Both are made by EA Sports. Both are American football titles. Both are made under exclusive license, and both come out every year.
Speak the name of NCAA Football, and no one brings up NCAA College Football 2K3. But say anything about Madden, and every gamer with a commenting account starts chanting for the ultimate clipboard quarterback, NFL 2K5, which hasn't thrown a pass in eight years.
It's not like NCAA Football is pristine in forum threads and Internet comments. Whoever screwed up, this year's game won't have the University of South Alabama in its debut season of major college football. A forum thread on Operation Sports this week chewed out NCAA for having an old version of Ohio University's costumed mascot. The fact NCAA won't be implementing real-time physics in its collisions, but Madden will, has rankled some in the game's hardcore base, and was a topic of deep concern to EA Sports' marketers as they planned their E3 rollout.
Yet in the long run, NCAA Football still scores better in reviews and in community reaction, despite being made under the same conditions—and using the same game engine—that Madden does.
Why is that? I asked EA Sports' general manager for American football.
"I think Dynasty and Online Dynasty have been shining stars for NCAA in the past several years, and those are modes that have been played heavily by our hardest core fans," Cam Weber told me at E3.
And he's right—mostly because of the unique approach to personnel management that NCAA Football must take. The draft is the NFL's most interesting personnel feature, and only last year did it truly get a full treatment, in its live draft and in-season scouting. NCAA Football has, for years, had to approximate the promises-only sales pitch a college coach makes to refresh a talent base that turns over completely every four classes. It's much more intriguing than trying to guess a game's free agency or trade logic.
NCAA's Dynasty has done a solid job on player acquisition overall, where Madden's attention to Franchise has often been split or cut by needs in other game modes to serve a much larger installation base. Madden, for all the criticism hurled at it, still is a Top 10 seller at retail; NCAA is not.
"I think the NCAA team has spent more times over the years really focusing on the core elements of their game," Webber said. "I think the Madden team has tried to work on a lot of features to satisfy a very large audience that's been kind of split over time."
Weber has a point. There's nothing like TeamBuilder, which has been around for three years now, in Madden NFL. The game's "Connected Careers" mode, with web-enabled content and league administration features, might finally bridge the gap. A virtual Twitter feed—which sounds ridiculous at first, but I'm sure will be hilarious once Fake Skip Bayless starts opining on my handling of Philip Rivers—supplies the same kind of metastory that NCAA does in generating game stories for online Dynasty leagues.
In the end, it'll be the gameplay that pushes one of these sibling rivals ahead of the other. Both are served by the same gameplay engine; both have the same upgrades in passing animations, defender behavior, and quarterback release times. Only Madden will implement them with a real-time physics component, the greatest difference in gameplay these two games have ever seen.
It might be disappointing for NCAA fans. But I'm sure Weber would rather hear NCAA judged short of Madden, than another year of everyone waving NFL 2K5's bloody shirt against the Caesar of EA Sports..