A Blindside Hit Takes Down an NCAA Football Team Rallying to the End

Wednesday night, he was having anxiety attacks over his designs for next year's game. Thursday afternoon, it didn't matter; his title was canceled. And ten minutes after showing up on Monday, he no longer had a job.

By all accounts, Alex Howell and the rest of EA Sports' college football development team were working right up to the abrupt end of the series, continually reassured over the summer that despite the loss of one school and some league trademarks, the ship would hold together. But EA Sports pulled the plug last week, about an hour before it filed papers saying it had reached a settlement with current and former college players suing over the uncompensated use of their likenesses in the game for years.

"I'm sure if they could have saved all of us they would have," Howell, a career-mode designer and a walk-on player for Auburn last decade. "They gave me and all of my friends opportunities that never existed. They took a college football player and gave him a chance."

What unfolded after the combined teams of NCAA Football and Madden NFL—more than 250 developers—were called to the largest conference room at EA's Tiburon studio is a plaintive reminder of how any video games job, even in the comparatively stable area of annual sports games, can be eliminated in the blink of an eye.

This did not mean pink slips just for the guys building the college title. EA Sports decided to merge the two teams, the idea being to keep the best and brightest on the label's flagship product in North America. An emotional Cam Weber, the general manager for EA Sports' American football games, told both units that the "vast majority" of positions would be saved, and a public statement he released said EA Sports would try to relocate others to jobs elsewhere in the company.

Still, for many, there would be no chair when the music stopped. It also meant that people working on Madden NFL lost their jobs on Friday, to make room for NCAA colleagues being brought over.

"It was horrible to see friends going before me," Howell said, knowing why they were being dismissed. Though he and his college football colleagues had been told they didn't have to come to work on Friday, many did, out of anxiety over their fates or simply having nothing better to do. NCAA's turn came on Monday.

The casualties were not simply junior hires, role-players or underperformers. Jeff Luhr, a 15-year veteran and the game's creative director, also lost his job. "He was our game," Howell said. "He bled NCAA Football and made it his life; he worked 14 hour days like it was nothing. He took me under his wing right after I got here. When I heard Jeff was gone, it hit me. 'This is not good at all.'"


A vision of deep customization, with 'D&D'-like scene-building in a football campaign.


Howell, 28, is a guy I came to know through his work on NCAA Football's Road to Glory career suite over the past three years, which reinvigorated what had been a neglected mode and a repeatedly missed opportunity before he came aboard. Howell was no meathead jock; he is a JRPG devotee, and introduced a lot of RPG features to Road to Glory, with other plans left on the cutting room floor.

What was going on with NCAA/College Football 15? Howell says he and Luhr had, for a time, been working for a few years on a customization suite for the series that he believes would have gotten the greenlight in the coming title, which was to be developed for both the current console generation and the next generation. Howell, who speaks admiringly of Minecraft, Terraria and other games with a heavy modification culture, said the idea was to turn the game over to fans, on the faith they know best what they most enjoy.

Not only would that have entailed an overhaul of the existing customizer—TeamBuilder, which deals with single teams—the vision extended to things like stadium construction, layer editing for uniforms, and even "D&D" like settings within the game's dynasty mode. For example, creating stories and occurrences elsewhere in the season, like a backup coming out of nowhere when a star performer goes down to injury, or a prestige team suffering a losing streak that upends the rankings at the end of the year.

It's unclear how much of this was actually being prepared for next year's game. Howell cautioned that the customization was at a big picture stage, though he and Luhr had design documents dozens of pages thick laying out these features. If College Football 15 could have shipped, with them, the depth of customization—and the ability to share uniforms, complex logos and user-built stadia—could have soothed the sting of conferences like the Pac-12 and Big Ten pulling their trademarks from the series, and a big program—believed to be Ohio State—exiting it altogether.

"I was talking to my mom a week ago saying, 'I cannot tell you how excited I am for this game,'" Howell said. "I've always known, and believed, that users now are creating things that you (as a designer) could never possibly imagine. So we need to put the game in their hands. We're not big enough to give them everything they want. If we gave them the actual parts of our game and its assets—yeah, it's a huge liability that someone could make something better than we're making. But that's not the point of it."

Howell said the customization focus, conceivably a lifeboat in a future where no NCAA school licenses its appearance in a video game, was not ramped up as a response to the litigation. "This was started way before any of these lawsuits," he said. Still, there's always been an idealist streak in his conversations with me, and I question whether EA Sports itself would be willing to give such control over to its fans. Where's the money in that?

"There are actually pricing models that worked with this," he said, "I'm not a huge fan of microtransactions, but there are. Look at Forza, or any game that allows user-generated content. Sometimes it's fun to pay a buck for something—or to pay a guy who made something amazing, to give him credit."

That idea, like the rest of college football, is shelved somewhere in EA Sports' building in central Florida. Reports over the weekend suggested that EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company would pay $40 million to settle the case. Others said up to 125,000 current and former football and men's basketball players would be part of the settlement group. If so, the per player payout could be somewhere between $125 and $350. No one will know until the terms are filed in 30 days.

Even on the upper end, if EA Sports paid the 85 players (really, just 55 are used in the game) on 126 different teams $350 each that's a $3.7 million licensing fee each year. Considering what a game with authentic players would return in additional sales, and that Madden has in some years paid more than $20 million to the NFL Players' Association for the rights to its players—that kind of money would have been no barrier to the production of a college football game. If only the NCAA had allowed it.

So it stands to reason that EA Sports is settling this case for less money now rather than risking a huge loss later, to say nothing of the legal strategy of putting the focus squarely on the NCAA, losing badly in public opinion on the matter. Potentially, if the litigation succeeds in setting up some system through which players are paid—even $350 a year—for their contributions to an enormous business model, this series could return. It seems to be a longshot.

Whatever the case, in no way does Howell blame any college football player for his dismissal, and not just because he is a former one himself. On one hand, the value of a scholarship, and of graduating with no debt, and of having access to training, meals, tutoring, and preferred scheduling, certainly makes for an attractive package of compensation to players. He rightly notes that some universities' entire athletics departments are funded on football revenue, and takes pride that the Auburn football team supported scholarships in sports like tennis and cross-country.

On the other hand, some players don't pursue certain majors because their advanced courses schedule in the afternoons during the fall, Howell said; and yes, there is no viable development league other than college football for those with reasonable chances at a professional career.

But others may not be in such a forgiving position, especially those who are older, or who have children, or spouses who have their own careers in what is at best a games development backwater. Where other veterans may not have mobility, Howell can move anywhere, and views his termination with optimism and hope. There are a couple of non-sports indie game concepts he and friends had batted around, but couldn't bring to fruition while they were in EA's employ.

Today, Howell showed up and not 10 minutes after stepping off the elevator, was met by a manager who walked him to a conference room. He met with HR, received the terms of his severance and then, the same as all the others over the past week, made the numb stroll back to his desk to retrieve his personal items.

"I walked by Adam Thompson," another designer, who worked on the game's commentary engine, "and the look on his face, I don't think I'll ever forget that. He was a big brother to me. I walked past him and he looked at me as if to say, 'You can't be leaving.' I could see the emotion in his eyes."

Escorted by a manager, Howell boarded the elevator and descended two floors, walking through the atrium of the Tiburon building, past the company store and out the glass doors to the parking deck. Soon Adam Thompson would be called in and dismissed, too.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games.