EA revives college football game as courts mull NCAA stance on amateurism

EA Sports, which also makes the popular “Madden NFL” series, declined to share any timeline for the arrival of the next installment of the college football series, which sold tens of millions of copies before being shuttered, according to the company. Fans of the game have long pushed for its revival, but its return was complicated by the ongoing debate around college players’ legal right to capitalize on their name, image and licensing rights (NIL), which is currently forbidden by NCAA eligibility rules.

The NIL controversy is at the heart of why EA Sports abandoned college sports titles nearly a decade ago. Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, sued the NCAA, Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) and EA Sports in 2009 for the use of his likeness in its “NCAA Basketball” games without permission or compensation. EA Sports and CLC settled in 2014 for $40 million, and EA Sports pressed the pause button on all of its college sports titles.

EA Sports currently does not plan for the new college football game to feature the names, images or likenesses of existing college players and has struck a licensing deal with a large number of college football programs through a new deal with CLC. In essence, that deal sidesteps the NCAA, which was also dropped from the game’s name in favor of the broader “College Football” moniker.

“We’ve just gotten to a point now where we think it’s the right time to bring [the college football game] back,” EA Sports Executive Vice President and General Manager Cam Weber told The Washington Post. “And we think we can build a deep enough game that really delivers on all those other core components and brings these schools and this kind of gameplay to life. And we’re at a point in time where the schools and conferences are comfortable partnering and building a college football game again and . . . a lot of that is excluding name, image, likeness of players.”

EA Sports also does not currently hold any NCAA licensing around the game, according to Weber.

Weber said the game’s rosters will be composed of players with randomly generated names, numbers and attributes, thereby avoiding potential infringement on any current players’ name, image or likeness rights. Users will have the ability to customize their program to their liking inside the game, however.

By using generic players, EA Sports hopes to sidestep the hot-button issue of NIL rights and compensation. The relaunch of the football series comes as the amateurism model that has long ruled college sports faces legal and political attacks on multiple fronts. Five states have already passed legislation addressing an athlete’s ability to earn money off use of their name, image and likeness, and more than two dozen others are considering bills.

While the NCAA’s Division I Council expressed a willingness last year to open the door to player endorsement opportunities, the Division I Board of Directors tabled the matter at its annual meeting last month, while reiterating its commitment “to adopting new rules allowing student-athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness.”

Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney who represented athletes in the O’Bannon case against the NCAA, said in an interview Tuesday that the return of the video game is a further sign that the NCAA is losing its hold on NIL-related revenue, and he’s confident that EA Sports is positioning itself to incorporate college players soon.

“You could look at this as the beginning of the unraveling. I’ve been waiting for this ever since O’Bannon’s case,” Hausfeld told The Washington Post. “We had talked to EA about doing work-arounds; they finally decided they’d do it.”

Hausfeld blamed the NCAA for the college sports video game titles going dormant, and he said EA Sports was willing to pay athletes years ago for use of their names, images and likenesses. The NCAA and several conferences canceled their licensing agreements with the game maker during the trial, he said.

“What gets us in this work-around—and that’s what it is, a work-around—whose names are the consumers going to use to fill the teams?” Hausfeld said. “They’re certainly not putting members of the math team or the debate team on those jerseys.”

The O’Bannon case spurred several other legal challenges, and the NCAA has been forced to play defense in courtrooms and before state and federal lawmakers in recent years. The Supreme Court is hearing an antitrust case this spring that will examine the NCAA’s authority, consider moneymaking opportunities afforded to athletes and perhaps further blur the line between amateurs and professionals.

The deal between EA Sports and CLC includes licenses for more than 100 schools in the FBS subdivision, including logos, stadiums, mascots and fight songs, as well as licenses around the College Football Playoff. EA intends to pursue additional licensing agreements with the remaining members of the FBS, according to Weber. “It’s up to each individual schools to make that decision, but we are very optimistic,” Weber said.

Notably, Weber signaled EA Sports’ interest in pursuing rights to college player likenesses should they become available, saying also that there is no real way to do so at the moment. “We’re designing the game so it can stand on its own without the use of player, name, image, likeness,” Weber said, adding that EA “will be ready and excited to participate in a future when those rights become available.”

“We’re not relying on it,” Weber said. “But the game will be designed in a way so that in the future, if there was a way to integrate them, we would do so.”

Hausfeld said EA Sports is relaunching the game now so it will have an established title in the market once rules allow companies to pay athletes for use of their NIL. It’s only a matter of time, he says, before college athletes are incorporated into the games and are compensated justly.

“There’s no reason they shouldn’t have a seat [at the table],” Hausfeld said. “EA was willing to give them a seat and to give them a portion of the pie. This is the only way they can open that door.”

Weber declined to disclose specifics but said the licensing agreement with CLC is for multiple years and would allow for the production of multiple installments of the new college football franchise.

EA’s college football series has always held a special place among gamers, with dedicated fans of the title playing and simulating seasons decades into the future, even after the franchise was discontinued. One online community even continued to update rosters, making their work available for download.

Weber said the team working on the upcoming game, which includes some of the original developers from the “NCAA Football” series, has paid attention to that community and plans to engage with them in the days ahead.

“We definitely shoot emails around to each other, kind of following what that community has continued to build out and share content,” Weber said. “And it’s been amazing to see. And I will say as well that our team that we’re putting together to build this game is very interested in tapping into the power of the community, as we build it. So we absolutely plan to engage with the core community, get feedback along the way and definitely engage with them as we make our choices and prioritize and evolve the game as it’s in development.”

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