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Without schools willing to appear in the game and with the NCAA not letting college athletes take money for appearing, EA had no game to make.
Fans have spent the years since then clamoring for the return of a game that can’t possibly return until a handful of key things happen. Here’s where those dominoes stand.
1. The NCAA has to change the rules about player pay.
Progress grade: C
In October 2019, the NCAA said it would permit players to “benefit” from these kind of deals in a way “consistent with the collegiate model.” It wasn’t clear what that meant.
The organization has signaled a little more openness than before to letting college athletes take money for the use of their name, image, or likeness. That is probably because California enacted a law which will require that of schools in the Golden State, while Congress and several other states have bills in the works along the same line.
If the NCAA lifted the ban on players getting paid by third parties, it would theoretically allow players to collect money for appearing in a video game. That would seem to solve the legal problem at the core of the game’s disappearance after NCAA 14.
What’s not required here is for schools themselves to pay players, something they’re still loath to do. Payment would come from EA.
2. Once the NCAA lets them be paid, players need a way to collect money.
Progress grade: C
It’s easy to take for granted that Madden will ship every year with accurate, regularly updated rosters for every NFL team. That’s possible because EA has a relationship with the NFLPA, and the union has collective bargaining power for every active player. An EA-NFLPA relationship makes it simple for players to get a share of the money.
College athletes don’t have a body like the NFLPA. No organization has collective bargaining rights for football players. Even locally, there are no team unions to make the process easier. Northwestern busted football players’ union drive in the 2010s.
EA, according to both common sense and people in a position to know for sure, is never going to chase down more than 10,000 active FBS players per year to get their consent to appear in the game and be paid for it. It’s also not going to ship a game with the likenesses of unpaid players, because that would break the law.
There’s a solution, though. In October 2019, the NFLPA announced it was pairing with the National College Players Association to explore ways to “advance and market the group licensing rights of college athletes of all sports.” The NCPA, founded in 2001 by UCLA football players, is an advocacy organization for college athletes’ rights.
The NCPA doesn’t have the same power as a union like the NFLPA, in which every NFL player is automatically a member. But the organizations might be able to build a group licensing vehicle players could opt into, in order to make money from sources such as NCAA Football. Many would, and EA could exclude likenesses of players who didn’t sign up.
Another option is to make individual deals with certain players not in that licensing body. In those cases, don’t expect EA to pay a better rate than players in the group get, because the game-maker has an incentive to encourage everyone to be part of the group.
3. The NCAA’s schools, individually, also have to agree to appear.
Progress grade: C
Schools did this for years before O’Bannon’s case and a shifting national conversation about athlete rights drove them away.
Typically, schools license out logos, uniforms, and stadiums via a couple of massive licensing agencies that rep lots of schools. A few make their own deals.
Even schools that are part of the big licensing groups pulled out during the O’Bannon suit. A few conferences backed out en masse. The dynamic is such that all 14 SEC schools could appear in a future game, but the SEC itself might not — which would require EA to make up a name for the real yet fictional SEC.
A big handful of schools have grown more comfortable with appearing. Ten of them agreed to be in a partial college mode in Madden 20, which didn’t include any player likenesses. So did the College Football Playoff, which the NCAA doesn’t control. But you’ll notice there are no Big Ten schools in that Madden. That’s not a coincidence.
So, there’s still work ahead. When NCAA last came out, it had every FBS team. Getting all 130 schools onboard would be a lot of work. Bowl games, fight songs, apparel companies (notice those Nike cleats in Madden), and TV networks (like how ESPN often appeared in NCAA games) would require their own agreements. So would any neutral-site stadiums.
Another area EA could explore in a new NCAA is the licensing of real coaches. The studio long ago talked with the American Football Coaches Association about using members’ likenesses, but a deal never came together. If EA were using real players, there might be more of an appetite on both sides to also include real coaches.
It’s theoretically possible to construct a game with fake teams and let users upload logos, jerseys, and stadiums for real ones, but that’s not how EA does business. It’ll only make a game that meets its usual accuracy standards fresh out of the box.
4. EA Sports has to build a new game.
Progress grade: N/A
Even once every piece of paperwork is signed and the studio is forging ahead, EA will have tons of work to do in building a game that meets fans’ demands.
