When you think of ESPN video games, chances are that you don’t remember the series of sports games from Konami from 2000-2002. That’s understandable, as these games released during the sixth generation of video game consoles, really weren’t that remarkable. The games were generally average in quality, with ESPN MLS Extra Time 2002 being the best of the lot with a Metacritic score of 77. What was memorable– at least to me– was Konami’s use of notable commentary teams in several of these games. ESPN NBA 2Night (and its sequel), for example, featured Brent Musberger and Stuart Scott in the booth. ESPN NHL National Hockey Night— while an unmitigated gameplay disaster– had commentary from Gary Thorne and Steve Levy.
This In The Booth installment takes a deeper look at one of these Konami games: ESPN NFL Primetime 2002, developed by Farsight Studios and released in for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox platforms in early December of 2001. The game is a slightly above-average football sim that boasts features including full NFL and NFLPA licenses, a surprisingly deep Franchise mode, and– most importantly for this column– fairly authentic ESPN presentation.
For the uninitiated, back in 2001, ESPN’s NFL Primetime show was what many football fans watched on Sunday nights in order to get caught up on that afternoon’s game action. Chris Berman and Tom Jackson were the centerpieces of the show. Berman was (and still remains) a veteran ESPN personality, while Jackson brought his NFL playing experience as a former linebacker with the Denver Broncos to provide player analysis. NFL Primetime was also the lead-in for ESPN’s broadcast of Sunday Night Football, with Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, and Paul Maguire in the booth. This was at a time before NFL Network, and when other NFL network affiliates would cut to normal Sunday night programming after games wrapped up– so Primetime was familiar to millions of NFL fans on Sunday nights. Berman established and used many of his famous catchphrases during Primetime, and these are still synonymous with him today.
While ESPN NFL Primetime 2002 doesn’t feature the televised highlight/recap show that it’s based on, it does feature Chris Berman and Tom Jackson as game commentators. Berman handles play-by-play responsibilities, while Jackson fills the role of color commentator/analyst. Berman sounds genuine, although his trademark personality is dialed back a bit. His delivery is smooth and fairly genuine, although there’s why too much “He… could… go… all… the… way!” going on here. Jackson, on the other hand, is obviously reading his lines. He sounds wooden and disinterested. Berman’s effort can pass for decent play-by-play, but Jackson offers little insight and doesn’t do a great job as a color commentator in this spot. It’s possible that Jackson’s written lines were just uninteresting, but he makes Cris Collinsworth sound like a genius by comparison.
Turning to the visual presentation in ESPN NFL Primetime 2002, Konami and Farsight Studios do a pretty good job of making games at least somewhat look like ESPN broadcasts. The ESPN broadcast graphics package for scores and stat lines looks quite good, and the occasional Inside The Numbers mini-segments that take place before plays are a nice touch. The game tracks a ton of stats; one in particular that I found interesting was the Average Starting Position After Kickoff stat for kickers. Other numbers to appear via in-game stat lines include Tackles, Rushing Yards, Yards per Carry, Yards After Catch (YAC), and many others. Oddly enough, there aren’t a lot of stat lines for quarterbacks. This is rather unusual, given how important the quarterback is to the offense. This is in stark contrast to, say, the Madden games. Madden NFL 97, for example, used a couple of different stat lines for quarterback performance.
Unfortunately, automatic replays leave something to be desired. Many are shown at the angle in the photo above, and there isn’t much variation. It’s not always easy to see the block that sprang a running back for a big gain or where the coverage broke down in the defensive backfield that led to a huge catch and run. Thankfully, there is a manual replay option available to view the previous play, with a decent amount of user options to fine tune replays for optimum results. It’s too bad that a little more attention wasn’t paid to this feature, as well as writing some lines for Berman and Jackson to break down big plays.
ESPN NFL Primetime 2002 is important from a presentation standpoint. At the time, it was the closest to an authentic ESPN broadcast as football video game fans like myself had seen. Past ESPN games were missing commentary and only featured some elements of ESPN’s broadcast graphics package, but NFL Primetime 2002 fixed both of these problems and– along with Madden NFL 2001— had drastically increased the quality of presentation in football video games. Some casual observers or passers-by could legitimately wonder if these were video games or TV broadcasts.
Unfortunately for Konami, average gameplay led to poor sales of its line of ESPN sports video games. In the spring of 2002, Konami announced that “The ESPN license has ended” and that it would not be renewed. Konami’s retreat, along with struggles in first-party sports game development by both Microsoft Studios and 989 Sports, left EA Sports and SEGA Sports to battle it out for sports video game supremacy. What we didn’t know was that ESPN would figure prominently into the sports video game wars of the sixth console generation, beginning just 18 months later… but that’s a topic for another column.
Before signing off, it’s worth noting that Tom Jackson retired from ESPN in August of 2016, after assisting with coverage of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremonies. Although Jackson didn’t really impress with his color commentary in ESPN NFL Primetime 2002, he was a staple of ESPN’s NFL coverage team for nearly 30 years. His retirement is what prompted me to return to this game and cover it for an In The Booth installment. Here’s to a happy and healthy retirement, T.J.; you will be missed by fans and colleagues alike.
Thanks for checking out this installment of In The Booth. We’ll do it again soon.