It’s in the Game, Unless It’s Outside the Lines

Without fail, every time I bring up this job and its subject, usually with folks outside the business, the topical jokes start rolling. Whatever the latest controversy or embarrassment is in sports, people ask if that's going to be simulated in the next edition of Madden, Tiger Woods or NBA 2K.

Sometimes someone comes up with a funny idea. This week, I was pitched a concept for an exclusive Terrelle Pryor series of cars in Need For Speed, tying the racing franchise to the troubled Ohio State quarterback whose fleet of free vehicles, among other indiscretions, led to his coach's forced resignation on Memorial Day. I promised to pass along that tip at E3.

By and large, though, it's cliché and gets a boilerplate answer: There's no way in hell any of this off-the-field controversy gets into a video game. Partly because the game devolves into self satire, partly because it's ancillary to the reasons people buy video games. Mostly because the leagues whose licenses give these titles top-shelf legitimacy would never allow it.

That doesn't mean it hasn't been tried, in subtler ways, before. With role-playing elements taking a greater presence in titles such as NBA 2K11, and gritty, R-rated narratives show up in big sellers like Fight Night: Champion, we're seeing what happens when a sports game's on-field experience has been almost fully explored and developers turn to other settings to deliver new a dimension.

Interestingly, past versions of NCAA Football have been the ones to take some of the bigger risks, though the features are long gone. The game's dynasty mode once involved disciplining players, believe it or not, with the option of suspending them according to the severity of the offense (presented generically). Failing to maintain control of the program got you landed on probation, if I recall.

Early versions of NCAA Football's "Campus Legend" mode (now "Road to Glory") required you to attend class and even take tests, which I'm told the NCAA really loved. Prioritizing football over the classroom could drop your GPA below 2.0, leading to a suspension—although you really had to actively avoid the classroom to get near that.

These features are now gone, which suggests a couple things. The first is that the NCAA reconsidered and told EA Sports to get rid of them. I think it's more likely that gamers found them to be distractions and hindrances to the reason they bought the game in the first place: Playing and winning football. Sure, it's funny to think about a program getting put on probation in a video game—provided it's not yours. Many reload their save files every time a star quarterback gets injured, so how would losing him to a suspension be any different.

It’s in the Game, Unless It’s Outside the Lines

More productive are features such as those introduced by NBA 2K11's My Player career mode. The most recent game introduced role-playing elements through postgame news conferences. As your superstar's contract neared its end, you could express your desire to play elsewhere. After a big game you could grab the credit or spread it around. The moral of it all was a little hamfisted, but it had on-court manifestations. Alienate the fans and they'll boo. Alienate your teammates and they'll freeze you out of the offense.

I found this remarkable considering how famously strict the NBA is about such things. I've heard stories about futile proposals for technical fouls in the game—not for fighting, hard fouls or arguing with officials, but for hanging on the rim after a particularly righteous dunk. The difference is the role-playing sequences reinforced a no-lose lesson of sports: be a good team player. It doesn't get too much into gray areas where league discipline clashes with a player's individuality.

To get any deeper into the complexities of being a professional athlete—money, fame, and, frankly, the sex and substances that attend to a fast life, a publisher would have to work without a license, and there are just too many cases where an unlicensed game is a one-way ticket to being ignored. There's another big problem, too: Make too scathing a criticism of a sport, or make thinly-veiled jabs at its actual leadership and problems, and you can probably forget about making anything licensed by it down the line. Honestly, it may take a non-sports publisher who sees it purely for a story opportunity—thinking Rockstar Games here—but even then the development costs might be prohibitive.

EA Sports' new "football czar," Cam Weber, was executive producer of Fight Night Champion, which took a huge step in this direction with an R-rated narrative exploring the seedier aspect of professional boxing. It could do that as the game doesn't depend on a license from a sanctioning authority. Weber intends to bring that kind of storytelling to his new role overseeing Madden and NCAA Football in years to come.

But I have to wonder what we'll really see, given the conservative and risk-averse postures the NFL and NCAA have, as many major corporations would, toward their brands. The most meaningful stories aren't just about choosing right from wrong, they're also about a character identifying it according to his values, and how that changes him. I wonder which league would be the first to let a storyteller carry its banner into that kind of territory. I wonder if any ever will.

It’s in the Game, Unless It’s Outside the Lines
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.