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If you're a fan of college football video games, then I'm sure you're excited by the news from early 2021 that EA will be reviving its college football series. They will be doing so without the NCAA license, and under the new title, EA Sports College Football. I guess Bill Walsh wasn't available for licensing either? Expectations are that the first in this new line of college football games won't release until at least July of 2023, so we still have a a year or more before we'll be playing a new college football game on our home consoles. Sadly might not even have Maximum Football to fill that niche void anymore, since it's unclear of its new developer, Modus Games, will retain the college Dynasty Mode, or if it will be as good. Hopefully they do, and hopefully it's better.

With EA Sports' return to college football now imminent, I feel it's important to take a look at one of the most beloved features in EA's old NCAA Football games, and examine why that feature worked so well, why it absolutely must return, where it may have faltered, and how EA could potentially even improve it.

This essay is also available in video format on YouTube.

It's kind of funny seeing how EA's NCAA Football series has been elevated onto a pedestal since its cancellation in 2013. Contemporary reviews and user scores were often mixed or negative, and aligned very closely with Madden's reception at the time. Yet now, NCAA Football 14 is often held up as one of the best sports games ever, and definitely one of the best football games ever. Are we looking back with rose-tinted glasses? Or was NCAA Football always an under-appreciated gem? I think the true answer is a little bit of both, and we'll explore why in the coming discussion. In any case, the NCAA Football games seemed to enjoy a more cult-like status compared to Madden, with its loyal fanbase often insisting that the college game was better than its more mainstream big brother.

Being the smaller cousin of Madden, I think the developers of NCAA Football had a little bit of a longer leash. Lower sales expectations might have lead to less overhead from both the NCAA and from EA itself, which gave the studio a bit more leeway to experiment with new and novel ideas (some of which worked, and some of it didn't). The studio also benefitted from technological hand-me-downs from big brother Madden's development process, which may have freed up more resources for building supporting features, rather than having to spend as much time on the underlying game engine. By the time of the game's cancelation, it had been receiving yearly engine, A.I., and graphics upgrades that had been developed by the Madden team. Robust customization features such as TeamBuilder and Stadium Sounds allowed for a great deal of personalization that helped to connect the user more to their game. Trophies from rivalry games, bowls, and conference championships provided challenges and collectibles that encouraged users to play the game with other teams in both Play Now and Dynasty modes. The college atmosphere and more diverse playbooks provided pageantry and energy on the field that Madden largely lacked. And the list goes on...

Hand-me-down gameplay from Madden, and lower expectations from EA
may have allowed the NCAA Football team more freedom to experiment with fun new features.

In fact, things have kind of come full circle, with Madden 22 now stealing features from NCAA 14!

Off-Field Competition

The true highlight of the NCAA Football games, however, was the Dynasty Mode and its in-season recruiting. It was a surprisingly deep and rewarding experience that gave a sense of humanity to the process of recruiting high school athletes to help develop your team. Compare this to Madden's Franchise Mode, which has usually been played more from the perspective of finances. There have been exceptions during Madden's long history, but that game has almost always looked at the players on your roster more as commodities than as people. To be fair to Madden, this has a lot to do with the different business models of college versus NFL teams. The NFL and its teams (with the sole notable exception of the community-owned Green Bay Packers) are private businesses, and they have a very corporate mind-set.

The NCAA is also a business (and a very profitable one, at that), but the individual schools aren't (at least, not technically). Because of the illusion that it isn't a for-profit business, the dirty, exploitative corporate underbelly of the NCAA has long resisted paying its student athletes, and has repeatedly claimed that college sports are "amateur athletics" -- even though football in particular generates billions of dollars in profits for colleges and conferences. This is slowly changing, and I think it's about time that we see some reform in college sports. Regardless of the politics, college football players haven't been paid in real life, so EA couldn't approach the team-building aspects of NCAA Football's Dynasty Mode from the same business and economic perspective that drives Madden's Franchise Mode.

