Two weeks ago, startled by hearing my tiny high school's unique nickname announced in NCAA Football 10, I vowed to track down those who put us in the game.
I found them, and found out why "The Buckin' Elks" of Elkin, N.C. High (pictured) - population 4,000, graduating class of around 70 - joined hundreds of other unusual mascots and monikers also introduced to a trumpet fanfare by the franchise's play-by-play man, Brad Nessler. It's one of the great underhyped features of a major sports title - not because of what it delivers to a million users, but because of what it might provide to only one or two of them.
For when you're nobody growing up in the middle of nowhere, no moment that puts you on the map for millions can ever seem small or will ever be forgotten.
NCAA Football's creative director Jeff Luhr (Osmond, Neb. Tigers, Class of ‘94) understands this. A dozen years ago, he was a playtester on the PSOne version of the game. "We had commentary but they didn't have my name in it," he remembers. "I submitted a bug report that said ‘this last name is not in the game.' I probably should have gotten fired but they actually fixed it. They took ‘Lewis' and ‘Kerr' and put them together and created a last name that sounded like mine."
Even though he wangled it as an insider, Luhr was forever bowled over by the game's inclusion of his last name. "So when TeamBuilder came around, that was the kind of thing I remembered," Luhr said.
TeamBuilder is the resurrection of the title's old Create-a-School mode, which devotees loved on the previous console generation, but which had been nonexistent on the current generation until NCAA 10. EA Sports decided to bring it back this past year with a heavy customization component, engineered through a web site. Users are free to enter their own team nicknames, as they did on the PS2 and original Xbox. But if the game can't match up that name to a sound file in Nessler's script, it'll be introduced as "The Home Team" or "The Away Team," - a call that destroys any immersion before it even begins. On the PS2, that database contained 300 names, 120 of them belonging to existing major college football teams.
Luhr knew the more teams that TeamBuilder reached with an authentic Nessler introduction - no matter how esoteric their created nicknames - the more chances his game had to deliver a wow factor that no other sports title can so far match.
"I couldn't prove that it would be popular," he said, "but I felt it in my gut, that when someone experienced that it'd be something appreciated, in the way I appreciated it when they put my name into the game."
Enter Adam Thompson (Altamont Springs, Fla. Lake Brantley Patriots, Class of ‘95). A designer assigned to the game's commentary, his thinking already matched Luhr's. "In one of those meetings I said, ‘You know what, why don't we just blow this out,'" Thompson said. " ‘Let's get as many nicknames as we can.' Because I really hate it when [Nessler] says ‘the home team' when the game doesn't recognize a nickname. In fact, I'm looking for a way to just get rid of that because he would never say ‘The home team,' in real life."
Thompson, like Luhr, reasoned that once TeamBuilder launched many among the game's million-strong user base would create homages to their high schools, their small college alma maters. Thompson even figured that somewhere there'd be kids entering their youth leage squads into the game. Could they possibly account for that? They had Nessler coming into the studio for two days, but he was working on more than just nicknames. How many could they pack in? Another hundred? Five hundred?
"Nessler's a real pro," Thompson said. "One of the best announcers in college sports - and the video game industry. He reads his lines like he's calling a game. I wouldn't try this with Lee Corso, probably not with Kirk Herbstreit. They're great guys, great to work with but they're the analysts. Nessler can do this."
They got him to read more than 1,700. Twice, since there's a different inflection if the team is announced first or second in the pairing. It took about three hours.
Building the list took much longer. I asked for Thompson's source material, figuring he got media guides from all the state high school associations and small college conferences. Nah. "The Internet," he said. "Various web sites listed them all." Thompson even compiled some youth-league names that weren't already covered by the existing 300 name database.
"I had a big list of names, I can't even remember how big the original was, probably 3,000," Thompson said. He had so many he'd lost track of their source, and whether they were legitimate or in jest. ‘The Peppermint Panthers. The Pink-Blue Shooters. We do have a disc space budget," he said.
But "The Nads," that one stayed. Seriously. Go create the Nads, you'll hear it.
"Oh yeah, Nessler laughed when he read that one," Thompson said.
As much as it catered to the little guys, Nessler's work wasn't meant to serve only them. In larger communities, high school football justifiably rivals professional and major college football for passion and interest. "If you grew up in Ohio, Texas, Florida and to some extent California, you know high school football is just massive," said Kendall Boyd, (Cleveland, Okla. Tigers, Class of ‘94), the senior product manager for NCAA Football 10. "We did expect a high school aspect to this. I don't know if we expected the broad depth that we've seen, but we definitely prepared for it. And it's because we're trying to cater to that fan who wants to relive the past, as a dreamer."
Including the nicknames of the existing 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that come with the game, plus alternate spellings of all nicknames, there are 2,437 names that will trigger a Nessler sound bite, Aardvarks to Zombies, with Battlin' Beavers, Boll Weevils, Pretzels, Lemon Twists, Nimrods, Peasants and She Devils in between. All of these had to be cut, mastered, named, logged and readied for use in the game - twice.
Despite the size of the catalog, Thompson still grimaces at learning he missed one. When I told him Washington (N.C.) High's "Pam Pack" (the first word is short for Pamlico) didn't trigger an intro, Thompson quickly came to his own defense. "We have it in there, but the site I got it from had it spelled as one word," Thompson said. "I just entered a bug report into our database that we need "Pam Pack" recognizable as two words."
Across the state, what about Mount Airy's Granite Bears, runners-up in the state final this year? (In the most heartbreaking of fashions, too.) "I will put in there that Granite Bears need to go in next year," Thompson said. "It's not hard, but I don't want to promise anything because you never know what we will and won't be able to do when the time comes."
After that, what else can be done? "When is enough enough?" Luhr said. "I would say it's until we've got the nicknames and last names of everyone playing our games. I think it's attainable."
Thompson knows the next step, but isn't easy. "It would be tough for us to record the actual (high) school names," he said. "I wouldn't even know if it's something we could do." Licensing and use of likeness might play a role.
For now, there are other ways the existing names can be used. "We could make it so the name is now added to the end of a sentence, like, ‘Touchdown, Buckin' Elks,'" Thompson theorized, "But that's 2,000 team names, so you're saying, ‘Hey Brad, we need you to record these 2,000 names over again.' It doesn't take that long, relatively, but it's very repetitive. Then our cutter has to go in and and cut them out and master them. It's a considerable amount of work. So we have to make that decision."
And if they do make the decision, again, it probably won't be with the majority in mind.
"Even if just you and a couple of buddies are the only ones we touched with this, it was worth it," Luhr said. "We experienced it as gamers. We know that it makes a huge difference."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.
Images courtesy EA Sports