THESE days, the franchise has long been eclipsed by 2K Sports’ NBA 2K series, but back in the late ‘90s, NBA Live was the basketball game to beat.
As the 1996-1997 NBA season opened, NBA Live 97 was released to much fanfare. It was the first 3D game in the series, and thanks to the TV-style presentation, motion-captured player moves and (for the time) photorealistic graphics, fans were all over it.
Well, except maybe Chicago Bulls fans.
As with the two previous, non-3D games in the series, players who wanted to step inside MJ’s virtual shoes found that he was nowhere in the game. Instead, playing alongside Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Luc Longley, and Ron Harper, was a player named… “Player.” Or “Roster Player” if you wanted his full name.
“Player” was bald, was a starter in the Bulls, played shooting guard, and was one of the best players in the game. Oh, he also rocked a #24 jersey, and not #23.
With NBA Live 98, as the real life Jordan made his “Last Dance” with the Chicago Bulls, “Player” also made his return; this time, wearing jersey #89.
In NBA Live 99 — a time when Jordan had retired from the league — "Player" was still in the Bulls roster and was dominant as ever, but wore the 99 jersey.
So why couldn’t Michael Jordan make an actual appearance inside the NBA Live or practically every other basketball simulation game throughout the '90s?
Well, in 1992, Jordan opted out of the National Basketball Players’ Association’s shared licensing agreement. Video games could use the entire NBA roster when they secured a license with the NBPA, but could not use Jordan’s name or likeness.
Thanks to this unique licensing agreement, fans were unable to play as their idol in the virtual hardcourt during the height of His Airness’ career. However, NBA Live 96 gave you the ability to play as the actual Jordan using a workaround, when you input his last name in the 'Create-A-Player' mode.
That never happened again. Presumably, developers wanted to avoid any possible litigation headed their way from the MJ camp.
Finally, in NBA Live 2000, Jordan finally made his first real appearance in the Live series, as a boss character in a one-on-one game. Then, when NBA Live 2003 rolled around, you could finally play as him — but as a Washington Wizard.
It just wasn’t the same.