NCAA Football games also benefited by modeling the fact that college teams recruit athletes, instead of having to draft them (as is the case in most professional sports). This means that colleges have agency in which athletes they chose to recruit, and different colleges have to compete with each other to secure commitments from those athletes to attend their school instead of another. With players graduating after only 4 or 5 years on a team (and mostly only making significant contributions in their final year or two anyway), there's also a large turnover in rosters on a year-to-year basis, which means that recruiting is a necessarily pervasive part of any university's year-to-year operations.

College and professional football have different business models.

This isn't like a professional team, which only intermittently has to court a handful of free agents or propose trades with other teams. Well-run NFL teams can potentially go many years without large roster upheavals, and really only need to worry about rotating in background support players around fixed stars that may stay with the team for 5, 10, or 15 years. though short-term free agent signings and trading of marque players is becoming more common in the NFL, as more and more teams try to make a single-year run at a Super Bowl, instead of trying to build a dynasty around fixed stars. Universities, on the other hand, are looking to fully re-build their roster every year or two.

Enter, NCAA Football's in-season recruiting feature.

Right off the bat, relying on recruiting as the method of team-building means that the NCAA Football Dynasty mode has an edge over Madden's Franchise mode because that recruiting creates off-field competition to supplement the on-field competition. Most weeks in Madden, you end the match, return to the Franchise menu, and immediately jump into next week's match with little-to-no overhead. Or you turn the game off because it sucks, and you try to get as much of your money back as possible by selling it on eBay. If you do stick with Madden, then every now and then, you may have to stop to put a player on injured reserve and look for a free agent replacement, but for the most part, the week between matches is uneventful.Madden has struggled for years trying to find compelling activities for users to engage in during the simulated weeks between matches, and it hasn't really had a whole lot of success.

Recruiting is a competitive, player-driven activity.

In NCAA Football, however, your time between every single match is spent working towards building your roster for one to five years down the road. And best of all, this roster-building is a continuous, competitive process. You search through lists of available players, highlighting the ones you want, and spend points to scout them and make sure that they will positively contribute to your team. Then you spend time each week trying to convince those athletes to sign with your school, all the while the other schools in the game might also be actively trying to recruit those same athletes.

There's the straightforward strategy of trying to best allocate your available hours to scout and recruit enough players to fill all your positions of need, and to maintain adequate depth at other positions. But there's also several meta strategies going on as well. You'll also be chosing which states you want to focus your recruiting efforts on. Having a certain threshold of players on your team from a certain state turns that state into a "pipeline" state, and recruiting pitches generate more interest when used on prospects from pipeline states. There's also promises, which, if fulfilled, improve your coach's integrity, which makes future promises to prospects more valuable.

Madden doesn't give me anything to keep me playing after the football match is over.

All of this combines to create an addictive, "one more week" aspect to the in-season recruiting. While I might turn Madden off after playing a particular Franchise week's game because there was nothing much else to do, the in-season recruiting of NCAA would have me wanting to progress to the next week to find out how my recruiting efforts have played out. Once I'm in the next week, I'm more inclined to impulsively start that week's recruiting process. I would often advance to the next week and play the football match just to get back to the recruiting and continue battling against other schools to secure commitments from my preferred prospects. Heck, sometimes, I'd even be excited to see that I have a bye week next in the schedule because it means I could go straight to more recruiting without having to bother with the meddlesome football in between.

"Ooh, I can't wait to play this upcoming bye week!"
     - absolutely no Madden player ever!

This "one more week" addictiveness would sometimes have me up well past midnight on school or work nights. The in-season recruiting can actually stand on its own as a game, without even needing to play out the actual football matches on the field.

Recruiting Characters

Just having a competitive activity to perform between the weekly football matches already gives NCAA Football an engaging feature that Madden has largely lacked. But what really pushed the NCAA Football games over the edge (in my opinion) is how much humanity Tiburon was able to inject into this process.

