It's become a truism among sports game fans that a realistic sim can't succeed without some kind of licensing agreement with one of the major leagues. But that hasn't stopped publishers from trying.
The latester challenger to Madden NFL is Joe Montana Football 16, a game that has been teased and rumored since at least last July, when Montana tweeted pictures of himself in a motion capture studio with the hashtags #montana16 and #morethanarosterupdate. Montana released the first official screenshot yesterday, featuring himself in an XFL-like generic uniform with the Unreal Engine 4 branding.
The new screen comes in the wake of a new wave of unconfirmed reports that Joe Montana Football 16 will be an Xbox One exclusive, that it will focus on a MyPlayer-like story mode, and that 2K will be lending some of its technology to the project (though the actual developer remains unknown). I'm not going to give much credence to the hype I've heard from some people who have supposedly played it, which is as anti-Madden as it is pro-Joe Montana Football, but it does sound intriguing (amusingly, the original Joe Montana Football on the Sega Genesis was secretly a gimped version of Madden). There is a real hunger out there for good video game football, which is evidenced by the continued sales success of Madden NFL despite its legacy of comparative mediocrity (to EA Tiburon's credit, Madden 15 stepped it up a notch).
Of course, this is not the first time that a publisher has taken on Madden in the wake of EA's exclusive licensing agreement with the NFL. Before Joe Montana Football 16, there was All-Pro Football 2K8 from 2K Sports, which tried to ride the goodwill generated by ESPN NFL 2K5 but was derided for its lack of a multi-season franchise mode, ultimately lasting only one year. Later there was NaturalMotion's Backbreaker, which was praised for its advanced physics technology — this being before Madden introduced an advanced physics engine of its own — but criticized for its weak online play, among other issues.
The upshot of all this is that making a good sports sim is really hard, particularly in this day and age. You need advanced motion capture technology, polished game modes, and a sophisticated physics engine to make it all work, and that's putting aside the inherent disadvantage unlicensed sports sims face when taking on sims with real teams and players. To succeed, unlicensed sports sims have to be not just polished, but innovative and willing to take risks. They have to have something that their licensed competitors don't.
The last really successful unlicensed sports game was, not surprisingly, more of an arcade game than a sim. Blitz: The League dispensed with realism for violence, scratching the itch left by its spiritual predecessor NFL Blitz. It was enough that fans were willing to overlook its lack of licenses, embracing its comparative insanity to the point that it earned itself a sequel on the PlayStation 3. More recently, Super Mega Baseball earned itself plaudits on the PlayStation 4 for taking a more cartoony approach to the sport and including vast amounts of customization.
Joe Montana Football 16, by contrast, seems set to try and take on Madden NFL on its own turf. It wants to be the football simulator that people have always wanted, but have never gotten.
There is at least some merit to this approach. Though it's miles better than what it was, Madden still lags behind genre leaders like NBA 2K and FIFA in terms of presentation, and its career modes are dry and overly complicated (or in the case of Owner Mode, outright broken). Done properly, a football version of MyPlayer could be really intriguing, particularly if it focuses on the glamour of being an athlete.
But there are also reasons to be skeptical. Football games have a million moving parts, and if any one of them are broken, the entire experience will fall apart. EA Tiburon, which have years of experience building Madden games and a ton of resources at their disposal, have only recently managed to get their sim to the point where it really feels like football. Joe Montana Football 16 will not only have to be polished, it will have to be a lot better, which is a taller order than many seem to suppose. Based on the screenshot alone, Madden 15 is the better looking game; and by the time Joe Montana Football 16 arrives, Madden 16 will be just around the corner, giving Tiburon another year to polish up their game.
To gain traction against Madden, it will need to be good enough to generate a groundswell of support from hardcore football fans, who will in turn get the word out to broader audiences. Or, if they want, Joe Montana Football 16's publishers can try and pull an NFL 2K5 and dramatically undercut Madden, though such a move is harder to pull off in this day and age given the overhead of developing a sports game.
I'll reserve judgment until I see more from Joe Montana Football 16. All I'll say is that I welcome the development of Joe Montana Football 16, since more competition is good competition, and I like for Tiburon to be kept on their toes. It'll be interesting to see whether a highly-polished sports sim can work in this day and age even without an attached license. My feeling is that it can, but only if it's so good that it can't be ignored. We'll find out soon.