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Catching up with ESPN NFL 2k5…Again!

nfl 2k5The NFL season has come to a close and now it’s onto the playoffs. Twelve teams will battle for the opportunity to be called champion, guaranteeing that the fanbases for 31 NFL franchises will be disappointed, but one will not! After going my entire childhood without being a part of that one, I’ve enjoyed an embarrassment of riches as a football fan for my hometown New England Patriots have had a pretty incredible run of luck. Yes, that means a bunch of people now hate me because the football team that is geographically closes to where I reside happens to be both good and therefore detestable, but so be it. It will all end one day and this unprecedented run of success will become a story I tell my grandkids as my own grandparents did of the Boston Bruins of the 1970s or the Celtics of the 60s. For now I will continue to savor the ups and the downs as the season goes on.

Every football season I inevitably return to an old, beloved, game:  ESPN NFL 2k5. This was the last Sega-produced NFL title before the league entered into an agreement with EA which would make it the sole holder of the NFL and NFLPA license to this day. It was a disappointing day for me, and it took me years to move on and actually buy a Madden title. And I still don’t purchase one annually as I haven’t bought a copy in 3 or 4 years. And it took me awhile to admit that Madden had finally surpassed my beloved 2k5, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy playing it to this day.

I enjoy it enough that I’ve done this post before. When I first posted about the game I was basically just dabbling with it momentarily. Since then though I have actually played it more and more to the point where I’m actually in year 2013 with the Patriots and an aging Tom Brady is still leading the charge against an NFL that has become nearly unrecognizable due to retirements across the league. I’m actually curious when this virtual Brady will tell me he’s hanging up his spikes as the real life version is still going at age 42. Surely, the video game version will not last that long because no one has. I assume I’m nearing the end, but who knows? The only non-game created players on the roster right now are receivers Deion Branch, Antwaan Randle El, running back Tatum Bell, and defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. Everyone else is some game-generated character, many of which share the same fake portrait image so it looks like I have a pair of identical twins starting in the secondary (which is kind of funny because the current version of the Patriots can say the same thing).

2k5 pats

Yeah, I like the Pats. Boo me all you want.

In playing a game that is now more than a decade old it’s interesting to see how much the real version of the NFL has changed. Take the shotgun formation as an example (I’m going to assume if you’re reading this you’re familiar enough with football to know what I’m referring to with “shotgun”). In 2006, after this game came out, the average NFL offense utilized shotgun for 19% of its offensive snaps. I don’t know if this data strips out kneel downs and spikes, but it will work here. In 2016, the average team utilized the formation 68% of its snaps! One team, the San Francisco 49ers, even used it for 99% of its plays. And why is that? Well, the game has opened up. Rule changes that went into effect during the offseason before 2k5 was released emphasized illegal contact by defenders which helped boost offense. Over the years, those types of calls have been helped along by additional safeguards for receivers as well as quarterbacks. Teams found that it was now efficient to simply spread defenses out and throw the ball, leading to an emphasis on receivers of all kinds, especially slot receivers, and a deemphasis on runningbacks and fullbacks. Most teams in 2019 don’t even have a true fullback on the roster anymore, but every team in 2k5 does with the game recommending that two be carried at all times.

This is amusing to me because the real life game has come to more resemble video games in some respects. Players often played these game in what purists would call an unreal manner. Lots of throwing, especially deep balls, with quarterbacks taking huge drop-backs and punting practically unheard of. I’ve personally never gone that crazy in my playing, but I also rarely play human opponents. Even playing in a more pass-friendly and aggressive scheme though, it’s actually hard to replicate the modern game in 2k5 largely because defenders can jam and impede receivers down the field without fear of a penalty. Maybe if I tweaked the penalty sliders I could pull that off, but I also think part of the “jamming” is just limitations with the animations and collision detection of a PlayStation 2 game released in 2004. Receivers in general are also notoriously bad at catching in this game so it would be hard based on that reason alone to replicate the high percentage throwing offenses of today.

2k5 iform

You don’t see too many plays out of the I-Form these days. Especially on 1st and 10.

In playing the game, I find route combinations with receivers are especially more vertical than the modern game probably features (unless you’re in a Bruce Arians offense). In the entire Patriots playbook, I can’t find a proper mesh concept, for instance, which is hugely popular in today’s game. Teams love crossing routes because they create natural pick plays, though the few plays of this type in 2k5 usually just lead to a jumbled mess. I find it’s much easier to to go with posts, go, and the occasional out and slant when playing this game. Fast receivers matched-up one-on-one on the outside are often pretty good at beating their man on a go route, and if you have time, the double-move can be effective. It’s just funny because it’s nothing like what the Patriots currently run, or really ever ran aside from when Randy Moss was in town, but it works here.