The user would be expected to keep in nearly weekly contact with your key prospects by calling them to sing the praises of your school and football program, while also reminding the prospect that the other schools offering him scholarships just aren't as good as your school. Each prospect would have a distinct set of desires for what he wants in a school or team, and it would be up to the user to find out what those are. You would then try to filter out the recruits whose interests do not align with your school's strengths, and then laser focus on the recruits who match up the best. But if you really want a particular talented recruit, you can also try to change his mind about a particular desire.

Prospects have wants and desires and personality beyond their 40-yard dash times and bench press reps.

You could also let the prospect himself guide parts of the conversation, essentially listening to what he wants or doesn't want from a school. And he'd be more appreciative of you letting him ramble about a topic on his mind, even if the chosen topic doesn't exactly cast your school in the best light.

You could even make promises to the recruits about whether they would be starters, that you would win bowl games or championships during their careers, or that they would get lots of attention from professional scouts. If you failed to fulfill those promises after signing the player, he might attempt to transfer to another school, and your reputation as a recruiter and coach would be damaged.

What's more, having put all that effort into carefully selecting prospects to recruit, scouting them, and actually recruiting them over the course of the season, it's so immensely gratifying to see them be successful on the field. There's some virtual pride in seeing all that time and effort pay off for me, my team, and the player I recruited.

Seeing a freshman I recruited be successful on the field is satisfying.

This is another thing that Madden just doesn't quite capture, because so little effort goes into drafting and developing a player. You fully scout each draftee almost instantly, and just pick the best player on the board when your turn comes around. It's certainly nice to see your drafted players having success, but it doesn't feel like the culmination of months or years or work the way that similar success in NCAA does. And the scouting overhaul added by a post-release patch to Madden 22 somehow manages to make this boring process even more passive and boring!

The fun of recruiting might be especially amplified when playing as a lower-tier school. UNLV is not starting at the top of any 3 or 4-star recruit's list. Successfully recruiting mid-to-high-value prospects requires that a school like UNLV scratch and claw its way to the top of the prospect's preferred schools list, and then also keep fighting to stay there and fend off the other schools that have so many more advantages over lowly UNLV.

Yes, it is true that the whole process was literally just a matter of min / maxing some numbers, and that process is actually surprisingly transparent to the user. The game shows you all of the numbers! There wasn't a whole lot in the way of social simulation going on here. But the way that the process was framed: as a conversation -- as a dialogue; combined to make the recruits feel less like a collection of skill attributes on a spreadsheet, and more like actual characters with personalities. Recruits became more than just a list of 40-yard dash times, bench press reps, and vertical jump heights. They had likes, dislikes, ambitions, and dreams, which all gave the recruits a certain degree of humanity -- a humanity that Madden's scouting, draft, and contract negotiation process simply could not emulate.

Just a small example of what this adds to the game:

I sub in a lower-rated freshman kicker to fulfill a "playing time" promise.

I would sub in a 69-overall freshman kicker who is objectively worse compared to my starter Aaron Watkins. I do this because I promised the freshman Josh White that he would get playing time his first year, so I'm subbing him in for extra points and short field goals, because damnit, I intend to keep that promise! I recruited Josh because my starting kicker was a junior, and I wanted to make sure I'd have a viable kicker to replace him with when he graduates, and have a year to develop that new kicker. If I had redshirted Josh and not given him any playing time, he'd be liable to transfer, and I'd be left without a kicker at all. Also, failing to keep promises makes other prospects less interested in the promises that you do make. Breaking that playing time promise is not only bad for Josh, but it would be bad for my future recruiting efforts. Giving Josh these opportunities to make easy kicks is a long-term strategic decision, but honoring those promises is also just the right thing to do.

And it's not like my starting kicker, Aaron Watkins, was a clutch kicker anyway...

By making easy kicks, I fulfill the promise and help boost the kicker's ratings.

