June 20, 2024

Mikayla Macfarlane

Serving technology better

The bones of a dead NCAA Football series rise again with College Football 25

5 min read
The bones of a dead NCAA Football series rise again with College Football 25



Christian McLeod joined EA Sports as a designer for its college football game in 2011. Ben Haumiller, a producer on the old NCAA series, goes back even further, now in his 25th year with the studio and principal designer for the forthcoming EA Sports College Football 25.

Both of them survived Sept. 26, 2013, the day the old NCAA Football series was cancelled after 20 years. Electronic Arts had chosen to settle — at a $30 million cost — several lawsuits brought against collegiate sports licensors that had used athletes’ likenesses and images, if not their names, without permission. That meant the end of a 20-year-run for a death-and-taxes, ship-it-every-year licensed sports video game series, one of the most stable jobs any developer could hope for in an industry turbulent by nature.

That day, an ashen Cam Weber, EA Sports’ group president for American football, delivered the news in a meeting hall at the old EA Tiburon headquarters in Maitland, Fla. Some developers would find a lifeboat working on EA Sports’ Madden NFL series, but many others got the long table in an empty conference room, and a lonely last walk to the parking deck.

If only to keep up their courage, McLeod and Haumiller still held on to their work in the old NCAA series, as a token of faith that some day they’d get to work on it again.

“Ben and I almost had a pet project, on the side, where we had all of our old designs,” McLeod told me. “They were just in this repository that, every time we moved to new shared drives, we’d move them with us. Then we’d take them to Google Drive. It was just super important for us to hold onto that flame, just in case the game ever did come back, so we did have that jump start.

“We were obviously saddened, but I think we always believed that at some point, it would come back,” McLeod said, “so we had to just hang on to this.”

After landmark rulings in U.S. courts, and fundamental changes the NCAA was practically forced to accept with regard to its athletes’ rights, particularly the right to earn money from their own fame and athletic performance, “This” comes back July 19 as the reborn EA Sports College Football 25. It’s the heir to the first video game series that studio EA Tiburon (today EA Orlando) developed entirely for EA Sports.

As much as college football fans have pined for its return, as giddy as they have been at all the teasers and reveals, they should know the game’s developers have had an even greater, more spine-tingling, getting-the-band-back-together, heist-movie feeling returning to work on the greatest love of their professional lives.

“I’m a true believer,” said Haumiller, a guy who, as a rookie QA tester for EA, drove his car to New Orleans and slept in it there on the faith his Florida State Seminoles would win the national championship at the Sugar Bowl that year. (And they did.)

“I always knew this was coming back,” Haumiller said. “I didn’t know when, but I was gonna be prepared for it whenever it did. So I kept everything.”

Haumiller joked with me that he actually had to keep everything as his entire email history was subject to discovery in the ongoing lawsuits that eventually ensnared the old NCAA Football series.

But the old work has indeed proven useful. College Football 25 code, and visuals, are all rebuilt from scratch — there’s no way assets from two console generations ago would be serviceable on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. But concepts, spreadsheets, and some methodologies from the old game were still able to give developers, if not a head start, at least a nudge off the line to building the kind of game they could only dream of when it was canceled a decade ago.

“I can pull up final rankings of stadiums [by home field advantage] from every game that I’ve worked on since we’ve had that feature in,” Haumiller said. And indeed that feature is in College Football 25, where tougher home fields will cause tremendous problems for visiting teams and younger players unless they stick to a rigid script. That disruptive feature dates to NCAA 05, by the way.

“There was code that was helpful, but nothing was copy-and-paste,” McLeod said. “We knew we would have to rebuild. But I know we had a lot of systems in Dynasty [mode] that we knew what the logic needed to be. So we’re almost getting a head start and a jump start at some of our designs, which was extremely exciting. And then we brought in some ringers, like [programming engineer] Felix Rivero, who had worked on Dynasty in the past, and they were able to, without missing a beat, go and code that into the new codebase, in the new engine, but using a lot of that same logic that we had in the past.”

“I think you get the idea, oh, ’Let’s do everything new,’ right?’” Haumiller said, considering that College Football’s development stretches back to 2020. “But let’s save ourselves the trouble, and keep some of these things that we can that are good. We also have a mixture of a team. We have guys from the old game, and brand new people of well, and a number of people who had left the company and came back to work on this game.”

For Haumiller, even though developing the multi-season Dynasty — the franchise’s signature, multi-season, build-a-champion-from-nothing mode — was a rebuilt from the ground project, the sense of deja vu crept in the longer the features baked.

College Football 25 is ‘an old friend coming back’

“Being back in Dynasty again, it was deja vu of like, building out schedules, and all these other sorts of pieces, like how quickly the muscle memory came back,” he said, “of all the things you did for a decade, to recreate this because there’s so much new in this game. But we also wanted to make sure that it felt like an old friend coming back in a way.”

College Football 25 is, for McLeod, Haumiller, and their colleagues, another dream come true in that it’s been a chance to build a sports video game on a true multi-year development cycle, instead of against the breakneck year-to-year pace that most licensed sports video games must rigidly follow.

“You look at NCAA 14, and NCAA 14 was a culmination of 20 years of design, and passion, and love, and we were able to recreate much of that in, you know, just over two years, which is what we’re pretty excited about,” McLeod said. But, “as we were green lighting this project, we did research, and the world has changed in the last 10 years. The way people consume college football — college football has grown in the last 10 years. And it was important for us to provide an experience that harkens back to what was there in the past, but we also wanted to modernize a lot.

“So, we could always use more time, but I think this was the perfect amount of time to deliver what we wanted,” McLeod said.

Featured image via EA Sports



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