The Golden Age of Sports Video GamesJuly 6, 2019
By: Cory Vega, eSports analyst
Modern sports video games are in a sad state at the moment. From game breaking glitches, sub-par gameplay, and most importantly, heinous microtransactions that support a pay to win type of game. If a player who doesn’t want to throw his or her well earned cash away, he or she will be subjected to tormentous grinding just to keep up with those who are splashing the cash. This is even an era where advertisements akin to TV ads are in video games. That’s honestly depressing man. But it wasn’t always this way. Sports games used to bring innovation with every installment, competition brought out the best of developers, and fun was emphasized rather than ways to milk wallets dry. This golden age of sports games was during the sixth generation of consoles, that being the GameCube, Xbox, and PS2. This era was a special time for all sports games. From baseball to football to basketball. These older games showed that nothing can replace solid gameplay, and features meant to keep players playing, rather than chuck more cash in the corporate furnace. In this piece, I’ll go over the games that truly made the mid 2000’s a special time for sports fans and video game fans alike.
When one talks about football video games during the mid 2000’s, you could not resist gushing about NFL 2K5. The game literally scared EA into buying the NFL license, preventing another 2K led NFL game. Even to this day, the very mention of it terrifies past and present EA employees. It truly was revolutionary for its time, with features that have yet to appear in an NFL game since. As quoted by Polygon’s Owen Good in his article about NFL 2K5, it’s “Sports video gaming’s King Arthur, eternally populist, noble and heroic, champion of an age long ago…” This game has presentation and pizzazz unlike any other. Sega really utilized the ESPN license they had by implementing it into almost everything. From the menus, to the ingame scoreboards, to the very well crafted ‘Chris Berman Halftime Show.’ The game legit looked like a 2004 special of Sportscenter, it was that detailed. NFL 2K5 immersed the player, both through the presentation, and the revolutionary first person mode. The franchise mode is considered the gold standard of the mode, especially compared to the newer Madden titles. The gameplay was smooth, fun, but realistic. There was proper throwing trajectory, and a silky smooth running experience was the emphasis of this game. The game even gave the player opportunities to learn about the game of football, from historical matches you could play as (Kofie Yeboah does a great job of going in-depth with these matches), to offering explanations on NFL lingo and specific packages on both offense and defense. The game was something special. And the great thing was, Madden NFL offered a great football experience as well during this time. The timespan of Madden 04 to Madden 08 on gen six consoles was a special time, with critical innovations coming with each entry. 04 introduced the highly praised and in-depth owner mode, 05 introduced the coveted hit stick and added the fan favorite Tony Bruno radio show, 06 added the oh so satisfying truck stick and the hyper-realistic QB vision cone, 07 added specific player roles to differentiate stars from the common player, and 08 took it a step further by adding player weapons to diversify the already fun gameplay. Each game would also add in minor updates with each entry, from features such as managing player moral in franchise to new tackle animations that hold up today. And don’t even get me started on the soundtracks. I still listen to songs from Madden 06 today, and I have no shame about it. Dance Dance by Fall Out Boy, Night Drive by the All American Rejects, and Mind On The Road by Rev Run. Classics. And who could forget the classic NFL music, that shockingly haven’t made a return in the modern Maddens. Modern football games have yet to even touch this dominant era, with Madden 12 probably being the last good Madden. After that, features such as the in-depth franchise mode, create-a-team, and tournaments were removed. Madden 20 is even featuring player weapons and the Pro Bowl as new features. They’re literally reintroducing features tossed aside years ago. That shows how these were the glory days of football video games, and modern games are only trying to rekindle that magic.
Ironic how yet another game considered the best of its kind was released in the span of 2004-2005, and that it was the last of its respective series. MVP Baseball 2005 would be the final MVP Baseball game produced by EA, as they lost their license to produce MLB games the coming year. However, many people can attest this game stands the test of time. Even modders on the PC version update it with modern rosters, UI changes, and graphic increases. The reason why this game still holds up today is the sheer depth it has. The newly introduced owner mode literally gave you the keys to your favorite franchise. From customising a brand new stadium and building it up, managing the finances, and controlling player moral. The gameplay is silky smooth, even today. Color coated pitches indicating which type a pitch is helps newcomers with batting (which is usually difficult in video games) and rewards veterans who can read said pitches. The game can be very serious, like a businessman, but in a moment’s flash, it can be a fun and rambunctious frat boy. Arguably the mode that most people are fond and nostalgic over is the minigames, especially the batting minigame. Rather than explain, I’ll let you watch a clip of it and see for yourself how addicting this game can be.
