Sunday, September 2, 2018

Unsealed: Bitter Rivals

The full Unsealed: Bitter Rivals miniseries is now complete. It's been a fun ride through the final three years of the battle between Madden NFL Football and NFL 2K. Opening the games sure brought back some memories, and I shared some of them in the videos as I went on.

First up is the 2003 sports year, pitting Madden NFL 2003 versus NFL 2K3:



This was, to me, where the rivalry began in earnest. The Dreamcast wasn't involved anymore, and lead development for NFL 2K3 was on the PlayStation 2-- with Xbox and Gamecube ports alongside it. Both Madden and NFL 2K both boasted online play that year, for the first time. While the Xbox was already set up for online play, the PlayStation 2 needed a network adapter, which it had finally gotten. In the presentation department, Al Michaels had stepped into the play-by-play role for Madden that had been occupied for the previous six years by John Madden's broadcast partner, Pat Summerall. NFL 2K3 implemented ESPN network and telecast graphics into the game for the first time. Pre-game, halftime, and weekly wrap-up segments also added to the TV-style presentation, although none of the ESPN personalities appeared. It can be argued that 2K3 brought a few more obvious improvements to the table, but both games were solid.

Next up is the 2004 sports year, where things really heated up:

 

Both Madden NFL 2004 and ESPN NFL Football-- which was basically NFL 2K4-- offered more significant improvements over their predecessors. Madden NFL 2004 marked the debut of Owner Mode, which added a new dimension to the experience. Managing revenue, deciding on variables like ticket and concession prices, winning over fans, and other responsibilities was addicting... and that's on top of general manager duties and controlling the play on the field to win games. Playmaker controls were also new, focusing on the offensive side of the ball. Players were able to adjust run blocking and receiver routes on the fly, if desired. This was a fantastic addition for more serious football fans who understand the intricacies of offense. Finally, the addition of the EA Sports Bio file made it possible to unlock certain things in the game after completing certain objectives or meeting certain criteria.

On the NFL 2K side, ESPN NFL Football added two new modes of play-- First-Person Football and The Crib-- while also further improving its presentation with the debut of Chris Berman in a virtual version of the NFL Countdown set. Berman hosted the pregame and halftime shows, as well as weekly wrap-up show after each week had wrapped up. Berman's delivery is natural and the whole thing felt like you were actually watching ESPN.  New replay and camera angles were also added. As for the modes, First-Person Football is exactly what the title implies. Players see the field through the helmet of a selected player, which is a neat concept but doesn't command attention for long. The Crib allowed players to decorate their own house, complete with new furniture, playable minigames, and unlockable ESPN videos to play on a big-screen TV. Unlocking everything for use in The Crib took a lot of grinding, but because the game is fun, it's worth going back and earning more credits just by playing.

Finally, we come to the biggest rivalry of all... Madden NFL 2005 versus ESPN NFL 2K5:



When players talk about NFL 2K, ESPN NFL 2K5 is the game they're most likely talking about. While the game doesn't have the laundry list of improvements and additions that ESPN NFL Football had, it does refine the entire experience-- and it did so at a crazy price tag. Instead of $50, like most PlayStation 2 games sold for, ESPN NFL 2K5 was a $20 game from the start. This, at the very least, made it easy for Madden stalwarts to at least consider buying NFL 2K5 as well. The price cut came about after SEGA had joined forces with Take-Two, another large publisher who was thriving on sales of its popular Grand Theft Auto series. Take-Two would eventually obtain the rights to the 2K brand, creating a new publishing arm for it and calling it 2K Games.

Unfortunately for NFL 2K fans, the series came to an abrupt end after ESPN NFL 2K5. The NFL decided to grant one exclusive license for any video games, and EA won the bid for that license. While Visual Concepts gave football one last shot with All-Pro Football 2K8, which used former players instead of current ones, it just didn't have the same appeal with fans. EA won the war by stripping the ammunition from its rival, and Take-Two had no choice but to surrender.

Even today, fans of both series still argue back and forth over what they believe to be the best football game around. In at least some respects, EA Tiburon has never caught up to what Visual Concepts achieved with NFL 2K. The presentation values in ESPN NFL Football and ESPN NFL 2K5 continue to be unmatched by any Madden game, past or present. The unique balance between arcade and simulation play on the field that NFL 2K games had still hasn't been duplicated, and the focus on pure simulation for Madden today makes the games tough for more casual players to get into.

It's not that Madden games are bad-- because they aren't-- but there always feels like there's something missing. Maybe that something is competition, but unless the NFL license situation changes... we may never know.