with like-it-was-yesterday atmosphere. Boenisch and Visual Concepts’ developers developed a set of broadcast filters and chyron graphics to mimic the feeling of watching Jordan’s games on CRT televisions. They studied the arenas and even used sponsors’ old logos on the stadium advertisements. The virtual fans are dressed in period-authentic clothing.
“Mike [Wang] and his team do all kinds of custom work for college basketball, for the WNBA,” in the NBA 2K series, Boenisch said “and those are things that we just didn’t have the company size to accomplish back then.”
The Jordan Challenge for NBA 2K23 begins with one of its five new moments, The 1982 NCAA National Championship game between Jordan’s North Carolina and the Georgetown Hoyas, starring his future and longtime rival Patrick Ewing. UNC’s coach Dean Smith appears on the sideline and Tar Heel greats James Worthy and Sam Perkins will take the floor in their alma mater’s uniforms. So will Ewing and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, under the formidable glare of the Hoyas’ coach, John Thompson.
“We’ve tried to get North Carolina for a number of years now,” Boenisch said, referring to the college portion of NBA 2K’s MyCareer mode. “They always had their reasons for not wanting to do it. Pitching them, we said, ‘Here’s our vision for the game this year, Mike’s involved, Mike wants this,’ and they said, ‘OK, great. Sounds good. Let’s do this.’ They were super enthused to work with us to help be a part of telling Michael Jordan’s story.”
NBA 2K23 will also have the voice of the public address announcer whose “FROMMMMMM North CAR-O-LINA,” heralded Jordan’s presence in the Bulls’ starting lineup. That’s Ray Clay — whose introductions were impersonated by a voice actor in NBA 2K11. Clay recorded a full audio library akin to what more than 30 stadium PAs did for NBA 2K22, meaning teammates like Bill Cartwright and B.J. Armstrong will get authentic, game-day treatment alongside adversaries like Vinnie Johnson, Michael Cooper, and Anthony Mason.
That’s not to say The Jordan Challenge is all window dressing and presentation. Wang, the gameplay director, said his team understood its responsibility to make NBA 2K23’s moments actually feel and play like basketball did in the 1990s. The most obvious example of this is Detroit’s notorious “Jordan Rules,” which teed up MJ for punishment any time he got near the basket and sought to frustrate him with a constant rotation of Bad Boy defenders.
“We had to architect a lot of different systems to make it feel right,” Wang said. “When you play as Jordan (against Detroit), they’ll force him to his left, they’ll double-team him on drives. If [Jordan] posts up, they’ll come in double with the power forward and center, and then if you can get past all the crazy defense that they threw at him, every time you go to the rim you get hammered hard, with crazy, hard fouls. So, if you put yourself in Jordan’s shoes, you’ll really feel it, like ‘Man, he had to work so hard to overcome that challenge.’”
Wrapping each of the 15 moments will be interviews with teammates, opponents, broadcasters, and other luminaries from the NBA’s most telegenic era. These aren’t just the obvious stars, like Olympic teammate Chris Mullin or the always-loquacious Shaquille O’Neal. Boenisch reached out to NBC Sports broadcast partners Marv Albert and “The Czar of the Telestrator” Mike Fratello, plus sideline reporter and longtime Jordan pal Ahmad Rashad, to complete the picture.
“We brought [Fratello] in and he just started rattling off stories,” Boenisch said. “And we had done our research, we prepped the scripts, but we really hadn’t heard this stuff before. This is new. He added a vibe to The Jordan Challenge that I just was not expecting. Just incredible. He really brought the energy to the broadcast and you will feel that when you play the game.”
I can already feel it. I can remember, vividly, where I was for The Shot: Watching on the couch with my father, his editor, and sports editor, all Carolina alumni. I can remember watching Jordan’s switched-hands layup against the Lakers at a graduation party after my senior year of high school. I can remember seeing The Shrug on a black-and-white TV on my bedroom dresser. I can remember Karl Malone’s utterly stoic expression, as a sick man stole his best hope for a championship ring. It was bravura theater in real time; it has to be just as good in a video game.
“It was a labor of love,” Wang said. “We have a lot of old heads on our team, a lot of our team, a lot of people who got into this industry because of Michael Jordan. So, being able to do it was awesome fun for us, too.”
The Jordan Challenge will be available in all editions of NBA 2K23, launching Sept. 8 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.