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The Return of the NCAA Football Videogame Series Proves That Not EVERYTHING is Awful in the World of Sports

With the return of college sports to the world of video gaming, Iowa fans may have a whole new vehicle for catharsis every time their teams let them down.

EA Sports Bowl at Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for EA Sports Bowl at Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest

The Iowa men’s basketball team has lost four of its last five games and seems almost determined to prove its floor is far lower than most fans and pundits expected. The Hawkeyes continue to be defensively challenged, have become shockingly inconsistent on offense without C.J. Fredrick on the court, and appear convinced that players who pick up two fouls in the first half are prohibited by law from playing until the second half starts. Iowa looks less like the Final Four contender most fans hoped they would be and more like a team that will struggle to advance out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament unless they are able to recapture their mojo in the coming weeks.

But this article is not about Iowa basketball. This article, written in the aftermath of another disappointing Hawkeye defeat, is about something that should make most Iowa fans of a certain generation incandescently happy; something that has long been a refuge for me and thousands of other faithful Hawkeyes when our favorite sports program lets us down.

College sports are officially making a return to the world of video games.

EA’s popular NCAA Football video game series, which has been dormant since 2013, is set to return as “EA Sports College Football.” The series was originally shelved after former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon successfully sued the NCAA for profiting off the likeness of college athletes without compensating them. While the producers of the games indicated a willingness to pay players in exchange for their likeness, the NCAA refused to play ball due to its steadfast opposition to college athletes receiving any compensation other than the cost of an education, as well as a lack of cooperation from the NCAA and various FBS conferences in licensing their names and logos for future games. With no desire to create games featuring fictional teams like the “Iowa City Eagleeyes” that are made up of rosters baring no resemblance to those of actual teams, the series seemed doom to die out just as the College Hoops 2K and NCAA March Madness series had a few years prior.

However, a funny thing happened: the game refused to die. Entrenched fan communities that had long gone through the painstaking work of adding the real names to their corresponding players in college video games (for example, renaming Iowa’s short-haired “QB #12” player Ricky Stanzi) took on the burden of creating entirely new rosters from scratch every season, not only renaming players, but sifting through depth charts and rosters for every team in the FBS and assigning their players accurate ratings as well. Fans created custom teams modeled after FBS newcomers like Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina that were not included in the last edition of the game, updated coaches and playbooks to account for real-life changes, and re-ranked the Top 25 teams every season to create as authentic an experience as possible.

Because of the largely thankless efforts of these dedicated communities, Hawkeye fans have been able to continue playing as some of the program’s most exciting teams in the post-NCAA Football era, including the 2015 and 2019 squads. However, the authenticity of these fan-generated seasons always seemed somewhat lacking. The final game of the NCAA Football series was released one year before the inaugural college football playoff, meaning the national championship remains decided by the antiquated BCS system as opposed to a four-team playoff. Team schedules remain largely the same as those from the 2013 season, new features such as the transfer portal and four-game redshirt rule are entirely absent from the game’s mechanics, and plays like the run/pass option that have now become commonplace are nowhere to be found.

The return of new college football content to the video game world presents an opportunity bring a new level of realism to a fanbase that has grown desperate for new content. EA Sports is aggressively pursuing licensing agreements with FBS schools in hopes of creating an authentic college football atmosphere with all of the trappings of the real game. While it remains unclear whether EA Sports will find a way to compensate players in order to include accurate rosters in the game, creating a new football game that accurately reflects the sport as it exists in 2021 would at least give the fans a fun new sandbox to play in, especially if the game is designed to include easy team and roster customization options which would make it easy to upload fan made rosters, schedules, and teams to the game. If EA Sports is able to make a successful and profitable college football game, it could also create momentum for developers to create a next-generation college basketball game as well.

For Hawkeye fans like myself who have long dreamed of watching their favorite team win a national championship, games like NCAA Football 14 and College Hoops 2K once served as something of an escapist fantasy. The real Iowa basketball team may not have made it to the Sweet 16 since 1999, but under your control, Fran McCaffery and company could cut down the nets on a yearly basis. Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeye football team may not have won a Big Ten title since 2004, but there’s no reason your dynasty team can’t finish 14-0 and land a slew of four and five-star recruits every season. Did your team just drop ANOTHER game to a middling Indiana Hoosiers squad? Why not fire up the PlayStation and see if Luka Garza can drop 50 on cream & crimson at Assembly Hall? With the return of college sports to the world of video gaming, Iowa fans may have a whole new vehicle for catharsis every time their teams let them down.

EA Sports has not announced a firm date for the release of their next college football game, though fans likely shouldn’t expect to see it until 2022 at the latest. In the meantime, here’s hoping the real-life Hawkeyes will perform well enough that fans will take to the virtual arena to replicate the feats of their favorite teams instead of to erase the sting of them falling short.