It's 34 degrees in the shade and the heat is nauseating. We are spread out on the grass outside the Hilton Athens conference hall, being served chilled drinks awaiting 2K Sports' unveiling of the cover star for NBA 2K19. A sweaty marketing manager stresses past us, asks if we are ready, apologising for the wait while cursing the person who accidentally leaked the news that Greek Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo adorns this year's cover.
A minute later, we're listening to Visual Concept's community manager Ronny2K explaining how they wound up going with Antetokounmpo for NBA 2K19. The sport of basketball has become more and more "international" in recent years, which was the reason why, at the beginning of the year, they began to look for a European player to adorn the cover. A couple of minutes later the gigantic Bucks star often called "The Greek Freak" climbs onto stage towering down on us from 2 metres and 11 centimetres (6' 11'').
We were surprised to learn (from the leak last week) that Antetokounmpo was the cover athlete for this year's version of NBA 2K. Shock is more like it. Not because of his level of play, on the contrary. "The Greek Freak" is a monster on the court, a powerful and super athletic all-star that has played some superb basketball the last two seasons. At the same time, he is not a huge superstar in the same way as the players who have graced the cover of the last ten editions of this acclaimed game series. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Kyrie Irving and Lebron James have all lent their faces to the 2K series and this year we were convinced 2K Sports would try to get James Harden, Steph Curry, or maybe Ben Simmons.
However, it is apparently about more than just pure recognition of star power when Visual Concepts and 2K Sports select their cover athletes. The studio is careful to point out that they only want to work with players who actually love their games and actively play NBA 2K in their spare time. Something that Giannis Antetokounmpo has done for many years. In fact, his in-game 2K rating has been one of the major driving forces in the development of his ability on the real court, which is a very cool thing.
"Given that I'm sitting on the cover now, I expect my ranking to be maxed out," Giannis jokes. "100! No, but last year's game I had a 94-ranking and if I'm now climbing to a 95 I would be super pleased. I'm really not perfect as a player and for that reason there is certainly room for improvement, all the time. When I was included for the first time in NBA 2K, I had 60 ranking, which has been motivating me to get better and better all the time, the past five years."
We're shown a short promo video about his journey from middle school in Athens to his rookie season in NBA, and then on to his first match as an All-Star. The narrator's voice in the video turns out to be Giannis's mother, something that of course makes him a tad emotional.
"When the studio wanted me to write down some keywords that I wanted to have written on the cover, my brother's name, mother, father and the greek flag was of course very important. I was born in Nigeria and moved here to Athens as a young boy and the fact that Greece welcomed us with open arms and shared their country, their heritage, their culture with us has, of course, shaped myself to the person and player I am today."
Take Two also talks about the release of a 20th-anniversary edition of NBA 2K19 and that specific cover will be featuring LeBron James, something which makes Giannis proud.
"I was shocked when I woke up this morning and saw that LeBron signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. At the same time, I am now pleased at not having to face him four times a year. Two will be more than enough," he said with a laugh.
The mood is light-hearted and relaxed. Giannis is apparently super-proud over the fact that he will be on the cover of the best basketball game on the market, and when we're shown the first screenshot from the game, Giannis runs up to the screen and points out that they finally got his very limited beard just right.
A short moment later, the Athens event is over. The disappointment over not getting to see any gameplay or get any information about the new features subsides as we're told there will be a proper preview event later on in the summer. NBA 2K19 will most likely be superb, like most of the 19 games that we've gotten so far from Visual Concepts. Last year's version, however, was full of microtransactions that really took away from our enjoyment of the game. Hopefully, this won't be repeated with NBA 2K19. The competition will be tougher this fall, though, with EA putting in some serious effort into the revival of NBA Live 19 with 76ers forward Joel Embiid on the cover. Come September 11 we will know which is the best game and we will be able to face Giannis online because he will be playing this year's version more than any previous game, he promises us before leaving the hotel.