Today is the second Tuesday of July, which is when an “NCAA Football 18” would have been released. Four years since the series was canceled, the outlook for a return unfortunately hasn’t changed.
Two lawsuits were filed in 2009 that would eventually lead to the end of college sports video games. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and former Nebraska QB Sam Keller sued over having “appeared” in EA Sports’ “March Madness” and “NCAA Football” video games, respectively.
Despite not having been paid to be in the games as characters, their skill sets and identifying properties such as numbers and hometowns were present. Their names were not. It was a loophole being utilized by video game developers to replicate real life rosters and allow consumers to add the names themselves and share those newly edited rosters with others.
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College basketball video games died out first, unrelated to the lawsuits. EA’s “NCAA Basketball 10,” released in 2009, is the last one to have been made. College basketball games were simply not selling well enough to justify further development.
What would become a class action suit led by O’Bannon when the two cases merged was what directly led to the cancelation of the “NCAA Football” series in 2013, shortly after the release of “NCAA Football 14.” The company had planned to continue making college games without the NCAA’s branding after the organization decided it would no longer license the game, but the tipping point came when conferences and even individual schools started pulling out. Ohio State was the first university identified that would not have appeared in the next game, but several others were about to follow.
The O’Bannon class went on to win the lawsuit, with Judge Claudia Wilken ruling that the NCAA violated antitrust laws and that athletes should receive compensation beyond just educational-related expenses. That would be capped at no less than $5,000 a year and would be put into a trust that would be received after completing eligibility. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed that part of the judgment while upholding the finding of an antitrust violation.
O’Bannon v NCAA then moved to the Supreme Court, which decided against hearing the case. What that means is there’s still no system in place to directly pay players for their likenesses.
Without that, college sports video games are not a viable investment for a major video game publisher such as EA Sports. There’s no ability to build an authentic college sports video game, or one that consumers would find appealing, without the licenses. Electronic Arts, along with the Collegiate Licensing Company, settled with the O’Bannon class for $60 million to get out of the lawsuit in 2013.
Video game developers have recognized the popularity of college sports, however, and are attempting to integrate them in their professional products.
In the last two years the “NBA 2K” series has introduced a handful of colleges to play a role in the games’ story modes. It’s a very limited implementation, however, with “NBA 2K17” featuring only 10 licensed schools and no current players or any that resemble current players.
The teams are also restricted to only a few games in that particular mode or as paid downloadable content featuring some all-time greats whose individual rights the company already had or were able to acquire. “Madden NFL 18” will also include at least two licensed schools, with the University of Texas and University of Oregon playing some role in the game’s new story mode.
Through all of the developments over the years, very little progress has been made toward a system that would allow collegiate athletes to be compensated for their likenesses in video games, for merchandising purposes, selling autographs or any which way they would be able to capitalize off their standing.
There are other challenges making their way through the courts that could change the landscape of college sports, including one from Jeffrey Kessler that is worth monitoring.
Pinning hope on those, however, carries no guarantees, and even in a best-case scenario, there’s a wait of another four or more years ahead for fans eager to see college video games return.
Bryan Wiedey posts sports gaming news and analysis daily at Pastapadre.com, is co-founder of the sports gaming site HitThePass.com, hosts the “Press Row Podcast” and can be reached on Twitter @Pastapadre.