Take-Two subsidiary 2K announced today it will be returning to “football-themed” video games for the first time in well over a decade, thanks to a “multi-year partnership” with the NFL. The first games in this partnership, expected in 2021, will offer an NFL-licensed alternative to EA’s best-selling Madden NFL juggernaut for the first time since 2004.
“Expanding the NFL’s presence in the world of gaming has become a focus for the League as we look to grow the next generation of our fanbase and reviving our partnership with 2K was a natural step in that effort,” Joe Ruggiero, NFL senior VP of consumer products, said in a statement. “2K is a worldwide leader in sports video games, with a proven track record of creating best-in-class and award-winning games, and we look forward to sharing more about the projects we are working on with them in the future.”
While any new NFL2K game will be able to use the names, logos, and stadiums of real NFL teams, the licensing deal does not cover virtual versions of the players themselves. Rights to those players would have to be covered by a separate deal with the NFL Players Association union, which was pointedly not mentioned in 2K’s announcement. A 2K representative refused to comment on the existence of any NFLPA deal when asked by Polygon.
The rise and fall (and re-rise?) of NFL2K
The well-regarded NFL2K franchise started with a Dreamcast exclusive release developed by Sega subsidiary Visual Concepts in 1999. The last game in the series, ESPN NFL2K5, sold a reported 2.9 million copies across multiple consoles, thanks in part to a then-bargain-basement price of $19.99.
EA lowered the price of Madden 2005 to $29.95 in response, then acquired the exclusive rights to the NFL and NFLPA licenses later that year to effectively cut off the potential of any further competition. Since then, only a handful of developers has bothered to attempt a take on the sport without the authenticity of NFL team and player name licenses, such as an attempted revamp of the classic Tecmo Bowl series in 2008.
Take-Two would purchase Visual Concepts in 2005 and rename the studio 2K Games. Under the new umbrella, 2K tried to get back in the American football game with 2007’s All-Pro Football 2008, featuring hundreds of retired NFL players on fictional teams. The game received a middling critical reception, though, and failed to become a franchise.
What’s a “simulation,” exactly?
While 2K isn’t going into many details on the form that its upcoming football games will take, it makes clear in its announcement that the titles “will be non-simulation football game experiences.”
That’s a key distinction that EA also highlighted in its response to the news this morning: “EA Sports is the exclusive publisher of NFL simulation games, and our partnership with the NFL and NFLPA remains unchanged,” the publisher said. “Our agreements have always allowed for non-exclusive development of non-simulation games on various platforms.”
That runs counter to reporting from 2004 and onward, which suggested EA had become the only company that could publish any game with the NFL names and trademarks attached. EA’s 2004 announcement of the deal, in fact, noted that it covered “action simulation, arcade-style and manager games on the PC, handheld game devices and consoles — including console online features. The agreements do not include exclusive rights to other types of games or games accessible from the Internet or wireless devices, including cellular phones.”
That initial five-year deal, which has been extended multiple times, was so all-encompassing that it led to a 2008 class-action lawsuit against EA for anti-competitive practices. In settling that lawsuit in 2012, EA agreed to give up its NCAA and Arena Football licenses but kept its stranglehold on the NFL name for video games.
Regardless, it’s an open question what kind of gameplay 2K will be allowed to fit into this apparent “non-simulation” exclusivity loophole. The Madden series has in recent years featured a “simulation game style” that it calls “the authentic NFL experience [which] plays true to player and team ratings and NFL rules.” That’s in contrast to Madden‘s faster-paced “arcade” style, which features faster-paced play and higher chances of “spectacular catches… broken tackles and ball carrier fake-outs,” and lower chances for interceptions.
That parsing of the “simulation” terminology would conceivably allow 2K to lean into a more over-the-top NFL experience akin to Midway’s classic NFL Blitz series. But the NFL eventually asked Midway to tone down that series’ most brutal features, including late hits and excessive celebrations. When EA brought back NFL Blitz in 2012, the league reportedly asked for the game’s most excessive violence to be toned down to align with “their take on player health and safety.”
Excessive violence aside, the line between “simulation” and “non-simulation” is an incredibly fuzzy one in the world of sports video games. There are entire academic papers attempting to map out the spectrum between “abstraction” and “transformation” in virtual sports, but there’s still no one agreed-upon point where a game tips over from “simulation” to “non-simulation.”
Features such as franchise management, offensive play design, and even modeling of players’ stats and health status could conceivably be considered part of a “simulation” take on American football, given the usual understanding of the sub-genre. But anything that maps to the real sport of football could also arguably fall under the “simulation” heading, depending on how expansive you want to get with the definition.
It will be interesting to see how this apparently contractually obligated distinction will manifest itself in 2K’s take on the sport. In any case, though, it will be nice to finally get any take on the sport that isn’t controlled by Electronic Arts.
[Shortly after publication, this story was updated with EA’s 2004 PR language.]