The Hidden Labor Behind EA NCAA Football

Published on: Jul 10 2014 by Abe Stein


Sports videogame writers heave a collective sigh of lament.

NCAA Football 15 would’ve come out this week.”

The response has been pretty standard so far: they are saddened that one of their favorite sports videogames is gone, but they completely understand why and accept the injustice of the system that allowed the NCAA and EA to make tons of money on the backs of an unpaid, un-compensated labor force of “student athletes.”

This piece by William Leitch at Sports on Earth pretty much sums up a lot of the response I’ve seen across the internet this week. It’s a reflection on the void left by no release this year, contextualized by the rational acceptance that the NCAA and EA had gotten too fat for too long. Here’s a similar short post by Bryan Wiedey over at Pasta Padre.

Where I disagree with Leitch is about the viability of a community to get together and mod an open platform game to simulate the version of college football they want to play. Leitch writes:

There is still some hope that the game might someday return. Some have encouraged EA Sports to put together a cheaper, user-generated game that allowed players to completely customize rosters, teams, uniforms and stadiums. That seems like way too much work, though, and besides, you’ll never get it exactly right. (Good luck trying to duplicate The Big House or Oregon’s jerseys.) Even if you did that, you still have to create all the players.

While I’m sure William Leitch plays plenty of sports videogames, I’m not sure if he has taken a deep dive into all the work that goes into making the NCAA Football games into representative simulations of the college football played around the country and on television on Saturdays. Much is made of the fact that the developers at EA were using the likenesses of players in the game. Documents were even released that showed that the developers would work off of a named roster as they developed the game, leaving the names off the final product in a very thinly veiled effort to avoid the conflict of using amateur athlete likenesses. I’m not going to write about the ethics of this, that’s another story that is well discussed. I will reference a chapter in our book Sports Videogames by the great Nina Huntemann, “Likeness Licensing Litigation” that covers this topic in more detail.

For many years, named rosters have been available to download and use with your football game. Sports videogames have, for the last three console generations, included roster editing features allowing the user to customize the game by editing player names, numbers, and other myriad details including equipment and appearance. The tools became increasingly robust.

Ohio State Edited Roster

Ad hoc teams of editors, committed fans of the sport and of the game, get together and collaboratively work to make a comprehensive file that had all the real names of players on all the teams. This is no small feat, and the editors took the work seriously. They would reference team webpages to identify all of the athletes, they would consult other sports media to confirm different equipment used by different players, including details as specific as what kind of pads they wore, whether their helmet had a visor, and much more. The editors would communicate and congregate on popular sports videogame website forums like pastapadre, or Operation Sports to discuss the edits they were making and the work they were doing. Many times, the massive rosters, which include many thousands of players, would be subdivided across editors. Despite, or perhaps because of the lack of a new NCAA Football game, the work continues, as new rosters updating last year’s game are available for download to keep college football fans as current as possible.

This fan labor, the user generation of named rosters for a college football game, is a quintessential example of participatory fandom. To be completely honest, I’ve always slightly cringed at the use of the word “participatory” to describe this kind of action, as it leans a bit heavily on the more utopian vision that the fan labor is a labor of love, which relocates the benefit of the production. Who has the most to gain from the development of named rosters? Participation implies voluntary engagement, which subsequently leads to the notion that the labor, despite generating real value in the form of capitol, can and should be free. The value to the fan, or so the story goes, is a new form of engagement with the object of their affection. Fans do this work because they love the game and want to “participate” in the development and enhancement of their experience. The fans win. The publishers win. Win win, right?

Of course there are folks with more to gain from the free labor involved in the production of named rosters for college football games. According to VgChartz, NCAA Football 14 sold 700,000 a million units. That’s not a ton, and I’m not even sure that EA made a profit off that game. But rest assured, many people were paid in the development of that game. And of course, there’s the NCAA.

A decade ago, there were some difficult barriers to getting and using the rosters in console videogames. Users would need hardware that allowed computer access to memory units or hard drives, and manipulating the file structures for the save files of the game, they could add downloaded files. The developers at EA (and 2K sports, for that matter, who were still making college sports games) saw that the named rosters, developed by users, had real value. Features emerged in the games that enabled edited rosters to be shared through the game. EA Locker and 2K Share were systems designed to help users share the products of their labor. The new features connecting users with user generated content increased the value of these edited rosters by breaking down the earlier technological barriers to sharing content, and subsequently this enhanced the value of the whole product as well. Among fans of sports videogames, these sharing features were celebrated and a welcome addition.

ncaa12luckDon’t read this as an attempt at exposé. There are not villains in corner-offices driving their BMWs at the expense of those poor videogame fans who spend a lot of time editing rosters. It’s never that black and white, though I suspect there are plenty of corner-office-dwellers with BMWs who work for either EA or the NCAA.

But we often try to reduce complex ecosystems to bare essentials that oversimplify who are stakeholders when it comes to the production of entertainment media. This is a common theme with sports media especially, as the ecology is profoundly complicated, and yet we try to think in terms of bottom-lines for companies, and only the major players involved. Fans are either the beneficiaries of the content, or the victims, and are rarely considered active in the generation of sports media value. Even as digital and new media continue to push on more active engagement from fans, in sports media there is the presumption of distance, reinforced by the reality that the players are elite athletic performers, and the fans are “merely” spectators. One of the great things about studying sports videogames, is it is easy to find examples that tip this traditional producer-consumer relationship model over. As we reflect on the lack of an NCAA Football release this year, in the context of the current labor disputes facing the NCAA, it’s useful to try to unravel the complicated ecology that exists even for one title like NCAA Football, understanding better how the fans of the game contribute to it’s value, and how many different stakeholders are involved.

In all honesty, this post unfortunately gives this topic short shrift. There’s a lot to discuss when considering the role of active fans generating content, for free, for sports videogames. There’s also more to unpack about the actual work being done—why and how named rosters add value to a college sports videogame. As with so much research there is always a lot more work to be done.

But I have found it interesting, in light of all the controversy surrounding the uncompensated labor of players in the NCAA, there is a much smaller, more subtle labor force at work providing real value to the sports videogames developing edited rosters and modifications, and they are largely ignored.

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