More and more though, it’s just interesting to notice the quirks that come up when you’ve played nearly ten seasons of virtual football. I play every regular and post season game on the schedule, only skipping the preseason. In game, few frequent bugs show up. There is one that I’ve noticed where a tight end just won’t be covered by the opposing defense. It always happens when I run a trips-bunch to the right with a single tight end on the left. Sometimes that guy is just all by himself for an easy completion (unless the tight end is stone-handed, a frequent problem with computer-generated tight ends where every pass is an adventure). The funny thing is this only crops up in certain seasons. It was basically one season where it happened a lot, to the point where I stopped using the formation because it felt like a cheat. It stopped once I finished that season, though recently popped-up again, but with the formation flipped and the tight end to the right. The receivers also had normal spacing and weren’t bunched. My current tight end has a horrible catch rating though so I actually didn’t even complete the pass, but I’ll be on the look-out to see if it comes up again.

By far though, the weirdest bug I’ve encountered concerns Philip Rivers. You know Rivers as the quarterback of the LA Chargers. In 2k5, he’s a rookie playing behind Drew Brees. I think he ascended to a starter at one point in my game, but he’s now a backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Weirdly though, if I look at league leaders he’s usually near the top – in rushing. Now, as afar as I know, there is no way to play a quarterback at runningback. Maybe if all of your backs got injured in a game the backup Qb would end up there, but I doubt it. I’d guess another skill position player would inherit the role before a Qb. Anyways, that’s not the only thing that’s weird here. What is odd is that his statistics are a mirror image for whoever my starting running back is. I even played Tampa and can confirm that Rivers did not have a single carry in the game, but when it was over he was tied with my back for whatever ranking he was at for various categories. It’s truly bizarre, and just doing a google search on the same returned nothing, but I’d be surprised if this was unique to my game.

2k5 brady steelers

Tom Brady, just like in real-life, is still going in my game as a 13 year man. I doubtt he catches up to the real version.

Another glitch, this one more annoying, is that I basically lost my fullback position. I don’t know why, but starting at around year 7 of my franchise my backup runningback assumed the fullback position. If I try to edit my playbook things look fine, but when I play a game the problem persists. It essentially has rendered fullback useless as I can’t get the guy into a game. And it means that I need to prioritize run blocking with my third string RB. The only fix I have found is if my starter gets hurt. Tatum Bell recently broke his hand and will be out for 4-6 weeks. For those games I actually get to trot out a legit fullback, who after going years without even a snap to his name, now has two receiving touchdowns. I’ve found he’s a pretty terrible blocker though, despite his rating, so my ground game has actually been pretty awful lately, but at least I have a fullback! A similar, but less annoying, bug is that my third string TE takes all of the I-Formation snaps. If I try to edit the personnel for that package I simply can’t swap him out for anyone else. It’s weird.

Another bizarre in-game bug concerns the kicking game. For whatever reason, it seems like one kick-off per game my controller will be near unresponsive. There’s a huge input delay often resulting in a brutal kick. Since I play on an old model PS3, I thought maybe my controllers were getting less responsive and started playing with my controller plugged in, but that didn’t solve anything. It’s just a bug. On the AI side, many teams for some reason have a lineman as their kick and punt returner. It looks pretty ridiculous to see a big man field a punt, and it also makes coverage pretty simple. Some teams also have a terrible kick-off person where the ball will usually land around the 30 or 35 yard line. It actually doesn’t lead to many long returns as the up-man often ends up catching the ball while on the run, but it is stupid to see. And in all of these seasons, I’ve never returned a kick for a touchdown. One of the criticisms of the prior game was that it was too easy and the designers basically over-compensated by making coverage teams spectacular. I have come close on a couple of occasions, but never sealed the deal.

2k5 kicking

There’s a bug that can sometimes make kicking a real adventure. Thankfully, it usually only happens on kickoffs, but it has cropped up during a field goal attempt as well.

