July is the most anxious month for the independent roster editors devoted to Electronic Arts' NCAA Football franchise. No matter what the game adds each year, promising an ever richer pageant of college football, it falls to these writers to add in the basic identities of the game's performers, because NCAA amateurism rules forbid EA from including them. That leaves it to these roster editors and those they employ - some working on devkits in India - to hand-enter more than 8,000 players, across 120 teams. The task requires 20-hour workdays and contrivances to get advance copies of the game, all to complete a labor of love that only the most detail-oriented model railroader could ever hope to understand.
But Brian Kaldenberg, in a way, defies that altruistic mode. He sees NCAA rosters also as a very profitable business, and that makes him one of the most despised figures in a community where reputation and motive have as much currency as the accuracy of one's work. In message boards and private conversation, Kaldenberg is routinely accused of plagiarism, arrogance, and deceitful practices. But with a combination of thick skin, patience and guile, he has become probably the most successful of anyone who sells NCAA rosters for more than a suggested donation. And Wednesday, sending more shockwaves through a jittery community, he acquired another leading NCAA roster domain, thus unifying the top three URLs returned for a search of "NCAA rosters" on Google.
"It's hard for me to understand why they care so much that I sell it," says Kaldenberg, 25, who since the last release of NCAA Football has managed to make acquisitions of his top two, hostile competitors - fkrosters.com and DT Linder's PSXSports. "I think it's because I was not the pioneer. The pioneers definitely are DT and FK. Then I came along and did it differently and made a lot more money."
Kaldenberg's replacement of PSXSports' front with an image of a Monopoly board, for the time being, may also illustrate the acid relationships he has with others. He insists that was a wink-and-nod to Linder, who had likened PSXSports and Kaldenberg's original Gamerosters.com to keystone properties in the popular boardgame. But others see it as a message that Kaldenberg is coming to drive out any roster editor, for profit or otherwise. And they care about Kaldenberg's profit motive because for them, NCAA Football is a goose whose golden egg is not money, but the ability to freely change any or all of the names in sports gaming's deepest universe.
"We're concerned that if sites keep charging for rosters, the NCAA may ask EA to pull the editing feature," says Chris Jacobs, a site admin for freeNCAA09rosters.com, a free counter-site to Kaldenberg's for-profit empire. "The game would be ruined if we were stuck with HB #15 all year."
On that sentiment, all agree. No college sports title releases with any current player's name or likeness, thanks to NCAA bylaws. In professional sports simulations, where superstars opted out of collective deals and refused to allow their likenesses to be used, a few absences are nettlesome. To have not just an entire league, but the largest league of any (and March Madness' 341 teams is even larger) makes gaming with and without complete roster files a night-and-day experience.
Thus sprouted the community of roster editing, with Linder among its progenitors. (Kotaku attempted to reach Linder before the sale of PSXSports but he did not reply. Efforts through others didn't return a comment before this article was originally posted.) And despite well sourced ventures such as Kaldenberg's and his closest competitor, Nick Cain's Sportrosters.com, the free roster community could only be beaten if editing were killed altogether. They make their product first for themselves, then share it to others, and are apathetic about its profitability or market potential.
"I've had people volunteer to help me and say that we could work nonstop on the roster file," said Victor Vasquez, who owned fkrosters.com before selling it to Kaldenberg in December, then reconstituted his efforts on fairdale-kings.com."But I know only how accurate my work is. I know the homework that I put into this file every year."
Kaldenberg began with Gamerosters.com in 2004 while a junior at Iowa State University, and approaches it as much as a businessman as he does a fan. He appreciates the value added by a strong roster file (gaming with rival Iowa - he lives in Iowa City - when he plays online) but also foresees the potential in the business and an end-game. "My ultimate idea is to grow the Gamerosters portfolio to the point a gaming site or gaming e-tailer makes me an offer I can't turn down," Kaldenberg says, claiming he received a six-figure bid last spring but "I just didn't feel like it was the right time yet."
Some might think the right time has come and gone. The addition of the EA Locker feature to this year's NCAA football game, depending on your point of view, is either pro- or con-roster editing. Through the EA Locker, Xbox 360 and PS3 gamers may share roster files freely across the network. That sets up a competing viral spread of three roster types, none of which can be monetized:
• Fully researched and edited rosters bought by the community (Kaldenberg's)
• Rosters which are the same in content, but distributed for free or a donation (Fairdale-Kings and freeNCAA09rosters)
• or incomplete, fan-oriented rosters built by individual players which are tailored to specific schools or conferences and contain inaccuracies or wholesale omissions elsewhere.
