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NCAA Football

I recently wrote about the ongoing lawsuit between Ed O'Bannon and the NCAA regarding player likenesses for college athletes (and compensation for college athletes in general). While it seems unlikely that any college football games will be made using the NCAA license while this lawsuit remains unresolved in appeal limbo, it does seem inevitable to me that EA will eventually start making these games again. Hopefully, it will come with the ability to include real player likenesses, but that is likely to depend on the outcome of any appeals and the willingness of the NCAA to include real player likenesses in games. Video game sales seems far too lucrative an exploit for the NCAA to pass up, so I highly doubt that they'd simply refuse to grant their license.

Operating under the assumption that EA will go back to making NCAA Football games within the next few years (hopefully as early as NCAA Football 18), I'd like to start talking about the kinds of things that I'd like to see in such games.

NCAA Football 14 -
It's been three years without a college football game. It doesn't look like we'll be getting one for 2016 either.
But hopefully a new entry in the series is only a year or two away...

Legacy features that must return!

I don't expect all the old features to return, and even the ones that do return might not be the same as in the older games. But here's the things that I think the game should absolutely have in some form or another (hopefully similar to previous games):

  • In-season recruiting in dynasty
  • Redshirt players
  • Export draft class to Madden
  • Conference re-alignments
  • EA Locker: Roster sharing & Team Builder
  • Custom stadium sounds
  • "Toughest places to play"

Roster-sharing might seem unnecessary if the result of the lawsuits means that EA can actually license the rights to player likenesses. But it's unclear how that would work. There is no college football labor union (equivalent of the NFL Players' Association) that I'm aware of, so either the NCAA would have the rights to license all of its players as a collective, or it would be the responsibility of the game-maker to individually license each and every player. Hopefully, it's the former. But if it's the latter, that leaves open the possibility of individual players refusing to grant rights to their likenesses, which means they won't be included in the game. Would EA simply remove them from the roster? Or replace them with some generic player? Or go back to using "QB #10" as that player's name? Worse yet, would the game-maker even bother to approach all the athletes, or would they just settle for the key players from elite schools?

In any case, college football rosters are often in flux right up to the start of the season, and many teams need a few games before they settle on a final depth chart. So the ability to share roster updates means that the user base can keep the rosters up to date if EA uses outdated rosters.

Hand-me-downs from Madden

Madden is now a few years ahead of NCAA Football, and the past few years have actually seen a decent improvement in the quality and depth of the game. Of course, I'd like to see a lot of features from recent Madden games also get imported into any future NCAA Football games:

  • Tackling / physics engine
  • Improved running, receiving, QB throw-placement, and defensive play
  • Player experience and confidence (needs to be much more volatile though)
  • Skills Trainer, augmented with college concepts such as the option
  • Stadium upgrades and renovation

Just please, for goodness sake, don't force another Ultimate Team gimmick down our throats!

Obviously, it needs the playoffs!

This one should obviously go without saying: the game needs to implement the new playoff system. However, I think the game should go a bit further than that. I think it should allow for customization of the playoff system. I'm not a big fan of the four-team playoff system, and I would like to see the playoff system expanded. In fact, I think expansion is inevitable. Personally, I think that the NCAA should use a model similar to the NFL, in which each conference champ gets an automatic playoff bid, and then some number of wild cards fill the remaining slots. It would result in a lot of one-sided playoff games during the early years of adoption, but down the road it would hopefully lead to greater parity between the conferences. With a customizable playoff system, perhaps I could use an NCAA Football video game to test that model out.

High School league builder

And while we're on the topic of playoffs, let's talk about high school playoffs in the game.

Older NCAA Football games included a feature called "Campus Legend" (also called "Race for the Heisman" or "Road to Glory" in certain years). This mode allowed you to play a single player, and it began with your character playing in a high school state playoff. Your performance in that playoff determined your character's overall rating and which college teams would attempt to recruit you. This feature also was incorporated with the Team Builder feature and allowed the player to recreate your own high school's uniform and logo.

NCAA Football 14 - loud crowd
Users should be able to recreate their high school playoff opponents as well as their own school.

