This week, Electronic Arts' (NASDAQ:ERTS) perennial best seller Madden NFL 2005 hits the shelves. Millions of football fans will storm their local Best Buy (NYSE:BBY), Electronics Boutique (NASDAQ:ELBO), and GameStop (NYSE:GME) stores to stand in line to pick up their copy. In fact, according to Electronic Arts, presell reservations have doubled those of last year, when Madden NFL 2004 was the top-selling video game of them all.

So does this mean that Sega's new strategy hasn't made a bone-crunching hit on Madden sales?

Probably. As we discussed a few weeks ago, Sega released its ESPN NFL 2K5 a few weeks ahead of Madden and at a super-value price of only $20 a copy. Target (NYSE:TGT) had it on sale for less than $16. Despite being considered by hardcore gamers to be roughly equal to Madden in most years, the game has been shellacked on the sales front by Madden every year.

But this year, millions of gamers (including myself) who don't necessarily prefer Sega ESPN football went out and bought it anyway. And here's how it works:

  1. You pop the new game into your Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox or Sony (NYSE:SNE) PlayStation 2.
  2. You play a couple games to get accustomed to the gameplay.
  3. You start a new franchise with your favorite team (the hard-luck Dolphins in my case).
  4. You play a few seasons, trading players and drafting new ones.
  5. You start new franchises and create fantasy leagues with your friends, all the while putting hundreds of hours into the game.

After such an investment of time, would you really feel the need to spend another $50 on another game, even though it's been your game for the past 15 years?

I think so.

The problem for Sega is that you don't change systems for something roughly equal -- that something needs to measurably superior. I like Sega's game -- the presentation is brilliant, and the graphics are good. I sat and watched a friend watch Chris Berman doing a rundown of video game football highlights (it was that good). Some reviewers even gave ESPN a higher rating than Madden this year.

That said, a football game is a huge purchase for any gamer. This is the game you absolutely know you're going to spend hundreds of hours with -- so if Madden is the game that you want, you're not going to buy some other game instead just because it's $30 cheaper.

For me it comes down to gameplay. With Madden NFL 2005, I know I'm going to get the same great basic game -- one that I'm already comfortable with -- with some minor tweaks, improved graphics, and some control additions. Last year, we were able to control the direction of our teammates on the fly (swinging a receiver to my side of the field, putting a blocker in my new path, sending the defense into cover mode or after the QB); this year, we have the new "Hit Stick," which adds a little to the tackling dimension.

And Madden is so much the game that it has its own mysterious Madden curse, where the player honored with the game cover has a subpar or injury-shortened year. In past years, the curse hit stars such as Marshall Faulk and Michael Vick. This year's cover player is Ray Lewis.

Also in Madden's favor is that it's finally Xbox-live (online) compatible this year (see EA Goes Xbox Live). In addition, for $10 more, PlayStation 2 owners can get the Collectors Edition, which includes several classic versions of the game.

I tried Sega's ESPN NFL 2K5. It was a nice diversion for a couple of weeks, especially at $20 or less. Sega definitely will sell more copies of its football game than before (guaranteed by the price point), and may even swing a few converters for next year.

But EA still has the brand loyalty, the gameplay, and the gift of the mysterious Madden curse. And for this year, at least, Madden is still the game.

David Gardner has recommended both Electronic Arts and Best Buy for Motley Fool Stock Advisor subscribers. Learn more by subscribing for six months without risk.

Fool contributor Jeff Hwang owns shares of Electronic Arts.