Five days before pro football’s big game™️, fans got a jolt of joyous news from the colleges: EA Sports is getting back into college football! The developer of the dear, departed NCAA Football series announced a new partnership with the colleges’ licensing authority, which will bring their bowl games, mascots, and rivalries to consoles for the first time in eight years.
Because such things depend on licensing, and because most of the licensors in question are image-conscious institutions of higher learning in America, sports fans are probably thinking, “So what’s the catch?” The biggest one is that the game is very early in development — it will not be launching this year, an EA Sports executive told ESPN.
Later Friday, the newly minted College Football Twitter account mentioned the game will be developed “in the next couple of years.”
We’re blown away by your passion for #EASPORTSCollegeFootball. We look forward to sharing more information as development progresses in the next couple of years.
— EASPORTSCollege (@EASPORTSCollege) February 2, 2021
Whenever it gets here, it’s still been a glacial era since the last NCAA Football video game in 2013 — it connects three console generations, after all. So it’s probable that many of the features, bells, and whistles that made the NCAA Football series such an immersive delight in 2013 will not be around on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
Here’s a recap of what we know so far, how we got here, and what our best guess is for how things will go when college football returns.
Will EA Sports College Football have real players?
No. At least, as of now, it won’t. EA’s Daryl Holt said the game would not launch in 2021, and it is still early in development.
But by the time College Football does arrive, the NCAA could have passed changes to its amateurism rules that would allow football players (and other athletes) to be compensated for the use of their name, image, and likeness (those three words are a key term throughout the litigation and discussion of college athletes getting paid).
If these “NIL” rights are accommodated, and players can be paid for making commercial endorsements or appearances at sports camps for youngsters, then they could be paid to appear under their own names (and images, and likenesses) in a video game, while still performing during their four years of eligibility in school.
In an interview with The Washington Post’s Launcher vertical, the lead attorney in the lawsuit that helped end the original NCAA Football series said he believed EA Sports was making an educated bet that changes to the NIL rules are coming soon, and they had better be ready to go when that happens.
“There’s no reason they shouldn’t have a seat [at the table],” the attorney, Michael Hausfeld, told Launcher. “EA was willing to give them [the athletes] a seat and to give them a portion of the pie. This is the only way they can open the door.”
This is still an Xbox/PlayStation sports game, right?
Yes. This is not some mobile game, or a college-branded bait-and-switch that bears little resemblance to its predecessor. The statement from EA Sports and CLC (the licensing body for most of the universities) specified that this is a simulation sports video game, on consoles. That means a sports video game in the mold of Madden NFL, NBA 2K, or the old NCAA Football series we saw on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
But if it doesn’t have real players, is it any good?
Sure. Real-life rosters are a core appeal of any licensed sports video game, but remember that in the NCAA, players have only four years to play. Diehard video gamers involved in multi-season career campaigns — and when there are 12 or 13 games on the schedule, it’s easier to go long in American football than any other sports video game — are used to having a completely fictional player database after a few dozen games.
A bigger question to ask is how EA Sports will make the real-life teams behave like their real-life counterparts — i.e., Alabama is dominant, N.C. State is mediocre, Kansas is awful — without basing that performance on the skills or strengths of their real players. And further, suppose a program has really come out of nowhere on the strength of one breakout performer (think: quarterback Zach Wilson at Brigham Young this year). Developers could easily anonymize a star quarterback by giving him a different jersey numeral, ethnicity, or physical build, but how long does he stay on the team? Is this superstar a junior, like Wilson, or is that too close to real life? If he’s a freshman, does the team have an unfair advantage in longer term modes?
Even if new restrictions severely pinch EA Sports College Football’s ability to reflect real life, there should still be plenty there to serve a vicarious, role-playing, sports-superstar fantasy that makes counterparts at MLB The Show and NBA 2K so enjoyable. This is especially true if the game brings back its compatibility with Madden NFL, which had draft classes and superstar careers that were portable across the two football series, making their created players persistent from colleges through the professional ranks.
None of those things really depended on real-life players, as half the fun was in playing as yourself, or with friends, or just making a group of awesome random NPCs in one game and seeing them pop up in another.
