Maybe the Greatest of All Time, but not In Its Time

Of the major game-of-the-year awards given out each year, no sports title has ever taken top overall honors. And yet five years later, there is one still talked about in ways that year's winners are not.

That would be ESPN NFL 2K5, the last and best of an uncommonly good crop of football games in the first half of the decade and, perhaps not coincidentally, the last one before EA Sports inked its exclusive license with the National Football League. Certainly, the stupefyingly good value 2K5 delivered on an unheard-of $19.99 price tag moved the needle on its high regard. But reviews of the game still said things like "the best-looking football game ever made," and "the most entertaining show in video game football."

This coming week will see the last glut of AAA releases in the autumn sales cycle, and then it will be on to the question of Game of the Year. Sports titles are like the offensive lineman in modern Heisman voting. Just being mentioned would be honor enough, because the prize is completely inaccessible to your class of performer.

Maybe 2K5 did the best of any sports game, judged among others, in its year. It's impossible to say definitively. I dialed up Brandon Justice, a producer on the 2K5 team to ask him where that game fit in the larger context of 2004's top titles. Five years later, you can still hear the pride when quotes the game's feature set, as if he was back on the team going head-to-head with the Madden franchise.

"People are out there, today, talking about whether Madden 10 is overall a better product (than 2K5)," said Justice, who later worked on Madden and now is the director of design for Quick Hit Football (profiled Sept. 19.) "Five years later. They're just now doing features that 2K5 did first - and not doing them as well. They now have online franchises; we had that mode. We had SportsCenter presentation with a highlight reel; they're just now doing that kind of thing."

But the feature-packed game wasn't put out there to take home a statue, Justice said. It's not to say that is the sole motivation of any past game of the year, but such artistic recognition is at least in the mix for your typical AAA adventure. Not so with sports titles, which seek a more product-oriented recognition, Justice said.

"Ironically enough, trophies matter little to the sports crowd," he said. It's very much focused on sales and beating direct competition where it exists. "Our main mission in 2K was to beat Madden's score. Whether it wins sports game of the year or not, Madden's still going to sell millions of units every year. More than anything else we just wanted to make a good sports game. And having worked on the Madden team as well, those guys have the same spirit. You want to crush the competition, and make the best product out there."

Maybe the Greatest of All Time, but not In Its Time

In 2004, NFL 2K5 couldn't afford to think about taking on Half-Life 2, Halo 2 or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. That year's Madden also went out to wide acclaim; just beating it would take best-in-class effort.

But it's also a little pointless, Justice said, for a sports game to shoot for anything outside best-in-class accolades. A former games writer himself, Justice said the criticism operations of major opinion leaders just aren't set up to give sports titles the same exposure as shooters, RPGs and other traditional genres.

"Every magazine I've worked for, they have a sports guy," he said. And, working for IGN, he remembers plenty of sports copy being handed off to freelancers. "Everybody plays Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, Gears of War, but you really have to find someone who's into baseball games, and then he always reviews it." Inevitably, when that outfit polls its staff for game of the year, few voices speak up for a sports game because few have played them.

"You've got one or two voices voting for a sports game," Justice said. "A lot of time it's a question of volume."

Could a sports title ever win Game of the Year? My gut feeling says the opportunity has passed. Criticism of video games is increasingly considerate of a game's narrative, and a sports simulation fundamentally has none. And sports deal with creative limitations specific to existing rules of a game, plus the veto authority of a licensor who may not buy into daring creativity.

David Littman, a producer on EA Sports' NHL title - taking 19 different sports game of the year awards in 2007 and 2008 - points out another basic limitation of sports games. "These big action games have huge worlds to explore, while sports games take place mainly inside a confined stadium," he told me.

Plus, he said wryly, "Sports games don't have guns. People seem to like guns."

True. Shooters also don't have to outdo themselves every year, lest they be branded as just a prettied-up roster update. The innovations in a sports game, year-to-year, may seem small, but comparing versions three years apart, the way one would Halo 3 to Halo 2, or Grand Theft Auto IV to San Andreas, and maybe a sports title's advancement would look more profound.

"NHL 10 and FIFA 10 are two of the highest-rated sports games ever on this console generation, but FIFA 09 and NHL 09 were also among the highest scores," he said.

Maybe the Greatest of All Time, but not In Its Time

Littman's right. This year FIFA 10 and MLB 09 The Show became the first sports titles in the current console generation to post a Metacritic score of 90 or better. (NHL 09 and 10 both got 88.) From 2000 to 2004, every single Madden and 2K football title on every console got at least a 90.

But it's not to say that we'll never see a truly revolutionary sports game again, or that when it does come, its excellence will go unrecognized. There's no way NFL 2K5 could have won Game of the Year five years ago. But it still enjoys a fame that's outlived those that did.

"Do you really think, five years from now, you're gonna hear ‘Is Grand Theft Auto on PlayStation 4 as good as Grand Theft Auto on PlayStation 3? Will Halo 6 people really say, ‘Is this as good as Halo 1?'" Justice muses. "I don't think so."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.