Working in Kaldenberg's favor is the number of offline-only players who want rosters. Custom rosters were only available for use online beginning with last year's title, meaning a large group of players who only game in offline modes, like dynasty or campus legend, care only for accurate rosters and neither need them online nor seek them out there. Also, EA Locker is available for free on PS3, but only through XBox Live Gold on that platform, representing a separate barrier. Vasquez, his adversary, himself agrees that there are more offline gamers than online.
Also, Kaldenberg trusts in a consumer instinct built on the notion that someone offering a product in a free market has a business motivation to provide an accurate and superior, product. It's the same reason you wouldn't buy discount meat off the back of a truck. "People are willing to pay for what we offer and pay for the peace of mind knowing they are getting a quality product," Kaldenberg says. "Similar to how people are willing to shell out $60 for a steak at Ruth's Chris."
Kaldenberg won't divulge specifics, but says he has served close to 10,000 customers since 2004, seeing his year-over-year demand double in each of the last three years. (Vasquez boasted he had more than 20,000 registered users when he ran the site, some of whom have migrated to fairdale-kings.com)
Kaldenberg's operation requires seasonal employees - working on a PS3, PS2 and Xbox set up in an office - and a full-time business operations manager (the business also manages rosters for March Madness and other titles). But such growth has yet to attract the notice of the NCAA. "No one from the NCAA or EA sports has ever contacted me regarding roster editing," says Kaldenberg, who has sought legal opinions regarding his exposure in his current venture.
Truth is, EA may not need to sue anyone out of existence, especially if that risks destroying a feature the majority of its installation base adores. If it can tip the balance so that works that are both complete and free win out on its network, that returns roster editing to the community of nonprofit enthusiasts and eliminates those making money off the NCAA or its amateurs' likenesses. Jacobs and others see such an advantage being tacitly swayed to nonprofit editors.
"Our site is part of the EA Community Leaders program, and privately, we were told that they don't like people charging for rosters," Jacobs said. "Hence the EA Locker feature in NCAA 09."
For its part, EA did not respond to an emailed request seeking comment. Roster editors say this is not a surprise: the ability to edit a roster is a content feature any publisher would, reasonably, not want to give up. In this case, discussing it inevitably acknowledges the cottage industry, for profit or otherwise, that provides gamers with full rosters against NCAA wishes. The less EA reacts, the less the situation is under its control, and the less it is accountable to its licensing partner.
Kaldenberg, if nothing else, is resilient and adaptable. His own record with his rivals proves that. In December, he won fkrosters.com through a third-party offering process. Vasquez, the site's owner, says he didn't know who was buying the site until the offer (made through GoDaddy) was accepted. Kaldenberg says Vasquez had every opportunity to reject the sale after learning of his bid.
Kaldenberg said Linder reached out to him late last year, offering him control of both the "Park Place and Boardwalk," of roster mod domains, and hence the reason for the Monopoly board on PSXSports on Wednesday. An original package price of $16,000 in December eventually winnowed to $7,000 in June, said Kaldenberg. Linder, reached Thursday, said he offered the site because he was competing in a saturated broader market serving sports gamers, and wanted to rebrand his efforts in the roster-only space. To that end he launched EArosters.com on Thursday, his fourth URL since beginning his roster efforts in 2001. Linder said both sides reached an agreeable settlement.
"Brian and I are both competitors and I certainly appreciated his sense of humor," about the Monopoly board on his old URL, Linder said. "Brian purchased Park Place and Boardwalk, but he has to worry about people landing on Marvin Gardens or Pennsylvania Ave first. I just placed hotels on my green and yellow monopolies."
But if anything, Kaldenberg's survival in a cutthroat business environment has taught him valuable business lessons that many 25-year-olds don't experience firsthand.
"I've learned to turn a deaf ear," Kaldenberg said. "People say bad things about you, and I used to fight it and get upset, and then I'd just see it make matters worse. I've matured since my younger days, and I stay away from internet message board controversies. Customer service is more important. If a customer has a question or needs assistance, it's much more important for me to spend my time responding to customers than to respond to someone criticizing me on another website."
Kaldenberg's largest for-profit competitor, Nick Cain's sportrosters.com, remains somewhat above the fray and agnostic about the fate of for-profit roster editing. Cain, who only became interested in NCAA football because he found the gameplay more engaging than EA's Madden series, said roster editing represents only 2 percent of a business portfolio that has included poker applications and adult business ventures.
Cain says Kaldenberg also approached him about buying sportrosters.com, but refused after being put off by the negotiating style.
"He bragged about his revenue," said Cain, himself a coder who outsources his roster work to Indian writers working on console development kits. "We'll I don't bank on this money. This is funny money to me. I spend an hour a day maintaining my web sales. He can put up monopoly boards all day. But if EA Sports closes the door, well, it was fun while it lasted."