EA Sports is planning a entirely new experience for NCAA Football this year, and it's a whole lot more than slapping Michigan's Denard Robinson on the cover and calling it a day.
The good folks from EA invited me over to Brighthouse Stadium (home of the Central Florida Knights) for a sneak peek at their "Playbook" shoot for this year's game. Each year, EA Sports unveils the new features of the game via these playbook videos.
Here is a first look at this year's game, from our friends at EA Sports:
I also got the chance to do a little a little hobnobbing with Robinson, Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel and Oregon running back Kenjon Barner.
I asked Robinson about being on the cover and he called it an honor. When asked if he was worried about any sort of cover curse, he reminded me that Calvin Johnson ended any idea of curses, before later asking someone else: "That curse thing is just Madden, right?"
I also talked to Barner about his former college coach, Chip Kelly, heading to the pros. Barner didn't throw any cold water on the idea that he believed his coach will be successful in the NFL and highlighted how smart Kelly is and how professional his practices were in the college ranks.
While the shoot was big business, there were lots of moments of levity as the producers put the athletes through mock drills and walkthrough-style plays. The athletes and some of the game staff conspired to fake an ACL tear to (and I quote) "scare the **** out of the new guy."
Barner sold the fake injury like a pro—at one point screaming: "My career is over!" He clearly has a career in Hollywood once his NFL days are over.
Overall, the shoot provided the three athletes with a break in the normal pre-draft routine. They shared "war stories" of their pre-combine training and joked around about the sports news of the day. It's easy to forget that these kids are just that—kids. Sometimes, those kids need a day away from training, agents and the media...well, except for me.
After we all headed over to EA Studios in Maitland where I was able to learn more about this year's game and even beta test it with a little help from the athletes.
Bringing Professional Gameplay to the College Ranks
At EA Studios—resplendent with a host of consoles in the waiting area and a gift shop outside of the security pavilion—I was treated to the aforementioned demonstration of gameplay over lunch. The athletes and I were wowed not only by the new physics engine, but the minutia that goes into fixing the flaws in each year's release.
It was almost as if we were watching a real-life highlight tape as collisions and ankle-breaking jukes were met with oohs and aahs.
Bottom line: EA knows exactly what everybody is complaining about on message boards and is doing their darndest to fix it each and every year.
The big addition (better: the game-changer) in NCAA Football is the introduction of the "Infinity Engine." Gone are the phantom tackles and the magnet-hands blocks. Infinity brings real physics to the game—just as it did with the Madden franchise last season.
The demonstration showed elements of the new engine and how it fixes some systematic problems with the last game engine. For instance, the physics of tackling have been completely redone to allow for real-time gang-tackles and group tackles that actually work.
Of course, that also opens the door for better dives or hurdles that actually go over a defender (and contact the defender on the way over)—looking more real than a cutaway from Super Smash Brothers.
Stiff arms have also been re-done to actually look like they do in real life. No more force powers for running backs! They actually aim their arms at face masks—as ball carriers are taught to do. E.J. Manuel nodded his head approvingly as he watched the digital players maul the intended tacklers and subsequently not called for facemask penalties.
With the defenders and offensive players acting more like they do in real life, the collisions depend a lot more on the size, speed and ability of the players, but also the actual angles of the collisions.
The other big game play addition to the NCAA Football franchise is the complete revamp of the way teams run the spread offense and the read option.
While college football has evolved in real life, the elements of that evolution hadn't always translated to the video game. Veer options remained far more successful than read options because the players on the line—both offensively and defensively—never acted like they were supposed to!
Now, not only are the running lanes where they are supposed to be, but a redesigned speed burst actually let's running backs hit those holes like they are supposed to. EA has also redesigned the way that running backs behave in the open field, with plenty of ways to beat defenders than simply jamming on the spin button.
For that reason (among others), EA chose Robinson, Manuel and Barner to showcase the new elements of the game. One would be hard-pressed to find three high-profile players in this draft class as uniquely equipped to feature the elements of the option and open field running ability.
It was always a little odd that NCAA Football's gameplay was at it's best when run like the New England Patriots' offense in the passing game and like the early-'90s Nebraska Cornhuskers in the rushing attack. Now, users who choose to play like the second coming of Rich Rodriguez or Dana Holgorsen can actually do so.
Don't believe me?
Robinson had an almost uncanny feel for the game right off the bat as if he had scripted his first couple of drives. I let him be Michigan (really, I'm a saint) as I just struggled to get Texas A&M's QB some work in the option and figure out what was going on with the XBox360 controller (I normally use Playstation, which represented a significant "home-field advantage" for the athletes).
Barner put his own stamp of approval on the game as he drove to score on a last-second drive using his favorite plays and telling me about big real-life moments when those plays worked with Kelly at the helm.
Of course—being from Oregon—this was only after Barner spent over five minutes picking the perfect uniform combination.
If it's in the game...
This is an original report, provided exclusively to Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all source material, quotes and media were either obtained first-hand by the author or provided by EA Sports.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.