NCAA Sports

‘NCAA Football’ Is Still Alive, Because One Online Community Won’t Let the Game Die

Louis Burhans is a 35-year-old man who lives in Evart, Michigan, a small city about an hour north of Grand Rapids. Until recently, he worked 90 hours a week on a natural gas pipeline in Iowa; now, he helps clean and restore houses in his hometown, a job that allows him to spend more time with his wife and two children. In nearly every way, Burhans comes across as a normal adult living a normal life, other than the thousands of hours each year he spends obsessively updating an obsolete video game under the online alias “Boss Hawg.”

Put it to him that way, entirely stripped of its context, and Burhans knows how ridiculous this sounds. His wife doesn’t fully understand why he does this thing, and neither do most of his friends. Honestly, Burhans can’t quite explain it himself. “You spend so much time doing it,” Burhans says, “that you don’t even have time to understand why you’re doing it.”

Burhans is not now, nor has he ever been, an employee of Electronic Arts, the video game giant and creator of NCAA Football, which last published a new version of the title in July 2013. He has never been paid a single cent for his labor, nor have any of the other handful of editors with whom he works. But for the past several years Burhans and his group have tasked themselves with keeping NCAA Football—which was discontinued in the wake of Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA and EA, a case that sought compensation for the commercial use of student-athletes’ names and likenesses—alive on the internet.

Burhans and his fellow editors work off of the shell of NCAA Football 14,the final version of the game, which feels increasingly outdated with each passing year. Their avocation involves updating the game’s rosters before a given season, and then posting links to those rosters on the gaming website Operation Sports. This means re-creating every player (up to 69 per roster) on more than 100 FBS teams, down to their eye color and face mask design.

There are others doing this, but not nearly as well as Burhans and his partners. They now serve as NCAA Football’s de facto creative team, even if they aren’t sure how many people at EA Sports know or care about what they’re doing. And while the why of all this—staying up into the wee hours of the night Googling the speed of a third-string wide receiver so that he can program it into a defunct product—is difficult to pinpoint, Burhans admits he’d feel lost if the game just drifted into a quiet purgatory.

At this point, any hope of an official return remains distant: Bringing back NCAA Football would require a fundamental alteration to the college sports operating model that would allow players to profit off their names and likenesses. And while there are hints that the NCAA could eventually move in that direction—in May the organization appointed a “working group” on the issue as bills move through both state and federal legislatures—it still seems like it will take at least a few more years to determine whether NCAA Football has a future.

In a strange way, then, it’s become a sort of obligation, a second job for which no one makes any money at all. The only reason for Burhans and his peers to do this is because they can’t imagine what life would be like if they didn’t. “We’ve been keeping this thing alive,” Burhans says.

Before there was NCAA Football,there was Bill Walsh College Football,a game born in the summer of 1993, the same year that EA Sports’ Madden video game first acquired the rights to use the names and likenesses of NFL players. The move toward realism in sports games had begun in the ’80s with products like R.B.I. Baseball and Tecmo Bowl, but EA took this push to a new level, even if the first iteration of Bill Walsh was largely filled with “all-time” historical teams and schools named after the cities and states in which they were located—“Tallahassee,” “Michigan”—rather than the universities themselves.

And then 25 summers ago, Bill Walsh College Football took the next step: Building rosters based on actual college football teams, or at least on some quasi reality in which most things were accurate enough to reflect true life. This was a radical notion for those who grew up around college football and its proscriptions about the use of player likenesses and team logos, even if the game was so obscured by the massive shadow of Madden in those early years that few people outside of EA bothered to ask how it was possible.

“You spend so much time doing it that you don’t even have time to understand why you’re doing it.” —Louis Burhans, NCAA Football volunteer editor

Burhans recalls playing Bill Walsh College Football as a kid. In retrospect, he says, it looked like a pixelated mess, but at the time it was regarded as revolutionary—the first college sports game of its kind. One video game reviewer wrote that it provided “the best sports action yet to be seen in cartridge product.” After Walsh retired from coaching in late 1994, Bill Walsh College Football became College Football USA. That included more than 100 Division I-A teams, as well as several real bowl games. And on it went: College Football USA became NCAA Football in 1998,and with each iteration came more realism, superior graphics, and a fuller experience aimed at replicating the thrill of an actual college football game.

