A new NCAA Football should have hit shelves yesterday, whetting appetites for the approaching season. Even in the middle of summer, with the world cup wrapping up, baseball in full swing, fans of series would have been dreaming of blitz packages and game-winning touchdowns. It was hardly a surprise when EA Sports said they were calling the franchise quits, with a lawsuit facing them over the use of player and coach likeness the writing was on the wall. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it. The fall was looming with all kinds of big games and new systems, NCAA was the furthest thing from my mind. There were many who will list the problems with the series. The game suffered from the stagnant nature most sports games find themselves in after a few years. But NCAA was a special kind of game, its less-than-Madden nature allowed it to take chances EA wouldn’t risk on its NFL title, and for a few years NCAA was truly the better game.
There had been college football games for a while. In the 90’s EA Sports attempted to slap Bill Walsh’s name on the box and market College Football alongside Madden. While Bill Walsh didn’t quite workout, EA kept at it, hoping to see the franchise arise as another staple in their EA Sports roster. The series evolved to College Football USA, then found its stride with the simple title: NCAA Football. When Madden offered multi-year franchise mode, NCAA was right there with their own dynasty mode so players could take their favorite schools and climb the proverbial BCS Ladder, aspiring to play in the biggest bowl games. The two games shared many qualities, both being made in-house at Tiburon, but NCAA had a quirkiness that Madden could never afford.
I had been raised on Madden and the NFL as a kid. My family was-and-is big Minnesota Viking fans and while the Minnesota Golden Gophers have couple championships under their belt, the school hasn’t been something to talk about for a long time. I couldn’t honestly tell you how I stumbled upon the NCAA franchise. All I remember, is grabbing it at the local Blockbuster for a week while staying at my dad’s house and spending countless hours getting lost in the differences it boasted from my Madden experience. The best part of NCAA Football was the inherent changes from playing a game based around contracts and money to a game where prestige was the true currency. Blue Chip recruits didn’t care about their signing bonus, they wanted a good school and a championship legacy. The game also offered different gameplay as college football runs formations and plays you would never see in the pros, like the Wishbone and the Option. As Madden found itself dogmatically trying to simulate the professional game, NCAA was an imperfect kind of football, one with no playoffs, no training camp, no contact holdouts. While I couldn’t have cared less about the teams or players involved, I was enamored with the way the NCAA was constructed.
Madden has always been slavish to its simulation of football. If you want to create a team, you have to move an existing franchise to another city, dealing with seat licenses and advertising contracts. Losing money will put you in the hole, fans would complain if your concessions were too pricy. You would have to spend half of your time playing bookkeeper, trying to figure out how to balance a your salary cap and sign the important players. It featured four preseason games you always wanted to sim and training camp mini-games you skipped, there was extemporaneous content all over the place.
NCAA cut away the fat. You could play an entire season in a day with the shortest season of any sport. You could create enough teams to fill a conference, after a while you could alter the conferences to whatever settings you liked. You could start with a long-lamented school like Akron and try to bring them to prominence or you could step into the limelight of a powerhouse like Ohio State and watch the recruits flock to you. The idea of recruiting, trying to lure high profile players with the promises of championships and playing time was a personal transaction Madden never touched beneath its numbers and stats. NCAA attempted to simulate controlling a team of 18-22 year old men by having things like momentum meters and confidence levels. Large, roaring stadiums could shake the confidence of nervous freshman and timeouts could be used to calm the nerves of your team. Some versions of the game simulated the stupidity of students by having them randomly cheat at school or take money they weren’t supposed to. You would have to choose whether you would suspend them yourself or face action from the NCAA, again replicating the humanity of sports and foolish young men. There was a human element to NCAA that Madden could never seem to understand.
NCAA also replicated the fervor for college football. College towns like Ann Arbor, Columbus, Tuscaloosa, and Baton Rouge don’t get wrapped up in the Sundays of professional football, instead they live for the College Football Saturdays. There know all of the fight songs, know all of the chants. One of my favorite experiences was seeing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish playing in South Bend, Indiana. The sounds of the big bands, the roar of 80,000 people, and while no video game can replicate what it truly feels to be in the middle of that chaos, NCAA did its best. It would play the school fight songs during touchdowns, play special chants in clutch situations. What was more impressive was the community of fans who would post files of the lesser-known songs online, so the true fanatics could make sure every school’s sounds were authentic, from the kickoff to the final gun.
I am sure there were people out there who valued NCAA’s attempts to provide an authentic college football experience. Who loved the playbooks, the school spirit, and the way it represented the hometown pride in cities across the United States which are known for little more on a national scale than the schools located in their city limits, places like State College, College Station, Athens, or Lawrence. NCAA fell into the trap of many sports games in its final years, failing to really evolve and retreading the same ideas. But that’s not what sticks in my head when I think of NCAA. I remember learning the University of Minnesota fight song through scoring Golden Gopher touchdowns, I remember transferring draft classes hand-over-fist into Madden, I remember mastering the option with Georgia Tech, I remember creating an entire conference based off of the houses in Game of Thrones, and I remember spending hundreds of hours playing a brand of football many would deem inferior. NCAA’s undoing was money and lawsuits, something more and more prevalent in college football these days. While I agree the product shouldn’t use the likeness of players while failing to monetarily compensate them, it is appropriate that while I was drawn to the game by the lack of things like money and contracts, it is money and contracts which were its undoing.