It's impossible to know whether Emmitt Smith would have juked Deacon Jones, but a new video game might offer its take on the matter.
2K Sports will release a new game July 16 featuring rosters made up entirely of retired — and in some cases, deceased — NFL players as an attempt to re-emerge as a leader in football simulation games. All-Pro Football 2K8 will feature more than 240 retired players ranging from recent stars like Smith, Jerry Rice and John Elway to older veterans like Jones, Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas and Washington Redskins Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh.
The new game is the first football title from 2K Sports since 2004, the final year before competitor EA Sports signed an exclusive contract to use active NFL players for its popular Madden NFL game. EA's multimillion dollar deal led many companies to drop their football games, but 2K Sports never abandoned its football platform, instead waiting to perfect a game for high-powered systems, specifically Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3.
"We played around with a bunch of different concepts, but the one that stuck out to us was using legends," spokesman Anthony Chau said. "We definitely took advantage of what the next-gen consoles have to offer."
Acquiring the rights to retired players took more than a year because each needed to be dealt with individually. The company targeted 300 players and got 240; notable absences in the game include Hall of Famers Jim Brown, John Riggins and Lynn Swann. But many of the top players of yesteryear will receive top billing.
"I liked the idea of being associated with the greatest players to ever play the game," said Elway, the former Denver Broncos quarterback and one of several players on the game's cover. "This is going to be an opportunity for me to team with Jerry Rice and Barry Sanders and see how we would have played together. It's also a great chance for all the armchair general managers out there to put together their dream team and see how they perform."
2K Sports also lured several conversation-worthy players, including O.J. Simpson, William "Refrigerator" Perry and Icky Woods. The company and players declined to discuss the value of each contract, citing confidentiality agreements.
"By in large, it was a good experience," said Marc Reeves, account director with IMG, who was hired by 2K Sports to broker many of the deals with players. "Of course, some of the older guys were quite confused as to why anyone would be interested in them."
In some instances, Reeves negotiated with the families of players who have died.
"I think it's a great concept, and I was all in favor of it," said Johnny Unitas Jr., who negotiated to allow the use of his father's name and image. "We're very excited. It should be pretty fun."
For some players, All-Pro 2K8 will be their first appearance in a video game since the early versions of Madden and Tecmo Bowl nearly two decades ago.
"Once you retire from football, things can get a little stagnant, so it's fun to see this kind of stuff," said former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye, who was well-known as a dominant Tecmo Bowl star of the early 1990s. "It's pretty cool."
Some players said they got involved in the game as part of an effort to help fellow retired players in need.
"Anytime I have the opportunity to be involved with retired players, nine times out of 10 I do it," former Chicago Bears linebacker and Hall of Famer Mike Singletary said. "It's giving back to the people who helped build the [NFL]."
The lack of an official licensing deal with the NFL forced 2K Sports to get creative. Team names, uniforms and logos closely resemble those of real teams but are not identical. Eight of the game's 30 stadiums are inspired by existing fields, but others — including one that features a large, fire-breathing dragon emerging from the ceiling — are clearly from the developers' imaginations. But the gamers did attempt to replicate players appearances and moves, incorporating everything from Walter Payton's "scissors kick" to Randall Cunningham's scrambling ability. There are also 20 different "touchdown dances" inspired by real celebrations.
"People generally like the K game series," said Justin Chow, a college student from Great Falls, Va., who has won competitions involving EA Sports' popular Madden NFL game. "They make really good games, and they always have. I guess they had to do something because they can't use [active] NFL players. This is a cool idea."
Chau concedes that 2K Sports is entering unchartered waters; no company has tried to sell a game featuring nothing but retired players.
"It's an interesting discussion," he said. "We know our 2K fans will buy the game, and I'd like to think we're marketing to those fans. But I also think we'll grab those 40-plus gamers who remember 'Fridge' and know who Icky Woods is."