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How EA Sports Destroyed The NFL 2K Series

Once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, we didn't know which football game to buy. It sounds crazy viewed through today's lens, where Madden is king and there is only Madden, praise be to Madden. But starting with NFL 2K2Madden had serious competition on every one of its platforms.

EA didn't seem to mind at first. The NFL 2K series was just a few years old. The Madden franchise was more seasoned. More proven. Other challengers had come and gone in the past. Madden remained, and it was highly doubtful that NFL 2K would change that.

But then something unexpected happened. The NFL 2K series became really, really good. And the entire situation suddenly became that old trope of the aging actress and the younger starlet coming to replace her. Madden NFL kept doing what it had always done, wondering why no one was paying attention. NFL 2K briefly became blinded by all of the flashing lights.

And EA, on behalf of Madden, took that opportunity to murder NFL 2K in cold blood, ending a franchise that had nowhere to go but up.

Here's how it all went down.

The Madden series kicked off in 1988

You could be forgiven for thinking the Madden NFL series started in the early '90s. That is when the games really took off — when the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were at each other's necks during the height of the console wars. But the origin story of Madden actually began years earlier, when the very first entry launched in the unlikeliest of places.

John Madden Football, released in 1988, appeared first on Apple II computers.

It was a different time then, for sure. EA was a small enough company that founder Trip Hawkins was actually involved in the development of the game. A much younger John Madden also contributed loads of time to make sure the sport was faithfully recreated in the title. And Bethesda Softworks — a company that would become much larger later on — even contributed to John Madden Football. The first game was a team effort from a ragtag group, but somehow, they got it out the door.

It's unlikely anyone knew just what a staple Madden football games would become decades later — and what a monster company EA would become in even less time than that.

The studio behind NFL 2K actually worked on Madden

Once upon a time, Visual Concepts was an independent studio, and a pretty talented one, actually. The company made the ClayFighter titles, all the while working on projects for other companies. EA had already tapped Visual Concepts to work on a game called Desert Strike in the early 1990s, so when it came time to outsource the development of Madden '94, Visual Concepts was high on the list of prospects.

EA wound up smashing the work of Visual Concepts and another studio together for Madden '94, but Visual Concepts got the nod to handle Madden '95 on its own — and subsequently knocked it out of the park.

The relationship between EA and Visual Concepts seemed solid, but that would soon change when Visual Concepts was contracted to work on the PlayStation version of Madden '96. Visual Concepts didn't have many developers familiar with the PlayStation hardware, and the crunch associated with turning around a new Madden game in a year didn't help matters. Madden '96 was ultimately canceled, and the next year, EA turned to Tiburon — the studio that continues to make Madden to this day.

NFL 2K started after EA rejected the Sega Dreamcast

The wildest thing about the competition between Madden and NFL 2K is that it almost didn't happen. Had Bernie Stolar — CEO of Sega in the Dreamcast era — not purchased Visual Concepts, there's a very good chance EA would've made Madden games for Sega's turn-of-the-century console. But it didn't happen that way. Stolar wanted a first-party sports lineup, and EA — thriving at the time thanks to the Madden series — didn't want to release on a console with any kind of sports competition.

So instead of Madden, the Dreamcast got NFL 2K. And sports games would never be the same again.

NFL 2K was a highly impressive first effort from Visual Concepts, which took what it had learned working on Madden and amplified it using the more powerful Dreamcast hardware. The Dreamcast wasn't setting the world on fire in terms of sales, but those who owned the console suddenly found themselves missing Madden less, as NFL 2K managed to deliver a quality football experience all its own.

And Visual Concepts was just getting started.

NFL 2K hit its peak with NFL 2K5

The NFL 2K franchise became a hot commodity overnight, thanks to Visual Concepts and its work on the first title. And Visual Concepts kept the series rolling, delivering a few more Dreamcast football games that were highly praised for their graphics and realism. The worst thing about those first games might've been the fact that they were Dreamcast-only, because, despite a promising library, Sega's system was not selling well.

When Sega finally pulled the plug on the Dreamcast in 2001, the company became a multiplatform developer and publisher. And then NFL 2K really got a chance to shine.

Over the next few years, Visual Concepts added new features, did more work on the presentation aspect of football, and continued to close the gap with Madden NFL. And in 2004, all of that hard work culminated in NFL 2K5, a football title that many believed not only caught Madden, but surpassed it.

Years after EA refused to make a football game for Dreamcast, the studio that did — the one that once worked on Madden games — was suddenly publishing on multiple platforms, posing a serious threat to Madden's reign.

NFL 2K5 sold for just $20, and that terrified EA

Sega knew it had EA on the ropes, too. The team at Visual Concepts had created one of the most fully featured football games ever in NFL 2K5, with a multiplayer online franchise mode, league websites, fantasy drafts, a "crib" players could decorate with earned items, and more. And all of that was outside of NFL 2K5's gameplay, which was the best it had ever been.

But that wasn't all. It wasn't enough for Sega and Visual Concepts to be an alternative to Madden: the companies wanted to usurp the throne and turn NFL 2K5 into the go-to game for football enthusiasts. So they sweetened the deal, selling it for an insane $20.

The reaction from EA was indifference followed by panicNFL 2K5 was selling for a third of what EA charged for Madden 05, and though EA shrugged off the strategy at first, it soon became clear that the massive discount was having a serious impact on Madden's sales. EA eventually dropped Madden 05's price down to $30 in hopes to remain competitive. And if you know EA, you know the company didn't like doing that one bit.

EA realized that the NFL 2K series would continue to be a thorn in its side unless drastic measures were taken. So EA did what any large conglomerate would do: it threw a lot of money at the problem.

