One of my favourite things about sports game franchises is the changing faces of any players who feature in multiple iterations. First up in a series looking at some of the more memorable examples of this – arguably the greatest Los Angeles Laker of all-time, Kobe Bryant.
For nineteen years, Bryant was a permanent fixture in the NBA. Of course, this also means that he has become a permanent fixture in NBA video games, from humble beginnings on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo to the newest generation of consoles.
So, how has Kobe fared through the years in his various polygonal renditions? Check out how the player currently looks in digital form in 2017/18, as portrayed in 2K Sports’ NBA 2K18.
This version is more or less spot-on and it’s a sign of just how far games have come in visual fidelity—because here is NBA Live 97, which is Kobe’s first appearance in a video game:
No, really, that’s him on the right. I know he actually looks like Generic Mid-90s Video Game Sportsperson #256, but what you can’t see is the look in his eye that suggests he’d throw his own grandmother under the bus for an NBA Championship ring.
It’s a pretty old cliche, but sometimes to know where you’re going, you really do have to look back on where you’ve been. How did we go from Stick Figure In Lakers Jersey to Squint Your Eyes And That Could Actually Be Real-Life Kobe? Let’s have a look at some standout moments.
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AKA The One Where Kobe Looks Like A Young Lance Reddick
There’s Kobe above, and here’s Lance Reddick:
I’m not imagining it, right?
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AKA The One With The Unintentional Commentary On Kobe’s Ego
Ok, so this one feels like a bit of a fudge, what with it being a few different actual photographs of Kobe pasted onto a digitised body, but those still-frame facial expressions do imbue this iteration of Kobe with a little more personality than other basketball games have tended to manage. And, honestly, I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t tickle me to see Kobe with an actual big head to match his metaphorical one.
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AKA The One Where Kobe Took A Year Off And Got Replaced By Evander Holyfield
Seriously, look at him!
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AKA The First One Where Kobe Actually Looked Like Kobe
As you’re soon about to discover, gaming’s early attempts to properly render Kobe were—well, let’s just say they were somewhat mixed. So NBA 2K9 was something of a revelation when it presented Kobe in an instantly recognisable form.
Well, I say instantly recognisable. This was at a time when he was regularly putting my beloved Phoenix Suns to the sword, so he’s missing the horns on his head and the blood red eyes that I seem to remember him having at the time.
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AKA The One Where Kobe Stole Kevin Smith’s Shorts
In the midst of simulation after simulation, two NBA franchises stood out as shining beacons of arcade anarchy. NBA Jam has been covered already, and the other was the NBA Street series.
Whilst NBA Jam stuck with standard character models for the most part, NBA Street went for exaggeration in every possible way—crazier handles, flashier passes, overpowered dunks and, yes, enormous shorts. I mean, look at them. Every time Kobe dunked in that game, I half-expected him to take 30 seconds to float gently back down to the court.
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AKA The One Where Kobe Got Morose And Questioned It All
“Hey, Mr Spalding. Listen, I’m—look, I’m just not sure if basketball is it for me, you know? I’ve been really getting into my poetry and my watercolours, and I just feel like basketball doesn’t fulfil me creatively in the same way. I’m also getting quite interested in philosophy, and I’d like to go and live in Paris for a year and study Sartre. His words speak to me in a way that even Phil Jackson never did. Anyway, what do you think?”
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AKA The One Where Kobe Gained 50lbs Of Muscle
Even in his final season, even after all the injuries, Kobe Bryant was a supreme athlete—a lithe, sinewy machine who could go toe-to-toe with the very best. But his game was very rarely about muscle and brute strength. So imagine my surprise to discover that, in 1999, Kobe appeared to have stolen the body of Ben Wallace and grafted his own head onto it, then led the league with 132.4 rebounds per game.
Or so NBA 2K would have you believe, based on this screenshot. Still, I’ll take this rendering of Kobe every single time over…
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AKA The One Where I Don’t Even
Seriously, what the fuck? Where to start with this one? For one, Kobe Bryant was 21 years old when this game came out. So why does he look like a 40-year-old sitcom dad? Secondly, I’m not suggesting that Kobe never smiles. What I am suggesting is that he has never smiled with the expression of a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Quite the journey, huh? It’s difficult to choose a favourite amongst those varied virtual guises. Do I choose one that actually looks like Kobe? No, because honestly, where’s the fun in that? I’d much rather choose one that makes you wonder if the developers had ever actually seen the man before.
So, there can only be one winner: step forward, NBA Courtside 2 and your weird alternate dimension Kobe Bryant with his dead eyes and painted-on grin. I salute you. You may not win any competitions for realism, but you’ve forever won a place in my heart. Or the dark recesses of my mind. I haven’t quite decided yet.