We'll soon learn which lone university will bail on EA Sports' college football video game, ending an 18-year run in which the series featured all of the more than 100 major-division teams every season—a bedrock expectation of any "it's in the game" claim.
The good news is the announcement of who's in and who's out should stanch the bleeding for the next edition. The bad news is the wound is still likely to rip open by next July.
On Wednesday, the Southeastern Conference, big-time football's Southern sheriff, decided to bust out the tail lights of a car it's riding in for another year. Mimicking the NCAA's grandstanding announcement of July 17 almost word-for-word, the SEC said it was through with video games, and that its logo and trademarks would not be licensed to EA Sports "moving forward." Keep in mind we're just talking about the SEC name and its logo, and not its schools. It's very important.
Two other conferences followed suit and, a day later, the University of Washington left the impression this year was also its last in a video game. Everyone is panicking because the NCAA and its constituent institutions face an extinction-level asteroid of a lawsuit brought by former players, over all the money the NCAA and its schools made—from video games, highlight DVDs, and replica jerseys sold by the NCAA itself—while pretending college football was nothing more than an amateur extracurricular activity.
Unless the NCAA and its conferences and universities decide to acknowledge the reality they've created—that this is a big entertainment business whose uniquely talented performers deserve to be paid—and engage in problem solving, not the parsed-words ass-covering PR we saw on Wednesday and Thursday, EA Sports will face this crisis next year. Until then, more licensing agreements will expire and more schools will decide it'll look real good if they fret about how inappropriate all of this is, and leave.
Any day now EA Sports is supposed to release a list of its licensing partners for next year's college game—all of the schools, conferences, bowls, symbols and awards that form the spine of NCAA football's oh-so-marketable tradition. That would be an unusual feature declaration for a sports series one month after the most current edition was published. But it's one utterly necessary to fend off the idea the series is dead today, which is the message sent by the SEC's self-serving announcement and the others that followed its lead.
I've spoken to someone who has seen this list of licensors, and despite the SEC's statement—which left the uncorrected impression it was out of video games immediately—that conference's name and logo will appear in next year's game. The Big Ten and the Pac-12 were certainly capable of saying, in clear terms, they were out of video games as of now, and they in fact are. Their trademarks will not be in whatever EA Sports publishes next year, according to the person I spoke to. The SEC may say it's getting out of games "moving forward" but that doesn't rule out appearing next year under an existing contract that runs through July 2014, the month when the series typically releases.
So who is the holdout school? Not the University of Washington, which also is either misleading the public for PR purposes or has senior officials mistaken about its licensing agreements. Athletics director Scott Woodward, in a live chat with The Seattle Times, said licensing was handled by the university's main administration but his department "will advise them not to" license UW's trademarks to EA Sports. My source says Washington will appear in next year's college football game, again, possibly because its contract runs through July 2014. Others with direct knowledge of this matter have confirmed my information is solid.
This is probably why EA Sports is taking so long to put out its list. The truth about who's in next year's game is sure to raise embarrassing questions from fans and alumni (and media observers) who thought no meant no, and right now. Though EA Sports would assuredly defend its product and its contracts if it came to it, it can't alienate licensing partners by appearing to correct them in public. Even if the SEC took a sledgehammer to this franchise with a pre-emptive and utterly self-serving statement, EA Sports still needs the league, and all the others too. In its 22-year history, that brand's greatest feat is the complete representation of North American sports' most diverse ecosystem—all the conferences, postseason games, rivalries, trophies, and today, 125 distinctly performing teams, all of this individually owned—for more than 15 years. Not even FIFA has pulled off anything like it.
But it's also the game's greatest vulnerability. For even if one school out of 125 leaves, the college game becomes damaged goods to the general public, whether the defector is Stanford or a 7-6 Washington team that crapped out in the Las Vegas Bowl. For all of its admirable qualities, no other sports video game defines authenticity more by what is on the sidelines rather than what is between them.
Here's Howard's Rock, and you may rub it. Here's Ralphie the Buffalo, and she'll run out before your game. Here are the Song Girls, and they'll cheer for you, right in your living room. If Clemson, Colorado or USC decide to leave, they take all of that with them, and you're left with 11 guys, four downs and 10 yards. Sure, no one owns the excitement of the spread option, but running it with a generic school is far less compelling than running it with Oregon, in all of its ridiculous Power Ranger costumes, at the bottom of Autzen Stadium's crater.
No other sports video game defines authenticity more by what is on the sidelines rather than what is between them.
Some observers have postulated a third way—that next year, or the year after, EA Sports saves the series by pouring everything into a super-customizable game through the TeamBuilder web application, which hasn't gotten any attention in three years. The teams on the disc would be randomized and featureless. No real players, no real teams, making it incumbent upon users, the ones who currently rename and share rosters to reflect reality, to do the same thing for helmets and end zone art. They could pull it off with a deep enough uniform and logo editor, right?
Well, as I was told on Thursday, two Football Championship Subdivision teams—these are lower-level schools that don't even appear in the game—have asked EA Sports to pre-emptively remove their symbols from TeamBuilder. Any major school opting out of EA Sports' game would assuredly demand the same thing, and EA would be obligated to police it in the same shoot-first/ask-questions-later way that YouTube complies with takedown demands.
Schools are leaving because, on the whole, EA Sports may pay millions in royalties from this game but to an individual university, the money isn't that eye-popping, certainly next to the liability of a lawsuit. EA regularly paid the NFL Players Association—not the NFL—$30 million for its license to a much more valuable product. If 125 colleges combined command half that amount it comes to $120,000 per school. Yeah, bigger schools make more, smaller schools make less, some schools have their own deals. ("On a per school basis, it isn't much," a former executive on this series told me by email. "I'm sure it was NOT equitable.") Most universities are in this because the game makes them look good and it markets them to younger audiences they aren't yet reaching, whether they are fans or potential applicants.
But even an also-ran like Washington could walk away from a six-figure check. This isn't Phil Knight money. That will make the revelation of the lone holdout interesting indeed. Whether it's someone like Notre Dame or Stanford—rich, successful football universities that don't need the money and think highly of their presence in intercollegiate athletics—or a nonentity like Indiana or Duke, the first question should be how much money they gave up for opting out.
This news won't shore up the game, it'll only set the tone for the next round of defections in 2014. Don't discount the peer pressure in a snobby, image-conscious environment such as higher education. Private schools will be the first to leave. Then public schools that pretend they're private, like North Carolina, will follow. Pretty soon you'll be down to colleges like Texas A&M, which finally emancipated itself from the tyranny of the Texas Longhorns and is hell bent on living it up big time, boy. They proudly renewed their deal with this video game beginning next July and it lasts to 2017.
But if College Football 18, or whatever it's called by then, is still holding it together, it'll be by force of contract only. People can talk all they want about this game reconstituting itself as an exciting on-field first-person sports narrative with a Friday Night Lights storyline or something. It will only end up on the slag pile with All Pro Football 2K8 and Backbreaker. Those kinds of games don't give us the life we always wanted to live. The life we demand as sports gamers. The life that will be the death of NCAA Football.