One other bug I assume is quite common concerns the schedule. The NFL has a pretty simple formula where each team plays its divisional opponents two times each. It then plays one other division in its conference and one division outside its conference which is on a rotational schedule. The remaining games are commonly ranked opponents. For instance, the first place teams from the prior year play all of the other first place teams in the same conference, the second place teams play all of the other second place teams, and so on. This formula should be easy to program, but apparently it’s not or Sega/Visual Concepts got lazy and only programmed so many seasons. My Patriots have played the AFC North every year for the last I don’t know how many. The actual 2004 Patriots had to play the same, so maybe the game only programmed for one rotation through the divisions before it went back to the start and stayed that way. The NFC portion of the schedule generates fine, so I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to play this long, but I have to believe there are people out there who have gone well beyond where I’m currently at.

Even though this version of the NFL is almost unrecognizable at this point, and the bugs I’ve encountered sometimes drive me nuts, I still have fun playing this one. I’m just going to keep on playing it until I don’t enjoy it anymore. Will that come with Brady’s retirement? Maybe, or maybe it won’t. I think at some point I’ll be sick of playing with all fake players, but I’m practically there now and still enjoying it. There are things I do miss from modern games that aren’t here. In 2004, this game was the best at granting absolute control to a pass via the Maximum Passing setting, but it’s not nearly as robust as current versions of Madden. There are times when I wish I could throw a proper back-shoulder pass, or I try to stick a ball out in front of a receiver, and the coverage, only to find the quarterback basically tries to make the pass too catchable and it gets intercepted when really I wanted to make a legal throw-away. It’s also hard to intentionally throw a pass high for a tall receiver to go up and get. And the running game, which felt dynamic and ahead of its time, is no longer that way and it can be frustrating to take a patient approach or to steer the back through a certain hole. Plus, lead blockers are often dumb and will just run past guys or into the back. It’s not as bad as Madden’s “suction-blocking” from the same era, but it’s noticeable.

At any rate, this is my second post on the topic and maybe there will be a third. Who knows? This game is still cheap and easy to acquire and if you were watching football back in 2004 then maybe consider dusting this sucker off and taking a trip down memory lane. You may even decide you never need to play another snap of Madden again.

Catching up with ESPN NFL 2K5

images-72It used to be that the world of sports video games was a free-for-all.  While various movie, television, and comic book licenses were sold off to developers, seemingly anyone could produce a football, baseball, basketball, or hockey title and pony up the dough to get a professional league’s endorsement of their product.  Before that happened though, publishers had to first find out there was value in that.  It used to be that most sports games were just about the sport.  Most of the games on the NES and before were just called Baseball or Football while other publishers would get a little more creative and gives gamers a title like Blades of Steel.  Eventually publishers saw the value of marketing with star power, but before they went the route of acquiring full league licenses they tried the marque player route that put Larry Bird on our 2600.  I don’t know what the first game to get a full league license was, but I do know that the first one I played was World Series Baseball on the Sega Genesis.  All of the teams I was familiar with were now present as were the different players.  Licensing agreements between leagues and their respective player’s unions made this possible (even though some mega stars liked to opt-out of these agreements and annoy gamers throughout the country; I’m looking at you, Michael Jordon) and sports games became more authentic as a result.  This was the status quo for a long time and for some leagues it still is.  For football though, that’s no longer the case and hasn’t been for a long time.

This was basically the cover of every sports game pre 1994, just swap out the athlete with another.

This was basically the cover of every sports game pre 1994, just swap out the athlete with another.

EA Sports has been the king of the virtual football world for a long time now.  Originally Tecmo held that honor with its popular line of Tecmo Bowl games but when those failed to evolve EA, partnered with John Madden, stepped in.  EA’s games thrived during the 16 bit era, especially on the Genesis which performed exceptionally well in the United States.  There were other competitors, most notably Acclaim and eventually Sony’s 989 Studios, but Madden was generally regarded as the best.  When EA announced that it would not support Sega’s new Dreamcast console it was a mighty blow to the doomed machine.  Sega had more or less won the 16 bit wars with sports titles but now found itself without its star general.  Sega did what only Sega could do:  develop its own NFL game.

Visual Concepts and Take-Two Interactive led the way with the inaugural NFL 2K in the late summer of 1999.  Sega showed off an impressive demo at E3 earlier that year that had caught the eye of many gridiron gamers but few really expected Sega to deliver a game in its inaugural year that was worthy of challenging Madden.  Sega had put out a few football titles on the Genesis but making a football game in the 3D era was totally different. The naysayers were proven wrong as NFL 2K was a critical and commercial success for the fledgling Dreamcast, and even though it wouldn’t be enough to save the console, it proved worthy of hanging around.  It’s timing was perfect too as Acclaim’s Quarterback Club was growing stale, and 989’s NFL Gameday had completely fallen off.  Madden was left to run unopposed for the most part, and needed a worthy adversary to prevent it from sharing the same fate as its vanquished foes.

