A Defense of the Mediocre NFL Video Game

The turn of this century was a wild time for NFL football video games. Obviously, there were the perennial heavy hitters — you know: your NFL 2Ks, your Maddens, your Quarterback Clubs — OK, maybe not that last one so much. Despite being relatively well regarded in the late ’90s, Acclaim’s flailing QB Club series, as well as Sony/989’s NFL Gameday were widely maligned as they fumbled their way into the new millennium. The result was a sink-or-swim dichotomy where Sega/Visual Concepts’ NFL 2K1 and EA’s Madden NFL 2001 led as Hall of Fame-level showpieces for the sixth generation gaming platforms, while Acclaim’s and Sony’s “next gen” efforts were handily outmatched in every facet.

NFL Fever, developed by Microsoft Game Studios, lies somewhere in-between.

Long before he was the iconic spokesperson for a racist pizza company, Peyton Manning was just trying to make it in the world as a baby-faced professional quarterback and video game cover star.

Kicking off with the decently-received NFL Fever 2000 on PC, Microsoft would build upon its house brand of sports titles with its inaugural console entry, NFL Fever 2002, which launched alongside the original Xbox in November 2001. The series would receive two more games before EA and NFL’s licensing monopoly upended the virtual gridiron landscape in 2005.

Existing neither as a fully-fledged simulation nor all-out NFL Blitz-esque arcade fare, NFL Fever 2002 stands as a reasonably accessible football game that feels surprisingly solid to play, albeit with tempered depth and charisma. Overall, it’s quite mediocre. As famed cornerback Richard Sherman might put it: NFL Fever may well be the Michael Crabtree of sports games.

And for NFL Fever 2002, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I was making sure that everybody knew that Crabtree was a mediocre receiver — MED-I-OCRE — and when you try the best corner in the game with a mediocre receiver, that’s what happens. Game.”

– Sherm (2014 press conference)

All things considered, I had quite a lot of fun revisiting NFL Fever 2002. Granted, I’m more of a casual fan of NFL games and will generally play them as simpler, more arcade-like experiences without getting too stuck in the weeds of their more advanced play calling customization or nuanced control mechanics. The idea that Fever lacks that kind of strategic granularity doesn’t really bother me, personally.

The other caveat here is I recently revisited ESPN NFL 2K5 (with the 2K21 roster patch) a few months ago, and I still consider it the pinnacle of the genre in a lot of ways. Fever 2002 came out three years prior and was the inaugural entry on new hardware, amid all the development pressures of a platform launch no less. That’s all to say I’ve kept my expectations for NFL Fever 2002 relatively in check in terms of features and presentation. Perhaps I’d be less lenient if I was playing a later (and supposedly more refined and feature-rich) release like NFL Fever 2004, for instance.

At any rate, I’m less interested in giving a wholistic rundown of everything that works and doesn’t work for Fever 2002. I’ll gladly leave it to the various review outlets, gaming mags, and retrospectives to tell you all about whether the game is worth playing, or if its rain effects look wet enough, or if its custom hot routes are hot enough. For now, I’m just gonna ramble about some random things I found interesting while playing through a season of NFL Fever 2002’s Dynasty mode. Consider this part of the little Xbox launch 20th b’day celebration project I’m cobbling together.

Speaking of celebrations, how about those touchdown dances, eh? In my very first game, Seahawks wide receiver Darrell Jackson caught a dime towards the back of the end zone. When I first saw him leap into a combined cartwheel-turned-backflip right in front of event security, I knew this party was kicking off right. But then the flurry of fists came out and things quickly got out of hand…

Luckily, no one was hurt from that little bout of recklessness (as far as I know) and Jackson would go on to have a very successful virtual sophomore season. By year’s end, he casually doubled the single season record for reception yards (3,441) and touchdowns (55), which he would celebrate only in the most professional and elegant manner.

Of course, it ain’t all cartwheels and, uh, whatever ^that^ was.

We all know football is a high contact sport and injuries do happen. It’s also no secret that the real-life NFL has had a dubious track record when it comes to protecting the safety of its players. Time and time again, the organization has shown abject negligence (if we’re being charitable) when it comes to doing its part to better understand and protect its players from traumatic brain injuries and other serious game-induced ailments. For the NFL, it seems that abetting decades of preventable CTEs has been a small price to pay for milking every sweet, nectarous drop of ad, ticket, and merch revenue through the purity of its blood sport. And yet the NFL continues to be rewarded by our market-driven commodification of human suffering. Oh well. I guess when we’re all complicit, those problems just kind of find a way of solving/ignoring themselves — except for when players kneel. That is the thing that throws us into a collective hysterical tizzy, we’ve decided.

Now where in the fuck was I?

Fortunately, NFL Fever 2002’s governing body is significantly more successful at protecting the health of its players than the real NFL; injuries are far rarer in this game than in in real life. On any given Sunday in Fever 2002, maybe two or three players will get hurt, leaguewide. That’s a pretty favorable injury rate, relatively speaking. Even with all of the hard hits my players have sustained and inflicted, only four (all of them safeties and linebackers) had to miss time due to injury. Oddly, every single one of those injuries happened when those players were the ones doing the tackling. At first, I assumed that was an affront to physics but perhaps there’s data to support that those giving the hits are even more likely to sustain injury than those receiving them. It’s also (thankfully) a miniscule sample size.

Overall, the thing that impresses me most about NFL Fever 2002 is basically what impressed me about other early sixth gen sports games at the time: the physics. Now, I would by no means suggest Fever’s mere dozens of contact animations can compete with today’s hyper-advanced Madden physics. That said, I’m endlessly amused by all the times passes convincingly bounce off of players’ hands, shoulders, and other random extremities instead of magnetically grafting to any arms within a meter radius (as was practically the norm prior to the Dreamcast’s NFL 2K).

In general, I’ve always been drawn to games which inject a tinge of chaos through their systems, mechanics, and/or physics to create memorable moments that are neither expected nor replicable. And for its part, NFL Fever’s granular physics system largely does that. If Fever 2002 leaves me with any lasting impression, it’s that — despite the late-season tedium — I continue playing it knowing this mediocre old NFL game will keep finding small ways to surprise me. At the very least, the collection of absurd deflections, interceptions, and other amusing plays afford Fever a degree of charm that its anemic presentation and flat commentary cannot.

At this point, I just want to wrap up by highlighting more details in NFL Fever 2002 that I felt were very impressive for its time. Part way into the season, I noticed some of my players got noticeably faster and more agile — and it wasn’t just my imagination. Fever has a dynamic attribute system where player ratings will fluctuate from game-to-game depending on how often they make/give up big plays (or block for those who do). I assume this has been a standard feature in every other NFL game over the last two decades, but still. Also, I’m still not sure how its under-the-hood algorithm works to manage this system but sometimes it’s the mystery that keeps the magic alive.

Another fun thing: If the home team is getting trounced, the cardboard cut-out fans — who look like they’re doing the most uncoordinated “The Wave” at all times — will begin to thin out during the 4th quarter. That’s a nifty detail, as well.

Also, I just want to give a shout out to my kicker, who rules…

Finally, I’ll leave you with a couple more random highlights:

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