More than 2,000 days ago, EA Sports released NCAA Football 14, the latest in a popular college football video game series that had an almost cult-like following as a result of nearly two decades of spirited design that brilliantly captured the personality of the sport.
At the time, in July of 2013, this felt like nothing more than another content-rich update. New rosters. New features. New animations. New subtleties that separated the game from Madden, EA's flagship football product.
But behind the scenes, there were vast concerns over the future of the game. And soon, those concerns were proven well-founded.
NCAA Football 14 is still the series' latest official release.
The demise of the NCAA Football franchise has been well-documented. Mounting lawsuits over player likeness and the way players weren't compensated for their appearance—specifically a class-action suit against the NCAA filed by former college basketball player Ed O'Bannon—led EA to cease future development. The company paid out $60 million to college football and basketball players who were featured in the game, according to CBS Sports.
Those who worked on the game lost their jobs. Some moved over to work on Madden, the franchise they had spent years trying to outperform.
"When NCAA was taken away, I think something left with me," says Eddie Dorsey, who joined the team in 2005 and worked on NCAA Football through 2013. "It's tough to find that level of passion that we had in producing features for a community that was just like us: diehard college football fans."
Although it has been more than six years since EA Sports published an NCAA Football game, the passion hasn't waned. Those who produced the game still feel an intimacy to their creation. And players, past and present, yearn for a resolution from the NCAA so the game can perhaps be produced again. A small but mighty subset of NCAA Football fanatics has even poured countless hours into bringing its own version of the game to life every year.
The systems NCAA Football 14 last existed on, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, are now outdated. Soon they will be two generations behind. But some gamers hang on to these now-ancient gaming devices for the sole purpose of playing the last version of the game.
Games are still sold at original resale price online, and, in some instances, higher. There's even a market for the final cover and box without the actual game included.
If anything, hope and curiosity that the franchise will be reborn has only blossomed in its absence. In the midst of a discussion that could rock the foundation of collegiate athletics, the heartbeat of NCAA Football beats louder than it ever has.
Tom Vuong wasn't sure what his life would look like in 10 years. But he knew that he loved college football—specifically the Florida Gators—and the thought of being involved with a game that could allow his passion to flourish was too intriguing to pass up.
At first, this meant making $7 an hour to test NCAA Football 2000. Still, the opportunity was a dream come true.
"I would have probably cleaned toilets if they had let me, just to get in the door to work on this game," says Vuong, who eventually rose to become a producer for the franchise. "That's the only thing I wanted to work on."
There were others like Vuong. Passionate people and college football fans who found their way to EA Tiburon, the EA division that produced the series.
At interviews for EA Tiburon, potential employees were asked about their favorite team. At corporate events, an individual was introduced by what they did and the team for which they rooted. Jerseys littered the office on Fridays. And in one version of the game, the credits tied employees to their college football team of choice.
"We went out of our way to hire people who were passionate about the game," says Dan Baker, who joined EA Sports as a tester and worked his way up to producer. "We wanted engineers who cared about football. And I felt that really showed in the product."
The existence of Madden, the most popular sports video game ever created, actually allowed NCAA Football to flourish in its shadow. In many ways, NCAA Football was a testing ground—a place that features could be added to determine if they would have a fit in the NFL product. If something was a success, Madden might incorporate it in future installments.
"The company's focus was on Madden," Baker says. "They just kind of let us work under the radar. We got to try things and be a little more creative than they could because there were so many eyes from corporate on everything Madden did. It was a little lab to just try things out, which was awesome. Most of the stuff we tried, we really nailed."
The freedom in the creation process can be seen in various installments of the game. Like the evolution of recruiting through a dynasty mode that was constantly pushing forward. At one point, the game introduced NCAA sanctions and even a disciplinary rating for players.
"You could get scholarships and bowl games taken away," Vuong says. "We even had our version of the death penalty, which would essentially take away everything from your program. I'm not sure if that would fly today. But back then, we were under the radar, and it was an awesome feature."
