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What the nostalgia for college sports video games is really all about

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A Michigan football player applies a crunching hit to his Ohio State rival in EA Sports’ NCAA Football 14.
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

The game was called Spite Bowl. Three friends and I all took our alma maters' most hated rival and played a tournament with them. It was calculated to be awful, facing you with the shit-talk of a buddy kicking your ass, or hearing the nails-on-a-chalkboard fight song of a team you deeply loathe after scoring with them. I forget who came up with it, but Spite Bowl had to be one of the greatest meta-games ever developed for the NCAA Football series.

Robert was Kansas, Jim was Cal, David played Purdue and I was those no-good son of a bitch bastard North Carolina Tar Heels. You didn't win Spite Bowl, you just didn't lose as bad as someone else. Robert was especially fun to torment; just say "Kansas" and he grimaces and hisses like he got a leg cramp in the middle of the night.

I can play Spite Bowl tomorrow with anyone; we could get the gang back together and clown around in Denver. We could even order the same stuff from Taco Bell and mock Dave's futile attempts to eat healthy there. What I can't have back is that time, and I think that sentiment is what's driving this weird wave of nostalgia for NCAA Football lately.

It's not just Snoop Dogg leading a Quixotic campaign for votes to make NCAA Football 14 backward-compatible with Xbox One. Sportswriters, noticing this is the time of year when the series would release, are launching paeans to it even though the series was killed in September 2013 and we've already gone through a July without NCAA, like the first birthday after a relative's death. The revelation that 2K Sports has licensing in place to bring college basketball teams into its NBA product, on a very limited basis, also raised hopes of a return and longing for the old days.

People talk about the NCAA Football video game as if it's something taken from them. They long for the chance to run the option with Ohio State's Cardale Jones, as if such a thing is now forbidden by the $60 million settlement EA Sports reached with former players, over the unauthorized use of their likenesses in more than a decade of these games.

If so, that's news to me.

I still have my copy of NCAA Football 14. Roster share still is supported. Operation Sports will have comprehensive, real-name rosters (and depth charts) for the upcoming season in a couple of weeks, I'm told.

The irony of this is that, in a sport that limits players to four years of eligibility, where the most talented performers turn professional early, the roster is entirely randomly generated four seasons into a career mode. NCAA Football 14 is an uncommonly timeless video game for a genre that publishes annually and where three years is enough to make a series unrecognizable to its predecessors.

NCAA 14 only lacks the ability to stage a playoff. But as new schools are added to the Football Bowl Subdivision, you can go to TeamBuilder, the rich creation and customization suite that EA Sports still supports, work them up and add them yourself. You can realign the conferences, between seasons in the career mode even.

Having covered sports video games as a primary subject for more than six years, it makes me very cynical to see annual titles, so frequently dismissed in comments and forums as a cash grab foisted on the public, become beatified for no reason other than being discontinued. Especially when the things people say they long for are still available to them, almost proving their original criticism that an annual release is unwarranted.

Moreover, we're talking about an NCAA popularly regarded as self-serving, craven and intellectually dishonest about what it does. Yet here are all these eulogies to one of the most concrete abuses of its athletes' rights, carried out in its name, enriching it and two other big businesses. It is difficult to type those words, knowing many people on the NCAA Football development team, some of whom lost their jobs and uprooted their lives over this. But that game had to go down if the NCAA ever is going to join the 21st century and reform with a true and honest understanding of what it has created and become.

When Snoop Dogg got the bandwagon rolling for NCAA 14 backward compatibility, I reached out to an EA Sports representative to ask if this was even possible, because of the staggering number of licensing agreements that created that game. I have no idea if those deals are still active, how they relate to back catalog sales (new discs were still being printed and shipped last summer) or whether creating a wrapper for the game that makes it playable on new hardware constitutes a product not covered by the contracts. I still don't. The persons who are most knowledgeable about this are forbidden from making any comment about the NCAA or the old NCAA Football video game. That was said to me directly.

People talk about the NCAA Football video game as if it's something taken from them.

Yet it doesn't even matter. We can still have this game. A campaign for backward compatibility is nothing more than making an old game available to new hardware. So what? Do you have an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3? Drive to any GameStop and you'll find NCAA 14 on the shelf. If you don't, you can grab it for $29.99 from both consolesonline stores.

That's not what it's about, though. It's not about bringing back this or any game, it's about bringing back the time when this was all OK; when athletes were simply flattered to be included and everyone thought that was payment enough. When the rosters were physically mailed around on memory cards and collaborating on them was a badge of dedication, not something exploitive.

We can't have the time before these athletes, held up as role models and disciplined when they aren't, did something truly admirable and went to court to fight for their rights. We can't have the time before we became uncomfortable with what we were really buying, who got our money and why we still wanted it anyway.

We still have NCAA Football 14 for as long as our consoles work. Who knows, if the NCAA gets its act together, maybe this series or something like it will return. But we will never, ever have that time back. Let's be honest with ourselves about what we really miss.

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

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