Kirk Herbstreit’s friendly tone was gone. It was mid-November, and the upbeat ESPN analyst just finished discussing Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin and Alabama’s College Football Playoff hopes.
Then he got quiet; angry silence brought about by a simple question: Are they bringing the NCAA Football video game back?
There was a rustle on the other end of the line.
Then, Herbstreit spoke.
“They better,” he said. “I can’t believe Ed O’Bannon took that game away from us.”
There’s plenty to unpack here. “They” is a conglomerate of the NCAA, EA Sports and a coalition of former players headed by O’Bannon, an ex-UCLA and NBA forward who filed an antitrust class action lawsuit against the NCAA demanding payment for commercial use of amateur athletes’ images.
One of the lawsuit’s consequences was the demise of NCAA Football, EA Sports’ beloved video-game franchise that used tens of thousands of players’ likenesses in its run from 1993-2013.
Herbstreit, a senior Ohio State quarterback when the inaugural version of NCAA Football dropped, would play marathon sessions with wide receiver Joey Galloway.
“I can’t even tell you how many hours we put in on that game,” Herbstreit said.
Within a decade, Herbstreit was featured on the game as an analyst, teaming up with play-by-play man Brad Nessler and peppy former coach Lee Corso to become an unforgettable video game trio.
When EA Sports discontinued publishing the game two years ago, Herbstreit was floored.
“I was probably as devastated or more devastated than anybody in the country,” he said. “I’ll do anything I can do to help be a part, to lead a cause, bring that game back.”
Herbstreit contends that — pay or no pay — athletes want the franchise to return.
“Every single college football player,” he said. “You know what they’d love for their compensation to be? Just give ‘em a free game. That’s the compensation that they would take.
“I’ve never met one player in college football that’s like: ‘They can’t use my name and likeness! I need to be paid!’ They’re just thrilled to be on the game. They love being on the game. It’s like the biggest highlight of their life, is to be on the game.”
Although a recent Facebook video led fans to believe NCAA Football will be back in 2016, EA quickly shot down those rumors.
Forbes.com’s Jason Belzer wrote that the game would be “easy” to resurrect.
“If EA and the NCAA could come up with a fair rate of compensation for each football player for their associated rights – most likely based on the amount set in the O’Bannon ruling – it is likely that many schools would be open to creating a trust for just such a reason,” Belzer wrote last week.
Uniforms and logos are still fair game, so long as a publisher obtains licenses from the schools in question. Visual Concepts’ NBA 2K16 featured several teams — including Michigan, Texas and UCLA — this past autumn.
For now, Herbstreit is not placing blame on anyone but a former player.
“Ed O’Bannon ruined that for all of us,” Hebstreit said. “And hopefully we can get that fixed.”