Throwback Thursday: College Football Video Games

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College football video games enjoyed a two-decade run predating the current, half-decade in which gamers have been without any options.

The five-year anniversary since EA Sports last released its NCAA Football title elicited a number of eulogies this summer, the best of which was ESPN.com’s feature on die-hards who remain committed to updating rosters and playing the NCAA Football 14.

Inherent in the series’ dormancy is the ongoing debate over athlete compensation in college sports, which — TEASER — a feature story I am working on for this very sight prompted this edition of Throwback Thursday. The Ed O’Bannon-led class action lawsuit that preceded the end of the NCAA Football was not necessarily the reason for Electronic Arts shuttering the series, but it has ensured the conversation around college football video games comes back to the compensation of players for use of their likeness.

I have made no bones that another college sports video game franchise ended long before NCAA Football was the better title. Like its NFL big brother, Madden, NCAA Football suffered through years of complacent production with no competition to invite innovation.

EA Sports brokered an exclusive licensing agreement with the NCAA, which the two parties agreed not to continue in 2013. The publisher had a monopoly on college football video games for a full decade prior, however, when 2K Sports produced its only such venture for the PS2, NCAA Football 2K3.

Sega Dreamcast may have flopped in the United States, but its launch title NFL 2K set the standard for the PS2/XBox generation of consoles. As revolutionary as its NFL title may have been, the college football counterpart felt like something of an afterthought.

Clean graphics and quality audio made this a worthwhile play upon its release…

…but EA Sports’ presence as the preeminent developer of college football video games was readily apparent.

NCAA Football 2K3 stood no chance against NCAA Football 2003, the first PS2 installment in the series, which began what was the best few years in the series for my money.

Each year during the PS2/XBox generation, NCAA Football introduced at least one feature that made picking up a new installment worthwhile. Best among these was the Race to the Heisman in NCAA Football ’06, a feature that became a mainstay until the series’ conclusion.

Not only was Race to the Heisman a new and unique gameplay experience, but EA Sports leveraged its licensing agreements with both the NCAA and NFL to create a transition into the Madden franchise.

2k Sports was hardly the first and also not the last developer to unsuccessfully challenge the dominance EA Sports enjoyed since the inception of college football video games. The last non-EA title to take to the collegiate gridiron, Sony’s NCAA Gamebreaker 2004, was 989 Sports’ last-ditch effort to challenge the market leader. I touch on it more in my 989 remembrance, so I won’t belabor the point but to compare the final Gamebreaker vs. NCAA Football 2004 to a week-before-Thanksgiving Alabama non-conference game.

Gamebreaker did make something of an impact in the previous console generation, though. In much the same vein that NFL Gameday outpaced the early Madden installments for PSX, Gamebreaker‘s more modern look precipitated updates from NCAA Football ’98 to NCAA Football ’99.

I spent countless hours playing NCAA Football ’99 during the wild 1998 college football season. Silly as it may be, I owe the title — and college football video games in general — a debt of gratitude for helping to cultivate my fandom, and honing my knwoledge.

The first such game I picked up was the forerunner to NCAA Football, EA’s Bill Walsh College Football ’95. My parents purchased me my first console, a Sega Genesis, in 1994, shortly after the first college football season I followed intently. My interest in the sport was growing, and playing both Bill Walsh and the first of many competing titles thrown at EA, Sega Sports’ College Football’s National Championship, both fueled my burgeoning curiosity.

Bill Walsh was clearly the better title, in terms of aesthetics and the depth of simulation, but the easy gameplay of College Football’s National Championship compensated enough that both titles made it into heavy rotation on my Genesis.

My interest and understanding in soccer comes almost exclusively from first playing FIFA on PS2. Sega Genesis lacked the computer technology for truly realistic gameplay, even if the console did promote BLAST FREAKIN’ PROCESSING. In some cases, the playbooks were outright ridiculous. The below screenshot from VideoGaming4U shows the offensive options meant to reflect the 1994 Georgia Bulldogs.

Somehow, I doubt GREG DAVIS was choosing from Flexbone and three-wide Shotgun sets in 1994.

Perhaps these 1990s video-game developers knew something about the direction of college football playcalling, long before the coaches themselves. Ohio State lining up with such spread along the offensive line, the quarterback keeping after reading the defense and rushing for a first down?

Did Sega predict J.T. Barrett?!

Perhaps I’m assigning way too much credit to Sega developers. All the same, as the gameplay became more sophisticated, and playbooks accurately reflected those of the teams they were designed to represent, the NCAA Football titles released in my college years helped me study when I got my first job covering the sport for The Daily Wildcat. 

Upstart IMakulate Vision Gaming is planning to revive the college football video game genre in 2020 with Gridiron Champions, avoiding the issues with unfair player likeness usage by eschewing NCAA licensing. The cousins behind the concept — themselves hardcore college football fans — have some impressive stills on their website. Ultimately, though, I’d love for their vision to eventually include the NCAA and force the institution’s hand on endorsements and player compensation. 

It’s the right move for players; it’s the right move for those who loved playing college football video games; and it’s the right move for the NCAA to further immerse potential fans in the sport.