As the game edged further toward realism, however, it became natural to wonder how such a product could possibly continue to exist. NCAA rules are notoriously strict in preventing players from profiting off their names and likenesses; in recent years, this has led to a series of public-relations debacles for college sports administrators, like when UCF kicker Donald De La Haye was ruled ineligible for maintaining a YouTube channel, or when Minnesota wrestler Joel Bauman was ruled ineligible for selling a song he wrote on iTunes. And yet for decades, it was obvious that the best players in this video game were avatars based directly on flesh-and-blood superstars. Was there some sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge pact that allowed NCAA Football to replicate athletes who clearly weren’t being compensated? Did EA somehow mix up enough player ratings and uniform numbers to make the game an extralegal possibility? How could the game’s makers continue to head down this road—the EA Sports slogan was “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game”—without confronting that central problem?

The answer was that they couldn’t. O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star who recognized his likeness in a version of EA’s now-defunct college basketball game, served as the lead plaintiff in a high-profile antitrust suit against both the NCAA and EA Sports. That case obliterated the rickety facade, and a $40 million settlement was reached to split among as many as 100,000 athletes who had appeared in EA games dating back to 2003. EA promptly discontinued NCAA Football, with the hope that the NCAA would change its rules and pave the way for the football game to return. And this is where we are in 2019: trapped in an odd limbo where the majority of the college football establishment, including a huge contingent of the players themselves, would love to get the game back. But they can’t unless the NCAA is willing to alter its policies.

As things stand, no one is left in an official capacity to say much about the future of the game, let alone to keep it current. Which is how it fell to a handful of obsessive completists who congregated on the internet and refused to allow the game to ebb away altogether.

What the Operation Sports editors are doing is not mind-boggling in itself; there will always be people online who are willing to embrace nostalgia and take deep dives into specialized rabbit holes. But what makes their effort especially remarkable is that the people who are doing it are not graphic design or programming experts; they are merely united in their passion for college football. And yet their game updates are arguably as good as—if not better than—the professionals’ ever were. They’ve embraced artistry and science and analytics and objectivity; they don’t tolerate shoddy or partisan work. They treat this task with the gravity of an actual job, even though they offer no salary, no benefits, nor even much credit to those who assist them.

For the most part, these editors are fully grown adults who hail from disparate parts of the country. In addition to Burhans, there is Gionni Harris (online alias: Muck), who turns 30 in August and works as a “success coach” and high school football coach in Oklahoma. A.J. (who prefers to keep his real name out of this story) is a 41-year-old police officer in South Florida. There are also a handful of others who would prefer to remain anonymous. None of these people have all that much in common with their colleagues, except for a fealty to NCAA Football. They grew up with the game, played it when they were children, and expected it to be there every fall.

At some point in the 2000s, EA began allowing users to alter rosters and create their own teams, to add names and legitimate numbers rather than playing with the unnamed bots who were thinly disguised versions of the real thing. Most editors I spoke to at Operation Sports began tweaking their own rosters back then, while the game was still actively being published. They wanted it to be as authentic as possible. “It used to bother me, because I wanted to make sure it looked right,” Harris says. “I wanted to give the optics of an actual game, and make it feel like it was coming to life.”

“I wanted to give the optics of an actual game, and make it feel like it was coming to life.” —Gionni Harris, NCAA Football volunteer editor

“I used to go buy the Athlon magazines with the rosters in them when Bill Walsh College Football came out,” says A.J., who briefly played college football as a walk-on at South Florida. “And then once they made it editable, I jumped all over it.”

The editors have all dabbled in playing Madden,but to them it just isn’t the same thing, much as the experience of watching college football isn’t the same as the experience of watching the NFL. So they turned to the internet to see whether others were trapped in the same void. At Operation Sports they found a community, and now the annual release of their updated rosters earns them what they estimate to be thousands of downloads and a hero’s welcome—not to mention a steady torrent of criticism from fans who either don’t understand why it takes them so long or feel that their favorite team’s players are being underrated by the system.

That ungratefulness—the comments on Reddit forums and on Operation Sports itself—has turned some editors away after a year or two, several of the remaining editors tell me. (Burhans, a Michigan fan, developed a new different perspective on fandom after users on a Michigan blog derided his rating of an incoming recruit.) But the ones who stay on are driven by that negativity to make things even better. Instead of pulling back as time goes on and the game recedes further into the past, they’ve dug more fully into their roles. What unites them—what sets them apart from so many internet subcultures—is that their loyalties lie not with their own points of view, but with a larger commitment to truth and authenticity. “There’s literally no sense of objectivity among fans,” Burhans says. “But we’re trying to cut out those biases. That was my number-one goal in creating my system.”

