GameCube Index Episode 81: NFL 2K3

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If you were a football game fan in 2002, you were already in for a good amount of internal debate over how to spend your cash. Madden NFL 2003 and NFL Blitz 2003 were both released on August 12, and while they were both vying for a place in your console, they appealed to pretty different play styles. Madden was a perfect fit for the simulation fans, the players who were looking to bring as real as possible football experience into their home. Blitz, on the other hand, was looking to bring the fast-paced arcade action that you’d find in, well, an arcade, and deliver it straight to your living room. Sales data shows that Madden was the clear winner in units sold between these two offerings, but a week later, new challenger was getting ready to approach: NFL 2K3. But before we dive into the only entry in the series to appear on the GameCube – it’s important to take a look back to the beginning, back to the Genesis, John Madden, and Joe Montana.

Electronic Arts published John Madden Football for the Sega Genesis in December of 1990. While Park Place Productions was wrapping up development, EA started work on salvaging Joe Montana Football at Sega’s request. Development on Montana had become a mess after the original developers Mediagenic started to fall apart, so Sega turned to EA due to their success with sports titles. Montana missed the release window goal of December 1990 and eventually came out in January of 1991, and while considered a success, was substantially less polished than Madden. According to an interview with Sega-16.com, Park Place Productions founder Michael Knox stated, “At the end of eight weeks, the Sega game, the Joe Montana Football game, not John Madden, was so good, that we decided we couldn’t release it that good because it would hurt the sales of John Madden Football. So we took the game, and we scaled it back before we gave it to Sega.”

With Madden solidified as the stand-out sports title in the home market, and Montana a close second, the Genesis was seen as the go-to sports console. When the time came around for the Dreamcast to hit the shelves, Sega knew that they needed lightning to strike twice. Allegedly, and according to Sega CEO Bernie Solar, EA agreed to come to the Dreamcast, but only if they had complete sports exclusivity. This complicated matters, as Sega had just acquired Visual Concepts, a development studio out of Novato, California, with the intent to launch a Sega exclusive line of sports titles. According to Solar, Former EA CEO Larry Probst disagreed with this situation, and EA decided not to release any titles on the Dreamcast.

Visual Concept’s NFL 2K series was a direct response to the lack of Madden on the platform, and it did really well. The first title received some positive reviews for a launch title, and NFL 2K1 brought some incredibly improved gameplay mechanics and player animations. Due to the death of the Dreamcast, 2K2 was the first to go multiplatform, and was a weak entry, barely improving upon the previous release, and had a stale reception. The important thing that 2K2 did, however, was bring the NFL 2K name to more players, setting them up for a great couple of years.

NFL 2K3 was released on August 21, 2002, on the Playstation 2, Xbox, and most importantly for us, the GameCube. You may think that releasing in the shadow of two other football titles might be damaging to 2K3, and yes, Madden did sell better, but Sega took aim at the beast, and began their assault on the best-selling sports game series of all time.

A simulation title designed to be the ultimate football experience, NFL 2K3 brought with it a vastly improved Franchise Mode, interactive menus, current (at-the-time) real-life and custom coaches, and a licensing deal with ESPN. This brought SportsCenter half-time reports, player awards, and post-game and weekly wrap-ups, and ESPN’s Dan Patrick even presented the opening movie. While this all led to a stellar presentation, it was the gameplay on the field that mattered. This, unfortunately, is where things started to fall apart.

Play selection in Madden titles is incredibly straightforward, and there’s a reason why other games try and copy that style. You scroll through play categories and select the specific plan with a face button. Nice and easy, right? 2K3 instead opted to go with a strangely laid out and tough to use selection system that seems like it would fit better with a touchscreen than an analog stick. Plays aren’t grouped together as nicely or cleanly as they should be, and selection is done with the triggers and analog stick in a way that looks just as janky as it feels. This, coupled with a poorly expressed presentation of what each play entails, leads to initial confusion and an initial reliance on instinct. It’s not a system that is friendly to new or inexperienced players, and it’s easily my least favorite part of play.

The frustration flips back around, however, once you hit the field. Passing, rushing, catching, all of the cool and important things you need to do feel great to execute and aren’t going to be tough to pull off. One nice thing about 2K3 is that it’s as technical as you need it to be. It’ll never be an arcade action sports title like Blitz, but it can run right alongside Madden with how deep you can go into the simulation. Franchise Mode is a very real and immersive offering, so much so that you can even scout players in the Combine, and manage the assistant coaches hours to get the most information about the young players. Team Management is aesthetically deep, but not overly technical, so even the most casual player can jump in and manage a great team without having to jump through a bunch of hoops or spin a lot of plates.

Sega offered up a way to compare your rankings against players across the country with User Rankings, which when saved would generate a unique code. This code could be entered on a website to compare against the leaderboards of every other player that also logged on, which brought a unique kind of competition and ranking to the game, especially since the GameCube version didn’t include online play.

NFL 2K3 was the only NFL 2K game to be released for the GameCube. The followup, ESP NFL Football shied away from the 2K branding and leaned heavily on the ESPN license, and the final game in the series came the year after that: ESPN NFL Football 2K5. 2K5 had a unique release due to the fact that it was released at $19.99, severely undercutting Madden NFL 2005, which was a standard $49.99. This greatly impacted the sales of Madden that year, and in response, Madden NFL 2005’s price dropped to $29.99. In an effort to ensure something like this would never happen again, EA signed an exclusivity deal with the NFL, becoming the sole creator of NFL video games. This made sure that there would never be another 2K title to compete with Madden, and Sega ended the franchise. To this day, EA still holds the rights to the NFL license, but we can still look back on what once was. Instead of being a singular entry in a forgotten sports franchise, NFL 2K3 played a part in a larger, and much more dramatic, moment in history.

Did you ever play NFL 2K3? What did you think of it? What did you like or hate about the game?

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About Geoff Girardin

Geoff Girardin is the producer of GCNdex, a weekly series that covers every GameCube game in chronological order. He also helped make two tiny humans, and he eats so much that his wife is worried. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffgirardin, or keep up with his experience with fatherhood on geoffgirardin.com.

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