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The five best sports video games of all-time

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From Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to EA’s sporting dominance, here’s a look at some of the all-time best the sports genre has had to offer.

2019 NHL Awards Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

While some sports are starting to come back in some form or another — hello, golf and soccer! — we still await the return of the NHL and our dear Flyers. Until then, it’s Video Game week at the mothership and we’re contributing the bonafide five best sports video games of all-time...in no particular order.

ESPN NFL 2k5

Like EA’s NHL series, EA’s Madden series has had very few challengers over the years, but the one that did straight hit it out of the park.

ESPN NFL 2K5 combined to unleash the 2004 release that still lives on in Reddit boards to this day with updated rosters and players. Only one of the greatest sports video games of all-time could survive with that kind of following now 16 years after its release.

NFL 2K5 was ahead of its time in so many ways it’s unreal that Madden was able to recover and shutter it from seeing a follow-up release.

In terms of gameplay 2K5 was head and shoulders above what Madden was producing, with smooth animations and life-like player actions from under center to in the trenches, and even to the sidelines with the extras.

There was a viewing mode in which you would be put inside the helmet of your players, and play the game in first person —something that was just stupid fun to do at every position one time or another. There was ESPN’s stamp on content, with Chris Berman leading you through highlights of all the other games just like it was SportsCenter. There was Trey Wingo, Mel Kiper Jr., Suzy Kolber, and it all felt like Sunday coverage just for you to get blown out by the computer because you can’t not play in first person and it turns out you’re not an NFL quarterback! There was the custom crib where you had the life of an NFL star, there were real b-list celebrities who challenged you to games with their own custom rosters.

To sum up how awesome this game is: I still have a PlayStation 2 (slim) hooked up to play this instead of the garbage that EA’s Madden series produces every year. I love this game so much I never even cared that the cover is Terrell Owens in an Eagles jersey. The game is so damn good that it made me not hate him for the sit ups in his driveway.

It’s quite possibly the best sports video game ever.

NCAA Football 14

While EA’s popular college football game was shuttered in the name of player likeness year ago, it remains one of the most popular and widely played sports games to this day nearly six years after it was released.

College football is big business, and there’s not doubt that student-athletes were getting shafted for years as their likeness was used in college games that made millions —and that doesn’t even get into the other money colleges and universities reel in off that, but this is neither here nor there. And for EA’s college wing, its NCAA football game was a huge money maker.

Fans could pilot their alma mater or favorite university to gridiron glory, and control just about every part of the program along the way: from recruiting to scheduling and so much more.

The gameplay was on par with — and possibly even better than— EA’s Madden franchise, but added the elements that college football fans love like the unique stadiums on campus and around the county and the volume of said locations. Though nothing beats the live atmosphere of a college stadium full of 100,000+ fans, the game sure as heck made it feel close to the real thing with crowd noise from the student section rattling opposing teams’ underclassmen.

While there is talk of a potential return of EA’s NCAA football franchise here in the near future, until it hits the shelves fans will continue to flock to the message boards to update their rosters and fire up their PlayStation 3’s to get their college football video game fix.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater

Even if you never touched a skateboard before — or wrecked on your butt after picking this game up — this one is an all-time classic.

There was nothing like getting big air and tricks or grinding the rails away during endless skates with Tony, Bucky Lasek (Phillies hat), or Bob Burnquist. Each level in career mode had hidden objectives that kept you skating for hours after hours, and a all-time great soundtrack to boot.

Released during perhaps the rise — and really the peak — of the X Games, the title fully captured all of the cool elements of skating that was realistic enough to enjoy but outlandish enough to keep you playing.

There’s apparently a remastered version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater coming in the fall, and that could really stir the nostalgia for a bunch of fans from day one. Even though there’s a remastered version on the way, there’s no doubting that the original is the best non-traditional sports video game of all-time.

NHL 2001

While there have been many iterations of Electronic Arts’ (EA) NHL series dating back to the 90’s, one of the very best is the one featuring then-San Jose Shark Owen Nolan on the cover.

This version introduced some elements to make NHL stars like Eric Lindros, Peter Forsberg, and Pavel Bure even more dangerous and separate them further from the pack with skill characters like hard shot and heavy hitter. The likes of Lindros had the gamut of both skills to combine with his already elite player ratings to make him unstoppable.

But where NHL 2001 really hit the mark was its level in detail for its time.

The graphics on the PlayStation 2 were just insane, and EA went all out to match smaller details like player movement on down to the pads that Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur wore to hammer home the feeling of a legit NHL experience. The commentating was spot on with Jim Hughson and former Flyers great Bill Clement on the call (though Gary Thorne is the true best NHL play-by-play man), and there was even audio of players chirping at each other in between whistles.

It was a tremendous leap in gaming for the time period in a slew of different ways, and helped set the stage for some really strong titles later in the NHL series from EA.

Plus, there was that killer spin move that they added, giving all users the ability to pull their own Savardian Spin-o-rama literally anytime they wanted —even the whole way down the ice as ridiculously effective defensive zone breakout.

NHL 09

This iteration featured then Calgary Flames breakout defenseman Dion Phaneuf on the cover, but was more about what was inside that made it great.

It was the second year that EA introduced the “skill stick” which let users take advantage of the thumb sticks on either the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360 to control their player and added several new motions of dekes and shots that would really change the direction of EA’s NHL franchise.

While EA had already made huge strides in terms of gameplay in recent versions, this one took things to a new level with smooth animations and life-like motions that you would actually see in an NHL game. Checks were hard but not overbearing, shooting was natural and expanded upon the tradition “wind up a slap shot” nature of hockey video games. But where the game really stood out was that it embraced dekes, which had become an integral part of the post-lockout NHL. Shootouts were all the rage, and EA took advantage by giving users the ability to perform the same dekes and tricks that the stars were.

The game also featured expansive franchise modes with complete control, but mainly it was an epic game to fire up either as a solo or play with a couple of friends. There didn’t have to be a challenge or a trophy with this one, it was just a damn great game to sit and play a bunch of exhibition games without getting boring or stale.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12

Though golf isn’t for everyone — and golf video games are even smaller niche crowd —this game is an all-timer for one reason: a tradition unlike any other.

That’s right, the 2012 version added the Masters to the game for the first time ever in the series. For any golf fan the Masters is the holy grail of the game, and the club is notorious —sometimes right and wrong — for being stingy with licensing rights.

As a dumb kid who liked flinging golf balls all over the driving range at that age, playing a golf video game allowed me to actually excel on the course for a change. And not only could you actually shoot like the pro’s, you could do so while captaining Tiger Woods to one tournament victory after another.

The game offered an infinite amount of customization, and the gameplay was always like Mario Golf on steroids, but being able to play at Augusta just put the cherry on top of an already awesome series.


Okay so that might have been six instead of five, but hey it’s really hard there have been so many great sports video games over the years. Got one of your own? Drop it in the comments below!