A Video Game That's Too Real

March 24, 2005

Makers of video games often boast about their authenticity, and EA Sports, which makes several best-selling games, is no different. Its three-year-old college basketball game, NCAA March Madness, features university fight songs, the ability to replay classic college matchups from the past, and players who look and play like real college players (though NCAA amateurism rules bar commercial use of players' names). The (mostly) young people who play the game "coach" their favorite National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I team through a season or longer.

The game carries the NCAA's imprimatur and brings the association an unspecified sum in licensing revenue each year. This year's version, NCAA March Madness 2005, puts gamers in the position of deciding whether or not to crack down on wrongdoing by players and boosters. And in the eyes of Len Elmore, a member of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, that’s just a little more reality than the world needs, and sends a poor signal to young people about competition and ethics.

"Handouts and forbidden booster support are accepted as common behavior, and the gamers’ reward just might be a championship, albeit one that will be stripped at the end," Elmore, a former National Basketball Association player, lawyer and ESPN college basketball analyst, wrote in a column this week for Sports Business Journal. "By then, however, the user’s euphoria and satisfaction of winning will dwarf any game-imposed sanction. To get rid of sanctions, just use the reset button."

The way the game works, "coaches" are alerted to possible rules violations by players and boosters and have to decide whether to discourage them before they happen or impose punishments after the fact. Their responses can either invite or ward off potential NCAA penalties.

For instance, a coach will get an e-mail message from a booster saying that alumni really (italicize) want the program to be successful and asking if they can "help" the coach recruit a particular player. (The implicit presumption is that the boosters will slip the kid some cash.) The coach can either discourage the help, or look the other way. If he or she chooses the latter, another message comes later, telling the coach that the team has been penalized for breaking the rules.

Elmore notes that the instructions for the game tell players that they need to run a "tight ship" or they risk hurting their teams. He also cites arguments by officials at EA Sports that "by creating a game that acknowledges the seamier side of college basketball and giving gamers the opportunity to repudiate it, EA Sports is doing its part to clean up the mess."

But that is unlikely to be the message they walk away with, he argues. "From what I have witnessed in adolescents playing the game, it merely provides an opportunity for another generation of young people to become comfortable in making the wrong decisions for the sheer lust of winning." (Disclaimer: The author of this article contributed research assistance for Elmore's column.)

Elmore largely absolves the NCAA for blame in the matter, saying that the association's staff "was not aware of all the details of this game feature and it was never the NCAA’s intention to provide such an illusory choice, especially to the adolescents and teenagers who compose the bulk of the players." A contractor for the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Company, reviewed the game on the NCAA’s behalf.

Elmore calls for significant changes to next year’s version of the game and urges the NCAA to ensure that its "licensees are held to the same standards as NCAA member institutions in promoting the virtues of intercollegiate sports rather than distorting those values to make a buck."
Neither EA Sports nor the Collegiate Licensing Company responded to requests for comment.

An NCAA spokesman, Erik Christianson, said in a prepared statement that "EA does not feel [the Elmore column] accurately depicts the features offered in the 'NCAA March Madness 2005' video game." He declined a request to elaborate.

But Christianson also said that "the NCAA and EA are organizing a series of meetings beginning next month to better develop our relationship and communications as the 2006 version is developed. We are confident that the more time that we are able to spend with EA Sports discussing their game designs and overall vision will result in fewer questions arising in the future."

He added: "It is clear to the NCAA that the team at EA Sports is truly looking to celebrate all that is great about collegiate athletics and showcase them in the best possible light."



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