The game had all kinds of fun quirks and cheats. From the fictional player Jon Dowd, who was supposed to represent Barry Bonds, to the various cheats in create-a-player. For example, if you create a player named Katie Roy, you would unlock everything in the game, from baseball legends to old time stadiums (even with their own old time filter!). You could even use those legends in franchise mode as if they lived in the modern game. One thing I would always do is arrange a fantasy draft in owner mode with said legends alongside the “modern” stars in the game. The end result is a balanced but juiced league. A ridiculous cheat is if you create a player named Jacob Paterson, the end result is a tiny player who wields a giant bat, and only hits dingers or hard line drives regardless of stats. While MVP Baseball reigned as king, there were other fantastic baseball games during this golden age. SIE San Diego Studio’s MLB The Show emerged in 2006, and it’s first two titles on PS2 (06 and 07) were especially solid. Road to the show was introduced in 07 and was an immersive take on the usual superstar mode. It laid the foundation for the series today. And personally, MLB The Show 07’s soundtrack remains my favorite soundtrack of all time. Give it a listen.
Finally, you couldn’t mention baseball games and Nintendo without mentioning Mario Superstar Baseball. It’s just absurdly fun to pick up and play with your bros. Personally, I would always pick DK as my captain.
Basketball games were wildly different in the mid 2000’s compared to today’s. Almost all of the most popular titles were arcady and wildly fun, but not too serious. The obvious games to point to are EA’s NBA street series, with Volume 2 arguably being the most popular one. GQ’s in-depth article tells you everything you want to know about the game, from how fluid and enjoyable the gameplay was, to the history of the creators. From my personal experience, the game is a time capsule for the early 90’s and early 2000’s. From the rosters to the absolute choice soundtrack. The commentary made you feel you were at a street game. The game was overtop, ridiculous fun. There were so many tricks and concepts to learn but if you mastered them, you could absolutely embarrass your friends with the sickest of dunks. It was a fair and enjoyable learning curve/skill gap. The entire series was solid, with Vol 3 having some awesomely absurd features, such as featuring Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach in the GameCube version. It’s things like that that made fans fall in love with the series. Many NBA fans are clamouring for the return of NBA Street, but there have been no signs sadly. We can all hope. As for more simulation type NBA games, they weren’t as prevalent as their modern counterparts. You could see elements of the modern game in the older NBA 2Ks, but the fact was NBA simulation games took off a bit later than other sports. Many fans would agree the early 2010s were the peak of 2K, especially with 2K11. In other words, the streets were king in this generation, and many people including myself were a-okay with that. That doesn’t mean simulation NBA games were terrible though. NBA Courtside 2002 was an underrated gem for the GameCube and the NBA Live 2005 had many elements ahead of its time, such as its tight controls and realistic physics.
As for other sports, there were quite wide selection of excellent games. One series everyone and their mother knows is the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series. The first two games for the original Playstation were critical hits, so there was a lot of pressure to produce a quality game once the PS2 rolled around. Oh boy did Neversoft hit it out of the park. According to metacritic, this alongside GTA 3 are the highest rated games of all time on PS2. If that doesn’t speak to how awesome this game truly is, I don’t know what will. The combos that are tough to learn but satisfying to do, the unlockable characters like Darth Maul and the Wolverine, the heavy metal soundtrack, there is nothing to hate about Pro Skater 3. It was built up from a solid foundation with the first two games, and added more. The game was focused and committed to bringing a fun experience that captured the heart of skating. If you could maintain a long combo and rack up those points, it would look like art in motion. Soccer games were evolving during this time but many would agree this wasn’t FIFA’s golden era. While FIFA 03 and FIFA 05 were fun titles, the series would truly take off in the early 2010’s, much like 2K. The timespan of FIFA 10 to FIFA 14 was a dominant era, but fans are growing tired of what the game has become, with scripted difficulty online and lackluster gameplay. Arguably the most popular soccer game during this time was the coveted Mario Strikers. An all out aggressive take on soccer. It was a simple game but an immensely fun one at that. The unlockable cheats such as bomb-ombs only would add to the chaos. It’s a great game to simply pick up and play with friends, and potentially piss them off. Nascar Chase For The Cup 2005 is widely considered the greatest Nascar game of all time, and if you wanted to dive more into motorsport, you had the original Forza Motorsport on Xbox, which laid the groundwork for the successful series.
All of these games stood the test of time in a market where often the older version is cast out, often assumed to be the inferior version. With the state of modern franchises such as Madden or 2K, they need to look to the past and rekindle what made them so adored back then. And that begins with love. Nobody can say FIFA 19 or Madden 19 was made with love. Love for money yes, but not for the player. Madden 05 never needed to add the Tony Bruno show but it did. MVP Baseball 2005 never needed to add legendary players or cheats like Katie Roy but it did. Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 never needed to add all of the ridiculous unlockable characters but it did. And it was all for the players to enjoy. Because they appreciated their support of their games, unlike now where companies see them as pawns. I hope for a time where we can see modern sports games with the heart and soul of their predecessors. So now I ask you, the reader. What was your favorite sports game during this time and what memories do you have with it? Share your experiences below.