0 of 10
MARK RALSTON/Getty Images
NFL-based video games remain one of the industry juggernauts as well as one of the top movers in all entertainment formats.
While EA Sports’ Madden franchise mostly stands alone in this regard now, it’s a member of a long lineage of football-based games that hold a special place in hearts of gamers and fans alike.
As the release of Madden 20 signals another upcoming NFL season, it’s a good time to take a look back at the best football games in history. These were innovators for their time. Some strike the nostalgia nerve hard. Others, especially multiple entries in the Madden series, introduced genre-reshaping features that persist today.
These are the top football video games of all time, ranked.
1 of 10
Hans Deryk/Associated Press
NFL Street is a forgotten game but should get more credit for serving as a trailblazer of sorts.
Developer EA Tiburon put out the game in 2004 and caught the attention of NFL fans, as well as a broader audience, thanks to funky street gameplay and pro players in street clothes—not to mention Ricky Williams of the Miami Dolphins on the cover.
The seven-on-seven format is still plenty entertaining. And for 2004, the game had droves of interesting features, such as a solid character creator, fun flips and pitches on the field, and a style-points system that led to the devastating GameBreaker mechanic.
It’s no wonder its Metacritic score sits at 80, and for those who can find a copy, NFL Street remains a fun experience.
2 of 10
Focus On Sport/Getty Images
NFL Fever 2004 was a goodbye salute for Microsoft Game Studios’ stab at NFL-based games.
The memorable edition with Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts on the cover was the fourth of four attempts by Microsoft in this arena and checked in with a Metacritic score of 74 after its 2003 release.
While the game had its quirks and overpowered plays, those things only added to the charm of a new competitor trying to find its way in a tough landscape. What NFL Fever 2004 had on the competition was not only solid visuals for the time, but also superb broadcast-style presentation.
Considering presentation is still a common knock on current-gen football releases, NFL Fever 2004 was well ahead of its time.
3 of 10
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Mutant League Football was one of the better surprises of the ’90s.
EA Sports—of all places, given its adherence to simulation style now—released a Mortal Kombat-esque football game with Mutant League Football in 1993. The game was fun then and quickly spawned a cult-like following that’s still going strong.
By all accounts, Mutant League Football had a Madden-like feel to it with a strong play-calling screen and the expected overhead camera. But the violence, characters, post-apocalyptic setting and ability to bribe officials, to name a few details, were overboard and a fun take on the genre.
A spiritual successor called Mutant Football League has since released, but the original stands tall in the minds of older video game fans.
4 of 10
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Like many releases in EA Sports’ vaunted series, Madden NFL 11 had problems such as iffy offensive line play and a stalled franchise mode.
But the great far outweighed the bad.
In the innovation department, Madden NFL 11 brought on a new kicking meter, audible system and big animation alterations. Also notable was the ability for fans to vote on the cover star, as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees bested guys such as Jared Allen.
Its Metacritic score is 84 for a bevy of reasons, though it doesn’t hurt that this was the first time Madden offered Ultimate Team in the base package. While Madden 11 was more of a prototype than anything compared to what we have in 2019, its collect-’em-all nature and fantasy football-style mode was immersive and helped this particular release become a champion in the replayability department.
5 of 10
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Who can forget when Michael Vick graced the cover of Madden?
Madden 2004 was something special in the land of video games. Vick was unstoppable, which made for some incredibly fun offensive showdowns.
That was the point of this release: The introduction of hot routes and playmaker abilities had an incredible effect on football games as a whole, never mind that they helped create the most dominant football player to ever grace a video game.
Madden 2004 earned a Metacritic score of 94 for many reasons, though. One of the biggest was the introduction of an owner mode in franchise, putting players in control of everything from item prices at the stadium to outright relocation. Fast-forward to now, and it isn’t surprising to see why the game is in contention for best-ever status in both the Madden and outright categories.
6 of 10
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press
The fact that college football fans can’t get a video game these days hurts—and NCAA Football 2014’s greatness makes that even more difficult to digest.
It was the final iteration of the collegiate series from developer EA Tiburon and featured Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson on the cover. It also went even deeper into the already great dynasty mode.
Granted, critical reception was mixed, as the game is sitting on a Metacritic score of 77. But long-standing fans of the series were mostly there for the offensive-minded gameplay and the deep recruiting system, which is something fans still can’t experience anywhere else today. Likewise, the feeling of taking a 1-star program to the title game is still unrivaled.
Even without something like the College Football Playoff implemented, the final hurrah from the EA Sports college football series has a dedicated fanbase online, and not simply because it is the last of its subject matter.
7 of 10
Julio Cortez/Associated Press
Vick and hot routes transcended the realm of video games in a big way.
But those things still don’t come close to the hit stick.
The natural response to Madden 2004 was Madden 2005, with Ray Lewis poetically draped on the cover as the series introduced its signature defensive feature. The game was well received with a 91 score on Metacritic.
And no wonder—EA Sports did the unthinkable by making defense fun to play. Even better, the hit stick took the animation-driven tackles of yesteryear and put in a player-controlled gamble. Miss the hit stick, pay the price.
Given its defensive slant, innovations and how it still holds up rather well, Madden 2005 is easily the best entry in the series.
8 of 10
Jose Juarez/Associated Press
NFL Blitz 2000 is arguably the best football arcade game of all time.
While the original NFL Blitz launched in 1997, this release was an extension of NFL Blitz 99 and brought the arcade classic to home consoles via the Nintendo 64, PlayStation and Dreamcast.
And NFL Blitz 2000 wasn’t shy about what it wanted: over-the-top action. Player proportions, realism—none of it mattered. Big hits—before and after the whistle—and downright fun did. The game is notable, though, for looping in a four-player option, the ability to create plays and other refined features.
While the NFL Blitz series was revived in the mid-2000s for two releases (and later one in 2012), the at-home classic is a nostalgic powerhouse and still fun two decades later.
9 of 10
Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press
Tecmo Super Bowl seemed to start it all.
The NES classic is still wildly relevant. It has a cult following due to its style, accessibility in various formats and via the recreation of modern events within its 16-bit style.
Indeed, Tecmo Super Bowl laid the foundation. Preseason, regular-season and Pro Bowl modes were in, and so was the capability to control multiple teams. There was a semblance of roster editing. Players could ask the computer to handle certain on-field responsibilities.
Oh, and the game was as fun as it got for the time period. Many would argue it is fun today as a pick-up-and-play romp too—understandably.
While football games have modernized since Tecmo Super Bowl, the genre has never fully moved on from it.
10 of 10
COKE WHITWORTH/Associated Press
ESPN NFL 2K5 was a visionary entry in a series that had its time cut short.
The final installment in the series—before an exclusivity agreement between EA Sports and the NFL took hold—was developed by Visual Concepts and published by SEGA. Then-Philadelphia Eagles wideout Terrell Owens graced the cover.
Rest assured ESPN NFL 2K5 earned every point of its 92 rating on Metacritic and every teardrop from those who mourn its loss.
ESPN NFL 2K5 was a juggernaut in the presentation department in a way fans still haven’t seen matched. The on-field gameplay was good, though one could argue the mere innovation of the first-person mode was the best aspect of it all.
An incredible all-around package with immense customization options, the finale from the 2K series remains relevant, with a portion of football fans understandably keeping their fingers crossed that it will someday make a comeback.