It’s been 14 years since Sega and 2K released their ill-fated masterwork, ESPN NFL 2K5. That’s 14 years without developer Visual Concepts’ take on America’s favorite, hyper-violent, problematic sport—and no, 2007’s All-Pro Football 2K8 tragically doesn’t count.
The football season is under way and, while Madden 19 is genuinely good this year, I miss the 2K series so, so, so much. Here’s why.
1) “The Crib” Was Ridiculous
If you remove the expected components of a digital football game, you’re historically left with half-baked story modes, card trading laden with microtransactions (which spawned an entire industry), and silly on-field minigames. With 2K5, players got The Crib—probably the most bonkers mode ever developed for a major football game release.
The Crib is essentially an apartment-decorating simulator with an emphasis on building a penthouse suite Rob Gronkowski would probably die for.
It’s stupid. It’s so stupid. Football-shaped phones, bad posters, a trophy room for your in-game achievements, a trivia machine on the TGI Fridays-like bar: if it was sold to you in an issue of Sports Illustrated in 2004, you could have it in The Crib.
Its most bizarre but interesting feature was a telephone that connected you to stars of the era, like Carmen Electra and Steve-O. An A.I. team based on their playstyles would then challenge you for the rights to their custom stadium. I still absolutely love the visual of Carmen Electra telling the Visual Concepts design team that she likes to blitz on third and long unless her opponent has a good receiving running back on the team.
I’d love to see 2018’s version of The Crib with Chrissy Teigen telling me I suck every time I fail to thread the needle across her entire linebacker corps. Once I hang up, maybe Travis Kelce could help me pick out the best trophy room lighting for my virtual Instagram account.
2) The Commentary Had Variety
A truly wild choice 2K made back in 1999, with the launch of Sega’s NFL 2K (well before the ESPN license got attached), was to hire regional broadcaster Terry McGovern and voice actor Jay Styne to portray fictional NFL commentators, Dan Stevens and Peter O’Keefe, respectively.
The NBA 2K series had already moved away from this approach by 2004. The series eventually shifted to more true-to-life commentary instead. I’d argue, with the notable exception of the past four-or-so installments of NBA 2K, that there hasn’t been a more successful facsimile of broadcast commentary than Stevens and O’Keefe.
It’s slightly repetitive by today’s standards, but the variety afforded by voice actors that don’t travel the country half the year was astonishing in 2004. It’s easy to picture a theoretical NFL 2K19 that blends the smart decisions of the past with the standards of today.
3) All the ESPN Stuff
The pervasive, thorough ESPN-ing of 2K5 created a branding experience familiar to today’s sports network landscape. It was very much a precursor to NBA 2K’s slick “NBA on TNT”-like experience—just without the actual TNT branding.
From Chris Berman’s true-to-life, impossibly silly highlight commentary to Trey Wingo’s somber analysis of season-ending injuries, these touches added a lot of mid-2000s television flavor to a user experience typically dotted with generic, ugly design. That’s not to say ESPN’s entire aesthetic is attractive, but it has character. 2K5 emulated that perfectly.
The familiar sounds of ESPN were everywhere, too: the highlight packages, the menus, the draft rundowns, and even the chime when the “broadcast” showed scores from around the league. Even though you could use custom soundtracks, the general ESPN soundscape perfectly complement an NFL game.
Speaking of custom soundtracks, did anyone else hit up the sports forums deep web to snipe mp3s of national broadcast network songs to plug into the game? Just me? Well, it’s cool.
4) Gameplay Would Be Amaaaazing
Okay. This one might be cheating, because 2K5’s gameplay hasn’t aged gracefully. EA’s impressive Frostbite engine has done wonders for recent games and skewed the comparison. But given how flawless Visual Concepts’ engine was by 2004 standards, and how amazing the studio’s NBA 2K series has been the past few years, a new NFL entry from 2K could be bananas.
Visual Concepts was already ahead of the curve on player-to-player interactions compared to EA. While EA has made enormous strides in that department the past two years, 2K’s mastery of player interactions in the NBA 2K series gives me profound hope for what they could accomplish in football now.
I want to see 2K’s take on JJ Watt versus Tyron Smith. I want to see Jalen Ramsey going one-on-one with OBJ. I want to see Melvin Gordon try to block Von Miller coming off the edge.
Frostbite is cool. 2K could be… ice cold? I can’t think of a better pun. I’m sorry.
5) Unparalleled Presentation
If ESPN branding was left in the dust, you’d still have pitch-perfect, broadcast-style presentation of football in 2K5. It’s not just about the overlays and voice talents and musical cues. It’s the seamless transitions between gameplay and information about said gameplay.
What just happened? Did you get stuffed going left again? Did your second string receiver catch his eighth pass of the game? The guys in the booth would show you a comparison between him and your number one. Did your middle linebacker deflect his fourth pass of the game? That one gets a full replay with analysis.
At halftime and after the game, 2K5 gives full replays of major moments and stats from key players. In Franchise mode, you can see weekly recaps of the league—including replays and analyses of other games.
It astonishes me that modern football games haven’t even sniffed this level of presentation. It was impressive in 2004. Now it feels like an artifact of some lost and impossibly advanced civilization. Just thinking about it makes me weep for how far we… haven’t come.
I’m going to go dust off my Xbox. See ya!