1) NCAA Football (EA Sports)
For football nerds, it was a new Star Wars sequel every July. You cleared your datebook for the day it dropped, and by “cleared,” we mean excavated. A night. A week. A month. Whatever. The second-biggest compliment you can give NCAA Football is that, for a generation, it isolated you from the concepts of sunrise, sunset, responsibility, loved ones, hygiene or real life, a black hole of bliss, one of the singular greatest and most pleasurable time-sucks of the new millennia. If the zombie apocalypse upstairs coincided with a rivalry game or the prizing of a 5-star high-school quarterback with the kind of wheels that’d make Michael Vick look like Cory Sauter, the undead would have to wait. You have an Outback Bowl to win.
The biggest compliment is that, for many red-blooded American football fans between the ages of 25 and 45, the NCAA titles redefined the calendar. The season kicked off in our hearts, minds, and wallets, not in the last week of August or the first Thursday after Labor Day. No, no, no, no, no. The curtain lifted July 10. Or July 12. Or July 15. As soon as NCAA Football could be unwrapped, baseball was more or less dead to us, and summer was on officially borrowed time.
In hindsight, the hard truth helped make the NCAA series great corroborated in the forces that eventually killed it off: namely, the push for ever-greater authenticity, more realism, with each installment. College football, at its apex, is an unholy sandwich of hypocrisy, pageantry, nuance, tradition, joy, dictatorships, misery, absurdity, soul-selling, and hate, all crammed between two slices of Texas toast. And EA attempted to leave no stone unturned. Fight songs. Accurate stadiums. Pregame introductions. Red-letter games. Recruiting. Analysis. Off-season conditioning. Bowls. Postseason awards. Trophy cases. In 1997, Dynasty Mode. In 2009, Team Builder. You’re responsible for the name, the logo, the stadium, the whole shebang. If the University of Hairy Nipples’ Fighting Areolas want to play on the blue turf, then by cracky, go to town:
It had all come a long, long, long way from 1993, when EA launched a college football series minus the rights to school names and logos (Michigan vs. BYU could be simulated as ‘Ann Arbor’ vs. ‘Provo’) to mirror its successful Madden franchise, even slapping the name of another iconic Bay Area coach, Bill Walsh — then about to wrap up his second tenure at Stanford University — on the title. Within a few years, the series had dropped the Walsh name but added collegiate licensing, exploding in the summer of 1995 with 108 schools, conference logos, and real bowl games (Fiesta, Orange, Rose, and Sugar).
It’s dead — technically on a hiatus — now, a run of more than 20 summers slammed shut in 2013, not by consumer disinterest but legal entanglement. Because even if EA couldn’t use players’ names, as it violated the NCAA’s rules regarding amateurism, programmers were inclined to approximate with every school the real-life attributes, from both a skill and physique standpoint, of its star players in any given season:
You knew who they were. They knew who they were. If you didn’t, the game eventually featured a customizer with sliders that accounted for the most precise details and free downloadable fan-generated rosters that did all the naming work for you. A lot of folks got rich off NCAA Football, of course, save for the players whom the game wasn’t really (wink) trying (wink) to (wink) emulate (wink). Enter Ed O’Bannon and his legal team, and ne’er the twain; rather than wrestle with how to compensate its student-athletes going forward, the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, three of the so-called Power 5 leagues, forbade the use of their trademarks after the summer of 2013, and EA pulled the plug.
And that’s the Catch-22: Even though we know it was wrong, we still miss it. The talent misses it. Even the “exploited” players miss it. Nearly three years after the final installment, only the databases remain. And as long as the faithful continue to ignore family (and sense) to update rosters every summer with hundreds of players who won’t see a stinking dime off it, then the spirit of the franchise will live on in blessed perpetuity. Or until someone makes EA take the servers down.
2) MVP Baseball (EA Sports)
Oh, doctor, what could’ve been. Yet when one of the most promising baseball franchises ever to come down the pike got kiboshed more than a decade ago – that’s three decades in joystick years – football was the primary (if indirect) culprit. Long story short: EA Sports, seeking to protect its market share on the Madden pro football series (read: kill the competition, who were narrowing the gap on the iconic title), signed an exclusive licensing deal with the NFL and the NFLPA in December 2004. A few weeks later, Take-Two Interactive, whose NFL 2K games had been nipping at EA’s heels and were now forced to shoot a potential cash cow squarely between the eyes, turned around and inked an exclusivity pact with the Major League Baseball Players Association. So there.
