Back in 1987, around the same time I found myself obsessing over a baseball board-game simulation in my parents' basement, the software company Electronic Arts released a product called Earl Weaver Baseball. It was the first computer game to feature both television-style camera angles and actual major-league players, a simple concept that, translated into pixels, forever altered the future of sports video games. Other genres of games may be free to delve into fantastic worlds, but when it comes to sports, realism has always been the thing that mattered most. Once the players were grounded in virtual "truth," there was no going back. Soon enough, there would be no other way to market a sports game without it.
The following year, in 1988, EA released the first iteration of John Madden Football. It took until 1993 for EA to obtain an official team license from the NFL, but by then the precedent had been set (most notably by Tecmo Super Bowl): realism was the standard. That same year, EA released the first version of Bill Walsh College Football, which would eventually become NCAA Football, which—like all of EA's sports products—would include the tagline "If it's in the game, it's in the game."
And this is how something as seemingly frivolous and trivial as a video game became a referendum on the very notion of what we want college sports to be.
Last week, hundreds of college football and college basketball players—most former, a few current—received settlement checks based on the use of their names and likenesses in those video games, which included both EA Sports' NCAA Football and NCAA Basketball/NCAA March Madness. Some of those players posted photos of the checks on their social media accounts. Nearly all of them welcomed the money, which ranged from a hundred to over seven thousand dollars, and which most of them never actually expected to see.
NCAA Football, of course, has not been published since 2014, in the wake of lawsuits by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and former Nebraska and Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller. The college basketball game, which was less popular, was discontinued back in 2009. Still, it is these games that may have helped to trigger a revolution: O'Bannon saw his likeness being used in one and filed an antitrust suit which may soon be considered by the Supreme Court and could wind up leveling the notion of amateurism altogether. In the meantime, the NCAA, facing O'Bannon's appeal and a newer, potentially more damaging case from sports litigator Jeffrey Kessler, has chosen to steer clear of the video-gaming business altogether.
It was inevitable, then, that some who tweeted about their settlement checks would wind up incurring the wrath of single-minded gamers—control-pad cowboys who had no real sympathy for the larger issues at stake:
"It was comical to me because at the end of the day no one in their right mind can say they would turn down free money," Byron Moore, a Tennessee defensive back from 2011-13, told me after he tweeted a photo of his check. "So a lot of it I think is just jealousy."
Many of the athletes who commented about their settlement checks—including Moore—understood that the money flowed from a matter of principle. There is, at the heart of the O'Bannon litigation, the very sensible notion that college athletes should at least be able to control and profit from the use of their names and likenesses. And to a larger extent, there is the disquieting reality that even as college sports continue to grow more lucrative, athletes still only see a tiny sliver of the profits due to the outdated precepts of amateurism.
Still, it was hard not to notice how, on a smaller scale, the same players who were getting checks from this lawsuit are among those who miss the video games. Most notable among them? Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy:
"My belief is that if, back in college, you had asked 99 percent of the guys who got the checks if they were excited to be in this game, they would say yes," said former Princeton basketball player C.J. Wallace, who told me opted out of the lawsuit for that very reason. "No one would have told you, 'This is crazy, we're being exploited here.' There's a larger issue here that I 100 percent respect, but it just didn't sit well with me."
Nearly every college athlete who was in the game played the game as themselves, at least a couple of times. How could you not? How could you resist seeing how some programmers hunkered down in a room somewhere on the West Coast chose to rate your ability to catch a football, even if you were just a punter?
"Yes, indeed, we played the game every year," former Ball State punter Chris Miller said. "It was always exciting to see what your score or ranking was when it came out, and it would be a locker room bragging rights argument amongst the players on what you were ranked, one to 100."
"Yeah we all played it just like everybody else," Moore said. "It was probably the game I played the most."
Is that paradoxical, then, that Moore and Miller will both use the money from a game they enjoyed being in to travel this summer? Maybe it's not paradoxical at all. Maybe, as sports economist Andy Schwarz told me in an e-mail, "the idea that it's an either/or, 'Get the coolness of being in the game or get compensated,' is part of the NCAA narrative. In the real world, athletes get both. Madden participants get a huge kick out of being in the game—they play themselves against teammates and friends, et cetera.—AND they get paid."
