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Signs point to colleges returning to basketball video games (update)

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

2K Sports has current licensing with 11 top college basketball universities, according to records found by Operation Sports, and a leaked set of achievements hints they will make some kind of appearance in NBA 2K16.

The Collegiate Licensing Company is a clearinghouse that handles licensing for all sorts of products for most of the universities in the NCAA. (Other universities handle their own licensing or use another agency.) A records search there turned up 2K as a licensee to make video games for the following schools: Arizona, Arizona State, Connecticut, Georgetown, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan, Texas, UCLA, Villanova and Wisconsin.

Update: Sometime since the records came to light on Operation Sports last Tuesday, the CLC's database has changed to show that none of the 11 mentioned have any active video game licensing.

Screenshots of the records as they appeared on July 14 are available at this link.

Then last week, the website TrueAchievements listed 50 achievements for NBA 2K16. Among these are two "secret" achievements referencing college play — signing with one school, and declaring the intent to enter the NBA Draft early. This would seem to point to the universities' inclusion in at least the MyCareer narrative being written by Spike Lee.

James Harden stars on one of four different covers for NBA 2K16; he went to Arizona State, which explains why it is licensed to appear. Two other cover stars, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry, went to schools not represented by the CLC — Kentucky and Davidson, respectively. In packshots released with the official cover announcements, Harden and Curry are pictured in their college uniforms.

Notably, all-time great Michael Jordan appears on the special edition cover in which a photograph of him in his college days crops out anything identifying the University of North Carolina, which is represented by the CLC and has not licensed the game.

A 2K Sports representative declined to comment on this story.

Whatever the case, the reappearance of college basketball in a video game is likely to cause a stir, given recent history. This past week a judge approved a $60 million settlement plan involving the CLC and EA Sports for the unauthorized use of hundreds of college athletes' likenesses in EA's NCAA Football and March Madness/NCAA Basketball series.

The litigation forced the cancellation of the NCAA Football series, which already was becoming a public relations headache for the organization, its member schools, and their conferences. A class-action suit brought by the former UCLA standout Ed O'Bannon and other former players accuses the NCAA of exploiting unpaid athletes for millions in television rights fees and licensing revenues.

The NCAA and a handful of universities and conferences had announced they would withdraw from NCAA Football before EA terminated it in 2013. No university or conference is a defendant in the ongoing litigation threatening the NCAA.

The NCAA is not a licensor of NBA 2K16 and it is not needed if schools are to appear in a video game. Universities may cut individual deals with anyone and often do. The NCAA's marks would be needed if a video game were to use the trademarked phrase "March Madness," though.

And whatever the case, nothing prevents 2K Sports from developing completely fictitious rosters of players wearing licensed university logos and uniforms and playing under these universities' names.

From 2005 to 2007, 2K Sports did develop and publish a college basketball series (and Sega for three years before that before selling it to Take-Two Interactive). Like the EA Sports titles, College Hoops 2K used rosters based on current teams, with players' names stripped out, and featured the ability to edit these rosters and share them online with others. 2K Sports was not a defendant in the lawsuit brought by former players.