Expanding to include FCS teams is conceivable at some point (previous generations of the game included some), and that would only expand the number of deals needed. But EA is likely to start with FBS, because all of these things will be necessary:
It’ll need to update its scans of stadiums, many of which have changed since 2013. It’ll also need refreshed uniforms for most schools.
It’ll need to scan players’ faces. For Madden, EA gets a lot of rookies at offseason events like the Combine and NFLPA Rookie Premiere. College football doesn’t have many events like that, though EA could do scans at big high school combines and all-star games. Perhaps EA would distribute a tool by which players could scan themselves (or schools could help them do it in bulk).
It’ll need to build rosters. That’s heavy work even in a game with 32 teams that have 53-man rosters. Accurately putting together 130-ish FBS rosters of 85 or 100 players will be a slog. (It’s already a slog for people who build these rosters for fun and share them on NCAA 14. Imagine how much of a slog it is when you’re trying to make something worth money.)
It’ll have to revamp Dynasty mode considerably.
Crucially, it’ll have to build a whole new version of NCAA Football gameplay that works on Frostbite, its current game engine. The studio’s pro and college games long played off each other, so that’s one partial advantage. EA could take a lot of things from recent Maddens and put them into a new college game. For instance, it’d now be easy to have RPOs in NCAA. But the two games are meant to have a noticeably different feel. NCAA is traditionally more arcade-like, lending itself to explosive offense. The controls are meant to feel a little different than in Madden. EA would probably like to keep those distinctions in place, according to people who’d know.
And that new game will have to fit the next generation of gaming consoles (i.e. PlayStation 5 and whatever the next Xbox is), presenting its own development challenges. NCAA has not come out since gamers were playing it on the PlayStation 3.
One industry estimate is that EA would need one year to put out a passable but bare-bones version of NCAA. Coming back with a game on par with NCAA 14 would take two or three.
5. You need to figure out your first Dynasty mode team ahead of time, so you can hit the ground running.
Progress grade: depends on the person
This will involve gaming out who’s going to be the ideal team approximately two years from the time it becomes clear the game is coming back.
The key criteria for the perfect dynasty team are the same as ever:
A cool stadium. It doesn’t need to be a big stadium or even a particularly nice stadium. It just has to look collegiate and visually pleasing. If a mountain range or a bunch of trees are visible while you’re playing a game, that’s a bonus.
Nice uniforms. The good news here is that “nice” is in the eye of the beholder. I’d stay away from, like, Notre Dame, but that’s also because I want ...
Room to rise. It’s fine to eventually start up a dynasty at an already-good program. But that’s not what real ones do right when the game ships. Hardened gamers start with either a bad Power 5 team, a decent Group of 5 team that can rise and then be realigned into a power league, or — for the long-term builders among us — someone truly awful. If you do great in that job, then sure, you can take the LSU job after you’ve won a few titles.
Personally, I hope to win the 2025 Pac-12 with the Colorado State Rams.
Some day, this checklist is likely to be completed.
The NCAA’s longtime notion of amateurism has cracked, both in court and in legislative houses. The people in charge of college sports still love nothing more than money, and there are still millions of people eager to pay $60 for a college football video game. The chances they come to their senses and let the rest of this list commence are strong.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.
Everyone talks about it all the time, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s exhausting.
For major college football’s first 144 years (or so), it didn’t have anything larger than a two-team playoff system. So it’s not surprising that when the Playoff came into existence in 2014, it quickly became the whole prism for lots of conversations about the sport.
Some of the best stories in college football history have played out outside the national championship race. Take Northwestern’s 1995 run to the Rose Bowl, for instance. Today, it would spawn innumerable segments on ‘College Football Live’ discussing the Wildcats’ worthiness of a spot in the playoff with a loss to Miami (Ohio) on their resume. Countless callers would be dialing up the ‘Paul Finebaum Show’ to moan about the strength of NU’s conference schedule. Columnists would be asking if the rise of a non-name brand was bad for the Big Ten’s playoff hopes.
This is, indeed, exactly what would happen if any of the great Cinderella stories from college football’s long history were unfolding during the Playoff era.
I’m here to offer a path to letting the Playoff enhance your enjoyment of the sport’s unpredictable nature, rather than hinder it. This guide comes from personal experience; it’s how I’ve come to enjoy every season as the Playoff has gotten older.
