The Heroes Who Keep All-Pro Football 2K8 Alive
It’s expected that the latest title for a sports franchise is the best, but that’s not always the case. When it comes to football, some fans’ favorite game is over 10 years old. All-Pro Football 2K8 came out in the summer of 2007 on the PS3 and Xbox 360, three years after developer Visual Concepts’ previous football game – ESPN NFL 2K5. The latter was publisher 2K Sports’ NFL swansong after rival Electronic Arts got the exclusive rights to the NFL license. All-Pro Football 2K8 featured rosters of hand-picked, licensed football legends like John Elway and Barry Sanders, but this isn’t necessarily why some football fans keep returning to the title which one devotee has dubbed “The greatest football game we have to date.”
It’s not unusual for fans to prefer a particular year of a sport or franchise, but these gamers’ attachment to All-Pro Football 2K8 has led them to some extraordinary measures of devotion. Although 2K and Visual Concepts only made a single iteration of the series, it lives on and features prominently in the lives of these individuals.
“I really want to show All-Pro Football through my eyes,” says Andrew Zemple, creator of YouTube channel 2K Football Now. Zemple has been putting together gameplay videos showing off some of APF’s legends, like Dan Marino, Mike Singletary, and Walter Payton, and in doing so, highlighting all the things the game does well, from little moves by the QB in the pocket to a safety making the right read and disrupting a pass.
More than just highlight reels, however, Zemple’s Twitter account (@2K_Football_Now) shows how APF’s gameplay accurately represents the fundamentals of football. Zemple – who played football in high school – likes digging deep to show examples of how a defender’s footwork earns him superior positioning to break up a play or how throwing on the run or under pressure affects a QB's throw (not to mention the formation and collapsing of pockets). Integral, as well, is the fidelity of user-control that makes it all possible.
Zemple has played all the football franchises, but All-Pro is the game that has stuck with him through the years. “I was always more in favor of the 2K games,” he says. “I always thought they had better mechanics and control schemes, and delivered a more immersive gameplay experience.”
He hoped that EA’s Madden would take off after it signed the exclusive NFL deal, and Zemple played a bit of Madden 17, but he kept missing APF and what it could do. Although he says there were things in Madden he would have liked to see in ESPN NFL 2K5, “There isn’t anything in Madden I would take and put into All-Pro Football.” In particular, Zemple thinks Madden’s reliance on animations restricts user skill.
He admits that All-Pro also has its faults, such as the A.I. could run its defensive zones better and not expose itself to certain routes, but he thinks the game has aged remarkably well. “I think if All-Pro Football came out today it would be a lot more successful than it was in 2007," he says. "I can replicate what I see on Sunday on a consistent basis.”
It's not unusual to hear about gamers playing an older sports title, but how do you keep an online league alive well after the servers have been shut down? The Simulation Football League (SFL) not only helps keep the APF dream alive for its members, but it sets an extraordinary example in the realm of sports video games.
The competition in the SFL is as fierce as any head-to-head online gridiron contest you can think of, but the twist is, as the league’s name indicates, you don’t actually play any of your games. The league sims the results for you. The SFL has taken off and inspired the dedication of its members (some of which have played and/or coached football in real life) not only due to the league’s infrastructure – featuring live games with announcers and much more (check out the SFL's YouTube channel) – but because All-Pro Football 2K8 gives the league an A.I. backbone its members trust.
“In order to do this, we have to take the controllers away from the user," says SFL commissioner Cameron Irvine. “They can’t be trusted.” Irvine says the idea of the league started when he’d play others and they’d call the same play over and over, go for it on fourth-and-forever, and engage in immature trash talk – the greatest hits of annoying online behavior.
Each week during the season teams submit gameplans for the coming matchup to the league. These are the offensive and defensive plays (there are over 65,000 of them) that the league feeds into APF, which then simulates the results. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg. The league uses amateur broadcasters to call the play-by-play as well as pre-game, halftime, and post-game coverage. The broadcasters surface real-time stats and the league has power rankings, beat writers, custom broadcast graphics, and more. “On its own [a simulation] doesn’t have the energy,” says Irvine. “We sort of bring it to life.”
Game sims are just one entry point for the league’s franchises. Teams solely run by a single person are rare; most are comprised of individuals executing the same kinds of responsibilities you'd find in a normal NFL organization. Head coaches and coordinators study film and put together gameplans to maximize the abilities of their players and exploit an opponents’ weaknesses. General managers assemble the teams’ rosters, scouts identify talent, and owners oversee the entire organization.
