The Vibrant Online Community of College Football Videogames

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The Vibrant Online Community of College Football Videogames

Sports games are infamous for being heartless annual retreads—little more than roster updates with few tweaks to core gameplay. Instead of deepening or refining the career modes that hardcore fans love, the sports titles churned out every year by EA and 2K add and update new ways of extracting money. There’s hardly ever a reason to play an old sports game unless you’re pained with deep nostalgia. Yet it turns out nostalgia is easy to come by if they stop improving the game, or stop making a series altogether. The thirst and hunger created by the unfilled hole in the market sparks innovation among enthusiasts. Modding games is a pretty common process across genres, but the fans around NCAA Football have given the defunct franchise something most sports games don’t get: longevity.

In July 2009, former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed suit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, alleging they had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and deprived him his right to publicity. He agreed to be lead defendant after seeing his likeness used without his permission in EA’s NCAA Basketball 09 (released 2008). The 2009 edition of the game (NCAA Basketball 10) was the last they published in the series. During the course of O’Bannon v. NCAA, the class action antitrust suit that found the NCAA to be a cartel and led to schools being allowed to offer full cost-of-attendance scholarships to athletes, the NCAA terminated its license with EA to publish NCAA Football, so the 2013 edition was its last release.

The list of football games that would qualify as among the most influential games of all time is probably very short, but some names stand out above all others. TECMO Super Bowl, for one; ESPN NFL 2K5, for another; and both NCAA Football 06 and NCAA Football 14 would have to be in that conversation. Two and three console generations removed from their release dates, these games have remained relevant to tens of thousands of college football videogame fans. 06 was the peak of the game on the sixth generation of consoles, the last one made only for PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox. 07 began the transition to the seventh generation of consoles, and the PS2 and Xbox games had a precipitous drop-off in quality while the versions for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 didn’t really find their way until at least 2010. 2013’s release, NCAA Football 14 , was as good a swan song as the series could have gotten. It was also designed to be malleable enough that it far outlived its original sale window. In fact, while you can find 06 for around $10 on eBay, PS3 copies of 14 run around $50, and Xbox 360 copies are north of the century mark.

On the message boards of Operation Sports, a community of enthusiasts and modders thrives decades on. There, users congregate to share roster files and develop gameplay and recruiting house rules for the single player Dynasty mode, which spans seasons. They discuss play calling strategy, share career mode stories, and talk the ins-and-outs of modifying the games, through save file editing, PS3 “jailbreaking,” and a lot of work in databases with dry or tedious inputs and exciting results that allow games made for football seasons that are now long-past stay fresh and new.

Beyond OS, one of the most striking things about this online community is the effective YouTube presence. The certified phenomenon Miles Dawkins 247 has cultivated over 79,000 followers on his YouTube channel by focusing on old games, sharing edited, narrated clips of his NCAA Football 06 dynasties.

YouTuber Al Sexton, who also runs the website Playbook Gamer, has a similar, if smaller beat, with multi-year video series of alternate universe college football seasons, and explainers of both videogame and real life college football offenses. Meanwhile, Playbook Gamer began as a site running down playbooks in NCAA Football 06 and has turned into a resource for strategies on several editions of NCAA Football, as well as other sports games. Sexton, a PhD in Leadership and Business Management, has begun collecting retro videogames and has incorporated those into his channel.

While we’re now three gaming console generations removed from the PlayStation 2 era, those remain some of the community’s favorite games to play. NCAA Football 06 and 07 (my personal favorite) retain popularity both on console and through the RCPSX2 emulator. So much so, in fact, that a computer software engineer who goes by jet5195wvu on the OS forum has developed a tool to modify that game’s dynasty files. So, fans can take a game made in 2005 and update its conferences to resemble what’s really going on in college football in 2021. The games weren’t built for that. By 2010, the EA games had incorporated conference swapping; by 2012, they allowed players to take full control of each conference’s membership before a dynasty. Though a successful player could get his school recruited to a better conference in dynasty mode, the in-game mechanics of 2005’s edition did not allow conference swapping or reshuffling; fans created mechanisms to edit it from the ground up.

This all began years and years ago, with the first Madden database editor coming out in 2004. Also in the first decade of the new millennium, before online roster sharing, there were online spreadsheets of named rosters, and saved files transferred from computer to PlayStation via GameSharks and Max Drives. In 2016, a Material Engineer named Anthony Nguyen (username Antdroid) created a process for converting the shared PS3 roster files into the PS2 games, and modifying dynasty files to move around conferences in addition to the updated rosters, developing guides and sharing save files so NCAA Football fans could bring rosters from post-PS4-era seasons into PS2 and PSP games. He even designed two of his own sports simulators for Android OS.

