Where Everybody Knows Their Name — Except Them

I tried to disguise my blitz but Jake Locker picked it up immediately. He’s a first-round draft pick and a four-year starter at quarterback for Washington. You reach that level, you’re probably well coached.

“You play NCAA Football 11 last year?” I led.

“All the time,” said Locker.

“Would you play as yourself and the Huskies, or -”

“Well, it’s not me in the game,” Locker said.

Quite likely he was reminded to say that before getting on the phone with media on Thursday, promoting his candidacy for the upcoming cover of NCAA Football 12.

I tried the same angle with Nick Fairley, another candidate, but the 6-3, 291 pound defensive tackle from Auburn shut down my gameplan like I was an offensive coordinator from a Sun Belt creampuff.

“It’s really not me in the game,” Fairley said.

War damn next question. I wanted to know how they felt about appearing in past versions of this video game, without their permission, and that wasn’t gonna be discussed.

This repartee may sound adversarial; it wasn’t. Locker and Fairley were delightful guys, enjoying a day at Disney World having recently signed what is, truly, the first contract of their professional football careers. Either one, or fellow candidates Mark Ingram of Alabama and DeMarco Murray of Oklahoma, would be deserving cover subjects.

So go vote. After all, they’ve been in this game for roughly four years, and only now, largely thanks to the NCAA, can they acknowledge any association with it.

No offence to Fairley, but it strains my credulity to think that when he was playing NCAA 11 with his teammates in Auburn’s players’ lounge last year, he was saying to himself, “Man, that DT#90 is something else. Who is that guy?” In all likelihood, they probably also had their real names on the screen, as accurately named rosters are plentiful and easily shared, from within the game, by those who play it.

But “It’s really not me” is an official line everyone’s had to toe for a decade because of the NCAA’s amateurism rules. And it’s even more important that everyone sticks to that message in light of litigation brought by former college players. They allege that the NCAA, as well as EA Sports, have made money off the unauthorized use of their likenesses, among other things.

While rosters in the collegiate simulations have never featured players’ names, that’s about the only identifying trait that they lack. Everything else – height, weight, jersey numeral, skin colour, year in school, and of course, attribute ratings modeled on the athlete’s real world performance – is there. The players suing the NCAA and EA Sports say that’s as good as identifying them. Some retired NFL players won a similar legal argument two years ago.

This lawsuit is between several players on one side, and the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Clearinghouse and Electronic Arts on the other. I’ll spare the freelance legal scholarship. For video gamers, there’s really only two outcomes: Either NCAA Football continues as it is, or EA Sports is forced to alter its roster file much more substantially to avoid identifying real players in it.

What would happen if it did?

The NCAA Football design team probably would have to randomize every identifying trait. Each position would get a certain height, weight, and uniform number range, and players’ attributes would be randomly assigned from that. The players’ year in school and ethnicity probably would also be randomized. In a sport where everyone comments on white running backs, you could expect to see a lot of that.

The teams’ collective strengths and weaknesses are a different story. EA Sports’ licence absolutely covers the names, nicknames, colours, symbols and other what-have-you of the NCAA member schools themselves. So they may still create a Nebraska team that performs, collectively, as it’s expected to. Neither designers nor fans want a game where San Jose State is a preseason No. 1, and Alabama at the bottom of the SEC West, thanks to a roll of the dice.

The designers would probably work on this in reverse; they’d rate a team’s collective attributes a certain way, and then how the positions contribute to that would be randomly assigned and divided up among them. So you might have a strong rushing team whose halfback is a slashing runner in real life, but in the game he’s beefier and picks up yardage by bulldozing through.

This would concern retail code only; I assure you that within a week of street release, teams of editors would still have complete, accurately named, numbered, depicted – and rated – rosters for all 120 schools available for download. It would be a mammoth job but serious roster editors are dedicated to the point of obsessive. These people would see the opportunity to be the video game ratings czar for all of college football. They’d take tremendous pride in that work, touting their file on personal Web sites and forums such as Operation Sports’.

The biggest question, and I don’t know if it will come up in court, is whether the ability to edit rosters is a tacit acknowledgement that the game is based on real players minus one ingredient, which everyone is encouraged to add and share. That seems extremely farfetched. This is a sports game; there’s a tradition of creating, if not the implied right to create, yourself in them.

I suppose EA Sports could design the game so that only created players are editable. If they did, I assure you, roster editors would then band together and create 6,600 players one-by-one, and share that roster file by memory card and U.S. mail if they had to, just like the old days. It would just take a while longer. Like, eight days after release.

Even with a total ban on roster editing, could NCAA Football still survive? Conceptually, yes. Hardcore players of NCAA Football go straight for the dynasty mode, and after about three seasons of that their roster is entirely divergent from real life anyway. Enhancements to single-player career modes could also help take the focus away from personnel on the field and direct it more toward the user.

That’s assuming these core users aren’t so put off by the lack of roster editing and other features that they just stick with older versions of the game. It’s possible that any roster restrictions may damage NCAA Football’s sales and growth potential so seriously that EA Sports walks away from the deal rather than pour money into something gamers regard as a gimped product. The lawsuits are believed to be one reason EA Sports canned its NCAA Basketball franchise, although that had other, more serious problems working against it. But on a design basis, there’s no reason why NCAA Football couldn’t go on.

One thing for sure would remain the same – a cover graced by an athlete who’s turned pro, and the only sports title where if he’s on the game, he’s not in it.

DT90 and QB12 in NCAA Football 11 are user-created” />

Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.

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