Authenticity isn’t an easy goal when tweaking an aging and rickety engine. But sometimes, the editors will surprise even themselves. When Burhans adjusted some agility settings for offensive linemen a couple of years ago, he found that they blocked in a far more realistic fashion than they did even in the original game.

It’s this kind of thing that makes them feel like all the time they’re putting in is worthwhile. They’ve become a club of like-minded obsessives who feel as if they’re creating a world together. Even though they’ve never met in person, they know about each other’s lives and families; when one editor’s daughter started a GoFundMe to get concert tickets, A.J. chipped in. “It’s like we’re all family,” A.J. says. “We’ve become a brotherhood, man.”

“Sometimes I look at it, and I think, ‘This is so old.’ And the graphics really suck. But as soon as you load in the next year’s rosters, it almost is like it’s a new game altogether.” —Louis Burhans

Some of the editors scale up or scale down each summer, depending on how much time they’re able to dedicate. A new editor is often granted the chance to work on his favorite team’s roster, but if that editor attempts to hold up a funhouse mirror to reality—if he tries to take shortcuts or give in to his own partisan views by inflating a quarterback’s rating—he won’t last.

They rely on research. They spend hours digging through recruiting websites, searching for player images on Google, and finding the statistics of incoming freshmen. They have a scale that allows them to convert 100-meter dash times into 40 times. And many of the editors adhere to a ridiculously detailed rating system that Burhans created, which utilizes analytical scales to make subjectivity virtually impossible. The formula is so complex that A.J. refers to Burhans as “A Beautiful Mind,” though Burhans tells me he “sucked at math,” and never went to college. “I went full-blown nerd when I created my scales,” he says.

The base formula is precise, but there is room for incorporating a certain amount of feel about a player based on highlight videos or high school footage. Then on top of that, the editors have to nail players’ appearances and each team’s uniforms. It’s as if they’re wedding art and science to create something entirely fresh. “I feel like you’ve almost got to be stupid to want to keep playing this game,” Burhans says. “Sometimes I look at it, and I think, ‘This is so old.’ And the graphics really suck. But as soon as you load in the next year’s rosters, it almost is like it’s a new game altogether.”

Six years after NCAA Football 14’s release, these editors are aiming to uphold its faithfulness to the real world of college football. And that they’re doing this with no expectation of getting paid is an unintended irony, given that NCAA Football’s attempt to re-create the real world based on uncompensated talent is what led to its demise in the first place.

An EA spokesman wouldn’t comment on NCAA Football’s future, but it seems clear that the company would love to revive the title if it could. Why not, given that there’s still a community around it all these years after its demise? While the editors at Operation Sports don’t have precise download numbers, the sheer amount of attention that their rosters have drawn proves that the pent-up demand is massive.

These issues extend beyond a video game, of course: There’s increasing pressure on the NCAA to address the bills working their way through various legislatures, from California to Washington, D.C. That’s why the NCAA created its “working group,” whose stated purpose is to study the idea of allowing college athletes to profit off their names, images, and likenesses. If that group chooses to recommend specific action rather than issue a nebulous report, its findings may offer a path to the game’s return.

In the meantime, EA is dropping unsubtle hints about what a free-market future could portend. This year, the company incorporated a “Face of the Franchise” mode into Madden that allows users to create an avatar, become a quarterback from one of 10 college football teams, and guide them through the College Football Playoff. “College for us was the most authentic way to write a backstory to the NFL, versus, you know, some fictional all-star game or fake colleges,” says Madden creative director Mike Young. And including major college programs like Oklahoma and Clemson, Young says, was a way to make it “feel more important, real, and authentic.”

This is as far as EA can go for now, at least on an official basis. Until it can go further—until it has the freedom to create a game that truly replicates the expansiveness of college football—the future of NCAA Football will be determined by the amateurs who have no desire to let it go. Much of that drive comes from the same feeling of nostalgia that defines college football, which has long been driven by sentimentality. For some, the game serves as an essential ritual that ties virtual and real life together. At some point, it began to feel like one game couldn’t fully exist without the other. “Once NCAA Football comes back,” Harris says, “it’s going to make me appreciate how much love I have for college football.”

And perhaps someday these editors’ efforts could actually pay off. Just as small-college football players dream of making the NFL, Burhans has a pipe dream that someday EA might start up the game again … and if they do, he says, “I’d hope they call us.”

By now, Burhans figures, he and his cohorts probably know more about the intricacies of this game than the company itself. They’ve become caretakers of NCAA Football, the unpaid labor keeping it alive. They do it because they can’t imagine not doing it, and because they have nowhere else to turn. And until the system changes, that’s the way it will remain.

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