The mentality wasn't to replicate the success of Madden, nor was there pressure to match sales that ultimately dwarfed the NCAA Football series. This was more personal than that—a collection of professionals, most of whom were enormous fans of college football, trying to recreate the elements of the game that brought them together.
"We pretty much knew we were going to do one-third of the sales Madden did," Baker says. "But we wanted to create experiences that were unique. The cheerleaders. The mascots running around. Student sections. That's what we wanted to capture."
As college football's popularity grew, the interest in NCAA Football grew with it. At the same time, there was a growing sense that it could all eventually crumble.
While EA Sports had relationships with the NCAA and conferences to license its teams, the players who were captured through jersey numbers were not compensated for a likeness in skill and appearance that was undeniable.
"It was always a fine line," Baker says. "Everybody knew what we were doing, obviously, but that didn't exactly make it right. We finished NCAA 14 and then there was just a weird feeling in the studio. The pressure was mounting. EA had to do something about it. That's what it came down to."
At a Starbucks earlier this summer, Jared Zabransky met with some of his current customers. The former Boise State quarterback who architected the Broncos' historic 43-42 victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl now works for DistributionNOW—a company specializing in energy.
The first topic to be explored had nothing to do with his current line of work. They didn't pepper him on his storied college career or his stops with the Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos.
"Man, what was it like?" they asked him. "What was it like to be on the cover of NCAA Football?"
Zabransky has become fluent in this discussion more than a decade later. In many ways, the popularity surrounding his selection as the cover athlete for NCAA Football 08—an honor he won over former LSU quarterback and No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell—surpasses his greatest football accomplishments.
"Looking back at it now, it's humbling to be a part of such a long list of great cover athletes," Zabransky says. "It is like a fraternity."
The first-ever cover athlete was former Nebraska QB Tommie Frazier, who graced the cover of College Football USA 97. Other notable cover stars include Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard, Ricky Williams, Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Bush and Tim Tebow.
Zabransky has held onto his PlayStation 3 to play the game he was featured in. His son, who just turned six, is beginning to understand what his father did and his existence in this virtual version of the world. A copy of the game's cover also hangs on a plaque in their home.
For being named the cover athlete, Zabransky was paid $52,000—a significant financial boost for an undrafted quarterback straight out of college. But the honor of being the face of a video game he played religiously growing up surpassed the compensation.
"It was an event," Zabransky says. "The whole locker room played. You had your game reserved weeks and months ahead of time to ensure you got a copy. In my opinion, it's the best sports game ever made. I think a lot of people would agree with me."
Those thoughts are echoed in locker rooms around the country. And while production on the game was ultimately halted due to concerns over the use of player likeness, current college football players still feel a connection to the game.
Like Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin's workhorse running back who has accumulated more rushing yards through his sophomore season than any player in history. Taylor grew up hoping to one day see his number on one of the rosters.
"Everybody played NCAA," Taylor says. "You get excited because you hear rumors it's coming back, and then it doesn't. You grow up, and you say, 'I can't wait to play as myself on the game.' Without a doubt, I'd love to see this game come back."
Tua Tagovailoa, perhaps the face of the sport heading into his junior season at Alabama, also logged many hours playing the game growing up.
Over the past year, the Alabama quarterback has been featured prominently on photoshopped covers of NCAA Football that fans and media outlets have produced to celebrate the anniversary of what used to be its typical release.
"I definitely would like to play that game again," Tagovailoa says. "That would be a lot of fun. I would love to see NCAA Football come back."
His name is vikesfan059. That's not his real name—just a forum alias that has become almost royalty in his online world.
For the purposes of this story, vikesfan059 is adamant about remaining anonymous. "Just a matter of personal preference," he says in one of a handful of emails exchanged.
One could argue that no one over the past five years has done more to keep the NCAA Football franchise alive than him.
Vikesfan059 says he became obsessed with the franchise during NCAA Football 08. Before then, he was never really much into college football. From there, he played the game religiously until EA stopped making it.
At the time, a void was left in a community that had grown accustomed to new rosters and yearly gameplay advances. While much of the gaming world moved onto other sports titles and next-generation gaming systems, there was still an appetite for college football fans in search of more.
