College athletics is in a tumultuous time, with increasing pressure to examine the disparity between the people who make money off of them (everyone) and the people who don’t (the people actually playing). A small but sad symptom of this paradigm is that after the games end, you cannot fire up your Xbox and relive the tournament with your favorite school.
In a world where we have a cable channel dedicated to every niche interest imaginable, and there is a game adaptation of"Hannah Montana: The Movie,"the fact that there is no college hoops game on shelves or in development is an embarrassment.
2K Sports, who has made great strides in basketball gaming of late with its "NBA2K" series, decided to shelve its college hoops series after "College Hoops 2K8" showed promise. EA Sports soldiered on, re-branding its long-standing "March Madness" franchise as "NCAA Basketball" and made two more games, canceling the would-be release of "NCAA Basketball 11."
Producing games has always walked the gray area of the college sports money-making machine. Despite lawsuits that argue the contrary, these games do not contain the likenesses of the athletes. It's just digital people who wear their numbers, possess their same physical characteristics and attributes, and are fully nameable by the user. Somehow, this has always passed muster and continues to do so with EA's popular "NCAA Football" counterpart.
So why do we not get to sink pixelated buzzer-beaters over Duke anymore? It would be easy to point the finger at EA, who muscled all other competitors out of the console NFL business, locking down a monopolistic deal that canned 2K's "Madden" counterpart. However, EA pursued but did not engage in such a deal with the NCAA for basketball. Football gamers have seen how a monopoly can hinder the development of a series with "Madden," but hoops junkies would certainly take a monopoly over the current arrangement: a big pile of nothing.
The NCAA's licensing arm likely wanted an exorbitant amount of money from the publishers to produce a video game version of their product. For EA, it makes sense to pony up for the college football license because "NCAA Football" sells well to the football fans that pack 100,000-seat stadiums. Perhaps it simply isn’t a profitable venture to make a licensed college basketball simulation.
But beyond licensing and profitability, there's also the question of quality. As good as some of the "College Hoops" features were, the gameplay always felt rigid and awkward. Basketball is about fluidity of movement and improvisation. Any game that fails to achieve that can only make up for so much in features. "March Madness/NCAA Basketball" had the opposite problem, boasting an often too-fluid, arcade-style experience.
In fact, EA has long struggled in the basketball realm to rekindle the quality of "NBA Live's" glory days. The series was briefly renamed "NBA Elite," but was canceled before it ever hit stores. After taking two years off, EA is making another go at a rebranded "NBA Live 13," sparking a new competition with the polished and fun 2K sports equivalent. If the pro titles for both companies do well, perhaps there will be renewed interest in one of them giving college basketball fans what they crave.
The real shame is that college basketball might be one of the most adaptable, best sports experiences you could put in a video game. Instead of a marathon season of a 100 games including playoffs, users gets to invest their emotions into a 30-game stretch with a potentially huge payoff at the end in making the Big Dance. The rosters are small, allowing a player to delve into the intricacies of their squad, as well as manage a reasonably sized recruiting pipeline (compared to "NCAA Footballs" enormous databases).
Most importantly, if a game were to truly nail the March Madness experience, it would be one of the most rewarding parts of modern gaming. Capturing the atmosphere we’ll get to experience in real life over the next few weeks would make any game worth picking up.
Sadly, we’ll just have to settle for the real thing.