It used to be that the world of sports video games was a free-for-all. While various movie, television, and comic book licenses were sold off to developers, seemingly anyone could produce a football, baseball, basketball, or hockey title and pony up the dough to get a professional league’s endorsement of their product. Before that happened though, publishers had to first find out there was value in that. It used to be that most sports games were just about the sport. Most of the games on the NES and before were just called Baseball or Football while other publishers would get a little more creative and gives gamers a title like Blades of Steel. Eventually publishers saw the value of marketing with star power, but before they went the route of acquiring full league licenses they tried the marque player route that put Larry Bird on our 2600. I don’t know what the first game to get a full league license was, but I do know that the first one I played was World Series Baseball on the Sega Genesis. All of the teams I was familiar with were now present as were the different players. Licensing agreements between leagues and their respective player’s unions made this possible (even though some mega stars liked to opt-out of these agreements and annoy gamers throughout the country; I’m looking at you, Michael Jordon) and sports games became more authentic as a result. This was the status quo for a long time and for some leagues it still is. For football though, that’s no longer the case and hasn’t been for a long time.
EA Sports has been the king of the virtual football world for a long time now. Originally Tecmo held that honor with its popular line of Tecmo Bowl games but when those failed to evolve EA, partnered with John Madden, stepped in. EA’s games thrived during the 16 bit era, especially on the Genesis which performed exceptionally well in the United States. There were other competitors, most notably Acclaim and eventually Sony’s 989 Studios, but Madden was generally regarded as the best. When EA announced that it would not support Sega’s new Dreamcast console it was a mighty blow to the doomed machine. Sega had more or less won the 16 bit wars with sports titles but now found itself without its star general. Sega did what only Sega could do: develop its own NFL game.
Visual Concepts and Take-Two Interactive led the way with the inaugural NFL 2K in the late summer of 1999. Sega showed off an impressive demo at E3 earlier that year that had caught the eye of many gridiron gamers but few really expected Sega to deliver a game in its inaugural year that was worthy of challenging Madden. Sega had put out a few football titles on the Genesis but making a football game in the 3D era was totally different. The naysayers were proven wrong as NFL 2K was a critical and commercial success for the fledgling Dreamcast, and even though it wouldn’t be enough to save the console, it proved worthy of hanging around. It’s timing was perfect too as Acclaim’s Quarterback Club was growing stale, and 989’s NFL Gameday had completely fallen off. Madden was left to run unopposed for the most part, and needed a worthy adversary to prevent it from sharing the same fate as its vanquished foes.
Though it may be hard to imagine today, Madden was mostly geared towards casual players back then. The game was at its best, and most fun, when dropping back to launch a deep ball down the sideline to Moss. No longer confined to the world of two-dimensional sprites, Madden was fully realized in 3D but the oddly proportioned and stiff animating player models left something to be desired. NFL 2K was the shiny new muscle car parked next to the Madden station wagon. It was faster, leaner, and more explosive. Running the deep post with Moss was now even more fun than it was before, and things like running the ball and rushing the passer no longer felt like chores between pass plays. Madden wanted you to have fun, NFL 2K wanted you to experience NFL football.
The debut game was not perfect, and a lot of the front end needed some polish, but the presentation shined in other areas. Commentary from the fictitious duo of Dan Stevens (Terry McGovern) and Peter O’Keefe (Jay Styne) felt vibrant and alive even without the name recognition. A sports ticker scrolled by to update the player on other games and replays were used judiciously. When dropping back to pass, the player no longer had to call up the button assignments for receivers, they were already present.
Visually, the game was a tour de force when compared with Madden. Madden did a good job with player faces, but 2K topped them everywhere else. They were better proportioned, but mostly they just plain moved better. Madden was always stiff and steering a running back thru the defense felt like steering a boat. In 2K, players were quick and cutting left and right. When the gap between blockers was minimal they turned their bodies to squeeze thru the tiny hole. When the ball was in the air receivers would leap over defenders if they had to in order to pull it down while a tiny scat-back would get blown up if trying to truck a stout middle linebacker.
Playing the game was also fast and just generally more entertaining. Passing the ball was a true blast as so many weapons were made available to the player. Quarterbacks were not restricted to the play called as far as how the ball would travel thru the air. If the player wanted to lob it, he could. If he wanted to put a little extra mustard on the throw to zip it into tight coverage, he could. Maximum Passing meant players could intentionally under or over throw targets with a flick of the analog stick. Have an agile receiver running outside with a corner over him? Under throw him so only he has a play on the ball. Have a tall receiver streaking towards the back corner of the end zone? Take advantage of his height and toss it up. He may not come down with it, but neither will the defender. Knowing how to pass the ball to each receiver is a must for continued success. If your stone-handed blocking fullback is open in the flat it’s best to lob him a softy than toss him a bullet that will probably bounce of his face-mask. Knowing your personnel is equally important in the running game as scat-backs like Warrick Dunn are not likely to find much success between the tackles. Get those guys in space where they can spin and juke their way to pay-dirt and leave the stiff arms and truck maneuvers for the likes of Mike Alstott. NFL 2K also proved that defense could be fun. Playing the line and rushing the passer was a game of cat and mouse. You may find initial success with a certain technique but offensive lines will adapt and double you if necessary. Playing in the secondary and trying to stick to a receiver was extremely difficult and only for the true pros, but hanging back and making plays on the ball with a safety was both rewarding and fun.
