Arena Football: Road to Glory (PS2)- A Fitting Eulogy for A Fascinating League
I want people to be able to achieve their dreams. In the United States, a lot of people dream of playing professional football. American Football is unique because there aren’t a lot of avenues to go pro outside of the NFL. The CFL has been a steady pro football league but other options like the AFL, NFL Europe, XFL, USFL, and more have all died. Compared to the options basketball has globally to be played professionally, American football is lagging far behind. That’s why I loved the Arena Football League, it was a league where professional dreams could come true. Like seemingly every other Football league in America, Arena Football is no longer with us but it’s last video game outing was the perfect eulogy to preserve the memory of an underappreciated league.
Few things are sadder to me than a dead sports league. It’s like a college closing. Colleges and their legacies are living entities with a lineage to an easily searchable history and legacy. When a college closes it takes the legacies of all involved and freezes it’s story in time. The real tragedy is that a college not opened means they have a legacy not looked at. Sports leagues are the same. There are players and coaches who peaked in the Arena league. They were the best players at their high schools, colleges and then went pro. The records they broke in Arena football only matter as much as those records can still be broken because otherwise they are just static and lost to time. When I graduated from college I was kind of worried about having some of my track records broken and really lamented the idea that I couldn’t defend them anymore. In reflection, I can say now that I am glad they are being broken and my name is being pushed down the list. Because if the records are being broken, people are looking at them and the legacy is still relevant. Arena Football: Road to Glory is a shining example of how to preserve a leagues legacy in a way that even the best museums can’t capture.
Arena Football League: Road to Glory was released by EA in February of 2007. This would be a year before the problems really began for the AFL financially. Road to Glory would be the second game in EA’s Arena Football Series. These Arena football games are not to be confused with the excellent NFL Blitz clone that came out during the Playstation 1 era. It doesn’t make sense to talk about an Arena Football game without discussing what it is.
What is Arena Football? Arena Football is an indoor version of American Football pitting 8 players on each side of the ball on a small field where one team is attempting to score more points than the other team. Touchdowns, Field Goals, and Safeties all score the same amount of points as the NFL. The biggest differences in the game are around the rules on offense before the snap and defensive rules after the snap.
On offense you can have one receiver in motion to get a running start before the snap. On defense, you can’t “twist” at the line where defensive linemen basically pull at the line and switch gaps. You have a box for the linebackers, and only linebacker can blitz. The Jack linebacker (jack in the box…get it?) can blitz and the other linebacker cannot drop back into coverage at the snap. Field goals can be kicked from anywhere on the field and missed kicks can be returned for scores. What this all amounts to is a very high scoring game where every pass can be a touchdown pass and the defense is at a constant disadvantage. It’s a beautifully paced game where comebacks are always looming and big plays are a snap away.
AFL:RTG feels like a game made with knowledge that the league would fold someday. The structure of the game is ahead of it’s time in many ways as well. The first thing you notice when you enter the game are the staggering amount of teams already available. AFL:RTG doesn’t just have the Arena League teams, it also includes the AF2 teams and rosters. AF2 was the developmental league for the Arena League. Think Arena football’s minor league baseball with teams in smaller markets like Green Bay. It doesn’t end there, as you play and hit different milestones (achievements) you unlock historic teams. I scored 5 touchdowns in a game and unlocked the Cleveland Gladiators. There are tons of milestones to hit and teams to unlock. The teams don’t have named rosters but the numbers are present. Road to Glory is a history lesson and museum. The also has a challenge mode where you are given scenarios to complete like kick a 50 yard field goal or hit a player over the wall.
The developers must have known the league was in peril. This seems apparent both in the lack of updates from the first AFL EA game in terms of graphics and features but also because they tell you about the leagues history every chance they get. And on a PS2 game with a myriad of load screens, there are ample opportunities to teach. The loading screens do 2 things in this game, they expound upon the history of the league and they also teach the rules of the game before every game. Each loading screen details and Arena or AF2 player’s career achievements and records. It does a great job of making everything feel significant.
As a game Arena Football: Road to Glory is beautiful. The presentation is very audacious. The colors are intense and each game is presented as if it’s the biggest spectacle in sports. There are fireworks after scores and wins, the game cuts to the jumbo-tron after big plays but more impressively when you pause the game it shows the jumbo-tron and it plays a reel of real footage from the league. It’s awesome! You tackle a player and flip him over and then pause the game to see the same play happening in a real game. Speaking of flips, the animations in this game are breathtaking. Each tackle feels different and players absorb one hit and then take another on the way down with their body contorts like roadkill on the highway getting rolled by a truck. The way players animate over the wall is brutal. It looks like they are getting murdered. They always have a coach on the field to get stampeded as you run for the end zone. The catching animations look great. This was an era where the ball would still kind of levitate towards the players hands as things got close but in this game it looks natural. Because so few players are on the field compared to Madden, they really amp up the animations and details in the game.
The ball physics make the game feel unique. There are a lot of opportunities to different things with the ball in Arena football compared to the NFL like Hail Mary passes bouncing off of the field goal net and the ball being playable. Onside kicks are 60/40 that the offense will recover. It’s wild watching the ball just explode into the air and bounce off of everything into a players hands. These physics play into the passing game as well. One of the ways the game gives the defense a fighting chance is that the ball stays in play on defense for a very long time after the ball is swatted or bat down. So interceptions usually come from a picked off slant by a linebacker or the ball bobbling for what feels like an eternity after a swatted ball.
The franchise mode is adequate. You can play consecutive seasons and trade players and sign free agents. It’s nothing too deep but it’s compelling enough to take a team to the Arena Bowl as many times as possible. The actual games are where the game shines. The computer A.I. is very competitive but never feels cheap. It’s the nature of the sport. It’s really easy to score and teams are always hyper aggressive. When the computer jumps to a 14–0 lead and then kicks an onside, it’s jarring but also makes sense. They know you are 3 to 5 plays away from tying the game. I was in the divisional round of the playoffs and down nine points with 1:30 left in the 4th Quarter. I had the ball and on 3rd down rolled out of the pocket and hit my wide out on a slant for a 35 yard touchdown. The drive took forty seconds. I kicked the onside, the ball rolled hit the opposing teams Wide Receiver and popped into the air. My squad recovered the onside kick with fifty seconds to score and no timeouts. Special teams and kickoffs don’t stop the clock so the clock is running as soon as I have possession of the ball after the onside. I have around 28 seconds left at my own 15 yard line. I snap the ball, roll left and hit my slot receiver on the GO route for the score. My wideout was fully extended for the catch because the defense was in perfect position. I am up four point with 10 seconds left….and still might lose the game. That’s the excitement and moments that this game creates. This volatility is what makes Arena Football amazing.
This game is a perfect entry point for anybody wanting to learn about the league but also the perfect way to relive memories of a dead league. Bankruptcy ended the Arena Football League in 2009 (and AF2 with it). There were attempts to keep the league alive for the next decade but all operations and teams ceased playing by the end of 2019 capped off by an Albany Empire win over the Philadelphia Soul in Arena Bowl XXXII. The National Arena League is attempting to bring arena football back to Albany in the near future, that league is a shell of the AFL. I can’t lie, I have been buying some Michael Bishop autograph cards and looking at Arena Football merchandise on-line. The league and it’s stars are intoxicating. If you have some free time, check out some Arena Football highlights on Youtube. Arena Football: Road to Glory can be had for less than 10 dollars anywhere you look. Pick it up, and enjoy experiencing a fun moment in football history.