In February, MVP Baseball 2005 hit the shelves to something of an elegiac vibe. EA Canada raised the bar for the digital diamond, becoming the first MLB console game to include farm systems, a crazy deep dynasty mode, and player emotions. If MVP 2004 opened eyes with immersion – hello, Montgomery Biscuits! – that was impressive even for a PlayStation 2 sports title; the series went out, well, swinging the next year. And yet, the more you played it, the more it grooved like a jazz funeral.
On the gameplay front, “The Hitter’s Eye” attempted to replicate pitch recognition by color in the pitcher’s hand (fastball, curve, or change). But the big whammy was “Owner Mode,” giving basement jockeys a chance to unleash their inner Steinbrenner, allowing users a 30-year window to control almost every aspect of a franchise, from stadium creation to ticket prices, staff budgets, and even daily promotional gimmicks. The menu offered a little something for everyone: unlockable Hall of Famers, unlockable ballparks, managing-only modes, and the Dropkick Murphys’ “Tessie” ringing endlessly through your skull. Bonus: with a dynasty mode that ran 120 years, MVP ’05 held its replay value long after its license but the pixel dust.
And as with its NCAA Football cousin, the ghost of MVP still haunts cyberspace – in this case, in the form of a dedicated community of modders. This means you can now hear the sonorous tones of Mel Allen, Vin Scully, and Ernie Harwell in the same booth:
3) NBA Street (EA Sports)
If you grew up on NBA Jam and Bulls v Blazers, dig the Denver Nuggets 1980s skyline threads, or ever bought a red-white-and-blue ball to placate your Remember-the-ABA phase, EA Sports BIG dropped this bad boy to tug straight on your arcade heartstrings.
Sure, we could go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about Rucker Park and Julius Erving and Nate Archibald and Moses and the Big O and The Hawk and The Glide and ‘Nique and The Iceman and The Pearl and Pistol and Bird and Magic and Jordan (to say nothing of Mario, Luigi, and Princess Peach, who would also lace ‘em up in a rare inter-license crossover).
But all we really need to say in defense of a Street series comeback is this:
You could play as the Beastie Boys…
… against the Miami Heat.
4) UFC Undisputed (THQ)
It’s not that EA’s UFC series – and its oft-maligned EA MMA predecessor – aren’t fun. (They were. And are. Despite EA MMA’s initial sales figures.) It’s that THQ’s Undisputed was a little slicker, a little cleaner, and offered up sharper accouterments when it came to customization and presentation. Well, that and Pride mode:
It also evolved carefully, with one ear attuned to the cries of its community. The final installment in the THQ series, Undisputed 3, managed to combine the best elements of its two immediate predecessors (Undisputed ’09 and ’10). The legs — and leg kicks — became a viable weapon, not just a setup for a punch combo that would do the real damage down the stretch; submissions became more about strategy and less about button-mashing. Little things, sure, but the sort of things that hit right in the sweet spot of a fan base that’s become more discerning as MMA continues to globalize. To many gamers, EA’s UFC combatants feel somewhat homogenized; Undisputed fighters felt unique. More often than not, the outcomes did, too.
5) Fight Night (EA Sports)
Another strong EA Canada production suffered from circumstances out of its control – namely, the inability of boxing to stick the landing with the 25-and-under crowd – despite a series of notable improvements along with the life of the series. The last iteration, 2011’s Fight Night Champion, was hailed as a critical triumph, a title that pulled no punches – literally – when it came to its depiction of violence, blood, and language. Pop the disc in for the first time, and the tutorial drops you right into a prison fight involving the star of “Champion Mode,” fictional boxer Andre Bishop, in which you’re told by your cornerman, in no uncertain terms, to “knock that fucker on his ass.”
The first EA Sports product to receive a “Mature (M)” rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the profanity in “Champions Mode” is true to the Hollywood-style boxing film it aspires to mimic and serves to underscore a product that clearly wasn’t targeted toward families or the Mario Kart crowd. The roster of fighters on hand is solid enough, and a robust online community has helped fill in the major gaps (most notably, Floyd Mayweather). More often than not, the customization works while a selection of user-created downloadable fighters run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. To put it another way, if you’ve ever dreamt of watching Sacha Baron Cohen throw down against Michael Jackson, this is the show for you:
Even better, as of early June 2016, Fight Night Champion’s servers are still up, keeping hope alive that EA might one day revive the sweet science for the next generation of consoles.