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If you're a fan of college sports video games, then you've probably already heard that in the middle of May, the NCAA announced that it would be convening a special group to re-examine the issue of student-athlete compensation for the use of their name and likeness. Lawsuits from former players whose likenesses were being used in college games without their permission (let alone compensation) is the reason that companies like EA and 2K Sports had to stop releasing new college football and basketball games back in 2012 and 2013.

These issues have been in and out of the courts over the years, with most (if not all) cases being decided in favor of the individual athletes and requiring the NCAA, video game publisher, or both to have to pay damages the athlete. Ever since, the NCAA has refused to lend its license to video games in particular, as they have steadfastly refused to allow players to be compensated on the grounds that they are "amateur" student athletes, even though they are the primary driving force of a multi-billion dollar-a-year industry.

College sports games have been absent for quite a few years now.

Over recent years, the NCAA has been receiving mounting public pressure to pay athletes and/or allow them to profit from the use of their likeness in commercial products, and it looks like they might finally cave to this pressure later this year. We've talked about the idea of college sports games returning in the past, but up till now, it's always been purely speculative. This time is a bit different, however, since the NCAA itself is finally taking some actual action on the topic. No final decision will be reached until October, so it's still entirely possible that the committee will decide to retain the status quo, which will mean no NCAA-licensed video games in the foreseeable future.

I already thought 2020 was shaping up to be a good year for football video games,
even before this announcement from the NCAA!

I am optimistic that the NCAA will decide in favor of allowing players to receive compensation. In fact, I think this could actually be a brilliant -- and somewhat insidious -- decision by the NCAA. On the one hand, it allows them to license their brand to video game, which would provide a revenue stream for the NCAA. Secondly, it allows the players (the popular ones, anyway) to get paid, which may quell much of the popular demand for the NCAA themselves to pay athletes a salary.

Lastly, based on what I've read about the proposed rule changes, the deal would allow the license-holder of the game or the manufacturer of the paraphernalia holding the athlete's likeness and/or name to pay the athlete directly. Which means the NCAA isn't actually the one paying the athletes. The athletes are getting paid with someone else's dollar. It would, thus, allow the NCAA to save face by continuing to pretend that they are facilitating an "amateur" sport".

In fact, the NCAA's official statement flat-out says:

"... the group will not consider any concepts that could be construed as payment for participation in college sports. The NCAA’s mission to provide opportunity for students to compete against other students prohibits any contemplation of pay-for-play."

It's a kind of cop-out win-win-win for the NCAA, so it's actually kind of amazing that they didn't consider doing this sooner.

Best and worst case scenarios

As for us gamers, we'll likely still have to wait a good two or three years before the NCAA sports video games start hitting market. EA is probably in the best position to get an NCAA football game out the soonest, since they could simply release a port of Madden. They've already started doing the work of putting college teams into Madden by licensing some of the major schools individually, so they actually have a head start! 2K would probably not be far behind in releasing a NCAA basketball game, since they could re-skin their NBA 2k game. I'm not sure if 2K already has college teams in its NBA 2k series, so they might have a longer road ahead of them than EA.

EA has already started putting college assets into Madden.

Both companies, however, would likely still require at least a full year to put anything together, unless they've been keeping a guerrilla dev team in the shadows maintaining their NCAA games in secret, which I think is highly unlikely. So consumers would likely be waiting for NCAA Football 22 or College Hoops 2k22 to release in 2021.

Having to wait two seasons for such games is actually probably the best case scenario. That would mean that the companies actually took the time to develop a full game. Of course, I have my own wishlists of what I'd like to see included in a new college football game.

Worst case scenario is that they rush out a lazy re-skin of their professional counterparts for a 2020 release, and the shoddy worksmanship of such a product would set the standard for each respective series' quality moving forward.

Another potential source for concern for those of us who enjoy deep and robust career / franchise / dynasty modes is the fact that the ability of EA or 2K to license and pay athletes directly opens up the potential for more egregious and insidious versions of EA's Ultimate Team to invade these college games. Having to pay athletes a licensing fee for their name and likeness for an Ultimate Team variant, as well as possibly having to pay them royalties or risiduals (if such a thing would be applicable), would probably lead to EA to much more aggressively monetize an NCAA Ultimate Team mode. Further, the fact that the athletes themselves are directly profiting from such a mode could lead to them actively advertising and promoting the mode, which has the potential to open up new avenues for exploitative and manipulative marketing assuming that the NCAA (or the government) doesn't strictly regulate video game micro-transactions and loot boxes.

College athletes may directly profit from (and therefore explicitly promote) sales of their Ultimate Team cards.

This last problem would be unique to the college games, since [as far as I know] EA does not have to individually license player names or likenesses for its Madden or FIFA Ultimate Team modes. In both cases [as far as I understand], EA licenses those names and likenesses through the respective player unions (the NFL Players Association and FIFPro). It's possible that the individual athletes may see some of this money, but it's probably distributed throughout the union as a whole.

In the case of the NCAA, EA would be required to license each player individually, since their is no comparable player's union [yet]. That means that each individual athlete would be able to negotiate their own terms. High-profile stars could hypothetically demand premium compensation, which could force EA to up the cost of NCAA Ultimate Team packs (should we call it "NUT" for short?), and/or more aggressively market and promote the mode.

If EA chose to pursue this route, then it's hard to imagine them being able to invest sizable resources into developing solid single-player content for the game, and so NCAA Football's beloved dynasty mode may fall to the wayside in favor of NUT. Hopefully, having to license individual players might end up being such a complicated and expensive headache that EA doesn't even bother with an Ultimate Team mode, but I find that highly unlikely. They'll figure something out, and it will almost certainly come at the expense of single-player content that players like me would be wanting.

If 2K were to make a college basketball game, it would also likely be heavily monitized, just like NBA 2k18 and 19.

The good news is that we'll likely get our college sports video games back at some point. The question is whether they'll be worth the wait...

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