When Visual Concepts used NBA 2K11 to celebrate the illustrious career of basketball’s greatest player, Michael Jordan, the end result was a fun side attraction from the main game. The Jordan Challenge allowed players to re-enact 10 of Jordan’s greatest career highlights in ways that might’ve felt nostalgic or educational, depending on the age and knowledge of any particular player. In NBA 2K23, the Jordan Challenge is returning, but it appears to be far from a rehash of highlights long-time players already experienced. Bigger than before and with incredible attention to detail, the NBA 2K23 Jordan Challenge looks so cool that it’s made me frustrated that no other sports sims are doing something similar.
This year’s Jordan Challenge is plainly bigger on a basic level, giving players 15 challenges based on Jordan’s most iconic moments. These include moments like The Shrug, The Flu Game, and even Jordan’s “last dance” game in 1998. Moments like these were cool in 2K11, but they still felt very similar to any other experience in that game. In 2K23, the bar is being raised to depict each Jordan challenge in its era-appropriate context. They include visual filters, arena makeovers, changes to the rulebook and playstyles, and HUD adjustments that will give the game an evolving look authentic to each moment in time.
Beginning with Jordan’s days as a freshman at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and ending with his last game in a Chicago Bulls jersey, each challenge will be accompanied by talking-head segments that use real interviews the Visual Concepts team conducted for the game mode to help contextualize the importance of each playable re-enactment. These include interviews with people such as Marv Albert, commentator for The Shrug Game, rival Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, former teammate Dennis Rodman, coach Phil Jackson, and more. Even Ray Clay, the Bulls’ stadium announcer for many years who has previously only been voice-matched in the game, is a part of the experience.
The game mode also uses its own commentary team, including “The Czar” Mike Fratello, who was working the mic during the Jordan years and brings his lived experience to recapturing Jordan’s singular greatness. Visual Concepts said in its efforts to create a completely authentic Jordan Challenge, the team was met with only enthusiasm from people and groups it hoped to include. This includes even the brands whose ads you’ll see around the arena, such as period-authentic logos for Chips Ahoy, AT&T, Gatorade, and more. Spectators in the crowd dress appropriately to the era they’re representing too.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the team’s way of altering playstyles and even rulebooks to reflect the bygone eras players will explore as MJ. The three-point line wasn’t used nearly as much back in the day, and some rules, such as “illegal defense,” have been removed over the years. But as you take on Jordan’s 15 challenges and seek to re-enact each moment, the players on the court and the referees officiating will exhibit unique AI behaviors to reflect these differences. Hand-checking, a now-illegal defensive strategy that allowed for more contact, will be used when you’re taking on teams of yesteryear. Match up against the “Bad Boy” Pistons in the 1990 Finals, and you’ll feel their uniquely aggressive play style, Visual Concepts said.
I really got goosebumps seeing the game mode in action. Annual sports games such as 2K take plenty of reasonable criticisms each year, and no doubt 2K23 won’t be without some issues the community will find in time. But from this distance, the Jordan Challenge looks destined to be perhaps the game’s most beloved aspect. It’s not something that could be done annually, so to bring it back and commit to Jordan’s saga with such depth is striking and appreciated, and the only downside I can see so far is that it’s frustrating games like Madden and MLB The Show have nothing comparable .
To play such a mode as Tom Brady, Serena Williams, or Wayne Gretzky could be incredible, but no one else is doing it, and I feel like sports gamers are missing out as a result. The only series doing anything remotely close is label-mate WWE 2K with its Showcase mode, and the work done there is more akin to the 2K11 version of the Jordan Challenge. The overhauled 2K23 Jordan Challenge is as much a unique game mode in the sports sim world as it is a basketball historical document, and the Visual Concepts team admitted bringing it to life in this way is a tremendous undertaking and “a labor of love,” which may explain why no one else has really tried to do this for legends of other sports.
The NBA 2K23 Jordan Challenge looks fully equipped to delight fans who were there to watch Jordan the first time while also educating those who missed his era of unparalleled dominance, reminding every NBA fan young and old that there’s only one greatest of all time.
NBA 2K23 launches on September 8 for Xbox Series X|S, PS5, Xbox One, PS4, and PC. The Jordan Challenge is included on all platforms and in all editions of the game. You can read our guide on the Jordan Challenge here, including a full list of all 15 games available in the mode, or learn more about this year’s gameplay changes here.
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