Even though the SFL simulates games, individual players are also very important. The league’s custom player progression system (using a roster editor created by modder King Javo. See more below) gives members a stake in their own players by letting them create their own builds. They also earn lifetime stats and can move to other teams via trades and free agency.
In some cases, the bond members have with their players and franchises in APF 2K18 goes beyond game stats and the time and energy invested. Matt Willson has created himself as a QB in the SFL, and one game his rookie year while playing for the now-defunct Santa Fe team is particularly memorable. Down two scores in a game with seven minutes to go, Willson, who was the last pick in the draft, threw two touchdowns in four minutes to bring Santa Fe back, grabbing the win. Afterwords, Willson told commissioner Irvine, who was calling the game, that hearing his name during the broadcast was one of the greatest moments of his life.
Irvine said he didn’t understand what the game meant to Willson until he talked to him on the phone. Willson, who enjoyed playing sports when he was younger, was confined to a wheelchair due to an inoperable tumor growing on his spine. “I’ve been waiting for this moment my entire life,” Willson told Irvine. “Matt Willson the quarterback or Matt Willson, center-stage in a football game – you gave that to me. I never thought I’d ever have that.” Since then, Willson's prolific career has landed him in the Top 5 of the league for all-time passing yards, and last year he was inducted into the league's Hall of Fame.
Like in real football, success like Willson's isn't a given by any means. The league works hard at parity, with a salary cap, thresholds determining the speed at which players progress, and myriad rules in place to try and give teams a chance from week-to-week and season-to-season.
Team coaches, players, general managers, and scouts put in the time looking for that edge, and APF rewards them with satisfying simulated results but also a degree of creativity. Players can improve their attributes or get what the league calls "animations," which increase the in-game likelihood of a player performing certain advantageous animations in specific situations.
For example, the Mr. 3rd Down animation gives the receiver or tight end better situational awareness to catch a pass on third down. Teams also spend coach points each week to increase their pass blocking, for instance. This creates a sandbox within which players and teams can create different player builds and gameplans that win individual matchups or work well that week, or hopefully deliver a championship. Preparation, execution, victory – that's football at every level.
Twelve seasons in, the SFL has created a structure that continues to grow. Last year the league was named a Twitch partner, and it has 11 sponsors, including Harry's Razors. Irvine and the rest of the league staff are always busy running the league and trying to improve it, including listening to teams' input and vetting potential rules changes.
The SFL has built a rich world within a world that does the positive things that sports do well: foster competition, build friendships, and give everyone – no matter their role – a chance at glory. “It’s not about living in a fantasy world or creating a new life," Irvine says. "It’s about improving the life that you have by giving you a chance to shine.”
Part of the reason All-Pro Football 2K8 has the staying power it has – beyond the merits of its gameplay – is due to the passion and hard work of many people, and arguably none more so than modder Javier "King Javo" Martinez. His editing tools have given the game life after retail death by allowing players and leagues like the Simulation Football League to progress players and help All-Pro Football 2K8 to exist beyond the vacuum of a single season.
Martinez, a computer engineer, is working on multiple games at the moment – including his own football title, Legend Bowl, as well as running the SimHeads video game sports website. He started out by modding Visual Concepts’ ESPN NFL Football by using an editor that another fan, Flying Finn, had created for ESPN NFL 2K5. By changing variables via the 2K5 editor and then seeing how it impacted ESPN, Martinez was able to deconstruct how the games themselves worked. He was then able to build his own roster editors using the game’s saveable files, which he not only did for All-Pro Football, but also for other football games BackBreaker and Microsoft’s NFL Fever 2004.
Martinez recently released a new, long-in-the-works editor that adds depth to the original APF 2K8, adding multi-season Franchise capabilities, free agents, trades, the ability to play online with custom rosters, player/team stats, control over the schedule, a comprehensive player editor, coaches, and much more. The fact alone that the editor enables players to experience multiple seasons in a game that originally didn't have them is a rare luxury for any title or its fanbase.
Interestingly, the disc for All-Pro Football 2K8 itself has encrypted files with unused NFL player names and teams on it – perhaps opening the door for further modding above and beyond what Martinez’s editor is capable of. Why that information is on the disc is unknown. It could be that Visual Concepts was preparing for a future when it would be able to use the NFL license again, or it could be that APF 2K8 itself exists as a smaller footprint within the older NFL 2K5 structure. Or maybe it’s both.
Either way, Martinez's efforts to date are just the beginning. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to stop knocking on that door until I die or another game comes out," he says. "I’m a weird scientist in that way… But I love it so much, and I love the game so much, and I want a better product so much – that’s the extent I’m willing to go, and I hope that people can enjoy it.”