In 2018, Electronic Arts released five sports games under its EA Sports division. Among those are juggernauts that often rank as the highest selling games of the year, namely FIFA, but also fill the holes of video games about hockey, pro football, basketball, human cockfighting (kidding, maybe). Of course the one game not among that bunch is the NCAA Football franchise, put on permanent hiatus by the Ed O’Bannon trial regarding college athlete compensation. I’m not here to even get upset about that aspect. O’Bannon rightfully poked at a needed discussion by his lawsuit pointing out just how much money college football is worth and how little of it, basically whatever the cost of scholarships are, actually goes to the players. Still, it is a shame that in the era where college football is on a high, competitive video gaming has become normalized, and young athletes outright admit to loving stuff like Fortnite, there has not even seemed to be an iota of progress related to college football video games returning.
Amidst all the excitement of E3 2019, Microsoft made an announcement that sealed what most knew was probably reality but many still held a small candle of hope: Microsoft would not put any more Xbox 360 titles as backwards compatible through the Xbox One, essentially ending the chance of being able to put away a PS3 or Xbox 360 for good even if you wanted to play some college football.
Not too long ago, I booted up my digital copy of NCAA Football 14, the so far final game in the NCAA franchise. I did this on the Xbox 360 at first, but it didn’t really play nice with my spotty wifi so I swapped to the PS3. And it’s fine. Five years on, the laundry list of ideas/tweaks/fixes that the series could’ve done really affects any reflection I can give about it. Obviously, a playoff would have been really cool and seeing how 2K has melded and messed around with the dynamics of simulation with the NBA 2K games, it is a great loss that we never got to see EA react to it and play with the more malleable sport of college football.
It’s so weird to define what exactly makes NCAA Football 14 an important last bastion for the burgeoning genre of college sports video games and it’s mainly due to the passion for college sports itself. Sure, the NFL gobbles up audience and fan passion, the NBA creates superstars, and baseball and hockey almost seem devoted to passion alone almost in spite of superstar names. Yet they’re not college football. They just aren’t. For the better in that they actually pay the people whose bodies are run to mush. But also for the worse in that it’s hard to fathom just how much the world seems to stop in towns like our Tuscaloosa with something like the Iron Bowl or the SEC championship or even just the specter of regional pride.
Funnily enough, NCAA Football 14 the game is almost not even the important part of why it’s the sports game of the decade. Again, there is a lot of creative freedom in the game’s dynasty mode, the game engine is probably the most dynamic of that particular generation’s sports titles, and the game still just feels right. But here’s the thing: so many games in the years since have had a lot of these traits! NBA 2K is a microtransaction nightmare but also has easily the deepest franchise/dynasty mode in all of sports gaming. MLB The Show has a career mode that genuinely feels like an escalation hard to emulate in any other sports game. Madden has a football game out every year and while it’s a flip of the coin if it’s either pretty good or one of them ole broken messes, it is a modern tackling party.
NCAA just feels right, like how it feels right to watch 12+ hours of amateur players on a Saturday or three weeks of bowl games all through the Christmas season and beyond. NCAA Football just has that feeling. It gets it right. Some games are easy shutouts and others go in a wild direction. I’ve had 9-3 games and 54-52 wild shootouts with seemingly no defense. I’ve scored 35 in a row and given up more of the same. These are the hallmarks of the sport itself. It’s why we watch, speculate, and god forbid, gamble on these games. NCAA gets the spirit in a way that other departed sports titles just can’t or just don’t. College Hoops tried but it doesn’t scratch that itch.
NCAA Football: it just means more.