March Sadness: What Happened to College Basketball Video Games?

March is an amazing month. It’s when we officially wave goodbye to winter and welcome spring with open arms; when the snow melts and vibrant, flourishing flora breathes life back into the world; and when people break free from the confines of their homes to enjoy fresh air and sunny skies once again. Above all else, it’s when the best tournament in all of sports occurs. That’s right. I’m talking about the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament; better known as March Madness.

For three weeks, some of the world’s most talented young basketball players put their hearts and souls into the game they love be immortalized in the glory of being crowned NCAA Tournament champions. They aren’t playing for money (although they deserve it) and 99% of them won’t land a spot on an NBA roster. For most of them, this is the end of the line. One last chance to step on the court, solidify their legacy, and go down in the college basketball history books. The level of passion and emotion is unmatched by any other sporting event, and it makes for some electrifying entertainment.

As silly as it sounds, the fans put a lot into it, too. Just look at how crazy the student sections are during these games and you’ll understand. Better yet, check out the teary-eyed faces of fans who just witnessed their team suffer an agonizing defeat (i.e Villanova’s crying piccolo player). I’ve been there. Very recently, in fact. And while I’ve never cried over one of my favorite teams losing in any sport, and never will, I came damn close when I witnessed my beloved Michigan Wolverines suffer an embarrassing 63-44 loss to the hands of the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Sweet 16.

villanova crying piccolo player
The game can be as hard on the fans as it is on the players.

When the final buzzer sounded and I had to watch these crestfallen kids, whom played their hearts out all season, sorrowfully walk off the court with their heads hung low, an overwhelming sadness permeated through my body. All I wanted to do was pick up copy of College Hoops 2K19 and make the NCAA Tournament run they and the Michigan faithful deserved. There was just one big problem. That game doesn’t exist…

Sadly, the last college basketball video game ever produced was EA Sports’ NCAA Basketball 2010. Just two years before, 2K Sports also stopped making its College Hoops 2K series, which is a shame because it was the superior product. At the time, the number of college-aged people playing video games was high. According to a 2008 study by the University of Miami, 65 percent of students across 27 institutions of higher education reported playing video games regularly. With such a large amount of college gamers out there, how did college basketball games fail so miserably? Why did they go the way of the dinosaur?

If it Don’t Make Dollars, It Don’t Make Sense

Video games cost big money to make. In fact, Take-Two Interactive, the owner of 2K Sports, has stated that some of its most popular titles (presumably NBA 2K) cost over $60 million in development alone. Specifically with sports games, licensing is a huge expense. For example, earlier this year, Take Two, 2K Sports, and Visual Concepts agreed to a  7-year, $1.1 billion deal with the NBA and its player’s union for approved use the official team trademarks and player likenesses in the NBA 2K series. It’s an absurd amount of money, but, as crazy as it sounds, it’s necessary for the success of the franchise.

Think about it. What’s the main draw to playing a sports game? Being able to play as the teams and players you love, of course. Not only is it a stamp of authenticity, it helps gamers best simulate the real deal, which is why they play the games to begin with. It matters, and it’s most apparent when you look at the sales figures for 2K Sports’ All-Pro Football 2K8. The game, which featured fake teams comprised of real NFL legends, sold only an estimated 400,000 copies in six years. That’s incredibly disappointing, especially seeing that the publisher’s prior football title, ESPN NFL 2k5, sold 1.7 million copies and earned $33 million in a third of the time. The games were visually and mechanically similar, but there was one glaring difference: One had real NFL teams and current players and the other did not.

So, what about for college sports? While there isn’t much information on licensing costs for college basketball games, Kotaku’s Owen Good revealed information on how much top universities were being paid for EA Sports to use their trademarks in its NCAA Football series. According to a 2013 article he wrote, some colleges were being paid over $75,000 for use of their trademarked names and logos. He also drew a correlation between Associated Press (AP) poll ranking and costs of using trademarks. If a program was perennially ranked in the AP top 25, they would get “top payout level,” which EA Sports proposes is a minimum of $78,000.

ea ncaa college basketball 2010
While it wasn’t a bad game EA’s NCAA College Basketball 2010 flopped harder than James Harden.

By now it should be clear that making a sports game costs boatloads of money, so now let’s take a look at the sales. EA Sports’ NCAA Basketball 2010, the last college basketball game ever made, sold 155,000 copies across all platforms the year of its release. Yikes. Assuming all of those sold at the full price tag of $60 (which is unlikely), that means it made about $9.3 million in sales. That’s pretty pitiful considering it had no competition.

Now think about the fact that the game included 325 official teams. To break even on licensing alone, EA would’ve had to pay out an average of $28,615 per team. Since the series was less popular than NCAA Football, one could assume schools weren’t asking for as much money to use their trademarks. However, one could also assume that blue-blood programs like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas asked for well over $30,000. It’s all speculation, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the weak sales numbers weren’t enough to cover the costs of licensing, not to mention development. When you think of it that way, it’s no wonder EA put the kibosh on the series.

