The (Re)Launch of EA Sports’ NCAA College Football

The sports marketing industry will soon undergo the single most dramatic change in its history, when college athletes are finally granted the right to monetize their Name, Image and Likeness. The mission of Student Athlete NIL is to help brands seize this opportunity and capture the attention of student-athletes, identify the ones that best personify their values, and then develop value-based partnerships with those individuals to mutually reach their goals. Working hand-in-hand, we can finally democratize college athletics.

Video game developer Electronic Arts Inc (EA/EA Sports) is bringing back its popular EA Sports college football game. Partnering with Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), the nation’s leading collegiate trademark licensing company, EA Sports announced it will be the exclusive developer of simulation college football video game experiences.

The demand for the return of its college sports games — especially NCAA Football — has been made abundantly clear to EA Sports over the past several years.

“We’ve heard from the millions of passionate fans requesting the return of college football video games,” said Cam Weber, EA Sports EVP and GM. “We love the energy, tradition and pageantry of college football and I am beyond thrilled to say we are back in development. We have a lot of really exciting work ahead of us, and a great team that is eager to bring a new game to players in the next couple of years.”

“We’re very excited to collaborate with EA Sports to bring back the college football franchise, one of the most popular collegiate licensed products in our history,” said Cory Moss, CLC CEO. “The college football video game connects passionate fans to college brands and introduces new fans to the storied traditions, excitement, and game day experience that make college football unique.”

The hope is the new EA Sports franchise will deliver authentic college football experiences and the high-quality gameplay that fans have long loved in college football games. Through the CLC partnership, the franchise will include the rights to more than 100 institutions featuring the logos, stadiums, uniforms, game day traditions fans have come to expect. While this college game will not include student-athlete names, images and likenesses (NIL), EA Sports is continuing to watch those developments closely.

EA Sports reaches gamers all around the globe, and in the past year introduced six new console and PC experiences, as well as ongoing live service offerings on PC and mobile. EA Sports franchises delivered sports entertainment to millions of fans with an array of authentic, deep experiences that brought players closer to the sports, teams, and leagues that they love.

In ESPN’s report, Michael Rothstein and Dan Murphy noted that the NCAA rules don’t need any changes for EA Sports to proceed with an official title.

“Current NCAA rules prohibit EA Sports from paying players to use their names, images, and likenesses in the game,” they write. “If those rules are still in effect when the game is released, EA Sports plans to include real details such as team names, mascots, and uniforms but not anything that would resemble the real players on those rosters. EA Sports announced it would stop making its college football game in 2013 shortly before the company agreed to pay part of a reported $40M to former college players to settle a lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. The lawsuit argued that it was illegal for EA Sports to sell a game with characters that looked strikingly similar to real athletes without paying those athletes.”

This model of symmetry between pre- and post-enrollment NIL rules should ensure consistency and clarity for prospects and student-athletes, as well as individuals involved in NIL-related activities (e.g., professional service providers). The symmetry between pre- and post-enrollment rules supplemented by targeted education during the recruiting process should aim to minimize the risk of prospects entering into agreements or relationships before full-time enrollment that could render them ineligible when they become student-athletes.

The ESPN report also noted that players associations at the professional level broker licensing deals with video games makers, but the NCAA says players shouldn’t be allowed to form a union (like a players association) because they are students, not employees. While a traditional union isn’t essential to setting up the organization needed for collective bargaining, NCAA leaders have so far tried to steer clear of any kind of arrangement that would create a mechanism for athletes to negotiate as a group.

Forbes sports and gaming journalist Brian Mazique told Deadspin that the absence of “NCAA” in the game’s title will not affect the product’s release, because they’ve already signed a deal with the CLC instead.

“EA secured the CLC license, which gives them access to over 200 schools’ logos, uniforms, signature celebrations, and pageantry,” Mazique told Deadspin. “In fact, the absence of the [NCAA] license could create even more freedom for developers to allow fans to craft their own custom postseason structure. 16-team or maybe even 32-team playoff formats. Perhaps even a return to a BCS-style system, though it would be named something different.”

It is important for industry stakeholders to understand CLC’s role within the college athletics marketplace. CLC is the nation’s leading collegiate trademark licensing company and is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Founded in 1981, CLC is a part of Learfield IMG College, the leading media and technology services company in intercollegiate athletics. According to the press release, CLC’s mission to elevate college brands through insight and innovation. The company is uniquely positioned to deliver consumer connections and brand visibility for institutions through data-based, customized solutions that include impactful licensed merchandise strategies and innovative marketing platforms to navigate the ever-evolving consumer and retail marketplace.

Interestingly, CLC is also seen as a leading contender to become one of the NCAA’s “third-party administrators” for the monitoring of Name, Image and Likeness transactions between student-athletes and those paying them for endorsements and other services. Although it remains to be seen what any federal legislation might require in regards to the oversight of such deals (some Senators have proposed the FTC step into such a role), CLC will almost certainly play some sort of role with assisting schools on the NIL front.

Although it’s not currently anticipated EA Sports will use current student-athletes’ NIL in the next edition of their college football video game, in the event any video game company did use a student-athletes’ NIL without permission, NCAA rules would require the student-athlete (or his or her institution on their behalf) to take steps to stop such activity in order to retain his or her eligibility in their sport — namely sending a written cease-and-desist letter to the company misappropriating the student-athletes’ NIL. Until NIL rules change within the NCAA manual, this remains the current rule.

It will be interesting to see how Electronic Arts and other video game publishing companies pivot once permissive NIL rules are enacted this summer, and whether group-licensing by college athletes becomes part of the overall transaction and video game development. There is no question that a game – or any product – that uses the actual names of the student-athletes instead of non-descript avatars would have substantially more appeal to consumers.

Once the new EA Sports College Football game lands in stores, student-athletes may not only be playing the newest game in their dorms and apartments, they may also be scanning the game closely for their jersey number, position, skin tone, facial features, height, weight, and other distinctive characteristics displayed within the game to see how close EA Sports walks up to the line of using identifiable student-athletes within the game.

It is not unreasonable to believe that as NIL inches closer and closer to becoming a reality, it is no coincidence that EA Sports finally thought it would be the right time to bring the game back. And with an anticipated launch date of 2023, the company has left plenty of runway to cut a deal with some or all college football playing student-athletes to appear in the game.