EA Sports unveils NFL Head Coach 09

EA Sports chose Tony Dungy's home field as the launch pad for NFL Head Coach 09, the new next generation video game shipping this fall. Indianapolis Colts head coach Dungy is on the cover of the new game and was on hand, taking some time out from the NFL Scouting Combine, to give his thoughts on the new game.

"EA Sports talked to us a lot about our jobs and what we do and what are some of the big decisions that we have to make and their timing and how we go about it," explained Dungy, who's not a gamer, but enjoys watching his son play video games. "I think they've made it very realistic and gotten a lot of input from a lot of different coaches. That's what I'm always amazed at, is how realistic these games are."

Whereas gamers playing Madden NFL 08 can focus on the on-field action, the heart of NFL Head Coach 09 is not just the on-field play-calling, but the year-round scouting process that builds up a team over time into a Super Bowl contender. Dungy, who guided his Colts to a Super Bowl win in 2007, believes this new game will find an audience with millions of armchair quarterbacks out there who are obsessed with the NFL.

"I think that's the group that's really going to be affected by this ... the people who play fantasy football and watch all of the NFL shows during the week and want to really zero in on how their team is built and how their team is doing," said Dungy. "They're going to really have fun with this game because they're going to be able to explore the ins and outs and the behind-the-scenes stuff. It's not just watching Ladainian Tomlinson making a great play on Sunday afternoon, but it's figuring out how to get his offensive line in place and how to make sure he has a good back-up in case he gets hurt. It's all of those things."

Dungy has seen the impact of NFL video games first-hand over his years as a head coach and the popularity of the Madden franchise amongst his players.

"I think that's one of the things in the NFL now," said Dungy. "Everybody's going to new facilities that have to have big screen TVs so that guys can play Madden during their lunch hour. I think it's great. We have many more guys hanging around our facility because we have that availability to play these games."

Josh Looman, lead designer of NFL Head Coach 09 at EA Tiburon, said that since the NFL Combine is the start of the new football season and scouting players is a huge part of the new game, the team decided to debut the Xbox 360 game in Indianapolis. The fact that Dungy lives here was another bonus.

Looman, who spent the past five years overseeing the Franchise mode in Madden, leads an entirely new team that was constructed from the ground up with the goal of making NFL Head Coach 09 more accessible and more fun than the original. This new game was built from scratch to take advantage of next gen functionality and to start with a clean slate.

"We focused a lot of attention on the game's navigation, since the original was very difficult to actually get around the world in. The artificial intelligence in this game is much more robust, as well."

The game employs a wizard navigation format (borrowed from the PC world), which makes it very easy to navigate to anywhere in the game from the main screen. The Coach's Clipboard is a 3D utility that can be turned left or right to open up new menu options for any maneuver needed in the game.

"We bring everything you need to do in the game directly to you through this feature," explained Looman. "If you don't want to deal with it, hit the B button and assign it to the assistant coaches or general manager."

Just make sure those coaches, assistant coaches, and your general manager that you hire are good, because based on their own ratings, they'll make good or bad decisions on evaluating talent, making deals and even making calls on the field.

Front and center on the main gameplay screen at all times is your coach's approval rating. This aggregate score comes from fans, coaches, media, players and the owner's ratings on your performance. Unlike the Madden franchise mode, in which a coach can play for 60 years and never get fired despite his record, just like the real cutthroat world of the NFL, one bad season could be enough to get you axed in NFL Head Coach 09.

"The higher your approval rating, the easier it is to sign free agents and make trades in the game," said Looman. "Your approval rating will change as you progress through the year. In addition to determining whether you keep your job, it will also impact the difficulty level of the game. We based the rating off the ESPN Coaches voting that fans take part in online, so a coach's rating will swing up and down based on decisions on the field and off."

Other ESPN elements are also being implemented in the game. Todd McShay, ESPN football analyst and director of college football scouting for Scouts Inc., will appear throughout the game as a 3D avatar on the bottom left of the screen providing detailed information on players. In addition, a sports ticker will constantly update in-game happenings around the league and every move you make as a head coach will instantly break on ESPN. In addition, Looman said the final game will likely integrate real-time sports scores from ESPN and other content into this virtual world.

The team has added a lot of real-time strategy elements to the sports genre with NFL Head Coach. Just like in Madden NFL 08 or NCAA Football 08, players can simulate to any point in a season. You can also fast forward the day clock at any time to make the action move faster. There are even role-playing game elements like the ability to buy skills and upgrade coaches and GM abilities as you move through the season.

Although the new game allows you to skip over the NFL Scouting Combine and the NFL Draft and jump straight into the preseason, Looman said that championship teams are built through scouting.

"We have every stage of scouting that exists in the NFL," said Looman. "You start out with regular season high level looking at prospects, then you'll go into a Senior All-Star Game, Pro Days and then individual workouts and look at those guys there. Every time you scout a player more, you'll unlock more ratings on him. If you only look at a player in the NFL Combine, his rating will be based on that and won't be an accurate look at his potential. There will be times when you see a guy go from a 90 rating down to a 70 after you've seen him in every stage of scouting. You don't want to draft a guy who's going to be a bust for you and we reward players who go the extra effort to scout players for their teams."

While the NFL Class of 09 will feature every player in this year's draft, future fantasy draft classes in the game will have players that are the second coming of past NFL greats like John Elway, Dan Marino and Barry Sanders. NFL Network broadcaster Adam Schefter will provide detailed descriptions of both the real and fantasy players through stories and anecdotes, like how Boar Jackson got his name from hunting with his father.

"There are so many stories in this game that by the time you get to the NFL Draft you feel like you know these guys," said Looman. "We did things differently than any sports game has done before. We had each team rate the players differently based on the kind of guys they like. So in the game, the Colts like Cover-2 corners and as a result they'll rate a prospect or free agent who's Cover-2 higher than a guy who's better at Man coverage. They'll go after that guy in free agency and give more in a trade for him. The Colts love running backs who can catch the ball."

Although NFL Head Coach 09 is packed with features -- far too many for EA Sports to show all at once, the overhaul of the game has made this 3D world much more vibrant to explore. Gone are the old, boring spreadsheets. This new game has player stats and attributes pop with official college team colors.

"Successful coaches have to have a plan for each position," said Looman. "Look at your current roster, what's available in the Draft and make decisions for position for both first and second-string. There's the ability to look deep into your roster, including the upside of a player, whether he's overpaid or underpaid, the role he plays on the team. Is he indispensable like Peyton Manning? Even a player's character is evaluated. Is he a team player? All of this in-game logic makes the simulation run more realistically than in the past."