Though it may be hard to imagine today, Madden was mostly geared towards casual players back then.  The game was at its best, and most fun, when dropping back to launch a deep ball down the sideline to Moss.  No longer confined to the world of two-dimensional sprites, Madden was fully realized in 3D but the oddly proportioned and stiff animating player models left something to be desired.  NFL 2K was the shiny new muscle car parked next to the Madden station wagon.  It was faster, leaner, and more explosive.  Running the deep post with Moss was now even more fun than it was before, and things like running the ball and rushing the passer no longer felt like chores between pass plays.  Madden wanted you to have fun, NFL 2K wanted you to experience NFL football.

Go ahead, try and stop him.

Go ahead, try and stop him.

The debut game was not perfect, and a lot of the front end needed some polish, but the presentation shined in other areas.  Commentary from the fictitious duo of Dan Stevens (Terry McGovern) and Peter O’Keefe (Jay Styne) felt vibrant and alive even without the name recognition.  A sports ticker scrolled by to update the player on other games and replays were used judiciously.  When dropping back to pass, the player no longer had to call up the button assignments for receivers, they were already present.

Visually, the game was a tour de force when compared with Madden.  Madden did a good job with player faces, but 2K topped them everywhere else.  They were better proportioned, but mostly they just plain moved better.  Madden was always stiff and steering a running back thru the defense felt like steering a boat.  In 2K, players were quick and cutting left and right.  When the gap between blockers was minimal they turned their bodies to squeeze thru the tiny hole.  When the ball was in the air receivers would leap over defenders if they had to in order to pull it down while a tiny scat-back would get blown up if trying to truck a stout middle linebacker.

Playing the game was also fast and just generally more entertaining.  Passing the ball was a true blast as so many weapons were made available to the player.  Quarterbacks were not restricted to the play called as far as how the ball would travel thru the air.  If the player wanted to lob it, he could.  If he wanted to put a little extra mustard on the throw to zip it into tight coverage, he could.  Maximum Passing meant players could intentionally under or over throw targets with a flick of the analog stick.  Have an agile receiver running outside with a corner over him?  Under throw him so only he has a play on the ball.  Have a tall receiver streaking towards the back corner of the end zone?  Take advantage of his height and toss it up.  He may not come down with it, but neither will the defender.  Knowing how to pass the ball to each receiver is a must for continued success.  If your stone-handed blocking fullback is open in the flat it’s best to lob him a softy than toss him a bullet that will probably bounce of his face-mask.  Knowing your personnel is equally important in the running game as scat-backs like Warrick Dunn are not likely to find much success between the tackles.  Get those guys in space where they can spin and juke their way to pay-dirt and leave the stiff arms and truck maneuvers for the likes of Mike Alstott.  NFL 2K also proved that defense could be fun.  Playing the line and rushing the passer was a game of cat and mouse.  You may find initial success with a certain technique but offensive lines will adapt and double you if necessary.  Playing in the secondary and trying to stick to a receiver was extremely difficult and only for the true pros, but hanging back and making plays on the ball with a safety was both rewarding and fun.

NFL 2K was here to stay, and though Madden routinely topped it in sales, EA wasn’t pleased to have legitimate competition.  EA was especially perturbed when 2K5 (now dubbed ESPN NFL football) was released for only 20 bucks.  This was the last straw and soon EA locked up the NFL license (along with the NCAA, Arena League, and others) and basically put an end to Sega’s annual football game.  This was especially unfortunate as 2K5 was a godsend for football fans.

The addition of the ESPN license meant full animated game intros hosted by a virtual Chris Berman.

The addition of the ESPN license meant full animated game intros hosted by a virtual Chris Berman.

