The Short-Lived Madden Competitor That Forced EA to Raise Its Game

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NFL preseason coincides with that annual rite of passage when video game-playing fans pick up EA Sports’ latest title in the Madden NFL series. While my own gaming days mostly ended the moment my first son was born, Madden’s release lost some of its luster with each passing summer.

Increasingly, picking up the game was more an obligation necessary to have up-to-date rosters and compatibility for online play, than it was a joyful ritual of the preseason.

If more recent Madden titles exude complacency, blame the exclusivity rights the NFL signed over to EA Sports ahead of the 2006 season. For those who yearn for EA to introduce improved gameplay features, or other elements that make buying a new copy of Madden every year worthwhile beyond roster updates, look to the past.

Madden grew into the preeminent title of the football cyberspace in the 2000s, owed to great titles on the second-generation Playstation and first-generation XBox. Having played Madden titles on Sega Genesis back in the long cartridge days, the advancements in graphics and audio, as well as the innovative gameplay for the most transcendent of the series, Madden 2004, blew my mind.

Between those two eras, however, the series lagged. EA Sports outshone a crowded marketplace of NFL titles during the console wars of the early 1990s, surviving into the 32-and-64-bit era ushered in with the Playstation, Nintendo 64 and *stifles laughter* Sega Saturn. Competitors like ESPN Sunday Night NFL and Troy Aikman NFL Football disappeared, while NFL Quarterback Club limped into the new era.

But EA’s dominance of the marketplace in the cartridge days lent to complacency in the new era. I purchased a PSX in the summer of 1997, using money I saved mowing lawns and pulling weeds around my neighborhood, and Madden ’98 was one of the first three titles I picked up (along with Resident Evil: Director’s Cut, and Tekken 2). I was dumbfounded when I fired up Madden to discover the Playstation edition looked only somewhat sharper than the Sega Genesis version I owned just a year earlier.

That forced my hand, and I purchased NFL Gameday ’98. Produced by Sony’s in-house 989 Studios — not to be confused with the failed 38 Studios — Gameday ’98 better utilized the capabilities of the Playstation’s new technology.

Madden may have had an edge in gameplay, but the difference was negligible enough that Gameday’s superior aesthetics made it the better game overall.

989 Studios also produced the superior NBA game at this time. Compare NBA Shootout ’96…

… to NBA Live ’96.

While neither is mind-blowing viewed from a modern context, the former was considerably more ambitious at the time. Live ’96 looked like a slightly more polished version of the title still being produced for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.

Add 989 Studios’ MLB series, which I preferred to Triple Play, and EA Sports faced legitimate competition for the first time in my brief gaming life. EA seemingly recognized the pressure, too. Madden ’99 and its sister title, NCAA Football ’99, both introduced completely overhauled graphics that looked much more comparable to 989’s Gameday and NCAA Gamebreaker. The Live series did likewise, and in the same vein, the year immediately following 989 Studios producing a more aesthetically pleasing counterpart.

Like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird elevating their game against one another, or WWF reaching its creative peak in response to a mounting challenge from WCW, a viable alternative elevated EA Sports. Unfortunately, the “rivalry” had all the staying power of Cannibus vs. LL Cool J.

A new generation of consoles coincided with Sony opting to merge 989 Studios under the Sony Computer Entertainment (now SIE) umbrella. Much like the cartridge era competitors that fell by the wayside with the move to 32-and-64-bit technology, the 989 Sports titles struggled to keep pace.

As EA Sports perfected Madden and NCAA Football, Gameday failed to recapture that initial magic it had on PSX. And NCAA Gamebreaker? Well … not even Keith Jackson could save that mess.

2K Sports growing beyond the Sega Dreamcast relegated 989 Sports to a distant No. 3 on PS2. While 2K produced the greatest college basketball video game franchise of all-time, 989 countered with perhaps the worst college hoops in modern gaming: NCAA Final Four 2004.

Although the successor to 989 Sports churned out some solid NBA titles for the PSP, its abominable PS3 version marked an end to the once-promising potential.

The last vestiges of 989 Studios can be felt in the Sony-produced MLB: The Show, which emerged as the preeminent baseball title after EA Sports lost licensing rights with Major League Baseball.

EA Sports and the NFL continue exclusivity for Madden. So long as gamers continue to pay for roster updates, EA has no incentive for dramatically overhauling the series. Ever so briefly in the ’90s, however, 989 Sports proved a little competition could shake up the market.