Giannis Antetokounmpo: From Greek Watch Seller to NBA 2K Coverstar

Tom Regan
Games Nintendo
Games Nintendo Xbox PlayStation

You might not know it looking at the NBA superstar now, but life wasn’t exactly easy for Giannis Antetokounmpo growing up. Born in 1994 to Nigerian parents, his family excitedly relocated from their home in Lagos, hoping to find a better life in Greece.

Unfortunately, though, things didn’t quite go according to plan.

Despite Giannis and his three brothers being born in Athens, they were all repeatedly denied citizenship – and to make matters worse, the white-collar jobs his parents hoped for never materialised. Struggling to pay their bills, the Antetokounmpos reluctantly drafted in a pint-sized Giannis to help them peddle watches and sunglasses on the streets of Athens.

Now, 15 years later, this one-time struggling street seller has done something completely unheard of – he’s become the first Non-American NBA 2K cover star. Thankfully, the significance of this moment hasn’t been lost on a grinning Giannis. Unveiling his in-game model surrounded by hundreds of journalists in his hometown, the feeling of pride he emits is almost palpable.

Beaming as his custom-designed game cover is revealed beside him, we’re transported out of the lush hotel room of the press conference and back to where Giannis’ incredibly journey began.

From playing on the Streets, To adorning cover sheets

Nicknamed the “Greek Freak”, this 6’11 sporting icon stumbled upon the game while messing about with friends on his local basketball court. Playing with his brothers and schoolmates on this dusty local court, an almost unheard of sense of dedication to the sport has seen the now 24-year-old wonder play in the most prestigious basketball league in the world – the NBA.

Spending the last three years playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo has rapidly cemented himself as one of the most prolific players in basketball history. Why? Well, because he’s the first player in NBA history to rank in the top 20 for both total points, blocks, steals, assists, AND rebounds simultaneously. In other words, he’s the perfect cover star.

“It was important for us to go with somebody that’s kind of had a rocket on his back,” says the game’s brand manager, Ronnie 2K. “In the last three years, [Giannis] went from a 60 [ in-game player rating] to one in the 90s. It’s pretty wild to have him represent us this year.”

For fans of basketball and players of the video game alike, the NBA 2K series is where the sport’s best athletes get given their definitive rankings. And now Europe’s Giannis Antetokounmpo joins the likes of Le Bron James as one of the game’s cover stars. Yet, despite now being a bonafide basketball legend, Giannis hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

“What really stood out to me about him was that he doesn’t seem like a basketball player,” says Ronnie. “ He hasn’t changed. He’s very humble. [After the livestream] he went back on stage with the cover up there and took photos one at a time with his family and friends, it all means a lot to him. It was really refreshing and heart-warming to see.”

A Game changer for European Basketball

While adorning the cover of a multi-million selling video game franchise is a dream come true for Giannis personally, it also has huge implications for the future of European basketball.

“He represents Europe so well. He’s had that story about being here and now being on the national stage and playing basketball in America. The growth of European basketball is just so important to us and that’s why we wanted to come out here and do this in his hometown.I think that’s something that people can really get behind and aspire to.”

Once upon a time, sports and their gaming counterparts used to live in very different worlds — now, players and coaches alike use in-game ratings to help determine a players worth. With the Greek Freak being given an incredibly prestigious 91 in-game rating in last year, this year virtual Giannis’ in-game rating could well forge a bold new future for European basketball.

 “He deserves to be on a video game cover because his game just epitomises video games. He is the prototypical video game player, he loves 2K, and he’s just got a great story to tell.”

With football teams like West Ham United and Man City buying their own FIFA players, the line between real sport and eSports is blurring every day. Now, thanks to a bold choice in athlete for a video game cover,the world of basketball will never be the same again.

Tom Regan
Having written for everyone from Trusted Reviews to The Guardian, Tom is a London based writer who can't stop talking about games. Now he's joined the team at FANDOM as gaming editor, we have to constantly remind ourselves that he's not actually Ed Sheeran.