On March 11, news came down of a threat to a great hegemony: The NFL signed a multiyear deal with 2K Games, allowing the company to develop for the first time since 2004 an official NFL “non-simulation” video game.
For the last 15 years, the football gaming space has been dominated by EA Sports and its Madden Franchise, which owns the exclusive rights to produce “simulation” style football games. Any games that have attempted to break through quickly find they’re at a huge competitive disadvantage, a lesson 2K learned once before.
When 2K last tried to compete against Madden, with All-Pro Football 2K8, the company secured the individual rights to more than 240 retired NFLers to appear in the game. (EA’s exclusivity deal meant all active players were off-limits.) And even though the gameplay and presentation at the time were strong, All-Pro Football 2K8 sold a little more than 100,000 copies, compared to Madden ’08, which sold 1.8 million.
So what exactly could 2K’s non-simulation style football game look like? Think of Midway Games’ NFL Blitz (1997-2012) or EA’s NFL Street Franchise, which was retired in 2008.
Both games were vastly different from Madden. NFL Blitz featured bone-crushing hits and flamboyant celebrations, while NFL Street included turbocharged passes, flashy jukes and “gamebreaker” super moves. They played more like arcade games than the real-life product.
And while no one knows what to expect from 2K Games’ forthcoming NFL game—the studio has been tight-lipped on what’ll debut next year—it promises the games will be “fun, approachable and social experiences.”
“If the content is good, there’s usually a market for that content,” Eric Handler, the managing director of media and entertainment at MKM Partners, said. “There are opportunities to create revenue outside the simulation market, and this’ll be a good first test.”
2K, for its part, has not struggled without a football game in recent years. The studio has found success with other sports partners, like the WWE, the NHL and the PGA Tour. But 2K’s consistent home-run hitter has been its NBA game. The wide selection of both online and offline modes, like MyLeague, MyGM, MyCareer, MyTeam, MyPark and ProAm, gives gamers more options as to how they want to play. It’s also the official game of the NBA’s esports league.
The NFL’s announcement with 2K prompted a statement from EA, saying in part:
Madden NFL 20 is the most successful game ever in the franchise, and new modes like Superstar KO and our Madden NFL esports broadcasts are growing the fan base. We’ll be building on that momentum with more new and different experiences, on more platforms and with new ways to play, in the years to come.
Indeed, Madden has continued to be successful: The game has seen an increase in players, viewers and tournament revenue. One of the latest gameplay trailers showed developers upgrading features from Madden 20, such as open-field tackling, pass-rush control and other authenticity improvements. But there also seems to be a growing dissatisfaction among some of the game’s most ardent fans.
“The problem this year with Madden 20 was that the game didn’t really make sense, I could put 10 people in the box and still couldn’t stop the run,” said Dwayne Wood, who plays competitively under the name Cleff the God.
On July 2, when EA released their beta codes for players to get their first look at Madden 21, some players gained unexpected access to the game’s Franchise Mode. What they found was a general lack of improvement and innovation, setting off a wave of disappointment in that community. The outcry became so widespread that #FixMaddenFranchise became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter on July 1.
Madden Executive Producer Seann Graddy responded a day later, saying, “the franchise community is critically important to us … we’re reading your feedback and understand that you clearly want more.” The reality is, however, that the likelihood of EA being able to overhaul the entire Franchise Mode without delaying the game’s release is highly improbable.
EA’s summer of discontent continued two weeks later, when professional players began tweeting about another issue they’d like EA to address. Citing the $1.3 billion that EA brings in annually from extra content sales—half of which comes from purchases in Madden and FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode—gamers were angry to see the Madden prize pool at $1.3 million this year. They began tweeting #FixTheMaddenPrizePool.
Both trends highlight the fact that although Madden has been successful, its casual players as well as its professional ones are growing increasingly frustrated with some of the game’s stagnancy.
For those hoping an NFL 2K revival would cause EA to take player complaints more seriously, those dreams took a step back in late May. NFL owners voted to renew its exclusive rights partnership with EA Sports for simulation football games until 2026. The king of simulation football gaming for 15 years won’t be giving up its throne in the near future.
“If the NFL went nonexclusive, it’s not a guarantee that it would grow the pie,” said Handler. “The NFL has a good partnership with EA, and I don’t think EA has done anything to necessarily ward the NFL from going away.”
(This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Eric Handler’s name in the seventh paragraph.)