NCAA Football 14 Will Add an Ultimate Team Mode, but How It Will Work is a Mystery [Update]

According to the game's listing at GameStop, NCAA Football 14 is getting an Ultimate Team mode. This is a highly unusual development, given the card-trading game's reliance on real players in titles like FIFA and Madden, and the fact using real college players' names not only is forbidden by the NCAA, but also EA Sports' thinly veiled use of their likenesses is the subject of a lawsuit that could end up costing the company millions.

Late yesterday I asked EA Sports for a clarification of this feature and haven't heard back yet. The listing at GameStop offers an "NCAA Football Ultimate Team SEC Conference Pack." It includes "key SEC players and bonus game extension to get your star player off the bench and back on the field."

[Update] EA Sports confirms that NCAA 14 will have an Ultimate Team mode, but it isn't discussing its features now. They have a two-month publicity plan for the game and Ultimate Team will be revealed later.

In Madden, NHL and FIFA, Ultimate Team is a management game in which players assemble the best team they can from virtual packs of cards, then play with that team either offline or in online multiplayer. The card packs are acquired with a virtual currency that accumulates through play, or bought outright as premium downloadable content. The cards encompass the current player membership of the entire league and frequently offer bonus editions of current players or reissues of all-time greats. None of the three games uses generic, anonymous, or made-up players to fill out an Ultimate Team roster.

NCAA Football has, throughout its 21-year history, featured a roster of players based entirely on real life except with the names stripped out. This is in response to NCAA amateurism rules, currently being challenged by a potential class-action lawsuit, that forbid players from endorsing or appearing in commercial works under their own names. But past college greats have appeared in the game in this way, too, without being compensated, though that practice ended about seven years ago in NCAA Football.

In 2009, Ed O'Bannon, who was MVP of the 1995 NCAA basketball tournament while at UCLA, sued the NCAA, its licensing company, and EA Sports over his barely disguised appearance in an all-time greats roster of NCAA Basketball 09. O'Bannon's lawsuit more broadly threatens the NCAA's all-encompassing control of players' right to publicity under their own names, but if it's certified as a class action, it could become a billion-dollar liability in which the destruction of the NCAA Football series would be among the least consequential of its outcomes.

Ultimate Team modes have been enormous revenue generators for the three games currently featuring them, and the inability to use real world players seems to have been the biggest barrier to its introduction in NCAA Football, whose sales have dipped and whose potential for other revenue streams is much more limited.

I have no idea how EA Sports plans to implement this. Using real players in any form appears to be a total nonstarter given the NCAA rules and the O'Bannon lawsuit. There is no way they could sign enough past stars to create a meaningfully diverse card collection. "Key players from the SEC," per the preorder listing, is intriguing, but could mean anything.

MLB The Show, for the past two years, has offered a quasi-Ultimate Team mode called Diamond Dynasty that, despite the game having the rights to use all active major league ballplayers, also features generic players with made up names. And in NCAA Football's Dynasty modes, players must recruit made-up high school stars to their program, then develop them into all-Americans.

So there is some potential for using fake players in a college Ultimate Team mode, but it really diminishes the attraction of its distinguishing feature, collecting sports cards of known stars.

This post will be updated once EA Sports responds to my request for comment.

Ultimate Team Headed to NCAA Football 14 [Operation Sports]