When the NCAA leveled crippling sanctions against Penn State a week ago, harshly penalizing the football power for its lack of institutional control in a 13-year sexual abuse scandal, it wasn't long before I was asked if the NCAA Football series, this year or in the future, would incorporate any of these bans and restrictions.
The short answer is, no. EA Sports got out of the virtual enforcement game years ago. After some experiments with player discipline in the game's Dynasty mode, it became a messy subject their licensing partners would prefer them to avoid. Most importantly, this is a $60 product, in which consumers expect all features to be available to them regardless of what school they choose to play, especially if they're fans of that school. Alienating those customers is a basically dumb idea. The game didn't do it to USC when it was bowl ineligible last year; I wouldn't expect the game to do it to Penn State or any other team this year or next year.
That doesn't mean you can't enforce these restrictions yourself, should you choose to play a dynasty as Penn State's head coach. There is one big sanction that simply can't be re-created: the school's four-year bowl ban. If you get a bid to a bowl game, you must play or simulate it, and the win or the loss will go on your record and potentially affect your recruiting posture.
It would be fair, realistic and flexible if the game allowed users to refuse a bowl invitation—which has been done before, and done for disciplinary purposes before. (Clemson and South Carolina both declined bowl bids after an embarrassing brawl in 2004). That choice isn't available in NCAA 13. It's reasonable to ask for it in NCAA 14, but I suppose it would require another change to the game's already cumbersome scheduling logic.
Still, for nearly everything else the Nittany Lions will face, you can make a few changes to replicate these restrictions, and create a hell of a challenge for yourself in the process. Let's look at what Penn State is staring at over the next five years, and how that translates to NCAA Football.
• A $60 million fine: Not applicable. There is no game feature in NCAA Football 13 in which money plays any role (which is deliberate upon orders from the NCAA, I'm sure.)
The video game won't match the sanctions coming Penn State's way, but you can—and it creates a hell of a challenge.
• A dramatic reduction in football scholarships: The smaller roster sizes in NCAA 13 compared to real life, plus the manner in which these restrictions are doled out, makes this a little tricky to manage cleanly. Basically, Penn State cannot offer more than 15 scholarships to its next four recruiting classes. Then, from 2014 to 2017, Penn State's football team cannot have more than 65 scholarship athletes on the roster.
NCAA Football 13 caps each team's roster at 70 players (it's 105 in real life, with 85 of them on scholarship). It allows you to offer up to 25 scholarships a year, roughly what a major program doles out each year, on average. If you don't re-stock your roster with enough scholarship players, the game will generate walk-on athletes, typically very poorly rated, in the off-season.
As this post by Operation Sports' Chris Sanner shows, if Penn State in real life only offers 15 scholarships per year, it could be down to 50 to 55 scholarship athletes in two years anyway, because of losses to graduation, transferring, and leaving early.
Simulating through this, I'd suggest capping scholarship offers at 13 per year and, if you really want to be strict about it, 54 scholarship athletes on the roster, realizing that the latter may become moot by year three. A 54-man restriction may be problematic because I simulated a year in which I offered no scholarships, and the CPU added just six walk-ons to my roster, leaving me with a total of 58.
Plus, the game doesn't flag for you who is a walk-on and who is a scholarship athlete. So if you're going to manage the roster based on who has a scholarship and who doesn't, you'll need to write that down beside a player's name as soon as he's added to the roster.
• Ineligible for Big Ten title game until 2016: Simple solution: Make Penn State an independent school in the custom conferences menu before you start your career. If you only make this one change, the game will still largely preserve Penn State's Big Ten schedule (it swapped Iowa in week nine for Michigan for me, for some reason), they'll just be nonconference games. Now, with 11 schools, the Big Ten won't be staging a championship game, but this is still the fastest and easiest solution. When the four year ban is up, add Penn State back to the Big Ten. Conference alignments can be changed in the off-season of every year.
• Bowl ineligible until 2016: As said before, this can't be re-created. However, as an independent school, Penn State will get no benefit of Big Ten bowl ties. Its five-star prestige means a six-win season will probably still land the Nittany Lions somewhere, but it won't be anything that moves the needle for recruiting: Championship Contender, TV Exposure, etc.
• Forfeiture of all victories from 1998-2011: This actually has a minor manifestation in NCAA Football 13. The game tracks career coaching records, and four belong to "66-11 COACH (PSU)," aka the disgraced Joe Paterno. He's down for 409 career wins, 24 bowl victories and 37 bowl appearances, all of which were reduced significantly by vacating 13 years' worth of wins. To be notified you had broken one of these now outdated records would require, at minimum, 24 seasons in-game. If you've ever completed that many, congratulations.
Let's not forget the Nittany Lions will probably see players transfer out, as the NCAA has freed them to pursue a roster spot at another school without sacrificing a year of eligibility. So you may want to wait until just before the season starts to pick up some updated custom-named rosters, whose editors do a scrupulous job of dropping players who transfer out or get kicked off the team.
Operating under these restrictions, even in the first year you're looking at a hell of a challenge. The game offers you contracts between two and four years, and in ones I have seen, failing to get a bowl bid, failing to recruit a top 50 or top 75 class, or failing to win six games each year all carry huge downsides and very little upside. Even if you get a four-year deal it may be tough to hang on and rebuild, especially if you kick the recruiting difficulty up a notch to All-American.
In this game, Penn State also has needs at multiple positions that must be filled immediately—two outside linebackers, a strong safety, a middle linebacker, a defensive tackle, a fullback and a quarterback. There are strong odds at least one of them will be filled by a walk-on unless you're realistic and take some one-star, in-state talent. Sure, you only have 15 scholarships to offer, but you can't waste a lot of time on five-star talent—especially when going independent drops your rating in conference prestige and championship contender to D- and D+, respectively.
This isn't like the prototypical up-from-nothing championship fantasy a lot of dynasty players live out, taking teams like UTEP or Idaho to the Sugar Bowl in the first year. There's some real pain involved here, especially if you recruit and play at all-American or tougher difficulties. And there's a good shot you won't even make it four years, even with a contract that long.
But if you do, I'm guessing your Penn State will return to contention much faster than the one in real life.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.