The Long-Forgotten Threat That 'Always' Made Madden Nervous

So much is made of NFL 2K5 and the blaze-of-glory conclusion to its rivalry with Madden NFL that it's easy to forget another title once threatened EA Sports' glamour franchise. In fact, the Madden team also feared NFL GameDay until the end.

"We were always nervous about GameDay," an unnamed EA Sports developer said in a feature published today by Grantland, ESPN's long-form features nameplate. "We wanted to crush them."

By the endgame of 2004, Madden had accomplished that, even without the infamous exclusive NFL license it now holds.

EA Sports is often accused of buying the pot when, in 2004, it landed the NFL's sole permission to make video games, which killed off NFL 2K and all competitors in the process. But up to that point, Madden's makers also feared the deep pockets behind GameDay, an in-house NFL series Sony built exclusively for its PlayStation and PlayStation 2, much like it does today with MLB The Show for the PS2 and PlayStation 3.

Grantland's Tom Bissell writes that EA Sports was always mindful of the resources Sony could throw at its NFL project if it chose, and the high threshold of pain implied by Sony's huge cash reserves. And indeed, GameDay once was more than a threat to Madden; it was the dominant NFL video game.

What happened to Sony's NFL GameDay?

EA's Madden NFL '96 was to have been the first NFL-licensed title on the PlayStation, but repeated production delays ultimately aborted that effort. In its place, GameDay rose. Two years later came GameDay '98, regarded as the best entry in the series, while on the Nintendo 64 that same year, the only option was Madden 64, the last entry in the series with no league licensing, a relic in light of modern sports video games and the consumer expectations attending to them.

What happened to GameDay? Looking back on the reviews, the inability to switch from arcade-style gameplay to true simulation was a big sticking point. The series also never got stable footing once the PlayStation 2 released—a console generation shift that has echoes in Madden's own problems with its first edition on the Xbox 360 (acknowledged in Bissell's article, by EA Sports itself, as the "undisputed lemon of the franchise.")

In its final year, 2004, GameDay didn't even release for the PlayStation 2, having been hammered critically for five straight years. At that time, the clear and present danger to Madden was NFL 2K, whose NFL 2K4 a year earlier is regarded by some as even better than the martyred NFL 2K5. When NFL 2K5 dropped its price to $19.99—less than half of Madden's price that year—"it scared the hell out of us," the same developer told Bissell.

EA Sports went on to land the NFL's exclusive license for disc-based video games on a console or PC. But despite the orthodox history enforced by hardcore sports gamers, it's not like EA did so over a clear critical and sales favorite in NFL 2K5. It and Madden NFL 2005 are a dead heat in aggregated review scores, each pulling above the coveted 90 average (by both Metacritic and GameRankings). In sales, even against 2K5's terrifying price war, Madden NFL 2005 prevailed, but barely.

It does raise an interesting what-if, though. Had GameDay been more of a player, or if Sony had been willing to put up more of a fight, could EA Sports have really bid enough to win the totally exclusive NFL license it has now?

After Madden won the NFL's exclusive deal, 2K Sports exacted revenge by negotiating an exclusive pact with Major League Baseball that wiped out EA Sports' MVP series. However, it's a third-party software development license only. Sony, as a console maker, remained free to build MLB The Show, the baseball analogue to GameDay. And even though it is available only on the PS3, The Show today is considered miles ahead of 2K's baseball offering—whose deal with Major League Baseball expires this year.

Kickoff: Madden NFL and the Future of Video Game Sports [Grantland]