The schools that you played against, however, were still procedurally generated and randomized by the game. I would hope that in future versions of NCAA Football, that it would include the ability to import Team Builder teams for all the high schools in your state playoff so that you can design their uniforms and logos and upload them onto the internet for others to use via the "EA Locker" feature. You should also be able to save a set of Team Builder teams so that if you restart the Campus Legend mode with a different character, you can use the same schools without having to recreate them. Better yet, you could load them back up into your Campus Legend game in following years' games!

Restore the humanity in recruiting

The in-season recruiting process of the NCAA Football games was always my favorite part of the game, and one of the things that made it far more engaging to me than Madden. Taking the time to scout a specific player, learn his priorities for where he goes to school, and trying to convince him to join my team helped to humanize the process. It felt like there was a genuine dialogue here and a lengthy courting ritual that helped to develop an actual attachment to the players you tried to recruit. Earning the commitment of a top prospect was thrilling, and seeing one of your rivals snag a prospect that you thought you had in the bag was equally heartbreaking. This was a direct result of the amount of time and attention that you had to pay to each and every prospect that you attempted to recruit.

The in-season recruiting process of 13 [LEFT] and before felt like a long-term courting process.
In 14 [RIGHT], all the humanity and soul was sucked out and replaced with simple point-optimization.

NCAA Football 14 took efforts to "streamline" recruiting by taking out all the micro-management of calling individual players and trying to sell them on pitches. In so doing, it also sucked most (if not all) of the life and humanity out of the system. Instead, you simply invested abstract points, and the game pretended all that stuff happened behind the scenes. It was soulless and boring, and it was one of the reasons that I gave up on the game long before I'd even played enough to warrant writing a review of it.

Dark Souls - humanity restored

If the series is to come back, then it should look for recruiting inspriration from the peak of the feature, which was NCAA Football 12 and 13. This process should be time-consuming and laborious. That's what made it special. Sure the interface can probably be cleaned up a bit, and there's plenty of room for optimization. But 14's approach was not the right one.

A dialogue with Madden

The NCAA Football games have a long tradition of being able to export your draft classes into that year's respective Madden game. This communication is always one-way though. Perhaps EA could also implement some mechanics in which your Madden game can influence your NCAA Football game.

One way that I can think of would be for the performance of drafted players in Madden to be tracked, and for information about them to be imported back into NCAA Football at the end of a season. This could then flow back into the recruiting system by allowing you to use the success of your player(s) in the NFL as a pitch for recruiting new prospects. Maybe each prospect could have his own "favorite NFL player" or "role model" pulled from Madden, and if that player went to your school, then you get a bonus towards recruiting that prospect.

Madden 16 - rookie of the year candidate
Having your exported draftees be successful in Madden could help in recruiting new players.

Another possibility would be to actually have the games communicate between each other on a weekly basis. Madden has the in-season scouting feature. In some years past, this feature has conflicted with NCAA's draft import feature by outright preventing you from using the import. In more recent years, Madden required that the NCAA draft class be imported at the beginning of the Madden regular season! This was annoying because it required users to keep their NCAA Football progress an entire season ahead of their Madden progress if they wanted to use the draft import feature.

But I see no reason why either of these would need to be the case. Why not allow draft scouting information from NCAA to be imported to Madden on a weekly basis? Or better yet, why not just have a feature in which you can "link" your NCAA Football dynasty to your Madden franchise such that they can read each other's save files? Instead of having to keep a whole season ahead in your college game, or having to constantly export your save file back and forth, you could play the two in parallel and would only have to ensure that you finish each respective week's college schedule before you complete the respective week in Madden. Madden could even warn the user to progress their NCAA Football dynasty to the corresponding week if the user hasn't done so already.

Madden 25 - draft class import
Importing draft classes into past Maddens would disable certain scouting features,
and would have to be done at the beginning of the Madden season.

This method could provide Madden with weekly updates of how well college players are performing, and could maybe even improve Madden's scouting feature by making the system more dynamic. This could force the user to re-scout certain players if their season turns around (one way or another). On the other side of the spectrum, the NCAA Football game can then pull weekly updates on NFL player performance and use that to influence certain recruiting pitches for schools whose players are performing exceptionally well.

