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Let’s remember the real reasons we loved EA Sports’ NCAA Football series

If it was in the game, it was in the game

NCAA Football 14 - Navy vs. Army game EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

This week was traditionally the time in which the old NCAA Football series that EA Sports published, but canceled in 2013, would have launched. I have seen a ton of copy written about the game lately, and some of seems dissonant with the way it, like many sports video games, was critiqued before it got canned. In the final season, I remember NCAA Football 14 was taking on a “sameness problem.” NCAA Football 14 had changes and updates but not new features that distinguished or advanced it from past editions. Today, of course, we remember the series as a paragon of the sports genre.

But EA Sports’ NCAA Football was still a miracle of modern sports video game development. The massive patchwork quilt of licensing that gave NCAA Football 14 a total game day feel on my living room screen in 2013 took years, upon years, of work and relationships — not just money. It wasn’t one-stop shopping from sugar daddy Electronic Arts with the NCAA (itself practically irrelevant to the product) or the Collegiate Licensing Company. It was way more complicated than the current FIFA series (which only now is bringing in the UEFA Champions League, and still does not have Women’s World Cup branding).

And somehow, NCAA Football’s makers still got everything in the game — from the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl to the Outland Trophy and Tennessee’s “Rocky Top” fight song — in the greatest fulfillment of a marketing slogan that has become the standard for an entire genre. All of these required some kind of separate agreement. EA Sports’ FIFA series still has to quietly acknowledge that, no, Italy’s Serie A does not have an official presence in the game. And that’s not anyone’s fault or negligence; it just shows how complicated it is to truly bring this stuff to life in a video game, especially when you have only a year to do it.

We take a lot for granted as video game fans, and we took the most for granted in NCAA Football. Not only was that 128 schools in their recreated stadiums, 40 postseason bowl games, the Heisman Trophy and a dozen other awards, and ESPN’s broadcast presentation — it was also all of the players. Many of them may have been delighted to see themselves represented in a game, but they of course had no say in the matter. EA Sports argued for an exception that would allow these players to be compensated for that, and the NCAA still said no.

That detail surfaced in the lawsuits that rightly contested this inequity, and which became a huge PR disaster for Tech, State and dear old almas mater coast to coast five years ago. EA Sports bore the guilt for that, not any of them. In the summer of 2013, the Pac-12, the Southeastern Conference and a bunch of others very bravely and nobly said they would leave this perfidious enterprise, which they’d had, to that point, no trouble putting their names on for 15 years. As that licensing coalition crumbled, EA Sports realized the game’s value would be so diminished as to be unappealing. The series was canceled Sept. 26, 2013.

Fans can complain about Ed O’Bannon or Ryan Hart suing the NCAA, leading to a $60 million settlement with past college athletes in football and basketball (and even, amazingly, baseball). The real reason the NCAA Football series folded and won’t ever return — I don’t really care what someone’s Kickstarter says it’ll do — is because that army of licensees is not coming back. It was assembled in the 1990s, when this topic was not henpecked every day by outrage blogging and social media, when games cost a lot less to make, when appearing in a game was a much bigger novelty and publicity benefit to schools than it is now — in the age of social media, livestreaming and conferences having their own television networks.

These licenses and the ability to procure them are the secret and shameful reason we love this game, and really, any major sports title on a console. So, I know that in sports fandom, the NCAA Football series today is like the St. Louis Browns, life on Mars and Elvis still pumping gas at a Chevron — everyone loves the what-if scenario. But if you want to honor the series this week, think good and hard about what really went into giving us that enjoyment.

I had some wonderful, sentimental conversations about this game. We all loved it, both players and developers. More of us went to college than played a pro sport, after all, which is why this game has such an enduring appeal. Some managed to stay at EA Sports, working on Madden NFL or other projects. Others moved on. But given a choice, they all wish they were back on the college game, just like you and I wish they were.

The story that really struck me was one I just heard today. EA Sports had a hell of a time keeping up with all of the NCAA Football uniforms, helmet decals and such. It’s not like every school had an assistant sports information director phoning the company in Florida to talk about what the new logo on the 50-yard line was gonna be this year. Kansas had out-of-date helmets in the last game. South Alabama, then a new addition to the ranks of major college football, did not appear in the game in 2012 — and the developers practically groveled in making it up to the school the next year.

So EA Sports brought in a new guy for a specially created role to manage all of those relationships. A month later, the game was canceled and he was reassigned.

Roster File is Polygon’s column on sports and video games.

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