By Andy Latack*
The best player in college football last season was arguably the quarterback at the University of Southern California. He was a senior, listed at 6-foot-5 inches and 225 pounds. He wore number 11. His name is Matt Leinart. The best player in the wildly popular video game called “NCAA Football 06” also happened to be a quarterback at USC. He, too, was a senior, and was listed at 6-foot-5 inches and 225 pounds. And, not coincidentally, he wore number 11. His name, however, is QB #11.
You don’t have to know a PlayStation from a train station to get what’s going on. QB #11 is the digitized analogue of Leinart; he resembles the living version right down to the mop of dark hair on his head. So why doesn’t the game from Electronic Arts use Leinart’s name? National Collegiate Athletic Association regulations prohibit companies from profiting off a student-athlete’s likeness, so EA does this two-step—with the NCAA’s blessing. In exchange for a cut of revenues from the video game, the association has granted the software company the right to reproduce the stadiums, uniforms, and mascots of schools that are members of the NCAA, and the game-makers do so with almost photographic accuracy. Under the current regulations, the only thing off-limits is the use of players’ names and recognizable facial features. The NCAA doesn’t want member-schools marketing their student-athletes for commercial purposes, and, in order to prohibit them from doing that, it has to restrain itself as well.
Even though QB #11 is not identified by name, however, EA and the NCAA might struggle to keep straight faces when they claim that he is not supposed to represent Leinart for the purpose of making a profit. EA is the North Star of a burgeoning sports video game industry, which made revenues of $1.9 billion in 2004, and the company’s hallmark is precise, nay obsessive, attention to detail. EA’s slogan boasts, “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” That means nailing the little stuff, capturing nuances like a player’s wristband placement and facemask style. In its annual iterations of “NCAA Football,” the software company makes the game as lifelike as possible, within the constraints marked by the NCAA. A quick survey of the rest of the players for USC’s 2005-2006 Trojans reveals that every one has a digitized doppelganger that’s dead on. Tight end Dominique Byrd—pardon, TE#86—sports braids like his real-life model’s. The height and weight of backup defensive end Rashaad Goodrum, aka DE #44, are as true as Leinart’s, though Goodrum played just a few downs during the 2004-2005 season.
“NCAA Football 06” has pinpoint-accurate rosters for all 117 Division 1-A football programs (which engage in the highest level of collegiate competition), not to mention graphics so advanced that you can see the stadium reflected in a quarterback’s helmet, the face paint on a cheerleader’s cheeks, the Nike swoosh on a tailback’s cleats, and the haze around the lights during a night game at the University of Florida’s stadium, the Swamp. For all these reasons, the omission of players’ names seems little more than a formality, done with a wink and a nudge in order to keep the NCAA satisfied.
Especially since an owner of the video game can change QB #11 to Matt Leinart by fiddling with a few buttons. Once the owner inputs a player’s name, it appears on the back of the player’s jersey and can be shouted by the virtual announcers who do the play-by-play for the games within the game. Game owners can also adjust a virtual player’s facial hair, adding, say, a goatee to match the real player’s face, since players are known to change their looks from time to time. Although not approved by the NCAA, memory cards for automatically uploading each school’s roster are available from independent manufacturers. Oddly, the main difference between the players and their video facsimiles are their hometowns, which in the game are intentionally off by a few suburbs (QB #11’s “hometown” of La Habra, Calif., is 15 miles from Leinart’s native Santa Ana). But the point is, in EA’s hyper-detailed world, video game characters now have hometowns. The NCAA’s amateurism regulations, originally designed to guard against things like posters and trading cards featuring individual athletes, likely never contemplated a day when an amateur’s digital likeness could fetch a profit.
WHILE THE NCAA DEALS WITH EVERYTHING from maintaining players’ academic eligibility to scheduling games in foreign countries—and, in the name of preserving amateurism in sports, it regulates everything from players’ Olympic participation to the size of the Nike swoosh on uniforms—it views video games with particular concern. The NCAA’s president Myles Brand has said that in these games, college sports face the most danger of becoming indistinguishable from the professional sports to which they feed their best athletes. “Our bottom line is educating students, whereas the bottom line for the pros is making profits,” Brand said at a meeting last summer that concerned marketing for video games and other products licensed by the NCAA. “We need to draw a much brighter line between promotions and revenue gain,” between, on the one hand, allowing schools and video game companies to use the likenesses of athletes to enhance the reputations of the schools and, on the other hand, permitting them to exploit athletes’ fame to make a profit. “It’s a cutting-edge distinction between college and pro sports, and it’s important that we get it right.”
