When Joey Harrington arrived at Oregon in the fall of 1998, he had lofty goals: become the starting quarterback, win the Heisman Trophy and compete for a national championship. But there was something else in the back of his mind.
“You wanted to make the depth chart so you could be in next year’s video game,” Harrington says. Because in the 2000s, inclusion in “the game” was the dream of every college football player — even if the avatar was only a lookalike, with the same jersey number and physical attributes.
“Everyone would go into the game and find themselves,” says Harrington. “Even if you were third on the depth chart, you’d move yourself up to first string.”
Harrington nearly achieved all of his goals. After finishing fourth in the Heisman voting and nearly playing for the national title in a controversial BCS race as a senior, he was on the cover of “the game” — EA Sports’ NCAA Football 2003.
But a decade later, the game’s run ended with NCAA Football ’14 due to issues over the inability to pay players for their name, image and likeness. Nearly a generation of players and fans have grown up without the game that helped introduce millions to the pageantry unique to the sport.
Until hope arrived one morning.
On Feb. 2, 2021, EA Sports announced on a new Twitter handle, @EASportsCollege, that a college football game would return “for those who never stopped believing.” A press release was issued with few details. Later that day, after 20,000 retweets, the account followed up with a tweet promising more information.
— EASPORTSCollege (@EASPORTSCollege) February 2, 2021
And then … silence.
It’s been 18 months since the announcement with no further word from EA about the game. The Twitter account has 160,000 followers. Bits of news have leaked out through reporting, but requests for comments have been declined.
The Athletic has confirmed many details first reported by Extra Points and 247Sports. Most notably, the plan is for a July 2023 launch, and the game likely will only be available on next-gen consoles such as Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, according to sources and documents. This will be the most detailed college football game ever, but many aspects, like the inclusion of real players, have yet to be finalized.
Over the summer, The Athletic spoke with former cover athletes, gaming executives, school administrators, group licensing companies, players, coaches and streamers to get a sense of what was lost and what could return. What do they miss about the game? What do they want in the new experience? What will the new version include? And what does the video game mean for college football culture?
“College football is one of those unique sporting events that you really don’t find anywhere else in the world,” says Peter Moore, the English-born former president of EA Sports. “The amazing pageantry always pops into mind. It’s difficult to replicate anywhere in the world because of campuses. Nothing else competes with it.”
If all goes according to plan, the 2022 college football season will be the last without a new video game in circulation. It’s been a long road back.
EA Sports’ college football video game dates to 1993, five years after the Madden NFL video game debuted. Bill Walsh College Football was played on Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis; it included 24 teams from the previous season and 24 historical teams. Without any licensing rights from schools, teams were named after states and cities like “State College” and “College Station.” It was renamed College Football ’96 by 1995, and it included all 108 Division I-A teams. It finally took on the NCAA Football name in 1997, with former Florida QB Danny Wuerffel on the cover.
In the 2000s, gaming excitement exploded. Every major sports game from EA Sports became a must-have. Fans waited outside of stores for their midnight releases. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, EA’s stock increased tenfold.
Moore saw it firsthand. He worked at Sega from 1998 to 2003, moved to Microsoft in 2003 to be part of the Xbox team, and in 2007, he joined Electronic Arts as its president. He’s now a senior vice president at Unity, a gaming company.
“NCAA Football always kicked off the video games sports season,” he says. “It typically shipped ahead of Madden. It was an important part of our portfolio as a sports brand (at EA). Less so as a revenue-driver like the big dogs.”
It wasn’t the revenue-driver like other sports properties because it was almost exclusively a North American game. Fans around the world played Madden and FIFA and NHL titles, not so much NCAA Football.
But it was far from an ugly stepchild. It was arguably the most intricate game in the EA Sports portfolio, with more than 100 teams and stadiums, massive rosters, fight songs, pride stickers, mascots, playbooks and unique game modes like Road to Glory and mascot challenge.
Moore estimates there was a team of 150 to 200 people who worked on the game each year.
“The team that worked on it were college football fans,” Moore said. “There was shared technology with Madden and slightly smaller players, but the team prided itself on getting those individual playbooks right. Things like the Wishbone and the Pistol, all the unique college formations and strategies that are very different than the NFL.”
Harrington remembers loading up games with opponents’ stadiums to get a sense of what the place looked like before he traveled there, such as where the tunnel was located.
Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn is the son of a former coach, Chris Vaughn, but he first learned about football penalties and play calling from NCAA Football.
“I learned when it’s third-and-1, I’m not throwing a deep shot,” he says. “Growing up playing the game definitely helped enhance my knowledge of the game.”
