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A History of Sega’s NFL Games

Tear the roof off.

While I’m finishing up the NES book, writer James Swift of Uncommon Journalism has graciously offered to pen some Sega-themed articles for the site. Expect them once a week for the next while!

For a series that sold millions of copies over the course of 15 years, it’s more than a little odd that there’s no formal name for Sega’s in-house pro football game franchise. Across a span of five Sega consoles, the series was marketed under several different brand names: Joe Montana Football then NFL Sports Talk Football then just plain NFL (insert year here) then Prime Time Football then NFL (insert year here) again before finally being rechristened as the venerable NFL 2K series.

Humble beginnings.

Sega did produce two proprietary football games without an NFL license on the Sega Master System. The first game, 1987’s Great Football (also known as Sports Pad Football) was a ho-hum arcade title, even if it was one of the first football video games to include true-to-form 11-on-11 player action. The follow-up – 1989’s Walter Payton Football (called American Pro Football in Europe) – was a solid football sim with a robust playbook, great graphics and super smooth gameplay. I’d go as far as to call it the best football game released on any platform prior to Tecmo Super Bowl, including the original Tecmo Bowl on the NES.

Neither of those games served as the base for Sega’s first pro football game on the Sega Genesis. In fact, Sega wouldn’t even develop the first “official” Sega football game on the system. Instead, they chose to outsource the duties to Electronic Arts, the same company behind the Madden juggernaut who would eventually snatch up the exclusive NFL license for itself and “kill” Sega’s beloved 2K franchise. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Montana wins the Sega Bowl!

For all intents and purposes, the original Joe Montana Football game released on the Genesis in 1991 was the same game as John Madden Football, albeit with some major gameplay tweaks. The engines for both games are identical, the visuals are almost interchangeable and the core control schemes are the same. Joe Montana was a simpler game than Madden, however, with a smaller playbook and more straight-forward, offense-oriented play (in other words: it was meant to be a defenseless score fest.) Interestingly enough, the presentation of Joe Montana served as something of a prototype for later Madden games; more specifically, the game’s simplified passing system (which, unlike Madden, didn’t revolve around picture-in-picture frames of receivers downfield) would eventually become the default for all EA football games.

As it turns out, the whole EA partnership with Sega came about by accident. Sega originally wanted Mediagenic to produce what would become Joe Montana by Christmas 1989, but Sega was so disappointed by their work that they decided to scrap the title altogether (Mediagenic would later release their own MS-DOS version of Joe Montana in 1990, complete with actual NFL players). Ports of Joe Montana were produced for the Master System and Game Gear, but EA didn’t work on them. They were totally different games in terms of visual design and core gameplay, complete with a more Tecmo Bowl-ish horizontal field of view instead of the 16-bit game’s vertical perspective. Both games were developed by BlueSky Software, who – as fate would have it – were chosen by Sega to develop the sequel to Joe Montana Football on the Genesis.

Oh Joe, you’re not throwing that football to anybody.

Released in 1991, Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football was – conceptually – a bigger, more refined version of the Joe Montana games on the SMS and Game Gear. Like its forerunner, the game had no official NFL license and the only “real” player was Joe Montana (who was under a five year, nearly $2 million sponsorship deal with Sega). Sports Talk Football was a slightly more technical game than its predecessor, although it remained very offense-oriented. Technologically, the game’s two biggest claims to fame are its graphics (the camera would zoom in on players after completions and during runs, and the sprites were impressively detailed) and its voice acting. Lon Simmons’ running commentary, while a tad warbled,  is still excellent today; back in the day, hearing TV quality play-by-play audio in a football video game was positively mind-blowing. Gameplay-wise, the original Joe Montana was probably the more polished experience, but the presentation on Sports Talk was so awesome,  it almost made up for the game’s control issues.

BlueSky would go on to produce the next two games in the series, NFL Sports Talk Football ‘93 (1992) and NFL Football ‘94 Starring Joe Montana (1993.) Both games were enhanced iterations of Sports Talk, although this time the titles were allowed to use official NFL team names and logos. While each game graphically and aurally improved upon the other, for the most part the core gameplay remained unchanged (although ‘94 did have real player names and a switched default field view to a more Madden-esque vertical screen), with Lon Simmons’ commentary changing very little between each release. And while neither of the games received a port to the Game Gear, BlueSky did (somehow) manage to release a pared back version of Sports Talk Football ‘93 on the Atari Lynx under the title NFL Football in 1992.

This sums up NFL ’95

Although BlueSky handled the porting duties for 1994’s NFL ‘95, they didn’t work on the Sega Genesis version. That game was produced by Double Diamond Sports, a sub-unit of Farsight Technologies, i.e., the people who made the Genesis version of Action 52. The 16-bit iteration of the game dropped the running commentary and reverted back to the simple, arcadey action of the very first Joe Montana sports title. Presentation-wise, the game was a huge step back from ‘94, with fewer sound effects and less defined sprites.

The series was rechristened again in 1995 with the release of Prime Time Football Starring Deion Sanders. Once again the title was developed by Farsight Technologies (this time working under the name “Spectacular Games”) and yeah, it was nearly identical to the last game in the series, albeit with a few roster shifts and a couple of new animations and sound bites. While 32X and Saturn versions of the game were announced, to this day no gameplay footage or screenshots have been released.

The Saturn fumbles!

