To the delight of college football fans across the land, their beloved sport is set to return to the digital gridiron in just over a year. The adoption of laws making it legal for athletes to profit from their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rights in 2021 set us on the path to the re-emergence of one of gaming's most popular sports franchises.
Last seen with the 2013 calendar year release, then known as NCAA Football '14, the series was collateral damage in the landmark class action lawsuit of O'Bannon vs. NCAA that ultimately went all the way to the Supreme Court. In the lawsuit, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon challenged the NCAA's withholding of payment from athletes based on the use of their NIL in marketing and other activities, which earned the NCAA and the athletes' schools billions of dollars yearly. The Court ruled in favor of O'Bannon, holding that the NCAA was in violation of antitrust laws and their non-payment was illegal. Rather than paying the athletes and turning their entire system of amateurism on its head, the NCAA and Electronic Arts (EA) chose to discontinue the game's yearly releases.
Now, 11 years later, the game will return with a scheduled release date sometime in the summer of 2024. But what will the game be like when it comes back? EA has been very tight-lipped since the release day was pushed back a year to let the developers deal with the numerous changes the sport has gone through of late. Conference realignments, NIL rule changes, and more have roiled the sport and presented challenges for the team making the game. But in recent days, a few new details and developments have come to light that give some clues about what fans are in for next summer.
How Will the Game Look?
While there has been no confirmation from Electronic Arts, rumors point to the game being built largely from scratch instead of using the same code that Madden has been running for years. If this is true, it would be welcome news for fans as the quality of the animations and overall presentation in Madden games have been widely panned for several years now. A fresh start should serve the game well and allow the dev team at EA Orlando to tailor the engine for aspects of the college game that aren't shared with the NFL.
This should also allow the new game to harness the power of current-gen consoles in all phases of the college football experience, though it would be surprising if the title was exclusive to current-gen given the massive install base of the PS4 and Xbox One consoles. Even so, the new code built for PS5 and Xbox Series consoles should make for the best-looking football game to date, with the power to focus on the pomp and pageantry that is so intrinsic to the sport at the college level.
A hugely important part of the game's look and feel actually has nothing to do with the football action itself. College football fans identify with their team's stadium and traditions just as much as with the team itself. Thus, making those things as authentic as possible has always been a point of emphasis for the development team. With more than 130 teams represented in the gamer, each with their own distinct stadiums, pre-game traditions, mascots, and more, there's a massive amount of detail that must be captured. Back in 2022, a piece in the Indianapolis Star described how the Indiana University athletic department had received a huge checklist of photos needed by the developer to be able to accurately render the stadium within the game. Over 800 pictures would eventually be sent to EA Orlando to help in that process, and that doesn't include footage of any other gameday activities. Now multiply that by 130 and you can understand the scope of the job the team had to do.
How Will the Game Play?
On this topic, we have absolutely no information, because no one who has played the game would be allowed to talk about it. In this day and age that is never a given fact, as leaks are common across all areas of the industry and enough people have seen and likely played the game, but so far EA has been fortunate to have avoided it. With Summer Games Fest coming up on June 8th, and with no announced showcase for EA themselves, it is entirely possible the game will debut very soon.
No matter when we see it, the gameplay should share much with the established Madden formula. There's no need to reinvent the wheel, nor would it be likely they could do so in such a short development cycle if the work only began early in 2021 when NIL laws appeared likely to pass across the country. It is the plays themselves, and the offensive formations in which they exist, that set the college game apart from the NFL, and it's here that the franchise has always held its stock in trade.
Some college programs play a pro-style offense for sure, but other unique and high-flying offensive systems such as the Pistol and Air Raid have come into wide usage at programs all over the country in the years since the game was last seen. The development team always did a good job with the diverse systems and at least some of the unique aspects of every team's playbook, so expect that to continue. Throw in the teams that run the triple option offense and there will be a variety of playstyles for every fan's tastes.
Away From the Field
Even moreso than other sports, what happens beyond the X's & O's is crucial to the college game. Recruiting, program-building, and now, especially the NIL-related activities will be immensely important to the players' experience and must be handled correctly.
As recently reported, recruiting expert Ari Wasserman was invited by EA to consult with the development team on the recruiting side of the game, and a subsequent interview revealed a few nuggets of information that help paint the picture of what is to come. Wasserman told Andy Staples that what he has seen of the game's systems is awesome and the game won't just be a "crappy Madden knockoff". He stated that Dynasty Mode, recruiting, rankings, territories, and more would all have some presence in the game. This isn't groundbreaking information because all these things were in the previous games, but it's at least comforting to know the dev team is hard at work on what will become the foundation of the game itself.
It will be imperative for EA to get Dynasty Mode really right, as it has always been the straw that stirred the drink for fans. An industry source has been told that the new game will see Dynasty as the flagship mode, which tracks with the game's historical patterns. Expect Ultimate Team to be a significant part of the game as well since it has proven to be a major cash cow for EA in their last several releases of Madden and FIFA (what will now become EAFC). Because fandom in college sports is so localized and specific to one's alma mater, players have always flocked to Dynasty Mode to build their school into the national power they always dreamed them to be.
The recruiting trail has always been a huge, and hugely popular, part of Dynasty Mode. The thrill of beating out a powerhouse school like Georgia or Ohio State for a 5-star recruit is just as powerful as in real life and can be the launching point for your team to receive an invitation to a bigger conference and have a chance to get to the CFP Championship. How the developers implement the system, and its perceived fairness toward smaller schools, along with how they handle the NIL factor, will determine how players feel about recruiting.
Speaking of NIL, its implementation will be one of the toughest and most important tasks for EA Orlando to get right. The rules governing NIL are confused at best, with little guidance supplied by the NCAA over the last two years. Combined with the transfer portal, it has led to a turbulent time in college football, and it's common for fans to angrily blame NIL money when a player transfers to another team or signs a letter of intent with a hated rival. The development team will likely have to decide on a one-size-fits-all ruleset for NIL within the game (despite real rules varying from state to state) to avoid confusion. It will also be important to find a way to make NIL seem fair in its implementation, as fans of small schools already feel they can't compete with blue-blood programs. Making a player feel like a game system is stacked against them from the beginning is a good way to lose them early on.
EA did get one major detail handled recently by figuring out how to get the real athletes into the game. Partnering with OneTeam, a company specializing in group licensing for sports, college football players will be able to opt into appearing in the game, giving their permission to be included and getting paid for their appearance. This sidesteps the lack of collective bargaining in the NIL laws and simultaneously allows EA to outsource the grunt work of managing the thousands of players that could potentially be in the game.
Despite the dearth of details at this time, we know that Dynasty Mode will be the focus of the experience, just as it was in the "before times". Current-gen technology should enable it all to look pretty, but how the off-field activities come together will really tell the tale. Whether fans consider this one of the best entries in the franchise, or the decade-plus layoff has left things rusty, still remains to be seen. We should know more in the coming days, so stay tuned to the pages of SUPERJUMP for the latest!
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