The Madden series is the undisputed king of football video games. They're entertaining games but as with World of Warcraft, another well-entrenched franchise, occasionally you have to wonder if anyone has a shot of knocking them off their pedestal. Well, in the case of Madden, the solution is simple: Mutant League Football.
If you try to beat Madden by making a realistic football game, you're going to fail. EA Sports has the exclusive rights to use NFL teams and players in video games until 2013 and no other company seems willing or able to out-bid them. Barring some sort of falling out between EA and the NFL, they're going to have the exclusive rights wrapped up for a long time.
You might be saying, "But a game doesn't need NFL logos and player names to be realistic!" Well, see, that's the thing. Even if there was another game that looked and felt more realistic than Madden, even if it was more fun than Madden, it wouldn't matter. Realistic visuals or mechanics are nice but they pale in comparison to the ability to play as your favorite team or your favorite player. A large bulk of the Madden players are professional football fans and Madden is an extension of that fandom. Their love of the game of football is intertwined with their love of a particular team or player. Fair or not, Madden is automatically more realistic than any other football game because it has Peyton Manning and the other game doesn't.
Let's look at the challengers to Madden. 2K Games tried to compete on EA's turf with All-Pro Football 2K8, a realistic football game that circumvented the exclusive rights agreement by using retired players but the game just didn't sell very well. EA's likely to close this "loophole" by entering into agreements with retired players in the wake of Jim Brown suing them, but even if they didn't, a game filled with retirees just isn't going to beat Madden. A bunch of players from different eras thrown together in one game is as unrealistic as a game with fictional players. Even though the players featured were legends of the NFL, they still just felt like stand-ins for the current NFL players.
Midway had a better idea with its two Blitz: The League games. It was a hit to the Blitz series to lose NFL licensing - people forget how good 1998's NFL Blitz was - but Midway responded well. They created a fictional football league where dirty hits and steroid use are the norm. In addition to different game rules that NFL Blitz had, The League added a whole narrative with its "Campaign Mode." The two Blitz: The League games might not have been spectacular but they had the right idea: look at the lack of real NFL teams and players as a strength, rather than a weakness. If you don't have to worry about pissing off the NFL, you can make football and its players look as violent and ruthless as you want. The problem is that they just didn't go far off in the direction of fantasy. The League's teams were obviously modeled on NFL teams and Midway even hired former NFL players Lawrence Taylor and Bill Romanowski to appear as characters. Ultimately their fictional league was more of a caricature or a satire of the excesses of the NFL (drug use, violent behavior, etc.) rather than a standalone work of fiction.
Which brings me to Mutant League Football, a game originally released for Sega Genesis and subsequently rereleased for PSP. I'm not suggesting that this is the one game idea that will beat Madden - it's actually impossible, seeing as how EA also owns Mutant League. However, it was a good example of a game that put its own unique twist on the game of football. Here's a run-down of the game for the uninitiated: it was a football game set in a post-apocalyptic world where mankind is now a bunch of mutants and undead. The game of football survived the apocalypse but now it's a much more brutal game, played on fields of ice and rock littered with landmines and firepits. Players can use a variety of special tricks, called "Nasty Audibles", to give themselves an edge in the game. For example, they can switch the ball with an exploding ball and toss it to an opposing defender to destroy them, or their running back can strap on a jet pack and shoot up the field. It's not authentic NFL action but it was still pretty damn fun.
The difference between Mutant League Football and the current competitors to Madden is that Mutant League Football was content to be nothing like real football. It didn't just try to tweak the rules a little and dodge the licensing agreements by making thinly-veiled substitutes of NFL teams and players - it created its own fantasy world and reimagined the game. The only way to beat Madden is to stop trying to recreate Madden. Don't just change number of players on the field. Make up new ways for teams to score points. Don't set the game in "the real world." Be - gulp - creative.
Will some fantasy game ever top Madden in sales? I can't say because I have no idea what exactly that upstart game would look like. Madden has the far easier road because of its licenses and its established fan base. However, there's no doubt that a game that offered a fun, creative take on football could gain its own following among gamers who love the NFL - or even among those who don't.