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The Moral Dilemma Of College Football Video Games

The NCAA doesn’t want to pay its players. Sports video game fans suffer as a result

Amateurism in the NCAA is a hot topic. Should athletes be paid? Do student-athletes consistently receive proper education and health care? Should they be able to unionize?

A new documentary, The Business of Amateurs, was released last week, keeping the issue fresh. One element of the overall discussion on the rights of student-athletes that the film explores is whether schools and the NCAA can profit from using their athletes and the athlete likenesses without sharing the wealth.

Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller led lawsuits against Electronic Arts (EA), makers of the popular “NCAA Football” and “NCAA Basketball” video game franchises, and the NCAA itself. The plaintiffs assert that their player likenesses—their physical attributes, uniform numbers, abilities and skills—were used within these video games, and therefore the players should be compensated for said usage. For O’Bannon, that meant seeing a UCLA player in EA’s “NCAA Basketball 09” game wearing No. 31, playing power forward, shooting left-handed, and sporting a bald head and dark complexion. All of these attributes matched O’Bannon—even the player’s height and weight.

EA broke off from the suit and settled for $60 million, and those in the suit have begun to receive payments. Appeals still are being heard in the suit against the NCAA.

But one major offshoot of the issue is EA’s decision to shelve its “NCAA Football” game (it hadn’t released a new NCAA basketball title November 2009), with the 2014 version (released in 2013) being the last. And although the lawsuits have reached at least partial levels of resolution, the lack of player licenses—plus other issues around conference trademarks—seemingly will prevent EA from bringing back the franchise anytime soon. In fact, some flat-out blame O’Bannon for the death of the game franchise.

GOOD chatted with video game critic Chris Suellentrop—host of the “Shall We Play a Game” podcast—about whether or not gamers miss the franchise, and whether we can expect a new game anytime soon.

Like so many sports and video game fans, you grew up playing these games, correct?

I played sports video games before they had [real] players in them. I played “Basketball” on my Atari 2600. None of the Atari sports games were especially great. The football version was especially terrible. I played “Basketball,” “Home Run.”

Then came “Tecmo Bowl,” which was the first football game with actual players in it. It didn’t have the NFL license, but it had the Players Association license. I didn’t know that as a kid. I just thought, “Oh, it has these 12 teams.” I didn’t notice that it just had the city names for the teams. They had the same color—it was pretty dodgy. The Oakland team was black and silver and had Bo Jackson on it. Then for “Tecmo Super Bowl” they got the license and had all the teams.

I played lots of “Madden.” I feel it was a core part of my college experience—being in a “Madden” league with my dorm mates, being in an “NHL 95” league. We even brought the original NES [Nintendo Entertainment System] and played a “Tecmo Super Bowl” league.

For as long as there have been video games, there have been people trying to translate physical sport into digital form—to figure out different ways for people to virtually compete. What’s happened is that that got blended with the joy of watching sports, of being a sports spectator. That’s what these games do—“Madden,” “NCAA Football,” “NBA 2K”—they provide a mixed perspective of a player and observer.

When did you become aware of the player likeness and usage rights issue in these games?

Chris Suellentrop

It definitely didn’t occur to me playing the early “March Madness” games on PlayStation. I think I took Arkansas-Pine Bluff to the National Championship Game. The key goal in those games is to find the absolute smallest Division 1 school and take them to the Final Four or the National Championship Game. When I started playing those games, maybe they had the uniform numbers of the starting fives but not the physical likenesses because [the games] weren’t yet capable of showing a physical likeness of a player.

But as time went on, they started to have their correct height, their correct weight, their correct playing ability, their physical likeness. On the one hand, it’s certainly true as the O’Bannon case shows that they’re profiting on the physical licenses of those players without compensating them. On the other hand, lots of players love seeing themselves in those games. Lots of players love playing as themselves. There was an MIT student who did a thesis on sports athletes playing as themselves in these games, that they would usually play as themselves.

