A lawsuit isn't what really killed NCAA Football; the lack of a playoff did

Once every month or so I make a run to the GameStop in North Wilkesboro, N.C. to trade in some old discs and maybe pick up a new one. I popped in to get EA Sports UFC a couple weeks ago and noticed a row of NCAA Football 14 — last year's game, despite the number in the title — sitting on the shelf.

"What's that going for?" I asked the clerk. He tapped his keyboard. "Thirty dollars," he said.

"Thirty," I repeated, in an I-know-what-you-give-me-for-last-years-sports-game way. "That's the used price?"

"That's not us," he said. "That's catalog." Meaning that's a new disc, and that's the price EA Sports recommends for it. And, he said, they're selling copies, especially as people come in out of habit looking for the latest edition.

The Second Tuesday of July — NCAA Football's typical release date — has been a near constant for the past decade, becoming more familiar to thousands of college football fans than Alabama and Tennessee's Third Saturday in October. The day came and went this week with no game. Electronic Arts shuttered the series last fall, after negotiating a settlement with a decade's worth of college players who had appeared in the game in all but name.

With gamers unwilling to buy anything that doesn't reflect the talent and dynamic of the current season in the sport it simulates, there's no way a college football game can be published. Not unless the NCAA adopts rules that allows players to be compensated for the use of their likeness in the sport they play, but the larger lawsuit over how players are treated seems destined for the Supreme Court.

NCAA Football was one of the most cunningly future-proofed series in sports. Except for one crucial feature.

In the eulogies we've seen for NCAA Football this week, the series is treated almost as if it has ceased to exist. That's a nearsighted point-of-view, especially coming from a constituency that regularly holds up some past version of a sports series as superior to the latest edition.

NCAA Football still exists, people. You can buy it new in the box for $30 at GameStop; you can, if you're really nuts, get it for $50 from Xbox Live or the PlayStation Store. All of the downloadable content, too. Online multiplayer and NCAA Football Ultimate Team still are running, the auction houses are still up, everything. The Operation Sports community is working on custom rosters for the upcoming season. When they're finished, they'll bring some fresh spirit to this warhorse of summer sports gaming.

I don't claim that makes everything good-as-new. I'm just pointing out this is like talking about grandpa in the past tense while he's still in the room. Like any sports video game, NCAA Football 14 had areas that needed polish and won't be getting that, much less the boost to presentation and visual quality would expect in its PlayStation 4 or Xbox One debut.

And nothing will give it the College Football Playoff, or any game mode resembling the four-team finals that begin with this year's postseason. It would have been intriguing to see it handled by this series,which had always done a smooth job of making the human-voted aspects of college football seem lifelike (even to the point of believably screwing have-nots out of big bowl bids or ignoring their players for big honors.)

That's a big blow to a series that was, in hindsight, still one of the most cunningly future-proofed titles in licensed sports video gaming, thanks to a number of key features.

Conference realignment

Had NCAA Football not introduced this, the game would be irrelevant as soon as the series stopped publishing. The series had, for a long time, allowed for user-controlled, small-time teams to be invited to play in a big-boy conference, but someone (usually Indiana) always had to be kicked out to maintain balance.

In 2011, the development team at EA Tiburon saw the continuous reshaping of college conferences and realized it had to allow for that in users' narratives. When TCU committed to joining the Big East one year, then stood it up in the next, Tiburon understood it couldn't plan on anything happening more than a year in the future, and had to give users the means to change things in their alternate timelines to reflect reality.

Thus users could pare conferences could down to as few as four members or expand them to as many as 16. They could make these changes between seasons in a dynasty. Along with this came the means of staging (or removing) a conference championship game, editing some automatic bowl bids, and even restricting what days of the week some conferences could play. For hardcore traditionalists, this toolkit still keeps the game meaningful regardless of who is or isn't on the roster.

Roster share

In hindsight, this probably got the series in hot water, or at least didn't do it any favors in court. Roster share is a tacit admission that users rename the player database — you know, the one that gives you WR#81 and OLB#45 before you go get a copy of Athlon's and a six pack and spend an hour renaming your alma mater.

NCAA Football still exists, people.

Roster share was introduced around 2007, putting an end to the days when people physically mailed around memory cards with roster files on them. There's a grain of truth to the infuriating slur that annual sports video games are roster updates, and that's because the rosters matter, dammit. College Hoops 2K8 went strong five years past cancellation with custom, community edited rosters, until 2K Sports pulled all online support at the end of 2012.

I'm told Operation Sports' college football lifers remain as committed to creating new rosters this year, and when they are available, word will spread quickly.

TeamBuilder

Though this feature had not gotten much attention of late, TeamBuilder remains an unusually powerful customization tool for a console title. With it, Chris Creamer's SportsLogos.net and a basic knowledge of your school's official CMYK colors, you can add in classic, defunct or Division I-AA teams (which were left out when the game moved to Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3). I used it to create the N.C. State from my time there in the early 1990s, with everything except the hideous BIKE shorts the coaches wore. Had Ohio State, as was widely believed, refused to license its appearance in what was in development for this year, for sure there would have been a thousand fully authentic Buckeye replacements ready to go on TeamBuilder 24 hours after release.

The personnel itself

Though NCAA Football was undone by a lawsuit over using real players' likenesses without their permission, the truth is they mattered in only four seasons at the most. By the fifth, you had made a complete turnover of your roster and everyone in the game was legitimately fictitious.

You recruited new players out of a pool without any name recognition benefit as to how good or how disappointing they might be. Sometimes you had to think hard about whether they might work better as a starter somewhere else, rather than a backup at their listed position. I wasn't the only one to develop long-running, almost fatherly relationships to these guys. Back in NCAA Football 2003, a friend of mine in Las Vegas was so shattered when his all-Mountain West linebacker broke his leg, ending his career, he couldn't even reload the save.

The College Football Playoff will be one of those rare sporting events with no video game presence.

There was one feature that could have truly future-proofed this game: A playoff. But it hadn't been in the game since 2000 and wasn't coming back, even as a one-off tournament outside of the career mode, as long as the Bowl Championship Series was part of the picture. The useless sinecures running the bowls knew that any true playoff threatened their jobs, and there was no way they were letting fans imagine life under a different championship format, especially in high definition.

A couple years ago, Mike Slive finally got the votes to create a playoff with four bids, two of which will assuredly go to teams from his Southeastern Conference, but it arrived too late for EA Sports to implement it in NCAA 14. The Final Four is still playable in either of the two mothballed college basketball series. But the College Football Playoff will be one of those rare major sporting events that has absolutely no representation in a video game.

So even though NCAA Football still is commercially available, and even though we're a few days away from a roster update that still brings everything into present day, it probably really won't hit fans until they reach the postseason of their current franchise year, or the one in real life gets going.

Until then, savor what you've got. A bourbon-drinking friend who put in a lot of work on this series says when you're having one on the rocks, don't get a fresh glass when you're having another. "There's equity in that ice," he says.

For NCAA Football, after 17 Tuesdays in July, there's still equity in the ice. But it'll melt come January.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears on weekends.

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