EA Sports' Madden franchise has been the sole officially-licensed NFL video game for quite some time thanks to an exclusive contract between the sports league and video game company, but it wasn't always that way. Developers and publishers such as 989 Sports, 2K, Tecmo, and a number of others that aren't even listed in this article all had their time on the gridiron. As such, many good (and just as many not-so-good) pro football video games have come out over the years.
Below we list five of the greatest NFL video game franchises to ever grace the industry.
Madden NFL - The market leader in this category (mainly because no others are allowed to be made at the moment), EA Sports' Madden NFL franchise has been around since its debut on the Apple II computer in 1988. As John Madden himself put it, the game was "he first real football simulation." It had moderate success but did well enough to launch what would become one of the best selling video game franchises in history. Come the 1990s, EA was making the game for the SEGA Genesis where it helped the console gain major ground over Nintendo's Super Nintendo before the SNES also had its own version of Madden come out. While early versions of Madden were made by third-party developers for Electronic Arts such as Visual Concepts, Bethesda, and Stormfront Studios, in 1995 EA hire Tiburon Entertainment and assigned them to work on Madden NFL '97 before eventually purchasing the company that would wind up making every Madden game since.
The 2000s found significant growth for the Madden NFL series even though competition had begun to mound. Sales of Madden on Xbox and PlayStation 2 were strong, though for one reason or another EA shunned SEGA's platforms (the Saturn and Dreamcast), which resulted in adding even more competition against EA Sports' NFL video game franchise. Still, with graphics and gameplay evolving in leaps and bounds, Madden NFL held strong. Of course, in 2004 EA and the NFL entered into an infamous exclusive agreement granting the video game developer exclusive rights to all things NFL. The move effectively shoved all of Madden's competition out of the way and paved the way for the franchise to be the best (and only) option year in and year out.
NFL 2K - The NFL 2K series made its debut in 1999 with Sega Sports' NFL 2K and made an immediate impact on the NFL video game market. While initially available only on SEGA's Dreamcast system thanks to EA Sports not releasing Madden for the platform, the franchise quickly expanded onto other consoles and found immediate success thanks to its praiseworthy gameplay, advanced graphics, and wealth of content. Its sequel, NFL 2K1, was also a Dreamcast exclusive but the following year saw the demise of SEGA's console and the company released NFL 2K2 as not only the final version for Dreamcast but the first for PlayStation 2 and Xbox. It was released to nearly-glowing reviews and the first real competitor in years to EA Sports' game took hold. The following year's release, NFL 2K3 added Nintendo's GameCube to the mix as the Dreamcast was no longer being supported.
2003 marked a big year for SEGA Sports as that year's version of NFL 2K included branding from the most powerful name in sports television, ESPN. The then-named ESPN NFL Football 2K4 included reports from ESPN's Chris Berman and Suzy Kolber. Building upon the momentum and success of the past few years, SEGA made another big disruption in the NFL video games market by slashing the price of its new games from the market-standard $49.99 to only $19.99, effectively taking most of the market share from rival EA Sports while still delivering one of the best-received NFL video games in video game history, NFL 2K5. Unfortunately for Take-Two Interactive, who developed the SEGA Sports titles, and the video game industry as a whole, EA's exclusive contract with the NFL put an end to the NFL 2K series (and any other non-EA developed, NFL-branded video game franchises). A few years later the company tried to resurrect the brand with All-Pro Football 2K8. While the game featured a fictional pro football league with fictional teams, it did have licencing from former NFL players including Jerry Rice, John Elway, and Barry Sanders. That star power just wasn't enough as Madden NFL simply had the market completely under its control and no further pro football video games would be produced to date from Take-Two and its 2K development studio.
