Not long after Electronic Arts released its last NCAA Football game in 2014, a judge approved a combined $60 million USD in settlements that EA, the NCAA, and the Collegiate Licensing Company had to pay out to college athletes over the use of their likenesses. From 2014 onwards, because of the ongoing dispute over whether college athletes should be paid beyond tuition costs, the NCAA hasn't dabbled in video games.
Now, a new law in California may force the NCAA revise to its stance on compensation of college athletes. This could have the knock-on effect of making NCAA video games viable again, and EA is evidently eager to get back to releasing them. Here's a rundown of the new law, what it means for player compensation, and how it could open the door to more college sports games from EA or another developer.
What Fair Pay to Play could mean for college athletes
On September 30, California governor Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act into law in California. It's set to go into effect in January 2023, and would let collegiate student athletes in California sign endorsement deals and be paid for the use of their appearances. It's the first law in the country to present a challenge to the NCAA's amateurism guidelines for student athletes. Amateurism bars student athletes from receiving any compensation for their athletic skills—they can receive athletic scholarships, but nothing in the way of compensation beyond that. Meanwhile, the Department of Education reports that the college sports industry grew to $14 billion in total revenue last year.
As The Ringer's Rodger Sherman points out, the Fair Pay to Play Act doesn't touch a lot of aspects of the NCAA's amateurism model. Instead, it bypasses thorny arguments about employment rules and scholarships to simply allow players to be paid for opportunities come along as a result of their athletics:
The bill isn't seeking to designate student-athletes as employees or force colleges and universities to pay them via salaries or a trust. It isn't trying to reconfigure the much-debated value of an athletic scholarship. It is merely set to bar institutions from stripping any athlete's scholarship or eligibility over getting paid to sign autographs, appear in commercials, endorse products, and the like.
No matter where you stand on the issue, a lack of consistent laws for compensation of student athletes seems untenable. With other states and even an Ohio representative looking to pass similar laws, the NCAA will either have to change its amateurism requirements ahead of Fair Pay to Play's 2023 start date, challenge the law(s) in court and win, or deal with the consequences of compensation laws that can vary on a state-to-state basis.
If the NCAA caves, new NCAA video games will likely follow
The Wall Street Journal's Sarah Needleman reports that EA is excited by the prospect of Fair Pay to Play forcing a change in the NCAA's guidelines. EA CEO Andrew Wilson says the company "would jump for the opportunity." Allowing players to be compensated for the use of their likenesses would clear up the issue that led to the demise of EA's NCAA series (or, for that matter, let a different developer strike the necessary deals).
The class action suit that led to the $60 million settlement from EA and the NCAA, filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, successfully argued that O'Bannon and the other plaintiffs should have been paid for the use of their likenesses in EA's NCAA video games. Since identifiable players themselves were and still are a major draw for fans of EA's NCAA games, it's hard to imagine that an NCAA video game featuring totally fictional, unidentifiable players would do well at all—and again, if an actual player could argue they were being depicted in such a game, the NCAA and EA would be in hot water once again.
While the NCAA is being legally pressured to let players receive compensation, Wilson's comments about wanting to revive EA's NCAA series could be seen as a carrot on a stick. If the NCAA ends up having to allow players to be paid, and EA or another developer steps and wants to sign those deals, then there's no good reason why the stakeholders currently benefiting from the $14 billion college sports industry would pass on the opportunity. With EA's NCAA Football in particular, there was plenty to like about the games relative to the Madden franchise, and they were quite successful to boot. The series' last installment lead the NPD charts upon its release in 2013.
For the NCAA, revising the amateurism model is starting to look like a matter of when, not if. If the NCAA wants to lead the conversation, it could do well to find an ally in a company like EA that wants to do merchandising centered on the sports and players in question. Questionable brand deals and concerns of payments leading to a lopsided league seem unavoidable, but at least featuring real, talented players in games that celebrate sports could get a new era for the NCAA off to a more positive start.