Inclusion in the game became paramount for players. West Virginia head coach Neal Brown has never been much of a gamer, but when he was a wide receiver at Kentucky and UMass from 1998 to 2002, he knew being modeled in the game was a possibility.
“When you knew you were going to be in the two-deep, you were going to be in the game,” he says. “I remember turning it on and seeing (my) number. It’s not supposed to be you, but it’s the skin tone, same number, same position. That was an ‘a-ha’ moment for me. Like, that was cool.”
For Jared Zabransky, a former Boise State quarterback, being selected as the NCAA Football ’08 cover athlete was a dream come true. One perk of the honor was a personalized version of the game that included his name on the screen and in the game.
But therein lied the problem. Everyone knew the game represented real players — all attributes were accurate except the name on the jersey. When consoles went online, it became easy for gamers to find and download rosters with the real names, made by other gamers.
The video game quickly became the face of the push for name, image and likeness rights, which would ultimately end its run.
Ed O’Bannon didn’t want the college video games to stop, even if that was the spark to his transformative lawsuit.
O’Bannon agreed to be the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NCAA and Collegiate Licensing Company after seeing his likeness from the 1995 UCLA national championship men’s basketball team used in the NCAA Basketball ’09 video game. The lawsuit eventually was consolidated with another filed by former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller that involved EA Sports. EA said in a court filing that it was willing to pay players for their inclusion, but the NCAA wouldn’t allow it. Eventually, EA settled with the plaintiffs before the trial. More than 29,000 athletes received a share of $40 million, an average of around $1,200.
“We never asked EA to stop making college sports games,” O’Bannon wrote in his 2018 book, “Court Justice.” “Just the opposite, actually — we love EA Sports college games and wish EA still made them. All we asked for is that EA pursues what it really wanted to do: Negotiate with us to use our identities.”
Moore led EA at the time and said the company simply couldn’t afford to keep making the game in the face of litigation, so it dropped the property. “NCAA Football became Exhibit A of a much bigger issue the NCAA was facing with the issue of paying players,” he says. “It was sad. It was revenue we missed and it was sad for college football.”
In 2014, a judge ruled the NCAA could not bar payments to players and allowed for full cost-of-attendance scholarships. The NCAA’s appeal and subsequent lawsuits eventually led to more rights for players. Name, image and likeness rules went into effect in 2021 after a California state law led to a domino effect across other states and forced action by the NCAA.
But without the video game, college football lost part of its place in pop culture.
Schools no longer mocked up prospects on the cover as part of recruiting pitches. There were no more launch parties that got celebrities around the game — Harrington recalled playing Madden in Jamaica alongside some members of N’Sync, while Zabransky remembered seeing Deion Sanders and Steve Young at a launch party in New York. And the youngest generation no longer had the most interactive window into the sport.
NCAA Football was unique from other sports games because it provided access to schools that fans didn’t often see. This was a time when not every FBS team played on TV. Many gamers would start dynasty modes with bottom-tier schools and work their way up. You could win enough to get a MAC team into the Big Ten, for example. For many years, the only soundtrack to the game was college fight songs. Fans learned the songs, even if they didn’t know to what school they belonged.
“The college football games helped me learn about who was good and stuff,” said Kofie Yeboah, an NCAA Football ’14 Twitch streamer. “My dad grew up in Ghana and immigrated when he was 18. He wasn’t a big football-head. Neither was my mom. So the game was my way of learning about different programs and players.”
Moore said EA Sports would do research every year, and every data point said the video game created new college football fans. Many experts point to the FIFA video game as one driver for the growth of soccer’s popularity in the United States.
“All of the commissioners of the major sports have a deep understanding of how important it is to the fan bases,” said Orion Business Advisors CEO Paul Johnson, who worked at EA Sports from 2018 to 2022 after 18 years with the PGA. “It’s super strategic to the commissioners and players and your attachment to the sport. There’s no question the games spur interest in sports themselves.”
Today’s college seniors were around 12 years old when the last game came out. And yet, gaming has never been more popular. Esports teams, players and companies are worth millions or billions of dollars.
“Everybody just kind of transitioned to Madden,” Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders said.
The final game, NCAA Football ’14 with Denard Robinson on the cover, became a link to a bygone era. Game players kept old systems solely so they could keep playing the college football game. That edition remains one of the more popular sports streams on Twitch.
“The replayability of NCAA Football games is so special because every dynasty mode, every season is different with players cycling out,” Yeboah said. “With Madden, you have the same players for years. I’ve had a (NCAA) dynasty file that goes 15, 20 seasons, and I’ve kept that for years because I never felt like I had to start over.”
