SALT LAKE CITY — It’s about time for Damian Lillard.

Lillard — the former Weber State basketball star and current Portland Trail Blazers guard — was recently announced as the cover athlete for the next NBA 2K21 video game.

“I made it. I’m going to be on the cover of 2K,” he said when it was announced he would be the cover athlete.

At the time, Lillard compared gracing the cover to having a signature shoe deal — it’s something that some stars don’t ever get. It’s a milestone for your career.

And, like all fans, Lillard remembers favorite versions of the game based on who graced the cover.

“This is a special moment for me in my NBA career,” Lillard said in a statement. “I’ve been a fan of NBA 2K for years and love how they represent all aspects of basketball culture. I’m an avid 2K player so I’m honored to join the other NBA greats who have been on the cover. I’m grateful to all my fans and can’t wait for everyone to experience the game later this year.”

Lillard isn’t wrong. An athlete who makes the cover of a video game can see long-term success — even if it’s strictly from a marketing and public relations perspective. And it is something that may launch his career to the next level, according an expert.

For most athletes, making the cover of a video game is a sign that you’ve made it, said Blake Lawrence, co-founder and CEO of athlete marketing platform Opendorse.

“Making the cover is a cornerstone moment for any athlete. It’s an achievement that places them among the idols they had growing up,” he said.

But, as some may already know, gracing the cover comes with some hiccups, too. And it could create a divide between athletes as stars are chosen for the role.

What it means for stars like Lillard

It’s no question Lillard is an NBA star. He’s made four All-NBA teams, five NBA All-Star teams and he was the Rookie of the Year for the 2012-13 season. Not a bad résumé.

He doesn’t have any titles. His pathh through the playoffs often required him to bust through the Golden State Warriors, one of the greatest teams of recent history, if not all time.

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That said, Lillard — who celebrates his 30th birthday on July 15 — has already seen success. He signed a five-year, $140 million deal with the Trail Blazers, making him the eight highest NBA player.

And he’s constantly the subject of social media discussion for years. He releases music on the side through his DAME D.O.L.L.A. moniker. He has two viral GIFs right now, both from when he hit a buzzer-beating 3-point shot against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2019 playoffs, ending the Russell Westbrook and Paul George era of the franchise.

But becoming a cover athlete might bring him more success than he has now, launching him to another level of success.

“For athletes like Lillard, it can be a signal that they have arrived as one of the league’s most marketable superstars. While brands with close ties to the NBA likely already understand Dame’s mass marketability, the cover spot puts him on a shortlist of NBA marketing stars and will potentially expose him to a broader market of potential partners,” said Lawrence, an expert in sports marketing.

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The NBA is a national and global product. It shines across the world, reaching various countries. People from around the world know Lillard pretty well. So it’s not like the cover means more since he’s from a small market.

Still, this is “a big win for the Portland organization” since it puts their star athlete on the cover.

“I believe players have so much power as individuals, and the game is so widely consumed (especially on social media), that they largely control their popularity through their performance and personal branding, no matter their market. But for the teams, this is a big win,” Lawrence said. “A superstar on a mid-market team helps sell tickets, sponsorships, and media rights deals.”

The downside of a cover

Video game covers can have a downside, and most of it’s due to internet folklore and conspiracy theories. But let’s lean into it for a second to see what this might mean for the future of a star like Lillard.

Every year since 1998, EA Sports has released a cover for its “Madden” franchise that has one player. This star ends up experiencing “something bad — poor luck, a decline in play, or maybe a serious injury. It’s superstition at its finest,” according to CBS News.

In fact, 16 of the game’s 22 covers have experienced the curse.

For example, last season, Patrick Mahomes rolled his knee during a quarterback sneak, injuring him for a few games of last season. Of course, he went on to win the Super Bowl and sign the biggest contract deal in sports history. But OK.

NBA 2K has its own curse — in a way. Cover stars often leave their current team for a new one. For example, 2K18 featured Kyrie Irving on the cover. Before the game came out, he moved from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics. For 2K19, the cover showed LeBron James on the Cavaliers. He switched to the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2K 2020, Anthony Davis was on the cover for the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s now on the Los Angeles Lakers.

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All of that is to say that Lillard — in theory — might be on the move sometime soon.

Unless it’s one of his other fellow cover athletes who makes the switch.

The promise of the cover

This year, NBA 2K decided to do something a little different for its covers. The game released four separate games, each of which featured a different cover athlete. The standard edition features Lillard. The next generation edition — meant for those who plan to buy a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One X — will see Zion Williamson on the cover. The other two editions — which include the standard and next generation edition — include Kobe Bryant on the cover.

Williamson will now be the youngest athlete to ever appear on the NBA 2K cover series, as I wrote about before for the Deseret News. Chris Paul (NBA 2K8) and Anthony Davis (NBA 2K16) were the youngest players to appear on the NBA 2K covers at 22 years old. Zion Williamson will turn 20 in July, though.

And in marketing, Zion is NBA 2K’s guy so far. In fact, the first teaser for the game featured Williamson sweaty and dunking, slamming home jams like he does in real life.

Seeing as this is his first cover, that’s a good thing for Williamson.

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Williamson and Lillard can still grow beyond their cover appearances, too, if they share their own unique story, using their newfound fame to spread messages and amplify whatever ideas they want.

For Lillard, he can use his power and cover athlete status to share bigger messages. He has a unique story to him. He came from a small college — Weber State — and entered the league without the hype of Williamson or James. He hasn’t played in the NBA Finals.

But he’s grown his personal brand to new levels.

“He’s leaned into his off-court passion of music, been outspoken on causes and issues he believes in, and has become one of the most respected leaders in the NBA,” Lawrence said. “Throughout it all, he’s used social media to amplify his voice while maintaining pure authenticity, something that’s difficult for many athletes.”

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