July used to be a special month for fans of sports games. After the fun and excitement of the Fourth of July holiday, but before the summer months ended, gamers would wait patiently for the newest installment of EA Sports’ NCAA Football. The coming of NCAA Football signaled the beginning of a slew of sports games that would be released in the coming months. Madden NFL would debut in August, NHL dropped in September, and NBA 2K — and NBA Live, to an extent — would both drop in October. That doesn’t include WWE 2K, or the 2K versions of both NFL and NCAA.
To put it mildly, NCAA Football kicked off a grand time for fans of sports games every year. That was up until 2014, when the series folded for good. Part of the cancellation of the game series stemmed from NCAA student athletes bringing a lawsuit to EA for using their likenesses without compensation. The NCAA itself came under scrutiny for making money off these student athletes, while forbidding them to capitalize on their own talents.
It was a mess, and the NCAA finally decided it was a mess they didn’t want to deal with. They ended the licensing agreement with EA. The game publisher tried other avenues, including negotiating with individual schools and conferences, but when a few of the “Big Six” conferences pulled out, including the SEC and Big 10, EA pulled the plug on the franchise — and all of their NCAA-based franchises — effectively ending an era.
But fans have never forgotten those wonderful collegiate football games. The series, in many ways, was better than Madden NFL with more teams/schools (over 120 at one point), different game modes, and all of the fanfare and pageantry that comes from college football. One year, NCAA Football 2006, even tasked gamers with taking “exams” to ensure their created players could academically still play on the field come Saturday.
NCAA Football also had close ties with Madden NFL, as gamers could import their draft class right into the professional game, so created players could start as young 18- or 19-year-old freshmen, play four years for the school of their choice, and then have an NFL career well into their 30s. It was a synergy seldom seen in gaming, and EA made it work like a charm.
The franchise killer here was the use of likenesses and names of NCAA student athletes, and while the game used stand-in names and oft-times just positions as names, like “QB #12,” gamers could go in and modify names and likenesses to create their own real life squads that mirrored the players they watched play on TV each weekend.
Developer EA Tiburon didn’t try and hide the fact that they were using real-life players, and all it took for gamers to create an authentic team was their favorite school’s media guide to match numbers and positions with real life names.
But if this was what truly killed the NCAA Football franchise, the fix is easy. Most sports games now have franchise modes that extend well past the current rosters. These games are coded to generate players names, likenesses, and abilities, as time goes on, creating massive numbers of randomly generated players to fill out team rosters as gamers get into future seasons. With this technology, there’s no reason that EA can’t bring back NCAA Football and even NCAA Basketball, and have the players all randomly created from the start.
I doubt USC would ever have a quarterback named Bud Wilkerson, but he would be taking snaps for the Trojans for four years of in-game time before being replaced by redshirt freshman Lance McMichaels. These are not real players — well, they could be, but you understand what I’m saying — and that would easily solve the names/likeness issue that helped kill this franchise. There would be no issues of stolen likenesses or names, as if it happened, the odds would be astronomical.
Also, EA could re-open negotiations with the NCAA itself to secure their backing before going after the various conferences. The big six would then be more comfortable with rejoining the ranks and creating another powerhouse video football game experience. This isn’t just on EA. All three components have to come together to make this happen.
As for the game itself, with EA continuing the Madden NFL series, the assets are in place to convert the coding to the collegiate experience. This is a not a franchise that has to be built from the ground up, as EA Tiburon has always shared the assets between the two titles. Simply put, NCAA Football is already made, it just needs an update and a polish to bring it up-to-date with current gen systems. The only thing holding this game back is the green light from EA and the NCAA, which brings us to the final point.
The last hurdle is and always seems to be about money. The NCAA loves it. The conferences love it. EA surely loves it. And when that money is threatened in any way, both NCAA and the conferences are quick to litigate to make sure the green flows constantly. Collegiate sports are a multi-billion-dollar a year business, and the players don’t see a dime of that money. And they most likely never will.
But if that were to change one day, and these student athletes are paid for their services in more than just scholarships, then the way would once again be paved for EA Sports’ NCAA Football game to return to glory.
Regardless of paying players, which is a whole different argument, now is the time for EA and the NCAA to once again come together for a new NCAA Football title. The game of collegiate football is one of the most beloved of all sports, and fans miss the day in mid-July when the game would drop and kick off the sports game season.
There are a few obstacles to overcome to make this happen, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. If EA and the NCAA can come together and restart this wonderful and iconic sports franchise, July could once again become the best month for sports game fans.
All images from Electronic Arts.