Screens » Screens Etc.

Game On (video-game commentary)

Those who could have died happily without ever seeing O.J. Simpsonbusting a celebration dance in an end zone again may find themselves a little jarred by All-Pro Football 2K8, 2K Sports re-entry into the most lucrative corner of the video-gaming universe. The rest of us may simply look at it as another way to scratch our incurable national-football jones: After all, most training camps don’t start until August, but our football video games now come out in July.

Three years ago, 2K Sports was making a serious gridiron grab for Electronic Arts’ dynastic Madden dominance with its own bargain-priced football series. Then the NFL inked an exclusive licensing deal with EA, effectively chop-blocking 2K into football obscurity. Since they’re still cut off from active pros — and even the Arena League, for god’s sake — this year, 2K coaching staff called an end-around, locking in deals to populate their title with retired NFLers instead. Now that’s what I call a head game.

The roster of stars you can recruit includes players you’d expect (Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Barry Sanders), complete forehead-slappers (Brian Bosworth and Mike Golic? Seriously?), and a player you’d really rather hadn’t made the cut (the aforementioned O.J.). You can sign 11 of ’em to your invented team — two gold-, three silver-, and six bronze-level players. The remaining stars get dispersed randomly throughout your DIY league, which leads to bizarre-ass matchups where the defense you sadly neglected has to stop a team featuring Jerry Rice and Warren Moon. Ouch.

Like most NFL teams this year, All-Pro Football is a mixed bag: The on-the-field stuff is solid, but the kicking game’s a mess, especially field goals. Taking the field with a team straight out of the Hall of Fame Fantasy League rocks, but play modes are scarcer than Cleveland Browns fans who think Brady Quinn’s likely to lead them to the playoffs this year. Single-season is the only offline choice for folks who aren’t planning to spend all their time playing no-salary-cap smashmouth on Xbox Live. Guess that’s being held back for next year.

What’s been infinitely more entertaining than the nuances of trying to figure out Joe Montana’s “fourth-quarter comeback” skill has been EA’s reaction to its old nemesis re-crashing the private pigskin party. During a recent shareholder call, EA CEO John Riccitiello revealed that his company planned to make sure that 2K’s fantasy league experiment is “a blip” and “non-repeatable.” Seriously, we haven’t heard trash-talking this good since, well, the last time Terrell Owens opened his yap. Hey, anyone remember what we got from EA the first year of that exclusivity license? That’s right, baby — the impossible-to-control quarterback field vision feature. Which was itself — you guessed it — a non-repeatable blip.

It’s too soon to tell whether 2K can sustain an annual franchise by digging through the Canton canon of retired NFL stars — although the way things are going, Mike Vick, Pac-Man Jones, and Chris Henry ought to be available to star in next year’s edition. One’s thing’s certain: Having 2K in the game, flaws and all, is a damn sight better than having no football options at all. Just like Coke needs Pepsi, EA needs 2K to push it beyond esoteric features and roster updates. Remember, the NFL wouldn’t have a skycam — or Tommy Maddox — if it hadn’t been for the XFL.

With millions in the development vault and millions of fans salivating for the arrival of Madden 08 next week, EA shouldn’t fear being beaten at their own game. They should, like the Indianapolis Colts, fear resting on their laurels. •

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