To satisfy this demand, vikesfan059 and others who frequent Operation Sports, a website and forum dedicated to sports games, began producing rosters. These "editors," as vikesfan059 refers to them, provide updated rosters for certain teams every year.
While most editors don't return for multiple years, vikesfan059 is an exception. He began producing free, updated rosters for PlayStation 3 users the year after the franchise suspended development. He has created and updated rosters ever since.
"We are all equal members of the project," he adds. "There isn't an official 'leader.'"
The rules of the forum and editing process are as follows:
- Editors will claim teams they are interested in.
- Every new editor we bring on automatically gets their favorite team, unless it's already a favorite team of another editor.
- Editors are free to claim any team not claimed by another editor.
- Editors who edited a team the year before are given the first choice on if they want to renew or drop their claim.
- Editors are not allowed to touch other teams they do not have a claim on without permission.
Each editor has a different process when it comes to roster creation. Vikesfan059 begins his by collecting information: practice reports, previews and news articles written throughout the year to help him establish a depth chart of a given program.
"Since the game only allows 69 players per team, I then start cutting down my notes to get below the limit," he adds. "I have to balance strict depth-chart accuracy with roster balance. Once I've chosen the 69 players that make the cut, I then find information to set the specific attributes, which includes speed, acceleration, agility and strength. The last step is then to adjust their overall rating."
Ratings, numbers and names—even the names of coaches—all go through a robust re-creation process each year. Members of the forum created a program that allows editors to manipulate rosters on their computers, an alteration that has saved time and provided flexibility during the process.
Typically, new rosters debut around Week 1 of the college football season—though this does largely depend on the editors' schedules. They have lives outside of Operation Sports. Families. Friends. Jobs. But this task has become a significant part of their summers and falls.
As for the amount of time vikesfan059 has spent assembling rosters over the past five years, he struggles to put a figure on something that has become a way of life. He also couldn't see himself doing anything else—at least until the game returns.
"I've spent too much time on this," he says. "But working with such a great team, it's hard to get burned out. I plan on doing this for the foreseeable future as long as we have a full team."
The images and videos are striking. College football captured and displayed on a video game through pixelated brilliance—a kind of graphical leap that was never possible six years ago.
For those who have yearned for the return of the NCAA Football franchise, seeing Clemson and Texas compete in high definition is almost too good to be true. And in a way, it is.
Over the coming weeks, millions of gamers will play as one of 10 college football programs in Madden NFL 20. The teams that agreed to license their individual logos and looks, a separate relationship from the NCAA, are Clemson, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Miami, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Texas Tech and USC.
Users will be able to select their university at the start of a new game mode, Face of the Franchise: QB1. Players will then guide their quarterback through the College Football Playoff and National Championship Game—licenses that have also made their way into the game.
For at least a few hours, players will enjoy a modernized college football gaming experience—a recruiting-less, feature-less sample of the game they loved and the potential joys ahead. It is a tease for long-time fans of the franchise, but it is a glorious tease.
EA Sports has remained mum on the future of NCAA Football and chose not to comment for this story. In some ways, its decision to bring back the franchise rests largely in the hands of the NCAA and the future of amateurism in athletics.
Earlier this year, the NCAA announced it had created a committee that will examine player likeness. Specifically, it will assess whether college athletes should be allowed to be paid through various avenues, one of which could ultimately be a college football video game.
Currently, college football players are not permitted to profit off their name, appearance and celebrity status. Given the groundswell of support this movement has received, change could be coming soon.
Such a decision could drastically alter the future of NCAA Football, providing an outlet for athletes to be compensated for their appearance while creating a more realistic and immersive product.
The possibilities are wildly intriguing, and the thought of the game's return has become a social movement. Each year, the cries for a return grow louder. Stronger. More defined.
The servers are still active, allowing players to continue to enjoy the product with rosters of their choosing. New rosters are being worked on at this very moment by those who refuse to let this game die.
A resolution with the NCAA inches closer, so many hope. All the while, we move further away from NCAA Football 14. The future is unknown at this point, but the game, despite its absence, has never felt more alive.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.