ESPN and Disney Social Games have teamed up to bring the ESPN Return Man game to Facebook. The game is still available in its original form at the ESPN Arcade games portal site, but it has been completely revamped with social play in mind for Facebook. It’s an action-based football game, but rather than covering the entire match, it focuses on the efforts of the titular return man to catch the kickoff and return it to the end zone for a touchdown. There is no team management, no complex calling of plays — simply pure, fast-paced arcade football action: catch the ball, and run up the screen to the end zone. It’s a very simple concept, but one that is executed very effectively, creating a naturally compelling and addictive game without having to resort to more manipulative tactics to keep the player engaged.
Without a few twists, however, this simple concept could very easily get boring. The game regularly mixes things up, not least with the variety of situations the player must navigate in order to get those all-important touchdowns. Some plays may see the return man accompanied by other team members who will barge the opposing players out of the way, others will see the return man faced by a seemingly endless (and probably illegal) swarm of other players with no support. The return man also has a few tricks up his sleeve that come in the form of special moves and boosters, access to both of which is unlocked through a gradual leveling process. Each play also has several instant-effect power-ups scattered over the field, also, allowing the player to acquire score multipliers and quick speed boosts to get out of trouble.
Special moves, which are available in limited quantities and then must be topped up using the game’s soft currency, generally allow the return man to dodge or inconvenience a defender, with more physically-improbable moves being unlocked as the player increases in level. Four moves may be equipped at once, but an individual move may only be used once per play, meaning they’re far from being an “instant win” button. Boosts, meanwhile, must also be refreshed with soft currency when they deplete, but offer more passive bonuses such as increased speed or the ability to run through mud and snow without suffering movement-hampering effects.
There’s no obligation to spend any money on ESPN Return Man, but those willing to drop some Facebook Credits on the game will find they have access to a number of options which make the challenging gameplay a little easier. Additional blocking players can be purchased, for example, and certain boosts may only be purchased with hard currency. Players may also pay to unlock content before reaching the experience level at which it is normally unlocked for free, and those who wish to play more per day can pay for energy refills.
One of the particularly noteworthy things about the game is that it is possible to win without the use of any special moves or boosts — and in fact, players are rewarded for doing so with higher score bonuses at the end of a play. Given the game’s strong focus on topping the leaderboards against Facebook friends, this means that players are encouraged to develop their skills and become better at the game rather than simply unlocking as much content as possible through repeated play.
ESPN Return Man is an excellent, simple sports game perfectly designed for short gaming sessions Facebook users typically prefer. It’s made better by the tension that comes from the fact it is possible to “fail” a game and have to try again from the first play. This fact alone will attract both fans of the drama of sport and the core gamer market, the latter of which often finds itself frustrated and dissatisfied by social games which are either far too easy or impossible to fail at. Sports fans, meanwhile, will appreciate the little touches such as the ability to listen to ESPN Radio during play and the inclusion of the likenesses of ESPN’s Herm Edwards and Trey Wingo in the game. The ESPN branding lends the game a feeling of authenticity and credibility and, if past ESPN-branded titles are anything to go by, will likely see a large initial spike in traffic thanks to the recognizable name.
ESPN Return Man currently has 70,000 monthly active users and 5,000 daily active users. Want to track its progress? Check out AppData, our traffic tracking application for social games and developers.
A simple but effective sports game that deserves to see success among fans of football and arcade games alike.