I think that this humanity is, perhaps, the biggest factor in the success of the NCAA Football video games, and why fans today still hold them in such high regard, and have been clamoring for the series' return. The on-field gameplay was largely copy-pasted from Madden, with many of the same problems with the physics engine, A.I., game scripting, and game pacing (though the college theme does actually go a long way towards mitigating those problems in the eyes of many gamers because these are young, "amateur" athletes still learning the game and are prone to mistakes, instead of being supposedly trained, professional athletes who represent the best football players in the world). In any case, that off-field recruiting gameplay gave the NCAA games a heart and character that made the overall game genuinely good, in spite of any perceived or real deficiencies with the on-field gameplay. NCAA Football's Dynasty Mode stood head and shoulders over anything Madden had ever done -- then or since!

The closest that Madden ever gets to something like this is with role-specific players. For example, I drafted Dakota Stallings here as a MLB in Madden 23 because I knew that probably wouldn't hold onto Khlail Mack or Danny Trevathan much longer (assuming they don't retire before I have a chance to trade them away). Trevathan has a lower overall rating, but his awareness and play recognition are much higher, and he fills my scheme's chemistry (for whatever that's worth), so I use him as the 2nd inside linebacker in my 3-4 sets. Stallings is more athletic, so he's my user-controlled sub linebacker for passing downs. I also manually sub him into the base set for five-minute drills when protecting a lead.

I drafted Dakota Stallings to replace Danny Trevathan, and use him in a sub LB role to develop him.

But even in this situation, I'm playing this rookie because he is numerically better than the other player on the depth chart. It isn't because I feel any sense of obligation to play my drafted rookie. There's no humanity in this decision. It's just a numbers game -- just like all decisions in Madden are just a numbers game.

At The Peak Of A Slippery Slope?

Fans seem to have lionized EA's NCAA Football 14 as the second best football game ever, behind NFL 2k5, by the simple virtue of NCAA Football 14 being the last NCAA Football game. The acclaim isn't completely undeserved. I personally always liked EA's NCAA Football games more than Madden, going as far back as the early years of the PS2, and NCAA Football 14 was probably the last truly good football game that EA has produced.

But this is where things might start to get controversial ... because if I'm being perfectly honest, as good as NCAA Football 14 is, if I were stuck on a desert island with only one college football game, I think I might actually prefer to have NCAA 13 instead of 14. The reason for this is that the heart and soul of the NCAA Football games for a long time had been the in-season recruiting. This recruiting is the reason for playing the game! Well NCAA 14 made some major changes to the in-season recruiting that, in my opinion, took away some of that humanity that I felt made the previous games so appealing.

In NCAA 13, the user must personally call and interview each and every prospect every week.

As a bit of an aside, I also have fonder memories of NCAA 13 (which released in fall of 2012) because 2013 happened to be a year in which I was just burnt out of football video games. 2009-2011 saw both Madden and NCAA fall into a particularly nasty slump in on-field quality that NCAA 12 and 13 only barely pulled themselves out from. And even the highly-anticipated Backbreaker turned out to be a total flop when it released a few years prior. I bought NCAA Football 14 when it released, but I hardly played it, and I didn't didn't even bother to buy that year's Madden at all -- not even pre-owned. I figured I could just wait till next year's release, when I would hopefully feel a bit more invigorated to play. Little did I know that there wouldn't be a "next year" for NCAA Football.

Regardless of these extenuating personal factors, and having gone back and played a lot of both 13 and 14 over the past year (seriously, my partner keeps complaining about being sick of staring at rosters and listening to the menu music), I still feel like NCAA 13 did its recruiting better than NCAA 14.

NCAA Football 13 expected the user to specifically ask each and every prospect how he feels about each and every possible recruiting pitch, then try to sell him on the pitch(es) that best lined up with what he wants. Critics complained that the process was tedious and time-consuming. It's a valid complaint. I certainly can't tell those critics that they are wrong (and I'll talk more about that in the next essay).

In response, Tiburon tried to "streamline" the recruiting process for NCAA 14. Instead of explicitly calling each and every prospect every single week and interviewing them about each and every pitch, you simply allocated points to each prospect and let the CPU handle the actual interviews in the background. The following week, you'd simply check the numbers to see if your school had gone up or down in the prospect's priority list, and adjust your points accordingly.

