Two weeks ago the offers started pouring in. Duke. Vanderbilt. Wake Forest. Places well beyond what my parents could ever hope for me, much less pay for. They aren't real offers, as I'm not really a football player. That's OK, I'm not a real college student either. Mom and Dad stopped worrying about how to pay my tuition, or if they would even get to, about 20 years ago.
This is part of the fun of NCAA Football's singleplayer career mode, "Road to Glory." Every year since its introduction in 2005, it's the first game mode I play. It touches a unique sentiment that no other sports game could reach. Just look at how many back-to-school comedies have been made in Hollywood. People, no matter how old they get, still have dreams about showing up late to an exam, of old friends at a party, or of a long-ago date and what might have been.
That's the region of your brain "Road to Glory" is meant to probe, and I let it drill in as far as it wants to go. EA Sports this year moved the experience away from the fluffed-up reality-show presentation that follows you throughout your career into more of a traditional role-playing game, a smart decision. The designers at Tiburon also tossed in a full season of high school football, and the means to bring your school and all of its rivals into the game through its team-creation web application.
It's the mode I always play first but, inevitably, I lose momentum after my freshman year. This year was no different, and I think it's because I play the game in manner different from its intent. Road to Glory, for me, isn't about winning a national championship or the Heisman Trophy. I don't identify with either of those accomplishments. I do identify with getting into college, and I've made this game into that.
Quite unashamedly, I love the film Rudy, and I'm not a fan of Notre Dame. People beat up on it for its schmaltzy sports-opera scenes but for me, that's not a movie about football but about getting into college. For millions. that's a harrowing judgment delivered at a particularly vulnerable time in life. The emotional climax of that film isn't when Rudy sacks the Georgia Tech quarterback. It's when, sitting on a bench at Saint Mary's Lake, Rudy opens the letter and finds out he's been admitted, on his very last chance.
As it did for Rudy Ruettiger, college athletics can give tremendous weight to the acceptance—or rejection. I grew up in a UNC household; visits to games there defined college to me at a very early age. As a terrible high school student, I knew I wasn't getting in, but getting that formalized in a letter was probably the first difficult reality of my life I had to face.
NCAA Football 12 offers the fantasy of undoing that, although I simply can't bring myself to pick North Carolina. I'm very candid about my relationship to that school, but to go there in this game would sink that from a fun, vicarious choice to something darker and a little more pathetic. I also had a great four years at N.C. State, especially as it comes to football. The team's seniors that I graduated with are the winningest class in school history, and if I wasn't an athlete I got to know the program well as a sports writer. So I feel no need to revisit Raleigh, either.
The video game victory that's most real to me is the one that comes before all of that: Just getting in. If I have a disappointment in NCAA Football 12 it's that never is the outcome really in doubt. Your rating (in stars) is pegged to passing five thresholds through your in-game performance. It doesn't fluctuate. Hitting five stars by your fifth game leaves little incentive to finish out your career. And if you want, you can just simulate the whole thing and choose to walk on at your school of choice without a scholarship. In some cases, I found starting jobs were offered at major schools to walk-on players.
Now, EA Sports must pitch a big tent with this game, and those who plunk down $60 and expect to play quarterback for their alma mater had damn well better be accommodated. But I turn the difficulty mode up for this game mode and, really, no other, in any sports title. It's partly because I only have to worry about actions at one position; but it's also because, when that offer comes through, whether it is from Vanderbilt, Michigan, Idaho or Fresno State, I'd like to think that I earned it. In "Road To Glory," you can designate three preferred schools before your season and your recruitment begins. I was wishing that No. 1 would require the most effort, would withhold its approval until the very end.
Instead, it came too early. You get some objectively good scholarship offers very early in your career. The regional programs show interest first, then the national ones come in and really schmooze you. Really, I was tempted to commit to Vanderbilt, the first school to offer me a scholarship, after I fought back hard in a 24-14 win with 278 yards and three passing touchdowns. As a game choice, it was defensible, it would have satisfied the up-from-nothing story so many strive to create in the career modes of NCAA Football and any other sports game. Role-playing it, I could definitely see my Dad encouraging me to go there. He'd haul out stats showing how likely it was I'd never play a down of pro football, then punch that adding machine in his office and come up with a cash-and-prizes value of a full ride to Nashville, and then tell me what that degree does for you later.
Dad also told me never to limit my options, so I kept on playing to see what else I could pull together. Inevitably, the rest of the SEC took notice. By this point I'd written off the ACC, out of my real-world loyalty to N.C. State and a desire to try something new. My high school mowed through the state championship and finished with a perfect season. The game cycled over to its signing day moment. That offer from Vanderbilt was still good.
Rebellious child that I am, I picked Tennessee.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.