Teaching the game to the kids

One of the elements that separates college football from professional football is the fact that college football players are still "amateurs". They aren't professional football players. As such, they are still very much learning the game of football (not that pros don't stop learning). Sure, most of your top prospects are going to be very skilled, very knowledgeable players coming out of top-notch high schools who have been playing football since pee-wee. Those guys will likely have a lot of football knowledge. But you also have local recruits from lower-tier high schools, walk-ons, practice squad guys, players recruited from other sports (such as soccer or basketball), and so on who might be practical novices when it comes to the ins-and-outs of the sport of football. Thus, I would like future NCAA Football dynasty modes to really play up the fact that these players are still kids who have a lot to learn.

As such, an experience system similar to what is in Madden should be implemented so that players learn from practice, drills, and games in order to develop their skills. Another definite carry-over from Madden should be the affinity that players have for certain schemes, and (just as in my proposals for Madden) I think that players should be able to develop experience and affinity in multiple schemes. This isn't as necessary for NCAA Football, since these younger players don't have as much time to learn multiple schemes as their NFL counterparts. I'd be OK if this particular feature got scaled back, and if players could only have one scheme that they know. But I figure if this gets implemented for Madden, it might as well go into NCAA also.

Much of this is going to be extensions of the practice and training features that I proposed in my Madden wishlist. A lot of the same ideas can be applied here, so I don't want to rehash the same things.

The same scouting and practice mechanics proposed for Madden, and then some!

In summary, I had proposed a suite of scouting and practice features for Madden's franchise mode. These included being able to scout your upcoming opponent's play tendencies, updating your own playbook with counters to your opponent's schemes, and then practicing against your opponent's plays so that you can better recognize them in the game. You should also be able to break down your own playcalls and review plays from past weeks' games that were either terrible failures or overwhelming successes so that you can learn what you did wrong or what you did right.

Tony Sanchez coaching players
Football coach swatting ball
NCAA Football games should put greater emphasis on the idea that these players are
young kids who still have a lot to learn about proper techniques and assignments.

NCAA Football should put even more emphasis on drills and Skills Trainer-type practice exercises. Users should be able to train players up in individual skills, such as trying to teach a fumble-prone half back to carry the ball closer to his body, coaching up a defensive-lineman's gap control technique, and teaching blocking assignments to offensive linemen. There could even be drills or practice modes dedicated to penalty-prevention and discipline, such as trying to teach offensive linemen to keep their hands inside a defender's frame in order to avoid holding penalties, and teaching players not to block if they can see the name on the back of the jersey, teaching a defensive back to avoid pass interference by ensuring that he attacks the ball rather than the receiver, or even teaching special teams rushers the proper timing and spacing for laying out to block a punt so that they don't rough the kicker.

Madden 16 - ball hawk drill breaks assignment
Hopefully, upcoming Skill Trainers won't teach
the player to actively violate their assignment.

Remember, these are young players who will be prone to mistakes. Having a feature in which you can take play highlights from previous games and identify mistakes that a player made so that they can learn from them would be an excellent additional feature (moreso than in Madden). Perhaps you could re-run the same blown play in practice, and if you correct the mistake and run the play successfully, the player receives bonus experience. And of course, you should also be able to highlight examples of good play in order to improve the player's confidence (more on this below).

There also needs to be ways to incorporate redshirted players into your practice routines so that they, too can gain experience. Full team scrimmages can be one way to accomplish this. Having to decide whether to take time to improve current players, or to give more practice and drill reps to redshirts could be an interesting long-term strategy decision.

Training Camp and spring ball

Another of my big suggestions for Madden involved improvements to pre-season, as well as an actual training camp. College football doesn't have a pre-season, so that idea goes out the window, and the NCAA Football games already had "redshirt" functions that fills much the same role. But keeping with the theme of training up your young players, an off-season training camp should definitely be implemented. This is even more important in NCAA Football than it is in Madden, since college teams see frequent and rapid turnover of players year in and year out.