EA obtained the exclusive rights to the NFL license

One day in the middle of December 2004, there ceased to be a competition for the hearts and minds of football game players. The heated battle over who could develop the best NFL game ended. One company emerged with the rights to develop NFL games well into the future. And the other walked away empty handed.

On that day, EA acquired the exclusive rights to make NFL games for five years, effectively stopping the NFL 2K series dead in its tracks. Madden suddenly became the only game in town, and fans were not happy about it.

Even those who preferred Madden's style of football had to admit that the presence of NFL 2K forced the series to become more innovative. Madden couldn't just rest on its laurels; it had to compete, and as a result, players got a better game. The $300 million EA paid also killed NFL 2K entirely, leaving fans of that franchise out in the cold. That was especially bitter, as many considered NFL 2K5 to be a true triumph and, perhaps, the best NFL game ever made.

Madden successfully killed its main competitor, thanks to EA's bank account. But EA took a few punches later on as a result.

2K Games obtained exclusivity for the MLB license in retaliation

By the time the 2K brand could exact some revenge on EA, it was no longer under the Sega umbrella. Take-Two Interactive had purchased Visual Concepts and repurposed the name of its now-defunct football series to create a whole new development studio, 2K Games (the company known today for Borderlands and BioShock). Visual Concepts was still extremely talented at creating sports titles, having kept the long-running NBA 2K series alive. But the studio still undoubtedly harbored a grudge about what EA did with the NFL license.

Which is why it must have been so satisfying to steal the MLB license right out from under EA's nose.

Starting with MLB 2K6, 2K Games had sole possession of the Major League Baseball license, creating games for the Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and more. That exclusivity deal killed off EA's take on MLB at the time, MVP Baseball, by ensuring EA could not create games using Major League Baseball teams or players. And to this day, EA has not made a single baseball game for any platform.

It didn't work out so well for MLB 2K. The series eventually stopped after MLB 2K13, and Sony picked up the mantle with its The Show franchise, which took over as the de facto baseball game for fans of the sport. But at least EA got a little taste of its own medicine.

All-Pro Football didn't take off

That's not to say that 2K Games and Visual Concepts didn't take another stab at football, because they certainly did. The companies felt that the NFL 2K series had enough of a following that, maybe, just maybe, fans would flock to an unlicensed game if it meant getting back to the NFL 2K style of football they'd come to love over the years.

So they tried, releasing a game called All-Pro Football 2K8 in the summer of 2007. And ... crickets.

Because the game lacked an NFL license, as well as one from the NFL Players Association, the game came packed full of generic players and stars who'd long since retired, like Dan Marino and Jerry Rice. It also offered a more stripped down experience than NFL 2K5, presumably because the game had to be somewhat rebuilt and retooled to reflect its unlicensed state.

All-Pro Football 2K8 didn't score nearly as high as Visual Concepts' previous football game, and that sealed its fate. We never got another All-Pro Football game again, and Visual Concepts hasn't touched the sport of football since.

EA settled a lawsuit over its NFL exclusivity in 2012

As we mentioned earlier, EA caught a lot of heat from football game fans who were unhappy about the company's exclusivity deal with the NFL. But some actually took it a bit further than just complaining on message boards. Some actually entered into a class-action lawsuit against EA, alleging that the company's deal with the NFL turned Madden into a monopoly.

EA eventually settled that lawsuit, paying somewhere around $27 million to those who'd purchased Madden between 2005 and 2012. But in a bizarre twist, EA actually got to keep its exclusivity arrangement intact.

And it gets even worse when you learn about the one penalty EA had to pay as a result of the NFL deal. EA was forbidden from entering into exclusive deals with the NCAA for five years. But EA was the only company even making NCAA games at that point. And after scandal erupted around EA's use of NCAA player likenesses, EA was again sued, entered into another settlement (this time for $60 million), and couldn't run away from NCAA games fast enough.

But Madden NFL lives on.

Visual Concepts and 2K Games have kept busy

It hasn't been all bad for Visual Concepts and 2K Games. Visual Concepts still does fantastic work on the NBA 2K series, widely regarded as one of the best basketball titles in existence. And NBA 2K has largely become for basketball fans what Madden is for football fans: the standard, the game you play if you like that sport.

It doesn't hurt that NBA 2K also managed to make EA's basketball series, NBA Live, largely irrelevant.

Visual Concepts has had a hand in other projects, as well. It's a little-known fact that the studio has actually been helping developer Yuke's with the WWE 2K series for several years now. And as for 2K Games as a whole, the company has broadened its horizons significantly since it started after Take-Two's acquisition of Visual Concepts, publishing the Borderlands series, XCOMCivilization, and more.

There hasn't been much in the way of football for them since 2007. But they seem to be doing just fine anyway.

Madden NFL continues on without competition

It's been a long time since Madden NFL has been truly challenged, and that has a lot to do with the fact that EA has held the NFL license exclusively all this time. NFL 2K5 took Madden to the brink, threatening its position as the leader in the world of football video games. And with a Thanos-like snap, EA wiped the NFL 2K series from the universe.

In the nearly 15 years since, there's been serious discussion about how that's affected the product players ultimately get.

Back in 2011, IGN wrote of Madden's need for competition. In 2014, Vice wrote an interesting piece about how Madden was getting "lazy and stale." And Forbes wrote more recently about how even Madden fans would like to see another football title pushing the genre forward.

For NFL 2K to step back onto the field, the NFL would need to do away with handing out exclusivity deals, much as the NBA has done. And 2K Games, along with Visual Concepts, would need to be willing to give it another go. And we can't say for sure they'd want to.