With NCAA 10, EA Guns for Two Shining Moments

Connor Dougan had me at "Nana-na-na-na-NA-na-naaaahhh!" Anyone who's hoisted a driveway three has hummed a TV sports anthem to set it up, and that one's the CBS Road to the Final Four theme, one of two in NCAA Basketball 10.

"You hear that," Dougan, a producer in EA Sports' Vancouver studio, said after humming the tune "and wow - that is college basketball."

EA's college hoops title, even though it's in the second year of a competition-free, exclusive license arrangement, is taking a huge bite with this year's presentation. Full broadcast immersion - the package of real network announcers, graphics and music - has been on a sports gamer's wish list for a long time in many titles. NCAA Basketball 10 will be the first to dip its toe in the deep end of those expectations not once, but twice this year, presenting its games in the broadcast style of CBS and ESPN.

In season mode, "if your team is that good," of course, says Dougan, your weekday games will be broadcast with ESPN's Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale, using that network's signature key graphics, screen wipes, and music. Play on Saturday or Sunday, and maybe you're the over-the-air national game on CBS - called by Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery, with that network's visual package.

It gets better. If, say, you're North Carolina, playing down in the Maui Invitational, ESPN has the rights to that tournament in real life, and it'll be presented as such in this game. In the conference tournaments, you know how sometimes the broadcasts trade hands? For example, the SEC's semifinals are on ESPN but the finals are on CBS? NCAA Basketball 10 will switch accordingly. "We wouldn't be able to get approval otherwise," Dougan said, "and we wanted to do our best to make our broadcast partners happy."

It is a hell of a stab at sports immersion, taking on the guise of two real-world networks where no game has fully rendered one before. It's even ballsier considering there's no competing title, and that the Johnson-Raftery team not only had to come in to build that audio library from scratch, but the game will end up competing with itself as both will be measured against Nessler and Vitale's experience and deeper soundfile.

"To do one network's broadcast package is hard enough, and we had to do it well," Dougan said. "We're not going to be the first ones to do it for EA Sports and not nail it. We don't have that option. And here we decided to do two."

Creating the graphics wasn't as simple as dialing up a point of contact in Bristol, Conn. or New York, and asking for the network's files. "The way their systems work, their art doesn't translate well for us," Dougan said. "So we had to recreate it, based on references provided by them, or we just got it off tape. That's the overlays, the popups, the 3D screen wipes you see when they cut to a replay or the guy at the foul line."

Those wipes are both unique, not only in visual content, but in the space and time they take up on the screen. Keep in mind they're branded with the logo of the team in the game. And there are more than 300 in NCAA's Division I.

"And every broadcast package has multiple size logos. And then you have to times that by two," Dougan said. "It was a nasty challenge."

It gets so pointilistic, Dougan said, when a player comes to the line in a national broadcast, the networks usually throw up his vital stats, which include his college major. NCAA Basketball 10 had to build in a randomizer to give players a major for just such a presentation. "We've got the guys in there who are communications, or undeclared. We've got biology, performing arts," Dougan said, chuckling. (If you create a player, he will get a major but it'll be assigned by the game, you don't get to pick it.)

When tournament time comes, Dougan said, the graphics will incorporate bracket progression and other tournament specific details, entirely done in the branding of CBS, the Final Four network since 1982. And that ...

Well, that brings up the number one question:

"No, it's not in the game," Dougan said. "We do not have ‘One Shining Moment.' "

The misty-eyed melody CBS always plays at the end of the championship game, to a reel of the tournament's best highlights, is the one iconic feature of March Madness not present in this build.

"That's something we really wanted to do, but you'd be surprised how much the dude wants - or how much that song actually costs," Dougan said. "But yes, what would be the ultimate, is if we had a video highlight montage with that song."

I asked if this broadcast immersion was a proof of concept for other EA Sports titles; Dougan didn't want to speak to what other EA Sports teams were doing (though they do work together EA Tiburon helped out with the Lucas Oil Stadum build, the site of this year's Final Four in Indianapolis.)

But he made clear that, even though 2K Sports is no longer a competitor in college basketball, it doesn't mean College Basketball 2K10 has no competition. It is the last major sports title to release before the holiday season, when gift givers are considering not only which sports game to buy, but which game overall.

"You look at where we are, NCAA Basketball isn't as popular as, say, Madden," Dougan said. "But we're still competing with it. We're competing with other sports video games, or even Call of Duty. If someone only has $60 to spend on one video game, we need to give them something that's going to drive a purchase."

The double-broadcast package was arduous - taking up 60 percent of the development cycle, he guessed. But it was worth it.

"This is something we need to provide people, in order to grow our game and market."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.