Blame the NCAA

Let’s take a trip down memory lane to when former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and Collegiate Licensing Company in July of 2009. On behalf of NCAA Division I men’s football and basketball players, O’Bannon challenged the organization’s use of images of former student athletes for commercial purposes. The prosecution’s argument was that, upon graduation, a former student athlete should receive compensation for use of his or her image. On the other side, NCAA maintained that paying student athletes would be a violation of its concept of amateurism in sports.

In the end, the courts ruled in favor of O’Bannon, stating the NCAA not paying athletes for use of their likenesses was a violation of federal antitrust law. The ruling gave schools an option to set up trusts to pay football and basketball players as much as $5,000 per year of eligibility after leaving their respective programs. Additionally, it prevented the NCAA from banning full cost of attendance scholarships. However, it didn’t require the organization to pay players for any existing uses of their likenesses, including video games.

ed o'bannon ucla
Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon.

So if that’s the case, why aren’t the games being made anymore? Because the NCAA doesn’t want to see its players, whom pull in millions of dollars per year to its schools, get paid. At first, people wrongfully accused O’Bannon for the death of college sports video games. One outraged gamer directed the comment “Dude, you’re messing up the video games!” towards him. Even long-time ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit pointed the finger at O’Bannon in 2016 by saying he “took the game away from us.”

They couldn’t have been more incorrect. In 2018, O’Bannon released his book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA, which details his experience with the case. In the book, he states that EA was actually on board with paying players to use their likenesses, but the NCAA wouldn’t have it. In an excerpt from the book, he writes,

“The NCAA told EA that the video game publisher couldn’t pay for the complete identity rights of college players. So that stopped EA from obtaining them. If the NCAA had let EA pay us, all of you gamers out there would have your college sports games. So don’t blame me. Blame the NCAA for refusing to change its rules in the face of basic common sense, not to mention consumer demand.”

What did the NCAA stand to gain from denying EA? The answer is simple: If they allow players to get paid for use of their likenesses in video games, it may open the door for them to get paid for use of their likenesses in other mediums, including television. If T.V. stations had to pay athletes playing in games they broadcasts, they would be less inclined to do so, potentially costing the NCAA hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcast revenue.

michigan basketball college hoops 2k8
Playing as Michigan in College Hoops 2K8.

So, at the end of the day, the NCAA is to blame for the death of college basketball games. Not surprising seeing that the organization is all about letting its schools reap the massive financial benefits of their athletics programs while giving their talented young athletes little in return. Sure, they get an opportunity to get an education and be noticed by professional teams, but at the end of the day, they deserve a piece of the millions of dollars they generate for their schools. At the very least, they deserve to have a choice on whether or not their likeness can appear in a video game and they deserve to be paid for it.

It’s Time for a Comeback

It’s a shame that the NCAA is so adamant about collegiate athletes not being compensated for their talents because a modern college basketball game could potentially be a hit. A recent study from Pew Internet Research found that 70 percent of college students play video games at least “once in a while.” That’s a five percent increase from when the University of Miami conducted its study in 2008, and that number is only going to increase in coming years.

Not only has gaming increased in popularity, so has basketball. According to a 2018 Gallup survey, it surpassed baseball as America’s second favorite sport. As a result, NBA 2K has become the perennial best-selling sports video game series. NBA 2K18 broke a franchise record by selling over 10 million copies in 2017. The following year, NBA 2K19 was not just the best-selling sports game, it was the third highest selling game of any genre. What does this all mean? Simply put, more people are playing basketball video games than ever before.

NBA 2K18_20171118181136
Mods for recent NBA 2K installments allow you to play as a select few college teams, but it’s not the same.

Considering the popularity of basketball, video games, and basketball video games is at an all-time high, it’s time for college basketball video games to make a comeback. The NCAA needs to toss its antiquated amateurism in sports ideology out the window and let players receive compensation. By being so unwavering on this issue, they’re not only robbing players of an opportunity to make honest money off their talents, they’re also denying fans of the virtual experiences they pine for.

While modifications that let you play as college sports teams in recent installments of NBA 2K exist, they are limited. As gamers and college basketball fans, all we can hope for is that the NCAA will change its stance on player compensation so new college basketball games can be made again. Sadly, that day will likely never come, so it looks like I’ll need to scavenge for a good deal on a PS3 and a copy of NCAA 2010 or College Hoops 2K8. Until then, I’ll have to put my Michigan basketball dream run on the backburner.

Do you like college basketball? Are you also disappointed that there are no more college basketball video games? Do you think the NCAA is right to not want players to be compensated for use of their likenesses in games? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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