Will it have all the schools?
There are 130 universities in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the top classification of college football. Tuesday’s statement from Electronic Arts and the CLC said their agreement involves the “rights to more than 100 institutions featuring the logos, stadiums, uniforms, gameday traditions, and more.” It sounds like they’re hedging a little, but it is early in the process.
Some universities are large enough that they will either hold out for individual agreements or considerations later, or they may not want to be a part of the game at all. A CLC group license does not necessarily mean the rights to every school, the way a group license with a players’ association includes all members of that union.
Around the time of NCAA Football’s cancellation, the athletics director at the University of Washington was recommending that the school not renew its licensing agreement with EA Sports. The Southeastern Conference — the organization, not all of its member schools — was looking at getting out, too (taking with it the conference’s championship game, for example). One huge name, rumored to be Ohio State or Notre Dame, was said to be leaving because of the bad PR surrounding collegiate licensing at the time.
But since then, several football powerhouses and Nebraska have cameoed in Madden NFL’s “Longshot” narrative and “Face of the Franchise” career modes. The University of Texas’ home field, Darrell K Royal — Texas Memorial Stadium, was even the setting for much of the first Longshot, in Madden NFL 18. Such things have shown these schools that there is little downside to a video game appearance, even if the rest of the sports world is debating the propriety of the unpaid athletes on their campuses.
If it doesn’t have all the schools, or real players, what about customization?
When it closed down, NCAA Football was in the fourth year of its web-based TeamBuilder app, probably the most powerful modding toolkit for a console sports video game. (It was taken offline sometime in 2019.) If a university wasn’t in the game (usually teams from the Football Championship Subdivision), users would create its analogue and share it, uploading custom logos and designing intricate uniforms to match real life.
Problem is, this was beginning to draw a lot of attention from universities. Around the time it was canceled, two FCS schools had made backchannel demands to EA Sports to scrub all of its trademarks and imagery out of the TeamBuilder database. TeamBuilder was also the distribution point for custom rosters — and users banding together to rename rosters to reflect real-life players, with no moderation from EA, was one of the problems that led to the lawsuit and its settlement.
When it was canceled, EA Tiburon designers were working up ideas that leaned heavily on customization, to allow fans to fill in the gaps that the developers couldn’t. Since then, the schools have made limited returns in tightly scripted settings in Madden and NBA 2K, with fictional rosters and no option to edit or modify them. It’s likely that EA Sports licensing partners will insist on tighter restrictions and controls, for the sake of preventing legal exposure, whether or not the new game has all 130 FBS teams.
Was NCAA Football really that good, or is this just nostalgia that a canceled series usually gets?
No, it really was a good game. As an iterative sports title, NCAA Football had its nettlesome issues, features that didn’t get enough attention, or ones that had a little too much marketing and not enough gameplay behind them. But in reputation, it was regarded as better than its Madden sibling, or at least better at living up to its expectations. College football was more of a distinctive game from the NFL eight years ago, too, and NCAA Football 14 played like it. Since then, NFL offenses have adopted a lot of the spread-formation and run/pass-option tactics innovated in collegiate laboratories.
But college football also has unique player development and management — recruiting kids to spend four years winning games for you. And many, many more people have enrolled at universities like Colorado or Kentucky than have ever played for the Oakland Raiders or Philadelphia Eagles, of course. That helps explain why NCAA Football, which lasted from 1995 to 2013, is still the fourth-biggest selling sports franchise of all time.
According to data from The NPD Group, NCAA Football remains the 4th biggest sports video game franchise in full game dollar sales in U.S. history. It trails only Madden Football, NBA 2K and FIFA in lifetime sales despite the Jul ’13 launch of NCAA Football 14 being its latest.
— Mat Piscatella (@MatPiscatella) February 2, 2021
We haven’t seen a full-size college football video game since the days of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Who knows what two generations of console development will add to an experience that already had live mascot run-outs, fight songs, ESPN’s halftime studio, and a recruiting layer that let you trash your rival’s academic reputation (no, seriously). It’ll definitely look better and load faster, though.