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."