1. Remind yourself the Playoff has made the postseason more fun. Look forward to better subplots at the end of the year.
In 2014, say hello to probably yet another Bama title, this time over FSU. Say goodbye to the legend of Cardale Jones and also to this all-time college football moment:
In 2015, sure, it would’ve been fine to skip right to Bama-Clemson.
In 2016, the title game would’ve been Bama destroying Ohio State, not Clemson beating Bama in an all-time classic that set up another rematch the following year.
In 2017, the classic Rose Bowl semifinal between Oklahoma and Georgia wouldn’t have happened. The hideous title game would’ve been Georgia against an overmatched Clemson. We would’ve missed Tua Tagovailoa replacing Jalen Hurts at halftime in the title game, setting up a historic comeback and setting the stage for the next couple of seasons.
In 2018, we’d have eventually had Clemson beating Bama, but we’d have missed some key things. Kyler Murray never would’ve challenged Bama’s defense in the semifinals, and we wouldn’t have gotten to watch Notre Dame lose. In fact, Notre Dame fans would have loudly argued for years about their exclusion. Do you want that? I do not want that.
Much more often than not, the Playoff has enriched the postseason. But that’s not all. It’s also enriched the rest of the season for you if you’ve let it.
2. Let your imagination wrap you up in ways it never could before.
The BCS’ computers were more predictable than the people on the Playoff selection committee, and those computers got to pick a field half as big as the current one. Now, your brain can run wild devising scenarios that might melt the season.
In 2014, you could’ve sat in your living room on Halloween and figured out that 6-1 Duke, ranked 24th by the committee, had a path to the Playoff.
You never could’ve done that with the 24th-ranked team on Halloween under the BCS, and certainly not when AP Poll voters just gathered ‘round to anoint the champion.
Is some non-blue-blood actually going to win the national title? No. Everyone knows this. But a couple of interlopers, 2015 Michigan State, 2016 Washington, have already made the field as the #3 and #4 seeds. (Do not ask what happened to them next.) Having four teams in the field affords a lot more chances. We call these dream seasons for a reason.
3. Learn a little committee-speak, and you can start to see the logic behind their terribly explained decisions, which become even funnier with context.
The BCS’ computers were endlessly tweaked, because the public was never entirely happy with what they spat out. The BCS provided a handful of surprises, like the time 2006 Florida leapfrogged Michigan to get into the title game.
But the formulas of that era did not lend themselves to chaos. Teams weren’t moving tons of spots without clear reasons (like someone losing, as that Michigan team did in one of the century’s many GAMES OF THE CENTURY to 2006 Ohio State).
For large changes to come to the rankings, berserk things had to happen on the field. The best example might be 2007, when heading into the last week of the regular season, the title game matchup was a done deal unless the top two teams messed up. Well, about that.
Where it gets fun under the Playoff system is that humans, not computers, pick the field. Have you met humans? We’re idiots. We change our opinions all the time. We make our decisions with ideological consistency, except when we don’t.
Would 2014 TCU have slipped behind Ohio State in the nick of time in the BCS? Well, it wouldn’t have mattered, because neither would’ve made the top two, but the point is figuring out the committee’s actions is hard. Members’ public explanations often don’t help.
For example, the executive director of the Playoff couldn’t describe the Ohio State-over-TCU (and Baylor) decision clearly, even when asked years later:
‘The committee doesn’t just say, “Well, here’s where they were the week before, they won so they move up.” That’s the old poll mentality,’ Hancock said. ‘The committee has a different mentality about it. Ohio State’s résumé improved. Baylor’s résumé improved with a victory over a good K-State team. And TCU had the misfortune of playing a team that would finish 2-10 on the last weekend. It helped people understand it’s a new day.’
So, TCU got boxed out because its schedule had a bad team in the last week? If you were just listening to the committee talk, then yeah, you’d think so!
But that final weekend in 2014 changed a lot of full-season math, making TCU look worse compared to other one-loss teams. A Baylor win against Kansas State (whom TCU had already played) cut into the Frogs’ strength of schedule edge and made TCU’s win over K-State look mildly less impressive. Meanwhile, Ohio State dominated Wisconsin, helping both its numbers and its performance in what’s often called “the eye test.”
Put another way: the committee made a reasonable decision that someone could’ve predicted. But the Playoff people made the situation worse by trying to explain themselves.
