It’s really fascinating how popular licensed music in sports video games have become. For a good while in the 2000s, there was a sense of hype if your song got into the next Madden NFL or NBA 2K title. Nowadays we tend to gloss over it, being just another thing about these games that exist. They’re not particularly exciting these days, unless you’re like me and like cataloging every time Snoop Dogg’s been in something.
While EA and 2K Sports have become the big-name players for sports games these days, there are many companies willing to throw their hat in the ring and try to carve their own niche. For example: Sony with their MLB The Show series are considered by many to be the gold standard for baseball video games. Other times, some of this competition falls flat and ends up in the annals of obscurity, like the many times Midway tried to re-invent the wheel by making stuff like NHL Hitz. This time, we’re gonna briefly talk about Microsoft’s failed attempt at a sports video game brand called “XSN Sports.”
In 2003, Microsoft tried to make their own sports brand to rival then-competitors EA and Sega. They introduced XSN Sports as their flagship sports game brand, to make sports games for their exclusive Xbox console, much akin to what their competitors were doing. Under the XSN Sports banner, Microsoft’s sport-focused games featured tournaments and leagues that players could make in-game to share on the respective XSNSports.com website.
Microsoft’s sports games debut included XSN Sports titles like NFL Fever 2004, Links 2004, and Rallisport Challenge 2. Sadly, they couldn’t make a dent in the competition, and the XSN Sports brand was folded one year later, with only Amped and Rallisport Challenge lasting beyond the brand. The XSN service itself was later shut down in 2006, presumably to shift focus onto the then-new Xbox 360.
As a promotional tie-in for these games, they released a soundtrack, under the “XSN Sports Soundtrack CD Series,” featuring various songs that come from the game’s soundtrack. NHL Rivals 2004 was the featured soundtrack for Volume 1, and what turns out to be the only volume, as there was no Volume 2 that I could find online.
The soundtrack CD also comes with a bonus DVD, featuring some NHL highlights from the 2002-03 NHL season, some Wayne Gretzky promo videos, and some DVD-ROM exclusive features. Not much to say about all this, as my experience with hockey games begin and end at Blades of Steel.
The main reason I’m covering this is primarily because of the track listing. Outside of two tracks, the rest of the album is… rather off-putting. Stuff like Boston’s “Long Time” (apparently the “Foreplay” half wasn’t available despite being the better part of the two), Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You.”
As someone who has only been to one or two hockey games ever in their life, these songs seem rather out of place for a hockey game. Most of them are too slow, not evoking the fast-paced nature of ice hockey, or missing the sort of jock jam enthusiasm that you kind of need at a sporting event.
But what about those two interesting songs, you may ask? Well, they may not be that interesting, but they are to me, at least.
The soundtrack begins with probably one of the most cliched pop songs out there: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” The song most well known for being in Rocky III. That song that appears in all kinds of training montages as a homage or parody of Rocky. It’s the sort of song that would work good in a face-off or shootout before the rest of the action kicks in.
However, there’s something weird about the version on this album. It’s not the version everyone’s familiar with, from the 1982 album also called Eye of the Tiger. Instead, it’s a re-recorded version from 2001.
It’s not clearly obvious at the start, it has the same sort of chuggy guitar rhythm that matches the original but it’s very clear when you hear the vocals, which sound considerably different. The vocals are not from Dave Bickler, who was the original performer on “Eye of the Tiger.” Instead, it’s being sung by Jimi Jamison, who became Survivor’s lead signer after Bickler left in 1984, and was Survivor’s lead vocalist around the time of this recording. (He sung on “Burning Heart,” the other Survivor song you’re probably familiar with, also from a Rocky film.)
While I have nothing against Jamison, he clearly doesn’t have the voice to make it work with the power of the original. It sounds like a bad cover version you’d hear in Guitar Hero or something.
As far as I know, this particular version is not available anywhere else – all other Survivor compilations use the one from Eye of the Tiger – so this might’ve been recorded during a contract dispute with former band members or something.
The other interesting track on this album comes from rocker and former Van Halen lead singer Sammy Hagar. Prior to his Van Halen tenure, one of his biggest solo hits was “I Can’t Drive 55,” a fast-paced rocker anthem. Admittedly, I know of the song only because it reminds me of Marty walking through a ravaged bad future Hill Valley with bikers everywhere in Back to the Future Part II.
Music from the Xbox Video Game NHL Rivals 2004 also features the song, which probably doesn’t make sense as it’s a song about driving fast. Unless you’re using this as music to take someone to the penalty box, this song seems rather ill-fitting. Surprisingly, it’s also a re-recording.
Updated for modern times, this version is now called “I Can’t Drive 65.” This was recorded in 2001 for NBC Sports for NASCAR events, and was used a few times in promos for that year’s NASCAR season. While the original “I Can’t Drive 55” evokes a very distinct ’80s vibe, the newer “I Can’t Drive 65” is a lot more modern rock-influenced. Naturally age has caught up to Hagar as he doesn’t have the pipes to really hit those high notes he could in ’85. Despite that, it’s an okay version.
As far as I know, this may be the only place to actually get this version of the song anywhere. A live version has been floating around the internet, but nowadays Hagar has reverted back to the original “I Can’t Drive 55” version when performing it live, so this is one of those weird curiosities that probably gets a Wikipedia footnote at most these days.
The rest of the album is full of fairly confusing song choices. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Sweet Home Alabama.” (does Alabama even have an NHL team??) Nothing particularly unique about these, they’re the same versions you’d hear on the radio or on the artist’s respective albums. Not much else to really say here.
It’s no wonder the XSN Sports Soundtrack series only had one volume, the song selections seem like they were made by a 40-year-old trying to be hip with the kids. Had they made a volume 2, they would probably put country songs in NBA Inside Drive 2004‘s soundtrack instead of hip-hop.
Honestly if I was curating a soundtrack, I probably would’ve chosen more current bands of the time like Fall Out Boy or The Killers. Hell, if you wanted to go the easy route, you could choose songs that appear in every sporting event, like “Get Ready for This,” “Who Let the Dogs Out?” or even “Crazy Train.” Those are the kind of songs that I think would fit better than a lot of the tracks chosen.
Whoever was on soundtrack duty was at odds on what songs to license for their hockey game, and opted for relatively easy fare. The result is a soundtrack that’s more an interesting curiosity than something actual hockey fans would have running through their stereo systems.
All things considered, this is an okay soundtrack compilation. A lot of the hits, a few rarities, and a whole bunch of songs that don’t seem to fit in a hockey game. Though, what do I know, I’m just some schmuck on the internet writing about a sports game soundtrack CD because it has two interesting songs on it. Maybe these work after all, and I’m wrong. Feel free to correct me.
Drastically updated on September 11, 2020 with new information, updated paragraphs and added audio samples. Felt like an overhaul was needed on this Year Two entry.
- Survivor – Eye of the Tiger (2001 re-recording)
- Boston – Long Time (printed as “Longtime” on the track listing)
- Pat Benatar – Hit Me With Your Best Shot
- Sammy Hagar – I Can’t Drive 65 (Updated version of “I Can’t Drive 55”)
- Joe Walsh – Rocky Mountain Way
- Journey – Don’t Stop Believin’
- The Fabulous Thunderbirds – Tuff Enuff
- Lynyrd Skynyrd – Sweet Home Alabama
- Steely Dan – Do It Again
- REO Speedwagon – Keep On Loving You
- Styx – Renegade