Butterflies and Hurricanes: How video games could change the world of college sports

I awoke yesterday to a message from Nick. “NCAA will stop its licensing deal with EA Sports,” he said. “Thoughts?” He knows how much I’ve played and enjoyed the NCAA Football series (including the recently released NCAA Football 14). This means no more NCAA Football, and thus a sad Doug, right?

Not really. Strangely enough my first thought wasn’t about missing out on virtual Saturdays, but instead to a former UCLA basketball star. What’s the connection? Let me explain.

If you didn’t know, the way college sports works is simple: Universities provide scholarships (including room and board); in exchange, these athletes play sports ranging from football and basketball all the way to lacrosse and, yes, even bowling. It can be complicated, but the basic exchange is athletic performance for tuition and school. But -- BUT -- “student-athletes” are not allowed to receive any other cash or benefits for playing. Including royalties or payments of any kind.

Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon has brought forth a lawsuit against the NCAA for his unlicensed involvement in otherwise NCAA-licensed video games. His claim is that, though games use generic names like QB #15 or WR #1 for the players, the on-screen representations are still based upon their likeness; their heights, weights, dress, skills and tendencies are approximated with ever-greater realism. Thus, athletes should be given royalties for their in-game appearances. While the case began with video games, it has the potential to majorly change the landscape of collegiate sports. The NCAA is concerned about this case.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised to see the NCAA’s official statement include allusions to “costs of litigation.” That’s the O’Bannon case for those keeping track at home. What’s just as important is, what if the NCAA loses that case? If the relationship with EA Sports continued, that leaves the NCAA on the hook for further games -- and more players -- eligible for royalty fees. And in the fallout of it, what could change? It would mean that QB #2 gets a little bit of money and (potentially) his actual name and face could appear in the game. Better for gamers, but it lightens the pocket of the NCAA (who made $386 million last year and ran a $71 million surplus, but who's counting?). Moreover, it could open the door to athletes making money off their image in other ways -- jerseys and T-shirts, advertisements, and more.

College football games heading off into the sunset? Not so fast, my friend.
College football games heading off into the sunset? Not so fast, my friend.

So that’s it, right? No more college football games? While that was the immediate assumption, it’s surprisingly not the final answer. And this is the twist in the story: While the NCAA may have the most to lose, they actually prove to be nigh-inconsequential to the production of a college football video game. All the NCAA does for college football is maintain the rules, ensure that teams have the right number of students and that those students are academically eligible to play sports.

That’s all.

So all of the universities, conferences, stadiums, bowl games, the BCS Championship, the upcoming College Football Playoffs, the Heisman Trophy and other awards, everything you’d need to make a game (and that already exists in current NCAA Football 14)…NONE of it is affected. NOTHING. Much of the rest goes through a separate licensing firm called Collegiate Licensing Company (which also handles merchandise licensing for universities), or from the stakeholders themselves (like the Heisman Trust). And on the same day as the NCAA made its statement, EA Sports came out and gave one of their own. Via Polygon.com:

"This is simple: EA Sports will continue to develop and publish college football games, but we will no longer include the NCAA names and marks"

It’s safe to say a college football game by EA Sports will be on the shelves next year. And nothing will have changed besides the name. But the impact of the series may well be felt up and down collegiate sports if O’Bannon and his joint plaintiffs succeed.