July 20, 2004: Visual Concept’s ESPN NFL 2k5 was released by Sega, featuring Eagles’ wide receiver Terrell Owens on the cover.
Owens was the center of many conversations about the way the game was played, from his eccentric celebrations resulting in rule changes to an awful leg injury which also resulted in a rule change. Even as recently as this year, Owens’ legacy was brought to the forefront of the NFL conversation when he was snubbed from the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
In retrospect, perhaps Owens is the most appropriate cover athlete to ever grace the box art of a sports game. ESPN NFL 2k5 was a tendency breaker in every respect. Visual Concepts took a series of calculated risks that to this day allow it to live on as perhaps the most beloved sports game of all time.
Some of these features were the undergirding of its success: an intuitive running game that featured broken tackles and blocking schemes, ESPN-branded presentation that added to the depth of realism, and The Crib — which allowed players to experience the life of an NFL superstar.
Still yet, there were decisions present in the game that tarnished a bit of its luster. The title featured a first-person mode that was more an exercise in how to become disoriented on the field. It also placed two fictitious announcers in the booth to call the game, pulling the player out of the realism set by the voices of Suzy Kolber, Trey Wingo, Mel Kiper, and Chris Berman.
ESPN NFL 2k5’s most appealing feature was also its most damning: the price tag. When the game launched in 2004, it was $30 cheaper than Madden 05 which retailed for $49.99. Fans flocked to the game because of its remarkably low-risk entry point, and discovered a well-made game and the first sniff of competition that Madden had since the NFL Gameday series of the early 2000s.
However, it was this low-risk price tag that resulted in the NFL license slipping out from under Sega and Visual Concepts’ grasp in January of 2005. The NFL and EA Sports brokered a deal that made Madden the sole owner of the NFL license in video games.
It’s been 12 years since its release and 11 since its demise, and yet NFL 2k5’s legacy lives on.
No one understands that legacy quite like the Madden franchise, who still find themselves pitted in competition with a game that was released two console generations ago!
There is a uniqueness to this relationship that no other corner of gaming has experienced. There are still forums filled with people uploading updated rosters for NFL 2k5, videos being uploaded comparing the games, and petitions been signed to bring back the franchise. 12 years later and Madden still can’t seem to shake the proverbial tackle.
Generally, competition arises from situations where two games release within close proximity to one another. But here we are, more than a decade past the release of ESPN NFL 2k5, still comparing it to Madden 17.
Is the comparison even fair, anymore? While ESPN NFL 2k5 was and still remains a great representation of the NFL’s product, it is by no means the be-all-end-all of sports video games that so many try to make it. The segment of the conversation today that still argues 2k5’s supremacy over the EA Sports product seems to be a strange amalgamation of revisionist history, rose-colored glasses, and a hatred for EA as a company. Videos that compare the two seem to focus on the highest of highs in 2k and lowest of lows for EA, when in reality the product that NFL fans receive now is a far better representation of what football is.
This isn’t to say that ESPN NFL 2k5 was or even is a bad game or that it doesn’t deserve its place among the great NFL games of all time. However, the comparison is tired and this sentiment that it continues to be better than the current Madden is far from the truth. It’s legacy should now be recognized in the ways that it motivated Madden to improve despite not being an annual market option.
Sure, in the immediate aftermath of EA Sports’ exclusivity deal there was a sharp decline in the product. Madden 05 is arguably one of the best Madden’s in the series’ history while Madden 06 on Xbox 360 is the worst. For the better part of a decade EA Sports struggled to find the mojo that sustained their success for its first 15 years of existence, due in large part to the lack of competition.
Though there were high points between Madden 06 and Madden 25, the series suffered its fair share of well-deserved criticism and earned a reputation for simply releasing a $60 roster update every August. Two years ago, the franchise seemed to get quite a bit of its swagger back with the release of Madden 15.
When people reflect on what made NFL 2k5 such a success, they quickly point out the presentation. It was no doubt ahead of its time. Striking a deal with ESPN to include its broadcasting package alongside some of its most recognizable talent created an immersive experience. It felt like watching the game during a television broadcast complete with a pre-game, halftime, and post-game show.
Madden 15 attempted to rectify their lack of progress in this area by hiring for a new position they monikered, Presentation Director. They came out of the gates swinging by hiring former NFL Films Senior Cinematographer, Brian Murray, to develop authentic on-field shots that were produced in real-time rather than using pre-canned animations.
Madden 17 took yet another revolutionary step forward in terms of presentation by replacing the stale Nantz/Simms booth with their own commentary team — Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis. Rather than closing out the production of commentary elements months before the game was set to go gold, this new team continues to develop commentary every week so that the player analysis can stay fresh and up-to-date.
ESPN NFL 2k5 also inspired Madden with its online league mode which allowed players to compete in leagues complete with trading and stat tracking — a feature that Madden wouldn’t have until its ’09 offering.
Today, Connected Franchise mode in each year’s Madden continues to build a more authentic and deeper franchise experience. Between the ability to play multiple seasons, each user being able to take different roles within their franchise, and the bevy of on-field and off-field adjustments that can be made to rosters, schemes, and even ticket prices, Madden has taken the foundation set by its competitor and built on it to the nth degree.
From a between-the-line perspective, Madden grows stronger and stronger with each passing year. While some steps taken have been more well-received than others — looking at you QB Vision cone — the last 3 iterations of the game have seen far less gimmicky additions and more overhauls. Madden 15 introduced adaptive AI that would cause opposing quarterbacks to audible into plays that were more likely to beat the defensive call they read at the line of scrimmage. Madden 16 featured the most varied passing experience allowing user-controlled QBs to throw the exact pass they wanted to. Finally, Madden 17 completely overhauled the defensive AI, making it more aware and responsive in zone while also giving the user more control at the line of scrimmage to make adjustments.
Gameplay is king when it comes to sports games — and any game for that matter — and far too often ESPN NFL 2k5 is looked upon too fondly in that regard. It was still wonky at times, defensive players showed no awareness quite often, offensive linemen blocked whoever was in front of them or no one at all, and that kicking meter was simply atrocious. While the offering was solid for its time, the inane cries that it’s gameplay is still better than the present Madden are far from reality.
ESPN NFL 2k5 was a great game, but more importantly, it was an influential game. It showed just how much potential for a real-life replication of the Sunday broadcast existed, and it’s cult following a decade later has continued to create competition for EA despite not being a purchasable option. That fact alone solidifies its place in history.
However, the thought that this 12-year-old game is better than our current offering is silly. 2k5 was well ahead of its time, but all things equal, if Madden 17 released alongside it, even the $20 price tag wouldn’t be enough to entice people to play Visual Concepts’ release.