The legacy of NCAA Football endured in the streaming world, even as gaming systems evolved two generations past the last edition. The game was killed, but it didn’t die. For the rest of his time at EA, Moore would frequently be asked when the college football game would come back.
“One day,” Moore told IGN in 2016, “I know we’ll be back.”
So what can players expect when the game returns?
Along with a July 2023 launch and exclusivity to the newest consoles, the game again will be built off of the Madden engine. An immense amount of detail will be included, from new stadium angles to music to the transfer portal. The hope is to include the actual players through group licensing, though that is not yet secured.
An expanded 12-team College Football Playoff in the game is possible too, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, in light of its approval by the CFP Board of Managers this month.
Ultimately, the process for the new EA Sports College Football video game will have taken nearly three years, beginning long before the February 2021 announcement about its return.
Much of that time has been spent acquiring photos, videos and audio from 133 current and future FBS schools, according to emails obtained by The Athletic via open records requests. That includes fight songs, secondary songs, crowd chants, stadium layouts, uniforms, throwback uniforms, helmet stickers and more.
Gameplay will have a lot more than just a fight song. The detail will get down to playing certain songs at certain times, like on third downs or entering the fourth quarter. EA Sports and CLC sent emails to schools requesting audio files and noted that EA Sports would handle copyright clearances. One email shows that CLC requested audio files be sent in by March 31, 2022. Extra Points has kept a database of known songs submitted to the game, via records requests. Stadium image requests have continued and are the most time-consuming asset to build.
While CLC does not represent every FBS school (one CLC email says “nearly 120”), the source said all of FBS is expected to be featured, including future FBS members Sam Houston and Jacksonville State.
The lack of a players union makes securing the rights of a mass of players more difficult than pro sports, even with NIL rules. Group licensing could be a way to get most players in the game. CLC has worked to get involved in the player space. The Brandr Group has already partnered with more than 60 schools, including Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Michigan State and others, to handle group player licenses. OneTeam has previously secured group licenses for EA Sports with pro sports unions as well and also works with many schools on items like player jerseys.
“In many cases, it’s a passive use of group rights, meaning you don’t have to acquire their time or personal services,” said Wesley Haynes, founder and CEO of The Brandr Group. “We set about the task of creating a voluntary opt-in program.”
Essentially, players could simply opt in to be in the game and they’d be compensated for their participation. All of these licensing groups are jockeying to get the player contract with EA. A source with knowledge of the situation said EA Sports could pick multiple partners to get the job done.
If a star player chooses not to opt into the game, EA Sports can create a generic player with similar skills to fill the spot. Barry Bonds wasn’t in the MVP Baseball video game series in the mid-2000s because he withdrew from the MLBPA’s licensing agreement. EA Sports replaced him with the fictional “Jon Dowd.”
Nothing has been determined about a cover athlete, either. Every previous version of the game had a former player, but NIL rules would allow for an active player to be selected. A recent tweet from Creative Arts Agency with Alabama quarterback Bryce Young on the game cover was not a real cover, CAA confirmed, but rather a fun marketing design featuring one of their player clients around the excitement of the game’s return.
— CAA Football (@CAA_Football) August 19, 2022
As for gameplay, the new game will not simply be a reskin of Madden. Dynasty mode and Road to Glory mode are expected to return. Other possibilities, like mascot gameplay, have yet to be determined.
While the transfer portal is relatively new to college sports, old versions of the game featured player movement like transfers and early entries to the NFL Draft. Realignment has been a constant in the sport. The ability to manually create superconferences is on the table, but final decisions have not been made.
Some gamers are concerned about modern game business mixing with the nostalgia of the old games. Madden, for example, has Ultimate Team mode, which involves buying virtual cards to create and train teams. Microtransactions allow video game companies to make more revenue from a game.
“I’m hesitant, because the way sports games have been over the last few years has been microtransactions first and user experience second,” Yeboah said. “I think some people think it’s going to be the same experience as two generations ago. It’s different now. I hope microtransactions don’t consume this product.”
The trailer for the latest version of Madden wasn’t released until June, not long before its August release. The lack of any further acknowledgment of the return of NCAA Football since the announcement 18 months ago has frustrated many involved. But have no fear, EA Sports recently posted a job opening for brand marketing in American football covering both Madden and college football. The game is still on.
“I’m kind of tired of other games,” Texas running back Bijan Robinson said. “I’m such a Madden guy right now, and I was such an NCAA guy, too. I can’t wait to see what they have cooking up.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Steve Limentani / ISI Photos; Leon Halip, Kevin C. Cox, Otto Greule Jr., Emilee Chinn / Getty Images)