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The power of video games in promoting women’s basketball

Candace Parker made big news recently when she was chosen to be on the cover of NBA2K22. Her former Los Angeles Sparks teammate and mentor, Lisa Leslie, paved the way when she was featured in Backyard Basketball in 2001. Here’s how Leslie’s inclusion has contributed and how Parker’s becoming the focus will contribute to a cycle of increased exposure.

Los Angeles Sparks v Phoenix Mercury, Game 2
Lisa Leslie (left) as seen during her second-to-last WNBA game, standing next to Candace Parker (right).
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Candace Parker has been chosen to be on the cover of NBA2K22, becoming the first women’s player to attain that honor. It was actually her Los Angeles Sparks teammate and mentor Lisa Leslie who paved the way for women to be featured in basketball video games. Before PlayStation 5, 4 and 3, back around when NBA2K2 was coming out, Leslie appeared in Humungous Entertainment’s Backyard Basketball (2001).

While it was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kevin Garnett who graced the cover of the original Backyard Basketball, Leslie was featured in the game and you could play as her and Garnett.

Houston Comets stars Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes both missed the 2001 WNBA season. Cooper retired after the 2000 season, as a two-time MVP and four-time champion, before returning in 2003. Swoopes, who was also a part of those four championships and was the league’s reigning MVP, missed 2001 because of a torn ACL. Leslie not only won the 2001 MVP award, she won Finals MVP after helping the Sparks capture their first title on Sept. 1. Just one month later Backyard Basketball was released with her chosen as the only real-life women’s player (Garnett was the only men’s player) instead of Cooper and Swoopes.

Cooper and Swoopes are considered the first real faces of the WNBA, but it was Leslie who became the first face of the league for the the kids Backyard Basketball was geared towards, including me. Leslie was the first WNBA player that I heard of and got me into women’s basketball.

My level of investment in the sport gradually grew from there. I remember Diana Taurasi being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated alongside Emeka Okafor after their UConn Huskies won the national championship in both men’s and women’s basketball in 2004. I then became a Sacramento Monarchs fan and watched them in the 2006 WNBA Finals against the Detroit Shock. Ever since watching Parker in the 2007 national championship game won by her Tennessee Lady Volunteers, I have been pretty in tune with women’s basketball and I started covering the WNBA in 2012.

I started working at Swish Appeal in 2013 and continue to help increase the exposure of women’s basketball through my coverage. Lisa Leslie being featured in a computer game led to a kid growing up to continue a cycle of exposure.

Sports Illustrated’s decision to equally feature the UConn men and women on its cover, ESPN’s coverage of the Monarchs, Shock and Lady Vols and me going to a college that encouraged coverage of women’s sports all contributed to the cycle as well. But video games have a unique power. When you play as someone you truly become a fan of them as they help your team win. I have no doubt that NBA2K’s choice to feature Parker on their cover will inspire young girls and boys to become lifelong women’s basketball fans.