College football is all but certainly headed for a four-team playoff in 2014, a move that would dramatically alter not only the game on the field but the one on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.
The plan is not yet finalized, and even if it was, it is way too late to get anything like a playoff into this year's game. NCAA Football 13, which releases on July 10. If the BCS creates a four-team playoff and remains a licensing partner of EA Sports' game—and there's no reason to think it won't—then gamers can expect to see college's new postseason reflected in the next game.
But the possibilities don't end there.
For years fans wondered why the game couldn't or wouldn't supply a simple 8- or 16-team tournament mode, like other team simulations do, when the answer was quite simple: The BCS isn't a playoff. The BCS was, for much of its existence, publicly against and demonstrably threatened by a true playoff, and so anything it licensed wasn't going to include a playoff even in a what-if fantasy.
Now, the bowls are not going anywhere—some will serve as waypoints in a national final four of football. Even the name BCS appears to be headed out, given how so many fans identify the term with arbitrary bowl pairings that reward reputation, and pointless controversy muddying what should be a simple process.
Despite the clamor for a playoff or something resembling it, though, there are traditionalists who prefer the bowl system. And the bowls aren't going anywhere once the playoff arrives, either. In this case, a legacy postseason option, in which players can choose to have their Dynasty seasons end with a four-team playoff or under the old bowl structure, wouldn't necessarily be harmful to a licensing partner's interests.
I asked the NCAA Football team if they had any ideas or hopes for how they'd handle postseason formats in future releases. Not surprisingly, I didn't get a clear answer. It is too early in production—if it even has begun—to commit to anything in NCAA Football 14, much less NCAA Football 15, which likely is the first edition that would feature a new playoff.
No way would the old BCS allow a playoff in a game it licensed. But would a new playoff still allow users to play an old bowls format?
"We're following the news carefully about the decision around a four-team seeded playoff," said the game's producer, Ben Haumiller, "and we will take any changes into consideration for future NCAA Football titles."
That's because his team is loath to implement any forward-looking changes in the second or future seasons of a player's Dynasty, simply because things like conference memberships, new bowls and their sponsors, have shown capable of changing and reversed themselves in the span of a year. The first season to end in a four-team playoff would be the 2014-2015 year, meaning this isn't a video game issue for another two years, probably.
But I know Haumiller, as a fan, personally prefers the bowl system. And the game last year implemented a suite of pre-season and post-season customizations, including assigning automatic bowl bids to conferences different from real life. Other sports simulations allow their users to customize the length of each postseason round (best of 3, of 5, of 7, etc.). Major League Baseball 2K12 even built in a contingency for the new MLB playoff structure, which was not even formally approved at the time the game released.
An option to expand a postseason to 8 or more teams seems highly unlikely. That the BCS commissioners are willing to support a four-team playoff took an enormous amount of fan agitation, persistent and investigative sports journalism, and some visionary lobbyists on the inside of the BCS itself. They're not going to talk about more than four teams for a while.
I do know that to include legacy playoff alternative in a video game like NCAA is not as simple as it sounds. The game's codebase updates every year; even if a feature doesn't change, it still must be QA'd to make sure it's playing nice with the new code. That costs time and money.
Also, NCAA Football's scheduling engine—which must account for 124 teams in 11 conferences, plus independents, with protected rivalries and rotating intradivisional matchups—would also have to be as adaptable to a traditional bowl postseason as one in which bowls host games in a four-way playoff. Scheduling logic in NCAA is so convoluted, Haumiller literally put a mathematics Ph.D on the case for this year's game, to account for a 14-team SEC.
And then remember that this must work for Dynasty, Online Dynasty and Road to Glory. That need to build, essentially, three different games is why Madden combined them into a single suite this year, called Connected Careers.
Ideally, yes, we'd get it all. But if it means spending more time on creating and fixing code to support a postseason that no longer exists in reality, rather than improving other aspects of the game's Dynasty or Road to Glory modes, it sounds unlikely college football fans will have their playoff cake and eat it in bowls, too.