NCAA Football 13 - departing seniors
Every season, college teams suffer lots of turnover due to graduating seniors.

After all your seniors graduate, you have to evaluate your remaining underclassmen, freshmen recruits, junior college transfers, and walk-ons in order to see who can fill the roles that were vacated by departing seniors. Unlike in the pros, colleges don't necessarily have the advantage of being able to pick-and-choose which players join their team via free agency, trades, or a deterministic draft. Because of this, the players that you get aren't necessarily going to automatically fit into your scheme. Getting these players into the right positions and evaluating their performance and fit in your scheme should be a big part of your off-season preparations. This should include position battles where relevant.

The closest thing that college football has to pre-season is spring ball. This is a series of scrimmages that the team will run against itself in order to evaluate new players. This could be one component of the off-season training camp feature, and could allow you to play a handful of "games" between your offense and defense (including redshirts) in order to evaluate players and give them experience.

Heart, passion, and confidence

Once the season starts, you should have to deal with dynamic player confidence and morale. College football is a game of heart and passion, and nerves can be a big deal in this sport. NCAA Football games have already had systems in place to model team confidence. There was the old "Toughest Places To Play" mechanic that would have faulty play art and confusion with audibles in particularly loud stadiums. I'd like to see this sort of feature implemented on a more individual basis similar to the player confidence in Madden.

Younger underclassmen and walk-ons should have lower confidence and be more prone to errors than their more experienced counterparts, and their confidence needs to be much more volatile than the player confidence in Madden (which was horribly easy to maximize in Madden 16). Throwing a couple interceptions should definitely hurt a quarterback's confidence.

NCAA Football 14 - loud crowd
Loud crowds in previous games could disrupt play art and audibles for the visiting team.

A college football game could also take a page out of college basketball games and implement a system of "team chemistry" or team morale. This would be a function of how well the team plays together and operates as a unit. This could either work for the whole team, or it could be based on smaller units. The offensive line could have a chemistry as a unit, the receiver corp could have a chemistry (with each other, and possibly with the quarterback), the secondary could have a chemistry, special teams units could have chemistry, etc.

The more a particular unit plays together, the more cohesive they become as a unit. Units with high chemistry would be less prone to mistakes, and this might make it preferable to play players with lower overall ratings if they actually perform better with the team. This would increase the value of returning upper-classmen, as they would have high chemistry with each other from having played together in previous seasons. Maybe you recruit a phenom athlete with lots of raw talent, but little experience or football knowledge. You might be better off playing a lower-rated senior who has high chemistry with your scheme and his teammates. He might not make as many spectacular plays, but he also wouldn't make as many mistakes, and he'd be a clutch player when you need him.

Good performance in games should also result in team morale going up, which should also provide a boost to the confidence or skills to every player on the team and would modify the individual's confidence rating. For example, if a QB throws a costly interception, but the defense pulls through and wins the game, the team as a whole should get a morale boost, and the QB's loss of individual confidence could be mitigated somewhat by his trust in his defense. He could become more willing to rely on his teammates in future games, and won't try to put the game on his shoulders and risk further mistakes.

To the drawing board!

College football is a much more experimental endeavor than the NFL. Coaches and teams are much more willing to try creative styles of play such as the option, spread offense, wild cat, flexbone, 5-2 defense, 4-6 defense, special teams gimmicks, and so forth. Because of this, I think that an NCAA Football game should have a robust playbook customization feature. Previous games have included playbook customization, but they've often felt broken and glitchy.

NCAA Football 12 - custom playbook
Custom playbooks have never worked properly.

With Madden now starting to include actual rules for player assignments, we're getting closer to the point when the players on the field can actually play with some level of simulated understanding of football concepts and assignments. If users can actually script A.I. assignment rules for things like blocking, receiver route running, defensive gap control, coverage, and other individual responsibilities (instead of the traditional "go here" scripts that always killed previous attempts at play editors), then it might actually be possible to create working plays that are more than just minor variations of existing ones. In fact, if a user designs a working scheme of new formations or plays, those formations and plays should even be able to trickle into other teams' playbooks. Successful models should be widely adopted across the country. Coaches (and maybe even schools) could even have a trait applied to them that determines how dogmatic they are about sticking to their own schemes. Coaches or teams who are more flexible and less dogmatic would be more willing to adopt new models, and more dogmatic schools would stick with their tried-and-true schemes (e.g. I doubt Air Force will be ditching its option attack any time soon). Hopefully, this would alleviate some of the system's exploitability by allowing A.I. teams to use any overpowered plays that the user manages to dream up.

