In today's world, football season never really ends. Sure, the San Francisco 49ers take on the Baltimore Ravens Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII, which marks the end of the official NFL season. But football video games allow fans to relive the big plays of the 2012 season and even make some of their own.
We've compiled a list of the best five football video game franchises of all time, from well-known current titles to timeless classics. They're each worth checking out -- after all, the 2013 season is still six months away.
5. Backyard Football Developer: Humongous Entertainment
Atari published the first Backyard Football, the third title in the Backyard Sports series, in 1999. It featured the same popular lineup of Backyard kids as the other games--Pablo Sanchez, Pete Wheeler and pals--and for the first time, the game included child versions of pro players including Brett Favre, Dan Marino and Barry Sanders.
The game maintains all of the charm of other titles in the series. It captures perfectly the feeling of playing a game of football with friends as a kid--each team only fields five players, so there's a certain feeling of simplicity. There are also many unique features, like special plays that knock down the entire defense or change the helmets of the defense to confuse the quarterback.
While the series targets players between the ages of 5 and 10, the games really are fun for all ages. It's simple enough for anyone to pick up and play, yet complex for a football gaming veteran to enjoy. Games are quick, but season play adds depth to the experience.
4. Tecmo Bowl Developer: Tecmo
Tecmo released Tecmo Bowl in 1989 on the Nintendo. It was the first football game to feature real NFL players--however, Tecmo did not get the NFL's permission to use real team names before the game's release. This problem was remedied with the 1991 release of Tecmo Super Bowl, which improved on the gameplay of the original.
Both titles were hugely popular during their time because of a heightened level of realism. In addition to featuring both real teams and players, Tecmo Super Bowl fielded 11 players on both defense and offense, an innovation for the time. The game also added features that players today take for granted like statistics tracking, timeouts, expanded playbooks, substitutions, injuries and fumbles.
While its controls and general features are a bit outdated today, the game is still a great retro gaming experience. For a game that's more than 20 years old, it holds up surprisingly well. Current titles might offer improved realism, but the Tecmo series maintains a strong cult following due to its arcade-style gameplay. Gamers have created downloadable versions of the games with present-day rosters, and organized tournaments are still held yearly.
3. Madden NFL Developer: EA Tiburon
The Madden series is to football video games what Apple is to MP3 players. It's the most successful football video game franchise of all time, and it's also the most realistic. While it dominates today's market, its first title released in 1988 for the Apple II series computer wasn't very successful. EA created game as "the first real football simulation," but its complex interface was clunky and caused the game to run slowly.
John Madden Football, released in 1990 for the SEGA Genesis, truly launched the series. Since then, EA has released a new title each year with updated features and rosters. In 1998, EA introduced "Franchise Mode" to Madden, which allowed gamers to play through multiple seasons, trade players and make draft picks. This is probably the most popular feature of Madden games today, as it allows players to simulate an actual season at their fingertips.
While the Madden series is undeniably popular and influential, some actions of EA Sports tarnished the franchise's reputation. EA refused to release any of its sports titles for the SEGA Dreamcast in the late 90's, which many attribute as a leading cause for the console's demise. In 2004, EA signed an exclusivity agreement with the NFL and its players' association, preventing other companies from making games using current rosters and teams. Madden being the only NFL game in town over the years has caused price increases and a degree of gameplay stagnation that competitors simply wouldn't allow--if they were allowed to compete.
2. NFL Blitz Developer: Midway Games
With football video games becoming more simulation and less fantasy, the NFL Blitz series offered a new kind of football. Blitz took the idea of realism and threw it as far out of bounds as it could manage, but it did so in an over-the-top way that lead to some fresh and amazing gameplay.
There were all kinds of ridiculous plays available in the early Blitz titles. Quarterbacks could throw the length of the field, wide receivers could make impossible catches and defensive players could jump to incredible heights to intercept a pass. Players could also execute professional wrestling moves as tackles even after the whistle had been blown. Pass interference and showboating were also allowed.
This fresh albeit violent take on football in video games wouldn't last forever. Like other football game franchises, Blitz lost the right to use NFL teams and players when EA Sports signed its exclusivity agreement. The series persevered with the release of Blitz: The League, which created its own teams and players and saw a return of the original over-the-top nature of early titles. After acquiring the intellectual property from bankrupt Midway, EA Sports released a new Blitz game last year that remains mostly true to the originals but lacks tackles after the whistle.
1. NFL 2K Developer: Visual Concepts
Coming in at number one on this list is a somewhat forgotten franchise published by 2K Sports. SEGA originally introduced the franchise as a substitute for EA's Madden series, which declined to publish for the Dreamcast. After that system's demise, 2K Sports published the games on other platforms and became a primary competitor of Madden NFL.
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ESPN NFL 2K5 is without a doubt the most noteworthy of the franchise--it was the first title to challenge Madden's sales numbers in years. This was mostly due to its price point: 2K Sports released the game at $19.99 when Madden NFL 2005 cost $49.99. EA Sports promptly reduced the price of Madden to $29.99.
The game wasn't just significant for its price, though, as it challenged Madden NFL in features as well. It included a complex AI system that mimicked the style of human players. The game included an improved tackling system, impressive graphics and an "ESPN" presentation experience. And the game did all that and more for 20 bucks.
NFL 2K5 was the first game of the decade to challenge Madden's dominance, but it would also be the last. While the exact details of EA's exclusivity agreement remain unclear, it seems like more than a coincidence that the deal broke the year after NFL 2K5's release. EA was the bigger studio and simply outbid 2K Sports. As soon as the 2K series was off the market as a result of the deal, Madden's price shot back up to $49.99. While it lost the battle, we'll always remember NFL 2K as the franchise that gave Madden a run for its money. Yet with EA's exclusivity agreement set to expire this year, that might not be all we remember it for.