Yet how do you represent one of the worst?
The question entered my mind last Saturday as Ben Haumiller, EA Sports' producer of NCAA 14 and I drove down U.S. 15-501 from Chapel Hill, N.C. to Durham, to try to capture the atmosphere of game day at, hold onto your hats, Wallace Wade Stadium.
Look, Duke is having a nice season and may even qualify for a bowl for the first time in 18 years. But Duke is no one's idea of a great football crowd. Historic though it is, the venue is one of the smallest in top-flight football, a single-level, 34,000 seat stadium whose press box is a medical facility. Really. The Rose Bowl, moved its game here during World War II, fearing a potential attack on Pasadena. Japanese bombers, to the regret of Duke's rivals, didn't take the bait.
"Worst crowd" in college football doesn't mean simply "small" or "disinterested," either. Colorado's Folsom Field is large and can be very interested. And having lived in Boulder and seen several games there, I can tell you it is hated like no other stadium, in two conferences. Failing on third down against a ranked Texas or Nebraska in Austin or Lincoln is bad. Hearing it against a 3-2 Buffaloes team, from a bunch of ski bums who are there because they couldn't get into UCLA or Cal, is many times worse.
As I've written before, NCAA Football is suffering from a sameness problem. Year-to-year, it feels like the same game. Stadium to stadium, it does too, and Haumiller's audio gathering mission meant to combat that. Yes, there are pre-game runouts, from Ralphie the Buffalo at CU to Chief Osceola astride Renegade at Florida State. Notre Dame's players will tap the "Play Like a Champion Today" sign on the way to the tunnel. But a big game in South Bend sounds just like a big game in Bloomington, Indiana.
And this is where NCAA Football is particularly vulnerable to the charge that it isn't much more than a title update each year. It presents more than 120 teams and their home stadiums, but the crowd animations and cutscenes are all the same, its volume is objectively tied to your on-field performance, and a Georgia Tech miracle comeback against Clemson is not much different than LSU confidently trouncing Mississippi State.
Nothing illustrated the cultural difference more than seeing three college games in one day in the only place in the nation where you can accomplish that without the use of aircraft: Tobacco Road. Haumiller attends between three and four college games, in person, each year, and when the ACC scheduled these three at home on the same day, he circled the date. He'd never done three different college games on the same day. I'd like to think the visit was valuable not just for the audio he took back to EA Tiburon for next year's game.
Let's start with Kenan Stadium at North Carolina. No one looks to the ACC for big time college football crowds, and even at 62,980, you wouldn't find it here. Yes, they screamed when Sean Tapley housed a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. But walk to the stadium, past all the rep ties on fraternity row and the bloody marys at the Carolina Inn, to know this crowd is there to make a statement: We went to UNC. You see it in the scoreboard videos, in an insufferable pregame montage narrated by Charles Kuralt, in a third-down conversion chant of "TAR HEELS." The outcome on the field is nice, but ancillary. Basketball pays the bills in Chapel Hill. Even with a winning team in October, football is largely a social obligation.
N.C. State is a great contrast. Against a top 10 team, you could hear my alma mater's inferiority complex on nearly every offensive possession. The crowd would scream with urgency on any positive result, and quarterback Mike Glennon completed 30 passes out of 55 attempted, both extraordinary numbers. Some completions went for four yards on third down when the yardage to make was six or more, yet the Wolfpack crowd still roared. Even though State defeated the No. 3 Seminoles, in a game I'll never forget, there was a need for approval in the crowd's response, especially as it was broadcast on ESPN. The band played after every down. With 5,000 fewer fans than Kenan Stadium, State still sounded twice as large. And twice as desperate.
Duke, astoundingly, was the best stadium for crowd audio that we visited, perhaps because its program really has nothing on the line. When Ben and I arrived, I set up next to a student section dominated by a guy hellbent for getting phone numbers from the dance team. I thought we would leave with nothing useful. But, small though it was, they still deployed recognizable chants—"Let's Go Duke," and "Devils, Devils," particularly—and serenaded a hapless Virginia on third down as effectively as State or UNC did that day, too. Trust me, anyone who plays with the Blue Devils next year should know they are in Durham.
Yet as presently constructed, NCAA Football can't really accommodate any of these variances. If you take Duke to No. 1 in the game for four straight years—eminently doable, because this is a sports fantasy—it'll still be one of the toughest places to play in the country, as loud as Clemson's Death Valley. At NC State, a win over the Tar Heels won't feel any different at would if No. 1 Alabama came to town. North Carolina will still sound like its fans care about football.
Gathering up a crowd chant is useful but it only goes so far. Delivering a feeling that you're in a stadium requires more than scanning in the surrounding architecture, too. A game that cares enough to know which tunnel the team runs out, or what type of cannon its ROTC fires after a touchdown, should also care about the school's football culture. Is this the most important thing they will do all week? Are they any good at it? Does the crowd expect to win? Who's across the field? Is everyone just here to drink?
You can apply generic levels of volume and reaction to professional sports video games and still be OK. It sounds like fans who paid good money to be in their seat. But college fans, many of them anyway, paid a lot more for the association. The cheering of a college football crowd shows its fans' personal investment more than any other sport, and it has yet to be heard in this video game.