Gonzaga University has quietly transformed into one of the most recognizable collegiate brands in the country. From a small midmajor located with no real calling, to a well-respected academic university that sits in the heart of a vibrant city, the school has built quite a reputable status at an exponential rate.
And it’s no secret that the men’s basketball program has a lot to do with this change. The process of being an underdog to a national championship contender mirrors that of the university’s increase in admissions and academic success. The pinnacle came in 2017 after a runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament, as both parties have experienced the positive aftereffects of being on the big stage; an increase in both star-studded athletes as well a few of the brightest academic classes the school has ever seen.
Those in the entertainment business have taken note of GU’s newfound marketability, including well-known gaming company 2K Games, creator of the NBA 2K video game series.
This year’s installment of the game, NBA 2K21, features GU basketball, along with other notable college programs, as a part of its “MyCAREER” game mode where players embark on their own NBA journey. After completing the high school phase, players are given the option to choose what university they attend, depending on what storyline is chosen by the user.
2K games has incorporated such a storyline in its NBA games in the past, however, it’s GU’s first appearance in the franchise. For Sam MacDonald, director of trademark and licensing for GU, a lengthy process took place before the Zags could make their debut.
“When [2K Games] reached out it was definitely something we were excited about,” MacDonald said. “We just had to go through the process to hear what they wanted and what [the game] was going to look like.”
Conversations between the school and the gaming company began last November, when 2K Games began talks with the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) about initial interest in the school’s trademarks. The CLC aids countless universities in protecting the use of their logos through trademark licensing. The company has an agreement with GU through 2024 that ensures the school’s brand protection.
“[2K Games] reached out to bring the college version back into NBA 2K, which was filtered through the CLC,” MacDonald said.
Of course, when it comes to collegiate representation in any capacity, the main concern for MacDonald is the inclusion of the appropriate names, images and likeness of GU.
“This is definitely something that’s touchy when it comes to what’s included in the game,” he said.
Per NCAA rules, Division I student-athletes may not endorse a product or commercial item even if they are not being compensated. While the rule is undergoing changes, its current version prevents 2K Games from implementing real college athletes into the game.
“The court, the uniforms and the fight song,” MacDonald said. “Those were the three requests that they wanted from us that we approved.”
Each GU property was requested by the gaming company over a six-month span, as developers generated each aspect of the university one step at a time.
So, while gamers cannot play alongside Corey Kispert or Filip Petrusev, they can still experience putting on the Bulldogs jersey and hearing the chants of the GU fight song after a victory. MacDonald believes it’s these qualities that make GU an attractive place to athletes and academics alike.
“I think it adds tremendous value,” he said. “Whether it be an athlete or just a student wanting to attend Gonzaga.”
Even if it is just a video game, there is still a sense of respect and accomplishment that can be attributed to the on-court success of the Bulldogs over the last few seasons.
“I think our inclusion in NBA 2K21 is great statement on where our program stands in the national landscape,” said Chris Standiford, deputy director of GU athletics. “Mark and the staff have done an unbelievable job bringing great talent to GU and developing them into NBA players.”
As a matter of fact, Rui Hachimura leads all Eastern Conference rookies with a 79-overall rating in this year’s game. Needless to say, the Zags are well represented throughout the virtual basketball.