NFL 2K was here to stay, and though Madden routinely topped it in sales, EA wasn’t pleased to have legitimate competition. EA was especially perturbed when 2K5 (now dubbed ESPN NFL football) was released for only 20 bucks. This was the last straw and soon EA locked up the NFL license (along with the NCAA, Arena League, and others) and basically put an end to Sega’s annual football game. This was especially unfortunate as 2K5 was a godsend for football fans.
Earlier games in the series had their own issues. Not all would be solved but by the time 2K5 came around a lot of them would be. Earlier games featured an over-powered run game. Perhaps VC and Sega really wanted to make running the ball as fun as passing, but by making it so effective they messed up the balance. Changing the blocking patterns and playing up to the difference in backs (power vs finesse) helped to solve this. The dreaded suction-blocking was also less of a problem come 2K5. Suction-blocking is a fan-coined term that described the game’s programmed blocking animation that forces a defender to engage. Even when controlling a defender manually, it was something the game forced upon those who played. Madden was plagued by it too and would be for some time longer but 2K found a way to nearly eliminate it come 2K5 (though it was still hard to disengage from a blocker). Earlier games were light on options and Madden seemed to always trump 2K in this department, but 2K5’s franchise mode was quite robust and a series of challenges in the ESPN 25th Anniversary section kept gamers busy. Other additions, like the virtual Crib and first-person football, were there for those who wanted it but were mostly duds.
ESPN NFL 2K5 is kind of like the NFL equivalent to WWF No Mercy. A lot of football fans to this day still feel it’s the best of the best. I was a 2K guy and before the series went multi-platform I rarely played a football game. Madden never felt right to me, and the most fun I had with a football game was NFL Blitz. NFL 2K2 was my first taste of the series and I was hooked. To this day, I’ve only owned two versions of Madden with all coming after the exclusivity agreement. Neither entertained me as much as 2K5 did, though the inaugural Madden on the Wii did entertain me for quite a while.
With the NFL season winding down, I’ve been going back to 2K5 recently to see how it holds up. A lot of the flaws I remember still jump out at me. Lead blockers can be annoyingly dumb. Perhaps it’s because of the whole suction-blocking thing getting blown up, but a lot of the times a blocking fullback will run right by a blitzing linebacker or defensive end and head straight for the next level. This does my running back no good since he doesn’t have a chance to get into the secondary when a guy is already all over him at the line scrimmage. Receivers tend to be too stone-handed with 3 or 4 drops a game from my receiving corps being a common sight. I know guys are going to, on occasion, drop an easy one but it seems to happen too often. Defensive backs are also really good in man coverage. While receivers are not omniscient, they don’t know the ball has been thrown in their direction if they haven’t actually turned to look, corners seem to know exactly when to break off their assignment whether they’re watching the QB or trailing a receiver. It makes it hard to find the “gimme” completions and even check-downs can be an adventure (why do so many check-downs to backs in the flat or receivers running out patterns result in incompletions?!?). There’s also the matter of the near game-breaking QB evasion moves initiated by flicking the right stick. Even statues like Drew Bledsoe can shrug off what looked like a sure sack and as a result I rarely use it because it feels cheap.
A lot of this stuff would be rectified by now as most are AI problems. And at least it goes both ways. The CPU will miss out on some easy completions because of receivers that can’t make a clean catch. And your team will also have some pretty sticky cover guys of its own to roll out. Since the 2k series was shelved, Madden has adopted a lot of what made the series great including guided passes and placing more emphasis on animations. 2K is still fast though, even compared with the current games, and still a blast to play. I love approaching the line, checking the coverage, and adjusting the play on the fly. I wish there were more robust audible options, but the hot routes make the majority of plays incredibly customizable. If a defender is playing way off the line I’m happy to check into a short pattern and if I notice a corner has no safety help on a speedy receiver I’ll audible to a fly or slant pattern. The adaptive AI reduces the presence of money plays which dogged older football games. Sure, most will still have a few go-to plays for certain situations but good gamers will experience the full playbook as opposed to a handful of the same plays. Few things are as rewarding in gaming as executing a perfect stop-and-go with an expertly timed pump-fake followed by a deep lob over the top.
My head tells me that the recent versions of Madden have likely trumped ESPN NFL 2K5 at this point. The game came out over 8 years ago so surely it’s been improved upon by now. My heart though won’t allow me to admit it. When I play Madden I enjoy it but it doesn’t pull me in. When I turn on 2K5 for a game I can’t stop at just one. Not even the dated rosters can dim my enjoyment of this one though it does sadden me that the series was cut down in its prime. There is hope though as EA’s license agreement with the NFL will expire at the end of this year and it was announced that Take-Two will revive its long-dormant NFL franchise in 2014. It seems hard to believe that the developers could come in and create an exceptional football game after 10 years without the NFL license, but that just puts Take-Two and Visual Concepts in the same position they were in back in 1999 and we all know how that turned out.