Tonight marks the start of the NFL season, and if you’re a fan, it’s been a long wait. But what if football season never had to end?
Out Thursday for iOS and Android, NFL Showdown is a new mobile game from social gaming company Zynga—a name you might be familiar with if you’ve ever devoted a large chunk of Facebook time to playing Farmville. It’s the studio’s first step in a new sports gaming initiative called Zynga Sports 365, and it doubles as the start of a potential comeback for the beleaguered company.
According to Mike Taramykin, Vice President of Zynga Sports 365, and Jason Shenkman, General Manager of NFL Showdown, the reason professional sports don’t dominate mobile gaming the way they do other forms of media isn’t because people aren’t trying. It’s because for the most part, mobile sports games have functioned as pared-down versions of an experience that’s available elsewhere—on gaming consoles, for example. NFL Showdown, then, is an entirely different approach—one that’s not necessarily predicated on the desire to play a football video game, but rather a general interest in the sport.
“We try to really back up and build something that speaks to NFL fans,” Tarmykin says. “People who follow football and understand it, who would love to play football games but aren’t necessarily gamers. And a lot of that is really related to how well we tie to the teams, the players, the structure of the NFL.”
NFL Showdown doesn’t look much like most sports games, and that’s the point. You don’t control players, make passes, or kick field goals—it’s a management simulator that you play with friends. The game compresses a full NFL season into 21 days—one day for each regular and post season week—with one game each day. Much like in Fantasy Football, you and your friends form a league, draft real players, and manage a roster. The emphasis is on the management: While games will happen and players can jump in and see them unfold live, it’s a pretty simple affair. The actual games are a sort of rock-paper-scissors contest based on the stats and strategy employed in between games, with no real input on the player’s end.
Again, this is by design. Zynga made a very conscious decision to make a game that can be squeezed into a commute or the checkout line at a grocery store: Go in, adjust your lineups, train some players, maybe make a trade, and get out. Users don’t even have to open the app for a while—their teams will be on autopilot, and the season will continue on. Granted, it’s probably wise to check in every now and then, lest the football players get worn out or injured, but the game is designed with casual play in mind.
It’s a very Farmville approach to sports. (Like most social games, it’s free to play, but you can purchase things like energy to speed up the process.) But it’s one that’s likely to work, given that the framework within is informed by the very popular meta-game that is Fantasy Football (something that the game acknowledges, since players get stat bonuses if they score points in Fantasy Football). But unlike Fantasy Football, the season doesn’t ever have to end—once users reach the Super Bowl at the end of the month, they can start another season right away.
NFL Showdown is now available as a free download on the App Store and Google Play.