Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes stars on the cover of Madden NFL 20, but the real news inside EA Sports’ announcement of the football series’ latest edition is a new mode of play — and 10 NCAA football teams returning to video games with it.
Face of the Franchise: QB1 will be a new “personalized career campaign,” EA Sports announced Thursday. In it, Madden NFL 20 players create a college quarterback and take him from the four-team College Football Playoff through the NFL Draft Combine, the draft itself, and then on to a career as a starter for an NFL franchise.
For their college games, players will be able to choose among the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Clemson, Florida State, and Miami; the Southeastern Conference’s Florida and LSU; the Pac-12’s Oregon and USC; and the Big 12’s Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech (Mahomes’ alma mater).
Oregon and Texas (and the Longhorns’ Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium) previously appeared in Madden NFL 18’s Longshot story mode. EA Sports’ announcement didn’t mention if that was returning for a third chapter or if Face of the Franchise is replacing it.
EA Sports canceled its NCAA Football series in 2013 in light of class-action litigation, which it settled for $40 million, brought by athletes whose likenesses had been used without permission over the series’ 20-year history. The lawsuit was part of a larger movement and controversy involving NCAA amateurism and player treatment in sports that reap billions in television revenue for universities and their conferences. At the time EA Sports mothballed NCAA Football, two of the sport’s major conferences had announced they would withdraw from the licensing agreement, with some individual schools saying they would follow suit.
Though the NCAA Football series had always shipped with rosters whose players bore generic names, a series of rulings found that real-life players were identifiable enough as to constitute an unauthorized use of their likeness. EA Sports officials even admitted that the series was developed with real names on the rosters that were later stripped out. The unworkability of presenting a real simulation of college football without real players — who could not grant the use of their likeness because they would lose their eligibility — was only one part of the series’ end. The terrible PR that schools and their conferences endured — appearing to profit from their players’ free labor — was just as much of a barrier.
Longshot, however, was at least a proof of concept that schools could license their logos, colors, uniforms, and stadiums to appear in a video game and not raise a squabble. (2K Sports’ NBA 2K series has also done something like this with its MyCareer mode.) Significantly, none of these modes have a roster that users may edit to insert real players’ names into the game. Roster editing, which the NCAA Football series supported by offering the means of sharing custom rosters among the community, ended up drawing legal attention to the fig leaf that NCAA Football’s makers had placed over their game.
Whether Face of the Franchise: QB1 can lead to the full return of the NCAA Football series, that also can be called a long shot. Notably, no Big Ten schools are among the 10 in Madden’s new mode, hinting at some unwillingness by that organization to participate. If EA Sports were able to bring back NCAA Football with completely anonymous, immutable rosters, it would be a challenge to present teams that still play according to present-day expectations. In the series’ final year, NCAA Football added an Ultimate Team mode that did use real players — but they were NFL players appearing under their union’s group license, even if their cards showed them in their college uniform.
Madden NFL 20 will launch Aug. 2 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. Mahomes, the reigning NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, had a breakout season in 2018, leading the Chiefs to the doorstep of the Super Bowl. He is the seventh quarterback to grace the series’ cover, and the second Texas Tech alumnus to make the box shot of an EA Sports game. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree did it a decade ago for NCAA Football 10.