I understand that argument completely, and yet there was one phrase from Schwarz's message that I couldn't stop turning over: "in the real world." And I couldn't help but wonder if this is the reason a video game has taken on such symbolic importance. There is something almost through the looking glass about the notion that—at least in the current legal purgatory college sports finds itself mired in—a video game is now more a reflection of reality than the real world itself.
I should say here that I count myself among those who both sympathize with the central cause of O'Bannon's lawsuit, and also among those who miss EA Sports' NCAA Football tremendously. I do not play many video games, but I played this one repeatedly, year after year, against a friend for whom our ongoing battles became a metaphor for our interior lives. The best thing about the game was that it reflected the messy imperfections the college game itself: it was more wide-open than Madden, subject to stranger results, to extreme bouts of scoring and sloppy defense.
Every so often you would come across a player who was not quite what he seemed to be in the real world (a different skin tone, a different number). I assume this was EA's half-hearted attempt to throw us off the scent, while also acknowledging that it was all there if we wanted it to be.
None of the EA employees I contacted responded to messages, but the consensus seems to be that EA would be eager to bring the game back, as soon as either the major conferences or the NCAA signs off. And why not, given that the game was a massive moneymaker? Moreover, NCAA president Mark Emmert essentially admitted in testimony during the O'Bannon trial that he's the one holding back a revival, because the game had apparently veered too close to realism.
Here's the relevant passage, with Emmert answering questions from an attorney:
Q. AND WHAT WAS THE DISCUSSION, AND WHY WAS THERE ANY AMBIGUITY THAT WAS PART OF THAT DISCUSSION? WOULD YOU EXPLAIN.
A. THERE'S A CONTRACT WITH EA, STATED THAT THEY WERE NOT ALLOWED TO USE NAME, IMAGE, OR AND LIKENESS OF ATHLETES. AND THE QUESTION THAT WAS -- THAT WAS BEING RAISED WAS, WERE THEY IN FACT DOING SO.
Q. ALL RIGHT. AND WHAT WAS THE -- WHAT WAS THE CONCLUSION OF THAT DISCUSSION?
A. THE CONCLUSION THAT I REACHED WAS THAT IT WAS INSUFFICIENT TO -- TO SIMPLY SAY, WELL, MAYBE THEY'RE MEETING THE LETTER OF THE LAW, BUT THAT -- MY JUDGMENT WAS WE SHOULDN'T BE IN THAT ENTERPRISE IF IT COMES EVEN REMOTELY CLOSE TO THAT LINE, SO WE CEASED MAKING THE GAME OR CEASED LICENSING THE NCAA LOGO TO THAT GAME.
Q. AND IN TERMS OF WHAT HAPPENED IN TERMS OF YOUR JUDGMENT, DID YOU DETERMINE -- WAS IT YOUR JUDGMENT THAT THEY WERE USING THE NAME, IMAGES, OR LIKENESSES OF THE PLAYERS IN THE VIDEO GAME?
Q. WAS IT YOUR JUDGMENT THAT THEY HAD COME VERY CLOSE TO THAT LINE?
A. I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW. IT SEEMED INAPPROPRIATE THAT WE BE IN THAT ENTERPRISE IF IT WAS CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING IT, SO I, WITH MY STAFF, SAID AT THE FIRST OPPORTUNITY WE HAVE, LET'S EXTRACT OURSELF FROM THIS RELATIONSHIP.
And that's the thing: of course EA Sports was going to veer toward realism, because that is the template on which sports video games have been based for over 20 years. But now the NCAA is stuck in a place where it can't admit to the basic truth: video games and college sports are both all-American commercial enterprises, the fans who consume and pay for them are OK with that, and the only thing inappropriate about including real athletes in a EA Sports title is not allowing those atheltes to keep a fair portion of what their images and likenesses are worth. As Keller lawyer Leonard Aragon puts it, "the NCAA wants to keep the myth of the 'student-athlete' in revenue sports alive, and so we are at an impasse."
And so until that myth is shattered, there will be no game. But it is not the fault of the players who took those checks any more than it is the fault of EA Sports itself. There will be no game because the NCAA is clinging to the fantasy that led to the creation of reality-based sports games in the first place, which is that we can somehow replicate the real world without actually living in the real world.