It was early 2005 and two of the best games in American football had just been released – ESPN NFL 2k5 and Madden 2005 spoiled players with their ability to bring the sport to life, and it was hard to imagine how things could improve. But the good times weren’t to last, because that same year the sports game industry was about to change forever.
This is the story of 2K and EA: the two companies that would dominate the sports genre for the next 20 years. While EA had a rich history as a developer and publisher dating back to the early 80s, 2K Sports was created in 2005 by holding company Take-Two, which acquired the ‘2K’ brand (and developer NFL 2K Visual Concepts) from Sega in a $24 million deal.
Following the acquisition, the NFL 2K series was discontinued and EA’s Madden became the de facto annual football title. Madden, despite his wide recognition as a commentator on the game, was much cheaper to fire than a player, and his unique experience as a player and manager made his contribution invaluable in the early development of the game and its pursuit of a realistic simulation.
But until 2004, NFL 2K and Madden existed very well side by side, in addition to other simulation games such as NFL Gameday and arcade titles like NFL Street. What happened at the end of 2004 changed all that. With NFL 2K still far behind Madden in terms of sales, they opted to change the rules at the last moment and released NFL 2K5 several weeks ahead of schedule and ahead of Madden.
The game launched with a price of $19.99 at launch, something unheard of then and even now. It wasn’t just cheap, but it was also a great game. Word of mouth quickly spread about the quality of 2K’s title that year, forcing EA to take notice.
In an attempt to salvage their situation, EA dropped the price of Madden 2005 from $49.99 (standard price in 6th generation consoles) to $29.99. For the price of one of those games just a year ago, now you could buy both.
While fans of the genre were thrilled to get two generational sports games for the price of one, the NFL wasn’t so happy. Their two biggest flagship releases selling for such a low price were a bad look, as it was something usually reserved for low-budget games or ones that weren’t expected to sell well. In an attempt to effectively crush the competition (and enable less competitive pricing), EA paid the NFL an exclusive license to use the league’s intellectual property, including player names, likenesses, and individual teams. .
It’s not yet clear if 2K even had the chance to bid for the NFL license, or if the NFL specifically chose EA because of its longer history with the league. As a result, 2K then went to buy an exclusive license with Major League Baseball, causing EA’s much better MVP Baseball series to shut down. Licensing goes a long way towards the success of a sports series, and with billion-dollar companies throwing themselves into a piss match, the fans are the ones who ended up getting rained on.
From then on, Madden took a very different approach to development. Without major competition from other NFL titles, the series stalled creatively after a few years (although it still managed to knock out a few gems with its quirky Madden Wii games). The move to the 7th console generation was disastrous, with Madden 06 being one of the most poorly received major titles of that year.
Visual Concepts, now working under Take-Two Interactive and the new “2K Sports” brand, attempted a return to the genre in mid-2007 with All-Pro Football 2K8. Using a new engine and waiving the NFL license with likenesses of former NFL legends such as John Elway and OJ Simpson (who was part of the fictional “New Jersey Assassins” team, which rather hilariously – in a terrible way – had a throat hit celebration). The core gameplay was still as good as ever, but the lack of a license caused the game to die unceremoniously. It didn’t help matters that Madden 2008, the release they were competing against, was considered the best Madden of the generation.
Some have argued that the genre never recovered from the NFL’s decision in that fateful fall of 2004. There was, however, cause for optimism last year. 2K has been given the green light to make a more arcade-based football game with an NFL license, while EA has renewed its simulation-based contract. Even EA’s NCAA Football franchise is seeing a comeback in the summer of 2023, for the first time since Ed O’Bannon and the NCAA lawsuit ended that streak in 2014.
The NFL and EA have sabotaged the football game genre for years, but developer passion has always resulted in terrific yearly titles. The changes underway could lead to a renaissance of the game of football that we haven’t seen since that magical year in 2004.