On paper, it's virtually the same system, except without all the extra overhead and extra inputs of going pitch-by-pitch, prospect-by-prospect. It was, indeed, very streamlined. So what went wrong?

In NCAA 14, recruiting became a more abstract, less personal process of allocating points.

Well, sometimes the more efficient mechanic isn't necessarily the best mechanic. You see, the more streamlined, automated recruiting process of NCAA 14 -- while functional and efficient -- had the subtle, but noticeable effect of making me feel less personally involved in the recruiting process and with the prospects themselves. I didn't even have to interact with the recruiting menu on a weekly basis, if I didn't want to, because the CPU would use the same point allocations each week unless I changed it. Unless it's time to schedule a campus visit, or I notice my efforts towards recruiting a favorite prospect is losing ground to another school, or I have my favorite prospects locked in safely and want to shift attention to other recruits lower in my recruiting board, there wasn't really much reason to even touch the recruiting in a given week. At least not once the scouting is done and all my points are being invested in recruiting.

Not having to actually talk to each prospect also hid more of the virtual prospects' personalities behind a wall of numbers, and reverted the prospects to feeling less like characters and more like soulless numbers in a spreadsheet. In fact, I don't have to engage with the prospects' pitch interests at all -- or even know what his pitch interests are! So even if I am going into the recruiting menu every week in order to check on my progress and shift points around when necessary, I'm still never really getting a feel for who these prospects might be as people. They're just names, ratings, and home states.

This system of simply allocating points reminds me more of the old PS2-era games. Yet even in those old PS2 games, the whole purpose of spending recruiting points on the prospects was to figure out each prospect's pitch interests (and how they lined up with your school) so that you can use that optimal pitch for an eventual off-season visit. That little shred of humanity and characterization was there all the way back in 2005 (and maybe even earlier -- I don't have earlier versions of the game to test). And when you do get to the off-season recruiting, the point allocations were ditched in favor of contacting each prospect each week to discuss a pitch. Granted, there were only about half a dozen to a dozen prospects on the board (instead of the 35 allowed in NCAA 13), but it still meant you were actively engaged in that dialogue with the prospect.

Even in the PS2 era, recruiting was all about trying to find the best pitch to sell the prospect on.

NCAA 14 even took away the ability to make promises to the prospects! All those little miniature narratives about not redshirting a player, making sure a player gets enough playing time, or making sure that I schedule a game in his home state so that mom and dad can see him play, are just not present in NCAA 14 to give the recruiting that extra personal and emotional touch. In NCAA 13, I felt like I was role-playing being a coach interviewing prospective players and earning their trust. That feeling was lost in NCAA 14, and became a simple process of min/maxing numbers.

Promises still exist as a feature in NCAA 14, but as far as I know, you can only make promises to a player in order to prevent him from transferring to another school or to talk him out of declaring for the pro draft early. But without having made specific pitches to the player, or having made specific promises to him, there's no broken promises to make me feel like it was my fault that the player isn't satisfied with his role on the team. Again, the humanity of the feature is largely stripped out.

In NCAA 13, the user can make various promises to convince a recruit to sign.

And when you get to the off-season recruiting, you only get a single opportunity to spend a lump sum of recruiting points. It's not broken up into a 5-week process, like it was in NCAA 13. This means you have no opportunity to get a feel for how the CPU teams are using their points, and adjust your points accordingly. It also means that a CPU team can dump literally thousands of points into your preferred prospects and steal them from you, even if you went into the off-season with a comfortable buffer. Should I put thousands of points into a prospect in order to secure him? Even if it means I risk overshooting by a thousand, and miss out on also signing other prospects? You have no opportunity to fall back on lower-rated prospects if your top prospects do commit to other teams.