In going with this game's more social nature, custom playbooks should also be able to be shared online via the "EA Locker" feature that used to enable roster sharing. It would be tricky, but if EA could pull it off, then it would be awesome. Using Madden's existing online models, it might even be possible for other users to create counter plays and strategies for your created plays, and then push them back to the cloud where CPU coaches in your game can potentially see them and install them into their own playbook. That level of adaptability is probably still quite a few years off, but it could lead to an incredibly new dynamic experience. Or it could lead to a whole lot of online cheese. Either way, it would be an interesting experiment!

Rugby punt

I also suggested this for my Madden wishlist, and it's even more appropriate for a college football game. Rugby-style punts could act similarly to an "option punt", in which the player can delay the punt, and possibly even neglect the punt altogether and make a run for it. Delaying the punt gives the coverage team more time to run downfield to tackle the returner, but also risk the punt being blocked. Such punts are also more difficult for the returner to field due to their tumbling motion while airborne. It would add an element of risk-reward strategy and unpredictability to punting the football that is currently absent from the very rote and boring process of kicking in these football games.

These rugby-style punts from a spread out formation are becoming more commonplace in college football.

"Punting style" could maybe be a trait of players in the game, and only players with that trait should be allowed to perform this play. There could also perhaps be practice modes that could allow you to teach it to your punter, thus enabling this play in games. This would be in the spirit of keeping with the philosophy of NCAA Football focusing on teaching young players how to play the game and developing their skills.

Let the ladies play

Katie Hnida - UNM placekicker
Katie Hnida is the first woman to play
and score in Division I-A football.

I've already talked about the idea of including women in more sports games, and I think that a return of NCAA Football franchise could be a great opportunity for EA to contribute to gender equality. You can make a case for Madden not having female players because there's still no precedent for a woman playing in the NFL (though they are coaching). But that isn't the case in college football. There have been women who have played NCAA division I football!

Including at least a handful of models and faces for female players and coaches could go a long way towards normalizing the idea of women playing football, and might encourage more young women to try out for their schools' teams. Such normalization of the idea could also help raise a generation of football-playing men and coaches who would be less likely to harass or abuse any female colleagues on their team. It's a tiny little thing that should be easy for EA to implement. But that tiny little step from EA could be a huge deal to some young girls out there who pick up the game and get to create a version of themselves wearing their favorite school's helmet or coach's polo. I have that luxury; there's no reason why my sister, girlfriend, or daughter shouldn't have it too (assuming there's a game for them to play to begin with).

Customer loyalty discounts

This last one isn't so much a features as it is a marketing / PR stunt. I think that EA should give a loyalty discount for people who purchase both NCAA Football and Madden. This could take several forms. The first would be to sell a retail package that includes both games in one box at a cheaper price than the two games independently. The other option would be for NCAA Football which usually releases a month earlier than Madden to include a voucher or coupon for the purchase of that year's Madden game.

If EA really wanted to reward loyalty, they could also offer discounts to player who wish to "upgrade" last year's games to the new versions. This could take the form of a manufacturer rebate towards the trade-in of last year's games. For example, if you trade-in your copy of Madden 16 to Game Stop for a new copy of Madden 17, you'd get an extra $10 or so off the purchase of Madden 17. Alternatively, each year's Madden game could have a coupon or voucher for a discount towards next year's NCAA Football game (which would, in turn have a voucher towards the following Madden game that would release a month later).

So NCAA Football 18 (if it ends up existing) could have a voucher for $10 off the purchase of Madden 18, and then Madden 18 could have a voucher for $10 off the purchase of NCAA Football 19, and so on.

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