ESPN NFL 2K5 is now more than a decade old, which — not coincidentally — also means that EA Sports' Madden NFL franchise hasn't had a competitor for more than a decade.
Even now, 11 years later, disaffected football fans are still banging the drum that Madden is stagnant, that Madden still hasn't managed to eclipse NFL 2K5 in some ways. It's an absurd argument on its face, especially two console generations removed. But it persists anyway, and Madden's developers at EA Tiburon are tired of it.
Rex Dickson, Madden's creative director, told me during a Madden NFL 16 demo last week that he believes the "still better than Madden" contingent hasn't even bothered to try the series in years. If those people did pick up the game, said Dickson, they'd have to stop railing against EA — at least in this respect.
Of course, if you are one of those people, holding out hope for some competition in the football space, it probably doesn't feel great to hear EA tell you to get over yourself and give in. But Dickson feels that Madden 16 makes the best argument yet to bring those holdouts into the fold, and he may have a case.
Early in my first game of Madden 16, the CPU-controlled quarterback attempted to hit a receiver heading out of bounds. He threw the ball high enough to prevent me, playing as a defensive back, from undercutting the route and picking off the pass; improved pass targeting is an important feature this year. So I decided to play the man instead of the ball.
Using a control mechanism that's new in Madden 16, I pressed X on PS4 to hit the receiver as the pass arrived. My defender leaped toward the wideout and they collided in midair; the receiver caught the ball, but I had managed to drive him out of bounds to force an incompletion. I don't think I've ever quite seen that in Madden.
"It's probably the biggest 'wow' moment generator we've put in the game in 20 years"
"It's probably the biggest 'wow' moment generator we've put in the game in 20 years," said Dickson. The revamped interactions between receivers and defenders also mean that Madden 16 can deliver other pieces of the passing offense that make the game more realistic, like tipped balls and pass interference penalties.
Getting rid of Madden's legacy issues continues to be a theme for EA Tiburon, going back to the studio's work on run blocking and pass blocking for 2013's Madden NFL 25. Those problems are a major pain point for longtime fans of the franchise, and according to Dixon, fixing them is a crucial step in winning back the favor of the anti-Madden crowd.
Dickson also has data to help his case. Madden's sales declined over the course of the last console generation, but last year's game — the first with a full development cycle on the new consoles — came in as the second-best-selling title of 2014 in the U.S., behind only Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
"Sales were up significantly last year," Dickson told me, adding that EA sold more than 6 million copies of Madden NFL 15. That game provides a "solid core" for EA Tiburon to build on, said Dickson, who added that he believes that if the studio can continue to iterate on that foundation, it can bring the franchise back to its PlayStation 2 / Xbox / GameCube heyday of selling 8 million to 10 million copies every year.
"We're going to win 'em over," said Dickson of the naysayers. "Even if it's one person at a time, we're going to win 'em over."
Madden NFL 16 launches Aug. 25 on PlayStation 3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. For more, check out our E3 preview.
Madden NFL: Breaking Madden destroys the Super Bowl