The game gives you no indication of how many points the other teams might be spending on each prospect, so the off-season recruiting feel like a total crapshoot, which, might I remind you, is the problem with the draft in Madden. Worst of all, is that all this combined with the super quick process of allocating all your points for the entire offseason at once really encourages save-scumming. If your preferred prospects go to other teams, it's quick and easy to just re-load the save (assuming you disabled autosave or kept a backup from before the offseason) and re-allocate points. Heck even if you did get the prospect, but you overshot him by 1000 points and couldn't afford to sign lower-rated reserves for depth, it's easy to re-load and re-distribute the points to secure more prospects. I often find myself cheating and save-scumming at least once just to find out what the CPU teams spend on my top prospects, so that I can spend the minimum amount to maintain a small buffer and still have extra points to spread around to my lower-caliber reserve prospects.

But even then, I've found that the CPU will just dump extra points into certain high-ranked prospects after I save-scum and put more of my own points into them. It's as if the CPU teams know how many points the player is spending, and is able to add just a few more points to steal them away from you. This looks a hell of a lot like the CPU cheating in order to create a false illusion of difficulty.

NCAA 14 only gave 1 opportunity to allocate recruiting points in the off-season.

Once again, say what you will about NCAA 13's recruiting being slow and tedious, but the mechanics rarely (if ever) necessitated save-scumming, and that lengthier process strongly discourages save-scumming.

Still better than Madden

Don't get me wrong. NCAA 14 was still good -- and definitely better than what Madden was offering then or since. Even though the game shows all the numbers to the user, the list of available prospects, and the limited resources at the user's disposal still meant that vital judgement calls had to be made, and your success or failure hinged on those decisions. Again, this is a huge improvement over Madden, in which the draft process is so random, and scouting resources are so trivial, that my decisions feel largely moot. Regardless of NCAA 14 still working better than Madden, the changes to recruiting felt like a substantial regression in the direction of Madden's un-inspired scouting and draft process.

That slower process from NCAA 13 of calling each and every prospect every week may have been tedious by comparison, but it required that you actually have a virtual dialogue with your prospects, and learning what those likes and wants are, and even making promises to them that they'll get some or all of what they want. Finding a prospect's most important desire, and then using it to steal that prospect from signing with a rival was exhilarating and fulfilling. Similarly, losing a prospect that you invested so much time and effort into could be equally heartbreaking. Those feelings hinged on the fact that you invested so much effort and time into recruiting the players. You kind of ... get to know them as people, in a sense. You remember their names, where they're from, which pitches are most important to them, what you've promised them, what you plan to promise them, and how they hopefully complement the other players on your recruiting board.

That isn't as true in NCAA 14 because so much of the process is automated and happens in the background. In fact, the designers at Tiburon seemed to have recognized that NCAA 14's recruiting would be more hands-off, and that users would be less likely to be going into the recruiting screen every week. So they added notifications to the main Dynasty Hub for when prospects were ready for visits, commitments, and other important milestones. In NCAA 13, this notification would pop up only when the user entered the recruiting screen, and that worked fine, because there was an expectation that the user would be going to the recruiting screen every week.

NCAA 14 added more recruiting notifications, and moved them to the main Dynasty hub.

In all fairness, putting these messages on the main Dynasty Hub is actually better U.X. design, as it guarantees that the user will see it. But the point is that having a more hands-off approach to recruiting necessitated such changes for NCAA 14, where it wasn't necessary in NCAA 13.

Sure, at the end of the day, both games come down to numbers on a spreadsheet, but NCAA 13 obfuscated that fact with a layer of virtual human interaction. NCAA 14 basically stripped that layer of humanity away and removed almost all illusion that these prospects were anything more than a set of numbers in a spreadsheet, and it boiled your own interest in them to just another number. Streamlining the process caused NCAA 14 to take a more "hands-off" approach to its recruiting, and I personally think that the game suffered for it.

I think Tiburon could do better for EA Sports College Football in 2023, and I think a good place to start would be to look back at NCAA 13 for inspiration. In the next essay, I will discuss my ideas for how the Dynasty Mode could be improved for EA Sports College Football when it releases in July of 2023.

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