If you can’t figure it out, you can fairly point out that the committee’s occasionally just thrown up its hands and done what it wanted, or that you really can’t trust anything that comes out of the mouth of the committee’s public frontman. Or, if you’re on an Ohio State message board, you can just claim some decision is the result of an ESPN plot.
Either you’re a genius, or you’re able to publicly roast the grifters in suits. You win either way, much like Alabama any time the committee deliberates on rankings.
4. Discussing the Playoff race does not mean you have to ignore the wonderful stories of the teams that are in it.
In 2018, the chattering class spent most of the season telling anyone there were only two worthy Playoff teams. Nothing else mattered. Yeah, Bama and Clemson were way better than everybody else, as they (and particularly Clemson) showed.
But those people were missing a nice forest and only seeing the two tallest trees. There was nothing stopping anyone from getting pleasure out of the unusually great seasons at Army, Syracuse, Washington State, Northwestern, or, hell, Buffalo! Kentucky was in the football title race until losing to Georgia in Week 10, when CBS visited Lexington. If you wanted to find the fun, you didn’t have to look that hard.
In 2019, Minnesota started 8-0. The Gophers hadn’t done that since a few weeks before Pearl Harbor. A lot of people only wanted to discuss how the Gophers had gotten that far by playing bad teams and backup QBs — something that hurt their Playoff resume for sure, but didn’t mean you couldn’t celebrate them being unbeaten and high atop the Big Ten West.
If you only cared about the Playoff, the mention of Minnesota would prompt you to punch holes in their resume rather than appreciate a historically good season at the same time. The committee was skeptical, too. The Gophers were 17th in the year’s first Playoff ranking.
Then they beat #4 Penn State in their biggest game in generations. It was awesome. And it made a Playoff berth an honest-to-goodness possibility, which was exciting too.
For Minnesota fans, that was never the only goal. In 2017, right after the school hired P.J. Fleck, I interviewed him for the better part of an hour. He talked about how excited fans were when he spoke with them. What, exactly, were those fans thinking about?
I think one of the best lines they tell me is just, ‘Coach, just win a Rose Bowl before I die.’ I tell ‘em, ‘Well, how old are ya? How healthy are you?’
After Minnesota beat Penn State, our bowl projections put the Gophers in the Rose Bowl. The fans we heard from weren’t mad they weren’t slotted in the Playoff. They were elated to be theoretically ticketed for Pasadena.
If fans of a team at the center of so much Playoff hollering can keep their eye on a ball that isn’t the Playoff, you can, too.
5. We like to daydream that college football used to be blissful and uncomplicated, before realignment and the Playoff made it a corporate boondoggle in which everybody argues about everything. Nope!
The Playoff (and the broader business-ization of basically everything about the sport, including realignment) has changed a lot of things. Endless arguing is not among them.
College football fans have been arguing about championships since the 1870s. People found ways to enjoy the sport while the entire basis for a championship was sportswriters, team PR people, computers, and historians deciding who was #1, then arguing about which of those groups had ultimate authority. College football was great even when a season gave us multiple legit champs, which we argued about all throughout the next season.
No American sport is so big and messy as this one, and somehow, things have never been this tame.
Argumentation about who really deserves top billing is an eternal feature of the sport. It was a huge story when a team tried to just up and claim 2017’s title, but there are dozens of scantly supported title claims, and there could be more if schools weren’t so shy nowadays.
When the BCS brought about a two-team playoff, the #3 and #4 teams frequently had beef, too. (So did the AP Poll, which got mad at the BCS and forced the system to stop using its ranking in its formula.)
Remember that 1995 Northwestern team that played three years before the BCS even existed? A New York Times writer bemoaned that “before the unholy bowl alliance took all the romance out of college football,” he could’ve figured out a national championship path for the Wildcats. He was mad the #3 Cats were being directed into a bowl where they’d play #17 USC instead of being sent to a de-facto title game.
We’re not at a unique point in history. We’re not even at the lastpoint on this timeline. When the Playoff grows larger than four teams, history shows any amount of participants will still leave furious schools on the outside. (And then someone will become wistful for the tranquility of the four-team era.)
A cool thing about this sport is that success remains in the eye of the beholder. The Playoff only changes the standard if you let it.
Do you root for Alabama or Oklahoma? A championship is still the thing you’re worried about, just like it was throughout the 20th century. The only thing that’s different is you’re hoping for one of four slots.
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