Once, I had everything I ever wanted.
There was a popcorn machine, an air hockey table, a floor-to-ceiling bobblehead display case, posters! floor rugs! couches! a large fern, a dart machine, and a home theater. I had a phone, my very own, where I could call D-list celebrities—David Arquette, Steve-O, Carmen Electra, wow—and challenge them to video game football. This was all, by the way, possible in NFL 2K5, the architect of my one, my only, Crib.
Back then, in 2005, Madden wasn’t the only football video game on the market. From 1999 to 2004, 2K Sports, maker of the uber-popular NBA 2K series, had its own NFL simulation game (i.e. a game that simulates an actual, real-life NFL matchup). Throughout its run, NFL 2K developed into Madden’s way-cooler, better-at-nearly-everything, younger brother. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Even though many consider the final entry in the series, NFL 2K5, to be one of the greatest football video games ever made, the NFL signed an exclusive deal with Madden creator EA Sports in 2005. The partnership made EA Sports the only company allowed to use names or likenesses of current NFL players, which effectively killed the NFL 2K series. Even though 2K tried to make a football game work, despite the restrictions—remember All-Pro Football 2K8?—it became clear over the next decade that its efforts on the basketball court would keep the company’s lights on.
So, you could imagine my—and gamers who’ve been stuck with Madden and only Madden for the past 15 years—collective surprise when news broke on Tuesday that the NFL and 2K Sports renewed their partnership to produce “multiple video games centered on fun, approachable and social experiences.” No word yet on which platforms 2K will develop for, but note one important detail: These games, the first of which will debut in 2021, won’t be simulation games. Plus, the new deal says 2K can use NFL team names and logos, but still not any of the names or likenesses of its current players. So, there’s little chance we get NFL 2K21, because you can’t really have that without, you know, guys like Patrick Mahomes or Saquon Barkley.
Electronic Arts, for what it’s worth, was quick to remind gamers of this advantage—and flex on its old rival—saying in a statement:
EA SPORTS is the exclusive publisher of NFL simulation games, and our partnership with the NFL and NFLPA remains unchanged. Our agreements have always allowed for non-exclusive development of non-simulation games on various platforms. Our commitment to NFL fans, which spans almost 30 years, has never been stronger, and we’re having our biggest year yet.
With those hurdles, 2K could be thinking along the lines of its MyTeam mode within NBA 2K, where you collect trading cards of players, with the goal of putting together a fantasy team you can use on the court. (Remember, the deal only bars current players—so retired legends are very much up for grabs.) Or, hopefully, it could mean a wild, NBA Jam-esque arcade romp à la NFL Street or NFL Blitz, where physics and rules don’t really matter. Ideally, 2K is aiming for a sweet spot between reviving the weirdness that made NFL 2K such a fun Madden alternative, while still pushing the series forward into a much more pass-heavy (actually, arcade-style) ’20s-era NFL.
That’s all to say: This is a good thing. Serving up non-traditional NFL games was kind of 2K’s thing back in the day, if you’re old enough to remember. (I’m 26 years old, so, like, 73 in Gamer Years.) The best parts of NFL 2K5 happened off the field. As bragged above, the game gifted you a massive virtual apartment (referred to as…The Crib), where you could scroll through and purchase items from what was basically an Amazon wish list for 12-year-olds. And that air hockey table was actually playable—could you imagine Madden ever doing something like that?
NFL 2K5 was also (to use some rad aughts slang) tricked out with a full-blown ESPN presentation. Chris Berman, the guy who goes WOOP!, did the halftime show. Plus, Sportscenter was part of the experience, which made you feel a little more immersed in whatever game you were playing. You could watch Sportscenter commercials at the home theater in your Crib, if you were so inclined.
If any major studio can bring some life back to football video games—and turn the obstacles in its way into positives—it’s 2K Sports. And, god willing, it’ll give us some much-needed weirdness. Just imagine The Crib in 2021, where you can whip out your JUUL and call up Rob Kardashian, while Stephen A. Smith barks on First Take in the background.
So, 2K: I’ve missed you. I’m ready for you to be back in my life. Call the crib. Same number. Same hood. It’s all good.