As often as sports fans might throw out the word genius, earnestly or sarcastically, to describe a football coach, and even though a former lineman from the Ravens got a PhD in math at MIT, and multiple college football players have been Rhodes scholars, sports are typically not looked at as the realm of intellectuals, though sometimes they are seen as a space for stats nerds. Sports are easy to watch even if they’re hard to understand, so the depth of thought that goes into them is often overlooked, even if dozens of books and thousands of articles are written about them every year. Football, like all sports, has had a lot of thought put into it; a lot of brain power has gone into the game’s evolution, a lot of love—as well as less savory impulses—into keeping it alive. We see that love magnified when a community emerges naturally, bound by their shared interest in a sport and replicating it on a TV screen with a controller. We see that brain power and dedication when that community, over decades, develops processes to extend a game’s lifetime, and to change the nature of the way it plays.

Annualized sports videogames are famously money drains, and they’ve only become more so over time. That is due in part to the nature of capitalism rewarding exploitative behaviors by corporations, and in part to the nature of the annual release schedule. Though sports games come with built-in tools to tune gameplay and adjust rosters, they aren’t known for communities that redesign and redefine them in the ways that strategy games and RPGs are. I’m not sure what would be the NCAA Football equivalent of the Macho Man Randy Savage or Thomas, the Tank Engine dragon mods for Skyrim. I’m curious how parallel College Football Revamped is to the Game of Thrones mods for Crusader Kings II and III.

NCAA amateurism rules wouldn’t allow EA to pay players to use their likenesses, so EA Sports left the rosters unnamed, though they were clearly based on the real people playing for real college football teams – including player school year, skin color, height, weight, hometown, and skill ratings determining how the players and their teams perform. But EA included options to edit all of these players. The fans took these tools steps further, creating new rosters every year for the last NCAA Football game (a team led by user vikesfan059), and in some cases finding ways to bring those to even older games. EA made it possible to create and import custom schools, so players took those tools and figured out how to add and remove the colleges that switched places between NCAA Division 1 subdivisions. The NCAA got sued because they were profiting off of the labor of players they prohibit from being paid, so EA had to stop making the game. So the players kept updating the rosters, updating the teams, and this year a group of fans made a total conversion mod for NCAA Football 14, just like people do for Crusader Kings and Hearts of Iron 4.

College Football Revamped, which offers a re-skinning of every game menu, play selection screen, new teams, and new uniforms, was released in January of this year, with a version 15 update just coming out in October. Dozens of fans have worked on the project, and have worked on tools to make the experience more customizable, closer to or farther from what college football looks like in real life. In 2013, when NCAA Football 14 was released, there wasn’t a mechanism for a playoff (something that did exist in the much-less-popular NCAA Football 2K3) despite the fact that we all knew one was coming in 2014. But fans made it work—first with database editing, and now modder BleedingRed21 has made a playoff tool, as well as a dynasty utility to make the game more dynamic.

Imagine if you could bring the characters from Skyrim into Morrowind on the Xbox. Imagine if you could bring assets from Yakuza: Like A Dragon into Yakuza: Dead Souls on PS3. There are differences between the way narrative and sports games are coded, of course, but EA creating in-game customization tools isn’t the same as Bethesda or Firaxis supporting mods. This was figured out by a community through trial-and-error. The mod team around CFB Revamped has even fixed plays that didn’t work the way EA coded them into the game, and has replaced ineffective plays with plays that reflect the way college football has evolved in the last eight years—their run-pass-options work as well as those EA has put in the most recent editions of Madden.

Sports and videogames, separately and together, owe everything to their community. Communities remember the great failures and tragic successes, they hold on to hope beyond reason, and always imagine something better. Communities keep these things alive, past their release date, past when they’re expected to forget about them. We keep playing the games, and we keep passing them on.

Now EA Sports has announced a new college football videogame. The proponents of the old NCAA Football videogames are skeptical; they’ve seen how EA has made games and what they’ve focused on the last few years. But fans, tied to the love of their alma maters or favored schools, kept enthusiastic by their own dedication to slider sets, dynasty journals, and playoff debates, are ready when it comes. Hopefully EA can do right by this community, which has never given up on college football videogames, though they were long ago given reason to.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a writer, historian, nonprofit worker, and Paste intern. He loves videogames, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.