This year, more than any year I can remember, it feels horrible to watch the National Football League. But football is a hard habit to break; I’ve loved it all my life, and one day I decided that I needed a fix, so I dusted off my Playstation 2 and popped in my copy of ESPN NFL 2k5, the last NFL game, I always say, that the world ever needed. There has, of course, been the usual procession of Maddens in the ten years that followed the publication of this game, some that added features that really make Visual Concepts’ gridiron classic feel every bit as old as it is. But this game, which once retailed at $20 and was a staple of every PS2 owner I knew’s library, is still the deepest, most satisfying football video game I’ve ever played, even if most of its roster has long since retired.
Immediately, I launch Franchise Mode and elect to play as my beloved, long suffering Detroit Lions. Even though they’re led by Joey Harrington, whose weapons are two consecutive wasted draft picks at the wide receiver position, there’s some comfort in this, knowing the Lions’ inadequacies and where I can improve. Before I can do that, I have to play the games. Before I can play the games, I have to navigate what Franchise Mode wants from me as the coach of the Detroit Lions. ESPN NFL 2k5 is rich in terms of how it simulates the day-to-day minutiae of an NFL team, as every day before Sunday is divvied up into time you can spend drilling your team. You can send your quarterback to the film room to study tape of the opposing team’s secondary, assign your defensive linemen to the weight room so they have more push off the snap, and have your coach give the team a motivational pep talk. I told virtual Steve Mariucci to give my Lions—a team I remember as a gaggle of punchless losers—an aggressive speech before sending the players home, like Patton or Mike Ditka or a mother who is tired of her underachieving son’s bullshit. The Lions responded in fine fashion to the day’s events, each individual player losing overall percentage points. When Robert Porcher lined up on Sunday and tackled the opposing running back, he was so weakened by Mariucci’s barbs that he broke a vertebrae, sending my once okay defense into a tailspin. Same old Lions, baby.
On the field, it’s tough to measure ESPN NFL 2k5 against modern football games, because the controls for the genre have remained the same, across every football game of merit, since gaming grew out of the 16-bit era. Though this one offers a First Person Football mode with some nice detailed touches (you watch the field through a facemask and can see the player’s name Sharpied into the helmet, for example), it’s a disorienting way to play a genre that reached perfection the first time it was presented from the top down, camera centered on the quarterback with his receiving options mapped to each individual button. In fact, playing the game in 2014, I couldn’t help but wonder if the perception of football as a quarterback’s sport wasn’t somehow implanted through the yearly procession of video games that cast the player in that role. It wasn’t all that long ago that NFL teams were considered unbalanced without a premier running back, and the teams in this game are stocked with them. But you are not the running back until you tell the quarterback to snap the ball, you are not the running back until the quarterback hands the ball off to you and scampers away to safety. It’s obvious now, watching football, that a team without a quarterback is going nowhere. I don’t think I learned that until this game, until it made me see that it’s the quarterback that touches the ball on every single offensive snap, and that its his vision or lack thereof that determines the outcome of the game. Every significant development in the Madden franchise after they locked up exclusive rights to the NFL license reflects this, that the fun you have playing the game is the fun you have playing as the quarterback. Until Madden started picking up on things like vision, slight audibles at the line of scrimmage, no-huddle offenses, wildcat formations and mobile quarterbacks, ESPN NFL 2k5 was the only football game that seemed to really understand the quarterback’s role and how it was evolving as generals like Peyton Manning and scramblers like Michael Vick were redefining the league.
Before rediscovering this one, the last football game I had played was Madden NFL 25. It’d been years since I’d thought of playing a football game, so the upgrades in terms of graphics and presentation were astonishing to me, even if those updates were largely noticeable to me as in-game advertisements for garbage I didn’t want. Madden NFL 25 (and, I presume, this year’s outing), is a football game for today’s FOOTBALL ALL THE TIME fan, but I found it flat and underwhelming, and, without the presence of its namesake on commentary, without a soul. When I go to football for entertainment, it is not so that I might be as overwhelmed by football as I am by all the other stuff taking time in my life. To that effect, ESPN NFL 2k5 is a game for the casual fan that anticipates the nation’s coming unending obsession with the sport. As fun as the game still is to play (believe me, there are few feelings more satisfying in a sports game than sacking Brett Favre and knocking him out for a quarter or two), there’s a lot of fluff that might have seemed impressive in 2004, like playing a game against A.I. designed to play like David Arquette or Carmen Electra or using your in-game achievement points to trick out your virtual crib, but what urges do these options now satisfy? Hell, when I loaded my VIP Profile from the memory card, my crib circa 2004 was an empty shell then, David Arquette’s calls to it left unanswered. I play football games to play football. The rest of the bells and whistles are unnecessary.
The one extra that seems indispensable now is how Visual Concepts utilized the ESPN brand to make their sports games feel like something you’d lay on your couch and watch all day on a lazy afternoon. The charm of ESPN NFL Countdown wears off a season into Franchise Mode, when a dead-eyed Chris Berman is once again talking about Oktoberfest and schnitzel on the grill, but the game’s dedication to the gimmick is as detailed as the Playstation 2 allowed, and unparalleled by any other sports game outside of the ESPN 2k franchise. SportsCenter features highlights from games, the NFL Draft has opinions from ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr., and the game’s camera, in replays and cutscenes, operates with the same sweeping gestures that 24/7 coverage requires to remain interesting. It’s easy to wonder what this series would be like now, on Playstation 4 and Xbox One, had EA Sports not heard the footsteps of a fully-featured $20 sports game and locked up exclusive rights to the NFL. Would your week be interrupted by Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption questioning your decision to go for it on 4th and goal with the game on the line? Would a virtual Grantland post articles hailing your design schemes against the aerial onslaught of Peyton Manning as singularly genius? No longer as obsessed with sports as I once was, would I find these things an annoying hinderance to the game itself, as I do now? It’s the end of the third quarter at Ford Field in Detroit, and the cheerleaders are dancing while my system loads the data necessary to begin the next five minutes of play. I’m trying to skip this, but the game won’t let me. Even in the idyls of youth, nothing is perfect.
ESPN NFL 2k5. Developed by Virtual Concepts and published by 2K Sports and Sega. Reviewed on Playstation 2.
If you have a Playstation 2 or an Xbox, ESPN NFL 2k5 is still a game that’s worth owning. You should be able to find it pretty easily at used stores that sell games for those systems, or at Amazon for the PS2 or the Xbox. Don’t buy them new, though. That would be foolish.