The inconsistently-titled series finally made its debut on the Saturn in late 1996 with NFL ‘97. The game was produced by Padded Cell Studios, who were probably best known for creating the Genesis and Sega CD iterations of Batman Returns, and featured 3D polygonal graphics similar to those on Madden and NFL GameDay on the Playstation. The game had a vertical field POV and featured all of the current NFL teams and players. It also employed a unique passing system where each throw had an arc to it, so you threw to a specific spot on the field instead of an open receiver. NFL ’97 is decent, but it’s far from being the best football game of the 32-bit era (or even the best football game on the Saturn). Oddly enough, it was the only in-house Sega football game released for the system, and the very next year, Sega decided to release the sequel as a Genesis exclusive. Today, this would be like Nintendo announcing that the next Pokemon game will be a DS-only release.

There’s not a lot to say about NFL Prime Time ‘98 (which, for whatever reason, is just called NFL ‘98) on the box. Released in May 1997, it was one of the last games ever published for the Genesis, but to be honest, this game is hardly anything more than a repackaged version of the Prime Time game from two years earlier. And I’m not being facetious, they didn’t even bother changing the menus or music. If it weren’t for the roster tweaks and a few different plays and animations, you’d be hard-pressed to even tell the difference between this game and its two-year-old progenitor.

Now we’re talkin’.

With the release of the Dreamcast in North America in 1999, Sega resurrected their long-running football franchise under the NFL 2K banner. The team Sega assembled to create the game was Visual Concepts, who handled the Super Nintendo versions of several Madden games back in the day. The first entry in the series (fittingly enough, titled NFL 2K) was a day one launch title for the Dreamcast, and was immediately hailed as a virtual sports masterpiece.

As iffy a job as Sega did with their first (and only) Sega Saturn football game, they more than made up for it with the inaugural edition of NFL 2K. The graphics were far beyond anything we’d seen in a sports game up to that point, the audio commentary from Dan Stevens and Peter O’Keefe (who are actually fictional characters) sounded like it was pulled from a live NFL broadcast, and the gameplay was absolutely superb. Visual Concept outdid themselves a year later with NFL 2K1, which was one of the first major sports games to offer modem-based online play, and followed that up with NFL 2K2, the last in-house football game Sega ever published exclusively for their own console (the game was ported to the PlayStation 2 shortly after Sega exited the hardware market in 2002).

Smooth as butta.

The 2K series became a cross-platform title starting with 2002’s NFL 2K3, which was released on the PS2, Xbox and GameCube. The same year, Visual Concept’s NCAA College Football 2K series (a spin off using the NFL 2K engine) also went multi-platform, but that series was cancelled just a year later due to lagging sales.

The primary NFL 2K series underwent yet another title change in 2003 when the follow-up to NFL 2K3 was relabeled ESPN NFL Football, to better reflect the franchise’s partnership with the cable network brand. ESPN NFL Football, released on the PS2 and Xbox, is especially noteworthy for several reasons, including the debut of “first person football” mode (yep, that’s football, Doom-style) and “The Crib” feature, which allowed you to unlock all sorts of cool stuff by completing in-game feats. Not only were you able to collect classic Dreamcast-era music as Easter eggs, you could even draft iconic Sega characters as playable free agents. There is nothing more awe-inspiring than watching Ryo Hazuki and Beat from Jet Grind Radio don Oakland Raiders uniforms and bulldoze over the 2003-2004 Kansas City Chiefs.

Fare thee well, NFL 2K

For all intents and purposes, 2004’s ESPN NFL 2K5 was the last “true” NFL game produced by Sega. Sega really decided to go to war with Electronic Arts here, not only releasing the Xbox and PS2 game a month before Madden 2005, but retailing it for only $19.99. The loss-leader approach worked and the title sold a ton of copies. Today it’s regarded as not only the crowning jewel of Sega’s entire NFL series, but a strong candidate for best football game ever made. It’s such a beloved title that a dedicated fan base still continues to utilize the engine for non-official modded updates every year – you can take a gander at the unauthorized, non-canonical NFL 2K18 here.

Of course, we all know the fate that befell NFL 2K. In late 2004, Electronic Arts signed an exclusive $300 million-plus deal with the NFL that gave them sole rights to use League teams and players in their games, effectively spelling the financial death of Sega’s 15-year-old football series. Visual Concepts (purchased by Take Two Interactive in 2005) made at least one effort to resurrect the series, 2007’s Xbox360 and PS3 title All Pro Football 2K8. This game uses a modified NFL 2K engine and stars a litany of retired football greats as playable characters (including the man who started it all for Sega, Joe Cool himself). Alas, the game underperformed and, to date, remains the last proper entry in the long-running football series.

All the way to the bank.*

Will Sega ever return to its gridiron roots? At the moment it seems unlikely (especially since Visual Concepts left the company a dozen years ago), but you never know. The company seems to be having quite a bit of success with mobile sports games lately, and one developer has even teased resurrecting the Joe Montana Football I.P. And considering the success of Sega’s All-Star Racing series, who wouldn’t be interested in an arcade pigskin offering featuring iconic characters from Golden Axe, Streets of Rage and, uh, Billy Hatcher? Still, even if Sega never creates another proper football game, there’s no denying the impact Joe Montana and the 2K series made on the world of pro football sims.

*image courtesy of CBS News.

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