As a private-school doormat for decades to two big-boy conferences, until last year most people couldn't name one guy on the Baylor football roster. Even if Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy in 2011, it didn't make the school's fight song any more recognizable last week. Maybe that's why so few noticed that when NCAA Football 13 released—with Griffin himself on the cover—the Bears didn't take the field to "Old Fite."
But longtime NCAA Football players can recognize "Generic #7," or whatever the heck that is playing during Baylor's video game runout, from a mile off. The song comes from a suite of nondescript tunes dating back to NCAA's Create-a-School feature from nearly a decade ago. I was once told a Russian military band was hired to record these songs and, truth be told, they all sound like it. I can't imagine what a generic fight song sounds like to a Baylor alumnus or fan whose school has gotten a nationwide glamour shot on a video game cover, the likes of which it may never see again.
Baylor isn't the only school to have its real fight song drop out of the game in the last year. Most notably, "Texas Fight," the University of Texas' song, said goodbye to all the rest. Texas A&M evidently held out their War Hymn, and "Noble Men of Kyle." Arkansas' fight song fell off the back of NCAA Football's motorcycle during the off-season, too.
The concentration of fight song holdouts from the old Southwest Conference (TCU likewise was a defector) is curious but has no official explanation from EA Sports. Money is a pretty good guess. For years, Auburn's fight song was never in the game because the two sides couldn't come to an agreement on licensing terms. But Baylor's song—and Texas', and AM's—was in last years' edition. Someone may have raised the price on these songs' inclusion—which in the case of Texas is really curious, as that state last year gave EA Sports a huge hunk of tax incentives to bring jobs to Austin.
For gamers who have long railed against Electronic Arts' aggressive sale of downloadable content, the fact the publisher saw content held out of its game to be sold back to it is, for sure, richly ironic. But it likewise points to the prohibitive expense of creating a simulation sports title whose presentational elements reflect the "it's in the game" standard that most consumers expect of all sports video games, even if it's the motto of just one publisher. That 20-year history of agenda-setting is another reason why it's such a powerful slogan.
Contrary to what you may think, the package of licenses for which EA Sports pays considerably doesn't include everything. Songs, especially famous ones, are in some instances privately owned. "Rocky Top" isn't even Tennessee's official fight song, but as the band has played a version of the bluegrass hit since the 1970s, most notably after the Volunteers score a touchdown, it's a bedrock expectation of the Tennessee football experience. I have no idea who controls its rights of publicity for this purpose, but evidently the price was right, because it's still in NCAA 13
Sometimes there's no additional price. Georgia Tech's "Ramblin Wreck from Georgia Tech" is actually in the public domain and may be played by anyone. "The Victors" at Michigan and The Notre Dame Victory March, perhaps the two most famous fight songs in the nation, are under copyright of their respective universities. Typically, if you pay the fee to the Collegiate Licensing Company, you get the use of all symbols its universities control, and songs would be one of them, assuming a licensed school itself controls their rights.
But when you look at the headache of managing permission to use 124 fight songs, you start to understand why there are so few licensed simulation sports games—and probably why there won't be a basketball game any time soon: There are more than 345 Division I basketball programs. Fight songs are just one part of it. Actual mascots, whether live or cartoon, may also be owned or have their rights controlled by third parties.
The person who plays the University of Oregon's Duck mascot got the school in trouble when he appeared in a 2009 rap video supporting the football team. That's because the Duck doesn't just look like Donald Duck—he is Donald Duck, and Disney has granted his use to UO going back to a 1947 handshake between Walt Disney and the school's athletics director. One assumes Donald appears in NCAA Football by special permission of Disney, the university, or both.
This isn't just window dressing. To every alumnus or fan of every school, seeing these symbols properly depicted in a game sold to the general public is a hell of an affirmation. It's prohibitively difficult to determine all of the schools whose fight songs from NCAA 12 didn't make it to NCAA 13, but there are enough gone that one of the first things I checked was whether N.C. State's was still there. It is. This sort of thing puts you on the map, the same way Robert Griffin III put Baylor on the map. To leave it out, for whatever reason, is to disappoint a lot of people.
Hardcore video gamers may say they care more about things like authentic, smooth gameplay than whether the Texas Pom Squad is wearing the proper cut of chaps, and maybe they do. More consumers are more likely to spot whether Michigan State is wearing the official shade of green. For years, those details have been an easier standard to meet. Now, as the fight song holdouts illustrate, they would seem to be more expensive.
EA Sports may have driven the expectations of sports games to a point where only a label with its checkbook can, year-in-and-year out, pay for all of these things. In the video games market, EA Sports is often accused of buying the pot. But it wouldn't surprise me if someone from Texas looked at his cards and still raised the ante.
Correction: Contrary to the previous version of this column, The University of Oregon and Disney, in 2010, modified their arrangement and formally declared The Oregon Duck is not Donald Duck. While Disney continues to receive a portion of sales from licensed memorabilia featuring the printed image of the Duck (drolly described as "Duck Throwing a Fit"), the two sides agreed that the costumed mascot was not Donald purely for reasons of accountabilty and liability. The Oregon Duck had teabagged the Houston Cougar in a 2007 fight before appearing in the 2009 rap video, and his various transgressions and unsanctioned appearances were becoming too much of a headache for Disney or the university to manage jointly in the YouTube age.