Appreciating the College Hoops 2K Series


The start of this college basketball season marked a 10-year anniversary that garnered little, if any fanfare. The 2007-08 campaign was the last in which 2K Studios, makers of the preeminent NBA video game title, produced their outstanding College Hoops 2k series.

College basketball as a video game genre lasted another two years, but the EA Sports NCAA Basketball (renamed after a decade as March Madness) didn’t quite live up to the standard of College Hoops 2K.

The chopping block was inevitable for the College Hoops 2K series, with the NCAA discontinuing licensing agreements in response to the Ed O’Bannon-led likeness lawsuit. NCAA Football‘s demise following the 2014 college football season begets eulogies every summer, when a new title would otherwise hit store shelves, but College Hoops 2K is equally worthy of fond remembrances.

In the above TV spot, Greg Oden talks about college basketball video games “back in my day.” Although the setup for a joke wildly popular in the very early days of the sports blogosphere, Oden’s lament has a certain truth to it.

The scene for college basketball video games was grim when I first began gaming in the early half of the 1990s. I saved money from doing odd-jobs to buy a Sega Genesis in 1994, at which point the only option was Dick Vitale’s AWESOME BABY College Hoops: a two-on-two game that featured vacuum cleaner crowd noise and Dickie V. spouting off catchphrases like Krusty the Klown recording audio for a line of talking dolls.

EA Sports revolutionized NBA titles that same year with the release of NBA Live ’95, and the studio took its act to the college hardwood with Coach K. College Basketball in the spring of 1995. Memory space on those old, 16-bit cartridges limited the amount of playable teams, thus Tournament Mode featured only a 32-team with no mid-majors. However, the playbooks were intuitive enough for the time, the playable teams included realistic representations of the active rosters, and players could break the backboard with dunks.

Though the title was well done, the move to a new generation of consoles led to a hiatus in worthwhile college basketball offerings. Games existed, sure; but NCAA Basketball Final Four ’97 featured awkward gameplay and terrible graphics, while the NBA Jam knock-off College Slam remains perhaps the worst sports video game I’ve ever played.

Scratch that; Fox Sports College Hoops’99 was the worst thing Fox Sports ever applied its name to — prior to giving the unholy trinity of Jason Whitlock, Colin Cowherd and Jason McIntyre an hour-long, daily hot-take program, anyway.

But I digress. EA Sports went a few years between the high-quality Sega release Coach K College Basketball and the launch of its March Madness.

Each March Madness on the PSX upped the ante, improving gameplay, graphics and with increasing off-court depth for each new year. EA had little competition in the marketplace during the March Madness heyday; N64 had its atrocious Fox Sports title, and Sony produced its Final Four series. I owned the 2000 edition of that title on PSX, which I mostly remember for Clark Kellogg’s commentary.

March Madness had a stranglehold on the genre in the PSX era, but EA again struggled to transition its well-done college basketball title across generations of platforms. Unlike the previous time when it went on hiatus, the studio put out some clunkers with the first few March Madness of the PS2 era. March Madness 2002 lacked the depth in off-season gameplay that its two predecessors on PSX boasted, the AI was dramatically worse, and the graphics somehow declined on the stronger operating system.

Sony continued its Final Four franchise on the PS2, but it was no better.

That’s when 2K filled the void.

2K Sports stormed onto the scene in 1999 with NFL 2K for Sega Dreamcast. That title and its sequels, which carried over to PS2 and XBox after Dreamcast’s demise, forced EA Sports to step up its game on Madden. An NBA title that far exceeded NBA Live dropped that same year, and NBA 2K eventually muscled Live out of the paint altogether.

The quality and success of NBA 2K made a move to the college genre a natural, and NCAA Basketball 2K3 delivered. I vividly remember buying a copy at a Hastings Entertainment over Christmas break 2002, and getting hours of play from it that next semester in college.  It was fun, fast, easy to play without compromising difficulty, and offered enough details to differentiate the college hoops experience from NBA.

However, it wasn’t until two years later with ESPN College Hoops 2K5 that the franchise cemented its status as one of the greatest sports titles ever produced.

For a price tag of just $19.99 — part of a marketing campaign 2K employed across all its sports series in 2004 and 2005 to gain ground on EA — players received improved graphics; more intelligent AI; every Div. I program; and, as @AVKingJames notes on Twitter, an unrivaled off-season mode.

The depth of its Legacy Mode was far superior to that of NCAA Football at the same time. The latter later staked its reputation on its expansive recruiting and program-building features, but College Hoops 2K5 set the bar NCAA Football eventually met.

Taking over a low-major program and landing elite prospects was one of the challenges that heightened the game’s replay value.

*Editor’s Note: I built a national powerhouse at Northern Arizona University.

I miss the College Hoops 2K franchise — though, unlike Kirk Herbstreit, I don’t blame O’Bannon and his peers for seeking compensation for video-game companies using their likeness. As calls for NCAA reform gain volume, endorsement opportunities and payment for the use of a player’s likeness (i.e., jerseys) are some of the most common and logical suggestions.

The time is right for EA Sports to bring back NCAA Football, and for 2K to relaunch College Hoops, working in association with the NCAA to get some of the revenue generated into the bank accounts of the athletes. It’s a win for them, and it’s a win for video gamers who miss playing those excellent titles.