Gaming Sports

The Return of EA Sports: NCAA Football! The Long Journey Back.

After eight long years, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel for college football fans desperate for the return of the beloved NCAA Football series from EA Sports. Well, today we got the announcement we’ve been waiting so long to see. Details are sparse at this point but we’re expecting more to be revealed in the next couple days.

Where did it go?

The series last entry was NCAA Football 14, encapsulating the 13′-14′ college football season. For context the reigning Heisman Trophy winner that year was Johnny Manziel. Alabama and Notre Dame were the reigning champion and runner-up respectively. The 13′-14′ season was also the last under the old BCS system which gave way to the College Football Playoff the following year.

NCAA 14 was a fan favorite in the annual series. Used copies of the game have gone for as much as $100+ in various used game stores and online. The series was popular, so why did it fold? The answer to that is simple. Legal trouble involving the “amateur status” of college athletes.

On August 8th, 2014 a ruling in the case O’Bannon vs. NCAA determined that the NCAA profiting off of the name and likeness of former players violated Anti-Trust laws. For example, if Florida (after Tim Tebow leaves) puts a #15 Tim Tebow jersey up for sale, the suit argued that it was a violation to not then pay Tebow since they were profiting off of his name and likeness after he was no longer a part of the program and no longer had his “amateur status.”

Now, you’d think this would only be a problem for big name athletes at major programs. I mean, how many people do you see walking around with Middle Tennessee State’s backup QB’s jersey? But it extends deeper than that. Every advertisement for the team that used player highlights, highlight films of previous seasons, all involve the university profiting off of a person’s likeness without compensating them. Though you could argue that the scholarship was compensation, that wasn’t stipulated in any scholarship offer that it represented compensation for use of their likeness.

So where does the NCAA football video game fit in to this?

Well, this is what caused all the problems

No matter how many times EA insisted that “6’2 230lb Senior QB #7 from California” is NOT Matt Barkley, that was going to end up being a tough sell. This screenshot is from NCAA 13, but it’s the same situation every year.

Did the O’Bannon ruling officially stipulate that NCAA Football video games violated this? No. But EA read between the lines and settled outside of court before that ruling could be made, to the tune of $40 Million. You can read about that here.

Rather than spend millions in a court case they’d likely lose, they elected to cut their losses and move on.

So what changed?

In 2019 “The NCAA’s top decision-makers voted unanimously Tuesday to start the process of modifying its rule to allow college athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses ‘in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.'” (Dan Murphy, ESPN.Com)

This was the first domino to fall against the return of a college football video game. Before, EA’s hands were tied in that they couldn’t pay student athletes directly for the use of their likeness due to NCAA rules. EA and other sports video game companies sign licensing deals with the various “Players Associations” of the different professional sports to allow for names and likenesses to be used in games like Madden, NBA 2K or MLB: The Show. (In fact back in 2004 when Barry Bonds left the MLBPA, EA replaced him in the game with ‘Jon Dowd’)

Now that EA will be able to license the use of those names, the path is clear for them to reboot the series.

You may be asking “If the ruling was changed in 2019 why didn’t they make a game sooner?”

That is a very fair question. EA would never confirm this, but my speculation has always been that we were approaching the end of the life cycle of the PS4 and XBOX One and EA wanted to wait to develop the new game engine that would run NCAA 14 for the new generation of consoles so they wouldn’t invest millions in developing for obsolete hardware. While you could just re-skin Madden with the NCAA teams and systems, college football is so different from NFL football that in order to capture the authentic college football experience, some drastic changes would be made, warranting the crafting of an entirely new platform for the game.

Where do we go from here?

News at this point is scarce, as the announcement was only made around Noon today (2/2/2021). My expectation is that we won’t actually get a new game until next year (for the 2022-23 season) but it certainly wouldn’t shock me if they released it this year.

Regardless, the old Online Dynasty Mode group chat I used to be in is showing signs of life for the first time in years, and I can guarantee you I’ll be getting this game the day it comes out.

We’ll keep you updated as new details are made available.

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