A key player in managing that distinction is the Collegiate Licensing Company or CLC, which handles product licensing for collegiate sports organizations like bowl games committees, athletic conferences, and the NCAA. CLC performs two tasks for the association: protecting the amateur standing of its members’ athletes and obtaining for members the most lucrative licensing deals. Last summer, an NCAA subcommittee on amateurism invited Pat Battle, the president of CLC, and athletic directors and athletes from Division I-A schools to a meeting—the one at which Brand spoke—about licensing and promotion issues.
At that meeting, Battle suggested something Brand probably didn’t want to hear: that revenues for the NCAA would increase if the association’s limits on video games were eased. He indicated that game manufacturers were growing frustrated with the restrictions, and that the NCAA needed to address that frustration or risk diminishing a valuable source of revenue. “It’s a concern, and I stand by that,” Battle said recently. “A failure to keep up with technology and take full advantage from a consumer standpoint may make the NCAA titles less valuable.”
Battle may have been thinking that the college video games should become more like Electronic Art’s “Madden NFL,” a professional football game named for John Madden, the former National Football League coach and current NFL announcer, who licensed his image and voice to the company. “Madden” is the gold standard of the sports video game industry. Five million copies of the game were sold last year, more than of any other video sports game. A million and a half copies of “NCAA Football 06” were sold in 2004, making it the fourth-ranked game in sales. One reason for the popularity of “Madden” is that it was licensed with the right to use players’ names. EA has taken full advantage, filling the game with player interviews on mock talk-radio shows, virtual newspaper articles about players and their performances, and other features that recreate in the virtual world of “Madden” what fans love about the real NFL.
In early 2005, CLC made a deal that effectively gave EA the entire market for NCAA football. The company is now the only maker of college-football video games allowed to reproduce NCAA stadiums, uniforms, and mascots. The agreement was considered good for the NCAA as well as for EA, because of the demographic today’s video games appeal to. Gone are the days when video games were mostly toys for teenagers. These days the average video game player is a male in his late twenties whose spending power the NCAA and EA want to exploit. “The deal with EA,” explained NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen, “gives us a unique branding platform and access to a wide demographic.” But since technology could make “NCAA Football” the college football equivalent of “Madden” in popularity and sales, it’s not surprising that EA is increasingly frustrated by the NCAA’s restrictions. “I think EA will continue to push for more leeway,” said CLC’s Battle. EA seems to think it will, too. “This has been an ongoing discussion: ‘O.K., how far can we go?’ ” EA spokeswoman Jennifer Gonzalez told The Indianapolis Star earlier this year.
Since it started making “NCAA Football,” EA has gained substantial concessions from the NCAA. The early versions of the game weren’t nearly as accurate as the latest ones in terms of the height, weight, or skin color of the athletes. But the NCAA may balk at going further: It’s unlikely that EA will ever be allowed to include player names.
Which is a bummer for EA. It may only be able to imagine the possibilities of using player names in “NCAA Football”— like having a stadium’s student section chant a player’s name and the announcers analyze the player’s strengths and weaknesses as you’d see and hear on TV. These features would thrill the video game set and produce a heap more money for EA and the NCAA. And since the necessary technology exists, it’s only natural that EA, which is also developing an NCAA baseball game, would press to use it.
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME that the NCAA’s rules about amateurism have struggled to address new licensing opportunities. About 15 years ago, college-apparel sales exploded into a substantial source of revenue for major athletic programs, and one of the touchiest issues involved replica jerseys. They featured a star player’s number and school colors, but not his name, even though every fan knew whose jersey he was buying. Replica jerseys are still big business: Every Saturday, Matt Leinart looks up to see USC’s stands swelling with a sea of maroon No. 11 jerseys, which sell for about $50 each online and at the campus bookstore.
The jerseys were green-lighted under the NCAA’s rules for the same reason that “NCAA Football” was approved: The association considers a jersey number a step removed from a player’s identity. “I see nothing wrong with selling jerseys with just numbers on them,” Brand said at last summer’s meeting. “But I would draw the line at selling the names.”
The argument can be made that the video game industry deserves more leeway than apparel makers, because games ostensibly promote entire teams—even if those teams feature a few superstars. “The jerseys are centered around one or two players, whereas the video game features every player on the team,” CLC’s Battle explained. “If the video games wanted to use the name and likeness of one or two players, that would be impossible. But if we’re looking at a situation where the entire team is being promoted, it may change the discussion.” EA would argue that the video games are similar to television broadcasts, which are obviously filled with plenty of highlights and interviews with individual players, yet are licensed by the NCAA for big bucks and regarded as innocuous staples of Americana.
CLC’s push for relaxing the NCAA restrictions seems widely supported by student athletes, who can’t get enough of video sports games. As soon as practice ends on your average college team, players return to their dorms to boot up their copies of “NCAA Football 06.” For a college player, even one who’s a mainstay on ESPN’s highlight reels, what’s better than the chance to play yourself on a video game?
*Andy Latack, a former writer for ESPN the Magazine, is a third-year student at The University of Michigan Law School.