That doesn’t make it OK for EA and the NCAA not to compensate them, but it was a moment for players—most of whom are never going to play professionally—to have the equivalent of what a baseball card once was, or a shoe deal. It was one of those ancillary aspects of being an athlete, and people took a lot of pleasure from it.

Ed O'Bannon (by J Rosenfeld (CC)/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s worth noting that EA is willing to play these players. From public reports it seems like EA wants to bring the series back and is willing to play the players. It’s the NCAA that doesn’t want to play the players, and that’s why we don’t have the game.

And paying the players would open up a Pandora’s Box for the NCAA around when and for what players should be compensated.

Oh, sure. If they’re playing the players for the licensing rights for video games, why aren’t players getting a piece of the television contract, of apparel sales?

Die-hards clearly want the game back, but do you encounter a lot of people openly lamenting the absence of the franchise? Do gamers care that there’s no “NCAA Football” game?

Sports games are both the preeminent example of what I call the jock-geek armistice. In 1980’s culture you have this myth that the nerds and the jocks are fighting each other. You see that in Revenge of the Nerds and basically all 1980s movies and TV shows. At some point in ‘90s and 2000—I think of the moment in Swingers when Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston and Jon Favreau are playing NHL on their Sega Genesis. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen young men who were presented as “cool” in a movie playing a video game in a way that I knew my peers behaved and did and not being treated as something super lame for them to be doing. And they were playing a sports game.

That said, there’s something about sports games and gamer culture, even though [sports games] are insanely popular, there’s still subset of gamer culture that doesn’t like sports, that actively defines itself as being opposed to sports. I think if you go to the loudest corners of the gamer internet, you’re not going to see a lot of chatter about “Madden,” “NCAA Football” or “NBA2K”even though these are extremely, high-selling games, extremely popular. Maybe it’s the same as going to some film-lovers website—they’re not going to be talking about the Transformers.

I don’t see a ton of public mourning for it, but people must miss it. There are tons of people who preferred the “NCAA” series to the “Madden” series partly because they were college football fans and they liked hearing the fight song and playing as the team they root for, but also because it had a broader playbook [than the NFL games]. It had the style of college football. It just looked and felt like the college game, and if you like college football and that style of football, one would think you’d like to have [the game franchise] back.

With so much revenue not being realized by EA and 2Khow long before someone jumps in and does a more generic game that basically is a college football game without any player likenesses? Just strike deals with the schools individually or the conferences without dealing with the NCAA?

That’s definitely legal. But what EA has said is, look, the No. 1 feature our fans were clamoring for was this kind of realism: player likenesses, player abilities. They want to not just play as the jersey, but as the athletes they root for. And there is a way that these games are part video game, part real-time documentary—now that they are connected to the internet, player ratings, stats, and injury statuses change all the time.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]It was a moment for players — most of whom are never going to play professionally — to have the equivalent of what a baseball card once was.[/quote]

There is a degree of realism, at least according to EA, that the fan base demands. And without player licenses they’re not getting that. And especially once it’s been given to them, it’s hard to take it away from them.

There are bigger problems that the world is facing, but still it’s true that there are two guys growing up in Alabama can’t bond over playing “NCAA Football” because there’s no “NCAA Football” game. Especially in SEC country and places like Michigan, where you have to root for either the University of Michigan Wolverines or the Detroit Lions! Surely [you’ll prefer NCAA]. It’s a small loss to friendship and culture.

If you had to bet, if and when does an NCAA football game return?

If the TV money starts to dry up, maybe the NCAA starts looking for different avenues. But as long as ESPN and Fox Sports paying the NCAA as much as they are paying them, as long as the rights fees for television continue to increase, it’s hard to imagine the NCAA being that worried about what is an ancillary business for them, one that costs them a lot in litigation.

But who knows—maybe the revenue will dry up and they’ll jump back in.

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