ESPN NFL 2K (Visual Concepts / 2K) versus Madden NFL (EA)
Choosing sides: For almost two decades, the name John Madden has been synonymous with videogame football. Every year since 1989 has seen a new and wildly successful entry in the series. The franchise is a giant, but one competitor proved that it wasn't invincible. With what many consider better graphics, tighter controls, smarter AI and more innovation, the NFL 2K games converted legions of Madden fans.
Highlights: 1999's original NFL 2K won the critics over, but it wasn't until 2002's NFL 2K3 and the addition of the ESPN brand that Madden had legitimate reason to be concerned. Suddenly, the upstart had real-life credibility. And when ESPN NFL 2K5 debuted a full two weeks earlier than Madden NFL 2005, at a remarkable price tag of only $20, the upstart had everyone's complete attention. The tide in videogame football seemed to be turning...
Never underestimate the power of money. Mere months after the revolutionary release of ESPN NFL 2K5, Madden's publisher EA struck an exclusive licensing deal with the National Football League. No other game would be allowed to feature the NFL's players, teams or stadiums. Then, in a massive middle finger to both 2K's football title as well as all of its other sports titles, EA snatched up the rights to ESPN, too. For the next 15 years.
Outcome: With a single blow, NFL 2K and all other serious challengers were destroyed. Madden immediately became a monopoly and, some argue, just stopped trying. Although 2K was eventually able to strike a deal with the NFL players' union to use the likenesses of retired athletes in its upcoming All-Pro Football 2K8, the Madden developers must realize that the true rivalry is dead. They won and we, the consumer, lost big time.