There will be real football players, using their real names, in the debut of NCAA Football Ultimate Team this year. They just won't be anyone suiting up on a college football field this fall.
A deal with the NFL Players' Association gives NCAA the rights to use up to 2,500 current NFL stars, pictured in their alma maters' uniforms, and build a pool of virtual trading cards just as large as Madden Ultimate Team, where the collection-and-player-management game has been running since 2010.
"It was weird receiving an email saying the NCAA franchise was approved by the NFLPA," said producer Ben Haumiller, who added that individual negotiations are ongoing to bring retired stars into the game, with an eye toward signing up more after the game's July launch.
It's a shrewd way for NCAA Football to solve its biggest problem—the fact that, legally and under NCAA bylaws, they may not use actual, active college player likenesses in the game (though there is a massive legal dispute over whether that is in fact taking place anyway.) A game built on a population of fictitious players would have nowhere near the appeal of Madden, FIFA or Hockey Ultimate Team—just ask Diamond Dynasty, a variant of the format introduced by MLB The Show last year, which remains an outlier in terms of appeal. By contrast, MUT, FUT and HUT as they're known, have been enormous drivers of microtransaction revenue to EA Sports, and now—what, NUT?—will be expected to do the same.
That was the business mandate. Creatively, Haumiller said he wanted Ultimate Team in his game as a point of pride. "It's a feature that's become a gold standard, to show you are on the top tier of team sports games," he said. "We're the No. 3 seller in North America in sports games; we know we need it. How, that was the question."
One floor up at EA Tiburon, of course, are the Madden guys, who already share a gameplay development team with NCAA—and, it bears mentioning, its Ultimate Team developers also are the ones building NCAA's version. So you can expect this version to play very close, if not identically, to Madden Ultimate Team. A key difference will be in the solo challenges and 10 game seasons—with a playoff and "relegation"—that NUT will mimic from the extremely popular FIFA Ultimate Team. "While we don't have a true college football playoff yet, we do have it here in Ultimate Team," notes Haumiller.
The mishmash of uniform styles, playing fields, boosts and special cards will be present in addition to the very diverse lineup stocked with players from more than 120 teams, some going back into the mid-1990s. "You can have Penn State's uniforms, in Autzen Stadium, with Drew Brees as your quarterback," Haumiller said. Or something truly loathsome, like Tim Tebow being cheered at Doak Campbell Stadium.
The difference is there will be no coaches, as much for the licensing as for the time needed to reasonably model that many. Another key advantage of using Madden Ultimate Team assets is that, for many of the younger players anyway, the facial modeling can be repurposed in NCAA, too.
What is most curious about NCAA Ultimate Team will be discovering who isn't in the game. All schools had to sign off on a player appearing under their name in the game. USC KGB'd Dolphins running back Reggie Bush out of existence at Heritage Hall after an improper benefits scandal resulted in major sanctions against the athletics program (and the forfeiture of Bush's Heisman Trophy.) With Bush persona non grata as a Trojan, he will not appear in the game at all. But Tyrann Mathieu, kicked off of LSU's team last year for reported drug problems, has been welcomed back to Tigerland, assuming he signs with the Arizona Cardinals. (Rookies this year cannot appear in any NFLPA licensed game until they sign with an NFL team, effectively joining the union.)
But there also will be some all-time greats who are no longer in uniform for any team reappearing in this game. The players from last year's Heisman Challenge mode are all expected to return (some are still negotiating an extension for their appearance)—and that also means Heisman Challenge itself will return. Some players who have not appeared in a football video game for a very long time may also be on the way.
It also means Kirk Herbstreit, the ESPN analyst who played for Ohio State from 1989 to 1992, but never professionally, will suit up in scarlet and gray again. Herbstreit has been the video game's color commentary voice for more than a decade. "That was the first question we got back from his agent: 'Well, what are his ratings gonna be?'" Haumiller laughed. "Kirk is an esteemed member of the NCAA family and as such, we will definitely take care of him."
Ratings will prove tricky in another area: Representing all schools (and they will all have players in the card population, some more than others) and fairly rating their past stars. Utah State's greatest player ever may seem quite average next to one from a powerhouse school. And then there's the matter of what to do about players from Division I-AA (sorry, "Football Championship Subdivision") teams. This issue has yet to be resolved, but Haumiller said that while they have the rights to a guy like Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, their college licensing does not include the FCS division. "Flacco made his name at Delaware," which is a I-AA school, "but he did transfer over there from Pitt," Haumiller said. Maybe that's the solution.
Conceptually, NCAA Ultimate Team can be given credit for introducing the Ultimate Team concept to the college game in a safe and legal way. It can also be viewed as a reconditioned version of Madden Ultimate Team, which has run college-themed specials in its card collections before.
If longtime players of the series feel no compulsion to jump into Ultimate Team, then to be honest, they're not the segment EA Sports is going after here. It's looking for crossover with the Maddenites, particularly those who would buy NCAA as a tide-me-over in July, and will try hook them with the card game so they don't trade NCAA in when Madden releases in August. It might flow the other way, too, that NCAA Ultimate Team becomes someone's introduction to Madden's.
Whatever EA Sports gets out of this will be gravy, but with Ultimate Team being rumored for inclusion in NBA Live 14, it's clear the feature was long overdue for NCAA, whether hardcore fans were demanding it or not.