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EA ‘would jump for the opportunity’ to revive NCAA Football series, CEO says

New California law will allow student-athletes to get paid as of 2023

a defender for the Texas Longhorns, wearing an all-white #19 jersey, tracks an Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver carrying the ball in a crimson-and-white #81 uniform, in a screenshot from NCAA Football 14
A Longhorns-Sooners game in 2013’s NCAA Football 14, the most recent college sports title from EA Sports.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

A newly passed California law could eventually pave the way for Electronic Arts to bring back its long-dormant college sports video games, and now we have word that the company is very interested in that possibility.

Speaking at the WSJ Tech Live conference on Monday, EA CEO Andrew Wilson said the company “would jump for the opportunity” to return to making college sports titles, reports the Wall Street Journal. Multiple lawsuits regarding EA’s use of the likenesses of student-athletes in its NCAA Football games forced the publisher to shelve the franchise in late 2013; to date, that year’s NCAA Football 14 remains the last entry in the series. EA had previously discontinued its NCAA Basketball franchise — 2009’s NCAA Basketball 10 was the final game — due to declining sales, not any legal concerns.

The Fair Pay to Play Act, also known as California Senate Bill 206, was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom at the end of September. The act takes aim at the NCAA’s long-standing amateurism bylaws — which prohibit athletes from receiving any compensation for playing sports, financial or otherwise, aside from a scholarship — albeit in an oblique manner.

The law will not provide for student-athletes to be paid directly by schools. Instead, it will open up the ability for athletes to hire representatives such as agents, and will allow athletes to profit off of their name, image, and likeness by doing things like signing endorsement deals. The law applies only to students at colleges and universities in California, although other states are currently considering similar legislation. And most importantly, it will not go into effect until 2023. In the meantime, the NCAA — which vehemently opposed the legislation — said in a statement that it will “move forward with ongoing efforts to make adjustments to NCAA name, image and likeness rules that are both realistic in modern society and tied to higher education.”

An EA source familiar with Wilson’s thinking who attended the WSJ Tech Live discussion told Polygon that the company doesn’t believe the California law on its own is an instant fix for the issue. Instead, the source said that EA views the law as an “interesting first step,” and that if it leads to “broader solutions for compensating college athletes” — for instance, provisions that aren’t limited to one state — then the company would be eager to revive its college sports titles. Wilson noted at WSJ Tech Live that among college football fans, there remains considerable demand for EA to bring back the NCAA Football series.

If the phrase “name, image, and likeness” sounds familiar, it was at the heart of multiple federal class-action lawsuits over the past decade against the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Company, and EA. The best-known litigation is O’Bannon v. NCAA, the suit filed in 2009 by former University of California, Los Angeles, basketball star Ed O’Bannon. That lawsuit alleged antitrust violations by the defendants, while a separate complaint filed the same year by former Arizona State University and University of Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller sought compensation for the use of athletes’ likenesses in EA’s college sports games. The latter suit resulted in settlements totaling $60 million that have been paid out to former athletes.

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