NFL Blitz - Unlike Madden NFL, which began as a computer game, and the NFL 2K series, which came to be as a Dreamcast exclusive, NFL Blitz came to life as an immediately popular coin-op video arcade game. Made by Midway, NFL Blitz was a hard hitting, over-the-top, and more violent version of the NFL that was more arcade than simulation. The game was an instant hit and was quickly ported to Nintendo 64, PlayStation, Windows PC, and Game Boy Color. The game saw two more coin-op iterations with NFL Blitz 99 and NFL Blitz 2000 Gold, but its long-term success was found on platforms that didn't involve pumping rolls of quarters into a stand-up machine. Home console versions of NFL Blitz came out bi-annually and were initially ports of the previous year's coin-op game. That practice ended in 2001 with the N64 exclusive NFL Blitz Special Edition as all future editions until Blitz ended in 2003 would be multiplatform titles.
In 2005, after a two year hiatus, NFL Blitz returned. Thanks to EA Sports' exclusive agreement with the NFL, however, the newly-released Blitz: The League lacked the NFL licence and, thus, had fictional teams and players. It did, however, still feature the bigger-than-real-life gameplay that the franchise was known for and (because of that) fared better than 2K's All-Pro Football 2K8. Midway released a second version of The League in 2008, but that would be the last from the company as they filed bankruptcy the year after. Electronic Arts bought the rights to NFL Blitz and re-launched the brand in 2012 complete with NFL licencing for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, though nothing has come out from the franchise since.
NFL GameDay - In the late 1990s the pro football video game market was pretty saturated with Madden, NFL Blitz, NFL Quarterback Club, NFL GameDay, and others. Made by 989 Sports (formerly Sony Interactive Studios America), NFL GameDay was a PlayStation exclusive NFL title much like what MLB The Show is today for pro baseball. Through its 10 year life, the NFL GameDay series is considered a success for Sony despite only being available on PlayStation and (eventually) PlayStation 2, though NFL GameDay 99 was also available for Windows PC. The series' debut title, simply called NFL GameDay, wasn't the best-looking game on the market at the time, but critics raised the game's surprisingly good player AI and its overall gameplay.
Releasing annually as is the custom for games like it, NFL GameDay featured some of the top NFL players on its covers including Jerome Bettis, LaDainian Tomlinson, and (twice) Terrell Davis. With the exception of NFL GameDay 97, which was a huge jump from the debut release from the previous year, the GameDay series saw mostly incremental improvements year-over-year. Despite that, it was still a great selling game year in and year out for Sony until EA's NFL exclusive agreement went into effect. As an odd move by Sony and developer 989 Sports, the 10th and final installment in the series, NFL GameDay 2005, was released only on the heavily-outdated PlayStation console, shunning Sony's market-leading PlayStation 2.
Tecmo Bowl - Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. While initially lacking any NFL licencing or branding, Tecmo's Tecmo Bowl launched as a coin-op arcade game in 1987 before making its home console debut in 1989 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Playcalling is woefully simplistic by today's standards, as is gameplay and player AI, and yet the Tecmo Bowl series has stood the test of time. Of course, the franchise didn't find immediate success. It wasn't until the 1991 NES game Tecmo Super Bowl that the game really took off. The game had licencing from both the NFL and the NFLPA and featured the names and attributes of the real-life NFL players and teams of the time. The game featured a much more refined version of the arcade gameplay from the original but added in cut scenes and season/post season play. Tecmo Super Bowl proved so popular that the game saw a number of re-releases including versions in 1994 and 1995 for SNES and Genesis, as well as appearing on PlayStation in 1996.
In the years afterwards, no new versions of Tecmo Bowl would see publication for quite some time. Despite the game's cult-like following, only ports of the original games would be released. In 2008, however, that changed as Tecmo Bowl: Kickoff came out on the Nintendo DS. While it lacked any NFL branding and used generic teams and players, the game allowed for some user customization with which users could create their own versions of their favorite football teams. The game saw moderate success and a version for the Nintendo Wii was in the works, but those plans were scrapped. 2010 saw the release of Tecmo Bowl Throwback as a digitally downloaded game for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It was an updated version of Tecmo Super Bowl that retained the now-retro feel of the 1991 title but added 3D graphics, online play, and a team editor. Like Kickoff, it, too, lacked any NFL licensing. Still, all these years later, and gamers -- especially those in their 30's and older -- still consider Tecmo Super Bowl to be one of the most fun and enjoyable NFL video games ever made.
So, what's your favorite NFL video game to play?