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” series without permission or compensation. EA Sports and CLC settled in 2014 for $40 million, and without active licensing agreements, EA Sports pressed the pause button on all of its college sports titles.
EA Sports 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 agreement with CLC. In essence, that deal sidesteps the NCAA, which was 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,” Cam Weber, executive vice president and general manager at EA Sports, 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 hold any NCAA licensing around the game, Weber noted.
Weber said the game’s rosters will feature players with randomly generated names, numbers and attributes, avoiding potential infringement on any current players’ name, image or likeness rights.
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. Six states have 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 Tuesday that the return of the video game is a further sign that the NCAA is losing its stranglehold on NIL-related revenue, and he is confident 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 said. “We had talked to EA about doing workarounds; they finally decided they’d do it.”
Hausfeld blamed the NCAA for the college sports video game titles going dormant and 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 video game maker during the trial, he said.
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.
An NCAA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
While news of the title’s revival was celebrated by longtime fans and gamers, NCAA critics said it underscored the need for immediate progress on the NIL issue.
“EA Sports’ college football series reboot is just further proof that the NCAA’s priority is keeping their profits coming while keeping any and all revenue away from their athletes,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “Cutting athletes out of this reboot so they aren’t responsible for paying them for their likeness is a grave injustice, and I’ll be introducing legislation soon to help players finally profit off their talent so they don’t need to face continued mistreatment like this.”
The deal between EA Sports and CLC includes licenses for more than 100 schools in the Football Bowl 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. “It’s up to each individual school to make that decision, but we are very optimistic,” Weber said.
The game will include school names, logos, traditions, fight songs, mascots, colors, uniforms and stadiums. Navigating around potentially litigious NIL matter was a delicate situation, and barring users from being able to customize players to their liking was an important stipulation for the schools, said Cory Moss, CLC’s chief executive. EA Sports was able to do a trial run of sorts with recent Madden titles, which incorporated a handful of college team options but did not include specific players.
“We wanted to work with EA just in that small module to see how they could work to formulate the rosters and work with the schools on the approval process to make sure there wasn’t any possibility of using any current student-athlete’s name, image and likeness,” he said.
Weber signaled EA Sports’ interest in pursuing rights to college player likenesses should they become available, saying also there is no 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 he thinks 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.
Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, said the relaunch is a sign that companies are sensing that flood gates are about to open for player-specific licensing deals. “They’re gearing up,” he said. “We’re working to open up a lot of these laws in various states and Congress. They’re recognizing that and they see a window of opportunity to gear up and start producing the games again because of that.”
EA’s college football series has 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 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.”