Over the last two years, we’ve covered 26K’s arcade-style football video game Sunday Rivals in many ways. It started with me playing a prototype back in May 2020, where I saw promise in the game, even though it was an extremely early build. And then, in late 2020, Bob gave his impressions during his Indie Football Games to Watch article. He echoed what I liked about the game and more.
Lastly, I followed it up with an interview with the creator – and brains behind the game – Ryan Kamins. Ryan and I discussed many topics like where he drew inspiration from for Sunday Rivals, the most challenging obstacles he’s had to face in creating the game, his hockey title, and more. Unfortunately, that was the last time I wrote about Sunday Rivals, despite being on my list for the better part of the previous year.
Sunday Rivals Review
Flash forward to the present day, and 26K’s Sunday Rivals was officially released on May 16. And with a bunch of new additions since the last time I played, it feels past time to give my updated impressions of Sunday Rivals.
What I Like
Graphics And Presentation
Every time I write about Sunday Rivals, the first thing I make sure to mention is the game’s unique character models. These block-like football players look eerily similar to those little Lego characters you may have played with as a kid. If that sounded like a bad thing, it’s not. Most indie video games can’t achieve the same quality graphics as the big league studios. So why even try to accomplish the unthinkable? Instead, what Ryan Kamins did was create a unique style that, in my opinion, adds to the appeal of Sunday Rivals. Speaking of characters, folks have an array of customization options at their disposal that allows them to change the names and looks of their players, down to the colors of the stadium and grass type.
However, it’s not just the character models. Another part of the lore is its presentation. As for the overall layout of Sunday Rivals, the menus are crisp and easy to navigate. In addition, the game’s overall broadcast layout looks almost up to par with any other sports game on the market. Night and day transitions and dynamic weather are also noticeable and add realism to the game. They even have timely cutscenes or taunts in between plays that add another layer of presentation.
That said, these cutscenes may not be what you’re accustomed to. Instead of a triggered animation or cutscenes, you might see an image with your player flexing along with a moving background. These unique screens only happen during big plays, for example, a bone-jarring hit that forces an incompletion or a big third down completion to keep the sticks moving. There’s a time and a place for these graphics, and Sunday Rivals does a great job of implementing them.
From a graphics and presentation standpoint, Sunday Rivals does everything right. However, it’s how a video game ultimately plays that will keep people coming back again and again.
Creating a sports video game that can be deep and immersive enough for hardcore players while also welcoming to those who want to pick up the game and play can be difficult. But Sunday Rivals does a great job of mixing the two. Throughout the game, most of the rules walk a fine line between realism and arcade. For example, there are no penalties throughout the game, and if timed correctly, Sunday Rivals has no problem with players hitting one another after the whistle. The control scheme is easy to pick up and learn and is more than welcoming for newcomers. Another thing that I like, which adds an arcade feel to the game, is that players can create big plays at the drop of a hat. Jukes and special moves are effective, but can not be spammed or overused.
Another example of Sunday Rivals‘ refined style can be found within each team’s playbook. Each team gets five different packages on offense and defense. Within each package is five plays. That’s 25 plays on offense and 25 plays on defense. There’s also a way to change your team’s playbook, which gives users even more options. Overall, for as arcade-like as Rivals is, they do an excellent job of executing the nuts and bolts of football.
The offensive line actually creates protection. Routes develop downfield, and I’m pleased with the interactions that I’ve seen between the defensive backs and wide receivers. I also find myself going through progressions in the passing game and trying to follow my blockers in the run game. These aren’t necessarily things you do in a traditional arcade video game. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. No game is. But with every new update, it seems one step closer to realism, which is why I continue to come back for more. Playing the computer can be fun too. I’ve had my fair share of heated battles and nothing ever felt unfair, which is not always the case when playing the computer in Madden.
Season And Headhunter Mode
Outside of your traditional exhibition mode in Sunday Rivals, there are two primary game modes. These two modes are season and Headhunter mode.
Season mode is what you would expect to see in most sports video games. In the earliest build I played, this wasn’t an option (neither was Headhunter mode). You pick your team and battle your way through an 8-game season with one ultimate goal: hoisting the championship trophy and proving that you are the best in the world. This is where I spent most of my time, trying to prove the Miami Orcas were a respectable franchise. You won’t have to worry about signing players or off-the-field drama. Rivals‘ season mode is as streamlined as it gets, and that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. Each game still feels essential, and eight games is the perfect length for me. Another thing I admire is how detail-oriented the developers are. There’s literally scouting on your opposition broken down by player before each game.
On the other hand, Headhunter mode is an entirely different game mode than anything you’ve ever played in sports gaming. This game mode is a four-round elimination-style tournament where points are tracked using a fantasy-style scoring system. The game mode is fun but, at times, can be slightly confusing. It’s probably easier to show you a picture of the rules and scoring system. Then, you can probably fill in the rest of the blanks yourself.
These three game modes (exhibition, season, and Headhunter) should be enough to keep gamers happy for now but not forever.
What I Don’t Like
Replay Value Concerns
One concern with any video game is how will it hold up against the test of time. And with Sunday Rivals only having three game modes, that’s definitely a concern. Early on, 26K’s football game was constantly improving and ever-evolving. Now that it has officially been released, there may not be as much that Ryan Kamins can do. And after one or two playthroughs of season mode, gamers may not have any more motivation to play. This brings me to my next gripe: no franchise mode.
No Franchise Mode
The thing I wanted most while playing this game was the ability to sign free agents or improve my team via free agency or trade. Sure, switching the playbook and changing tendencies could provide a spark that my team may not have otherwise had. But still, I would’ve preferred to have been able to upgrade my 64-overall running back or acquired a better offensive tackle to protect my blindside much earlier in the process. Of course, there are also a few more things they could take from some of the other sports games, but I know this is probably asking too much.
Since the first time I played Sunday Rivals, I knew it would be special. Watching it grow every step along the way has been fun, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to see what’s next. A few years ago when I played the prototype, Sunday Rivals was easy enough for a casual sports fan to pick up and play while packing enough meat and potatoes to keep the hardcore football fans coming back again and again. Ryan Kamins’ game is the perfect mix between Madden and NFL Blitz. Sunday Rivals is a hit, and if you’re a fan of sports video games, particularly football, you need to check it out.