Earlier games in the series had their own issues.  Not all would be solved but by the time 2K5 came around a lot of them would be.  Earlier games featured an over-powered run game.  Perhaps VC and Sega really wanted to make running the ball as fun as passing, but by making it so effective they messed up the balance.  Changing the blocking patterns and playing up to the difference in backs (power vs finesse) helped to solve this.  The dreaded suction-blocking was also less of a problem come 2K5.  Suction-blocking is a fan-coined term that described the game’s programmed blocking animation that forces a defender to engage.  Even when controlling a defender manually, it was something the game forced upon those who played.  Madden was plagued by it too and would be for some time longer but 2K found a way to nearly eliminate it come 2K5 (though it was still hard to disengage from a blocker).  Earlier games were light on options and Madden seemed to always trump 2K in this department, but 2K5’s franchise mode was quite robust and a series of challenges in the ESPN 25th Anniversary section kept gamers busy.  Other additions, like the virtual Crib and first-person football, were there for those who wanted it but were mostly duds.

ESPN NFL 2K5 is kind of like the NFL equivalent to WWF No Mercy.  A lot of football fans to this day still feel it’s the best of the best.  I was a 2K guy and before the series went multi-platform I rarely played a football game.  Madden never felt right to me, and the most fun I had with a football game was NFL Blitz.  NFL 2K2 was my first taste of the series and I was hooked.  To this day, I’ve only owned two versions of Madden with all coming after the exclusivity agreement.  Neither entertained me as much as 2K5 did, though the inaugural Madden on the Wii did entertain me for quite a while.

Visually, the game is no longer a tour de force but is far from ugly.

Visually, the game is no longer a tour de force but is far from ugly.

With the NFL season winding down, I’ve been going back to 2K5 recently to see how it holds up.  A lot of the flaws I remember still jump out at me.  Lead blockers can be annoyingly dumb.  Perhaps it’s because of the whole suction-blocking thing getting blown up, but a lot of the times a blocking fullback will run right by a blitzing linebacker or defensive end and head straight for the next level.  This does my running back no good since he doesn’t have a chance to get into the secondary when a guy is already all over him at the line scrimmage.  Receivers tend to be too stone-handed with 3 or 4 drops a game from my receiving corps being a common sight.  I know guys are going to, on occasion, drop an easy one but it seems to happen too often.  Defensive backs are also really good in man coverage.  While receivers are not omniscient, they don’t know the ball has been thrown in their direction if they haven’t actually turned to look, corners seem to know exactly when to break off their assignment whether they’re watching the QB or trailing a receiver.  It makes it hard to find the “gimme” completions and even check-downs can be an adventure (why do so many check-downs to backs in the flat or receivers running out patterns result in incompletions?!?).  There’s also the matter of the near game-breaking QB evasion moves initiated by flicking the right stick.  Even statues like Drew Bledsoe can shrug off what looked like a sure sack and as a result I rarely use it because it feels cheap.

Not everything VC brought to the table proved to be a good idea.

Not everything VC brought to the table proved to be a good idea.

A lot of this stuff would be rectified by now as most are AI problems.  And at least it goes both ways.  The CPU will miss out on some easy completions because of receivers that can’t make a clean catch.  And your team will also have some pretty sticky cover guys of its own to roll out.  Since the 2k series was shelved, Madden has adopted a lot of what made the series great including guided passes and placing more emphasis on animations.  2K is still fast though, even compared with the current games, and still a blast to play.  I love approaching the line, checking the coverage, and adjusting the play on the fly.  I wish there were more robust audible options, but the hot routes make the majority of plays incredibly customizable.  If a defender is playing way off the line I’m happy to check into a short pattern and if I notice a corner has no safety help on a speedy receiver I’ll audible to a fly or slant pattern.  The adaptive AI reduces the presence of money plays which dogged older football games.  Sure, most will still have a few go-to plays for certain situations but good gamers will experience the full playbook as opposed to a handful of the same plays.  Few things are as rewarding in gaming as executing a perfect stop-and-go with an expertly timed pump-fake followed by a deep lob over the top.

My head tells me that the recent versions of Madden have likely trumped ESPN NFL 2K5 at this point.  The game came out over 8 years ago so surely it’s been improved upon by now.  My heart though won’t allow me to admit it.  When I play Madden I enjoy it but it doesn’t pull me in.  When I turn on 2K5 for a game I can’t stop at just one.  Not even the dated rosters can dim my enjoyment of this one though it does sadden me that the series was cut down in its prime.  There is hope though as EA’s license agreement with the NFL will expire at the end of this year and it was announced that Take-Two will revive its long-dormant NFL franchise in 2014.  It seems hard to believe that the developers could come in and create an exceptional football game after 10 years without the NFL license, but that just puts Take-Two and Visual Concepts in the same position they were in back in 1999 and we all know how that turned out.

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