ESPN put out a tweet this week that’s a version of the $15 budget meme, featuring tiers from $1-5, featuring sports video games mostly from the early 2000’s. Usually I’ll play along and at least offer up an answer or attempt to make the $15 budget, but this time I simply refuse. The list of video games they made available for their list took up literally thousands of hours of my childhood and I’m not letting them force me to choose. Now, I did go through the list and decide there were things I could cut out, but there’s so many absolute essentials. So I’ll explain to you why my plan is to actually take the $15, triple it on a roulette table and then make my choices.
Madden 2004 – Madden has lost a lot of luster for me over the last 15 years, but this game was the pinnacle of the franchise. A friend of mine is a big Dolphins fan, and he would go crazy with Create-A-Players, so much so to have a Quarterback, Running Back, 2 Wide Receivers and even a Kicker that were all 99 overall players. Now you’d think that would be incredibly awful to play with or against, but that just tells me you never played with the Atlanta Falcons in this version. The power of primetime Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and all-time video game tight end Alge Crumpler we would trade wins back and forth for hours on end featuring some of the most ridiculous touchdowns the world has ever seen.
NCAA 14 – Easiest pick on the list. If this game doesn’t make your list, you didn’t play sports video games. It’s the last version of the game series before the O’Bannon lawsuit that ended the series (for the time being). This game is the only reason I still own a Playstation 3. The game itself is still selling on eBay and other sites for $50+, during the 2020 summer and everyone looking for things to do in quarantine there were some selling for up to $300. This is a video game first ballot Hall of Famer. The dynasty mode is incredible, whether you’re looking for a challenge and fighting to take down the powerhouses or want to set it to the easiest level and make Troy University a perennial title contender it does both incredibly well.
NBA Street Vol. 2 – Another potential first ballot Hall of Famer. Taking basketball arcade styles that NBA Jam laid a foundation for and perfecting it. From insane aerial alley-oops to fakeouts like Off the Heezy, the game could challenge you and frustrate you but slamming home the game winning dunk always got you up off the couch. Featuring NBA Legends from Wilt Chamberlain to Dr. J and even celebrity teams like the St. Lunatics with Nelly and Murphy Lee, it’s a pure form of entertainment
MVP Baseball 2005 – Another game that’s the last of its lineage of a series (unless you count the College Baseball version released the next year), MVP Baseball was one of the best baseball games since Nintendo 64. It featured pitching meters that are still used today in every version of baseball games, the visuals were smooth and the graphics were well done. It was also from a time where cheat codes and unlockables existed, and everyone knew if you went to your buddy’s house and you were facing a lineup of 9 Sean Paterson’s you were in trouble.
Fight Night Round 3 – We all loved to clobber each other, whether you knew how to play or not you always had a fighter’s chance, which always drove the people nuts who would play nonstop. Quick jabs and a few haymakers puts you in a fight and if your opponent doesn’t do good with the ice and everything else in their corner you’ll always be on the verge of a big time KO.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 – We’ve discussed this numerous times over the years, but Tiger Woods’ was the ultimate college dorm room game. My roommates and friends would get together and play anything from a quarter to a dollar per hole, and not to brag, I usually came out decently ahead. It wasn’t terribly tough to figure out the basics, but as with the game of golf in real life, it took focus and knowing what you were trying to do to set you up to the elite level.
SSX Tricky – This was one of the first games I remember dedicating hours and hours to. The penultimate snowboarding game, it let you carve down mountains with over-the-top maps, characters and tricks, it came at the perfect time riding along with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 – This is a great version of this game and I’m only choosing it because it’s a value pick at $3. It doesn’t hold the same respect for me a the first 2 games but this game was still incredible and continued the franchise to build upon an already great product. There’s a few games on this list that offer incredible soundtracks that I haven’t mentioned but THPS has always been famous for the music that accompanies the game and this version is no different
Smackdown vs. Raw 2007 – Just an incredible wrestling game. The memories of this game convince me to almost buy a wrestling game every single year. I used to play with friends and we’d play all the Hell in a Cell, TLC matches and tag team championship conquest we could fit in. We created obnoxious wrestlers with intricate pyros for their entrance and the most insane finishing moves we could find. You’ll see the glorious World Champion I created below.
Need For Speed Underground 2 – Look I would spend all $15 on this game alone. It came out as The Fast and The Furious was beginning to really grow, so the mix of customizing sports cars, hip-hop soundtracks and underground street racing became the perfect storm for this to be an all-time game. It was also a game that was beginning to adapt some of the free-roaming world aspects that Grand Theft Auto was pioneering and building.
Rocket League – Another value pick, Rocket League became a bit of a revolutionary game. FIFA games have been popular forever, and for good reason. Soccer is an incredibly popular sport and these developers turning it into race car soccer was a great idea, and they absolutely crushed it. Rocket League was one of the first big names in the ESports movement, and its fun for beginners or hardcore gamers. You can hop on for 8 minutes to play one game or get lost in a winning streak for 4 hours.
College Hoops 2K8 – I was never a big college hoops video game player, but I spent hours on this one. I had one friend who turned a lot of us off of these games because he was so damn good. Famously beating one friend by 100 once. So when College Hoops would come out, we’d entertain him by being a punching bag for a week and then desperately beg to move on, but 2K8 was the year I think I figured it out and got at least decent. So I could play competitively against the better players and beat up on lesser competition. It had great home court moments for the true basketball schools and was a smooth gameplay.
Backyard Baseball – One of the first games I ever played. Pablo Sanchez is an all-time athlete and American hero. I don’t need to dive into this too much because if you played this game, you get it. And for $1?! Criminal
NBA Live 2005 – Another top tier basketball game. Hours and hours got sank into making my Create-A-Player, Jerome King, an NBA MVP and Champion for the Atlanta Hawks. It was also the version of the game that introduced the Dunk Contest on All-Star Weekend, and no matter how smooth you were, you never knew if you’d pull off that double-between-the-legs dunk.
If you went through the replies of the ESPN tweet, you caught some of the outrage of games that people felt needed to be included on this chart above some of the options. And I agree with a few, but some are people get a little carried away, so I’ll include a small list below of the games I think could have fit much better on this list.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2