If Frank Deford is writing about video games, you know something's up. The lion of sports writers mostly explores the idea of "pure" sports — and he often finds the corrosive spots that threaten to tarnish the game.
In the NCAA's partnership with Electronic Arts, Deford has found a patch of rust.
The NCAA and its member universities are already on thin ice for giving college athletes only one droplet of the absolute monsoon of cash broadcasters pay to air their games. And as if cashing in on these guys during their young, un-enfranchised years wasn't enough, the NCAA and EA Sports has also used the likeness of former players to sell video games.
That's gotta sting for anyone — I know I'd be mad (and, I admit, baffled) if somebody started selling a video game based on my college life.
But imagine the sting for former big-time players, like Ed O'Bannon (UCLA) or quarterback Samuel Keller (Arizona State, Nebraska), who see their name and likeness being used in yet another million-dollar industry — but who don't see a penny from it.
Actually, you don't have to imagine the sting so much: O'Bannon and Keller are involved in two class-action lawsuits against the NCAA and Electronic Arts Sports, so they're trying to make their pain palpable — to the point that it's measurable in dollars.
At presstime, it was not evident if the Duke Blue Devil plans to take part in the lawsuit.
After seeing a virtual image of himself in the EA basketball game — left handed, tall and rangy, wearing UCLA jersey No. 31 — O'Bannon told Yahoo! Sports that what bugged him was the idea that someone was getting paid, and it wasn't him.
So, O'Bannon decided to sue, using a law firm that has previously won a case for Holocaust victims against Swiss banks. (I know, right?)
Keller's suit, which focuses more on the games' use of current athletes (who are forbidden by the NCAA from "commercializing" their own image), is not quite as wide-ranging as O'Bannon's, which targets the video games along with DVDs and memorabilia. And Keller's suit notes a loophole, in which EA allows gamers to upload "custom" rosters of players — so they get the real names, stats, etc. from an outside source.
And here's where it gets a little weird. In trying to get Keller's suit dismissed last month, EA trotted out a defense that may surprise anyone who's played a modern sports game. They said the games are protected under the First Amendment (free speech), because they transform the players into avatars.
Isn't that kinda funny? The company that goes to extreme lengths to convince us that playing a game is true to life — like really stepping in with Derek Jeter, or dunking with Kobe — now says it's all a sham. Despite all the ping-pong-ball bodysuits and 3-D cameras, EA said, it's all an interpretation so complete as to be totally unlike the original.
By that measure, the actors "transformed" in films like Avatar, District 9, or (you knew it was coming) Transformers better look out... or at least count their blessings that they're not in college.
At any rate, Electronic Arts might fall prey to the success of their own marketing.
Football fans might recall that a group of retired NFL players already won a similar case against their own players' union, for $26 million. The case hinged on Electronic Arts' use of players' likenesses in the Madden NFL series.
The union agreed to pay for failing to protect the players' rights — because in 2001, the NFL Players Association told EA that it should scramble real players' appearance and jersey numbers to avoid paying for the source material/being sued.
Since you're probably wondering: yes — after the college athletes' suit was filed, EA began to mix up college players' numbers and appearances. And at least for now, it has discontinued future work on the NCAA basketball series.
Scrambling the players' identities might keep a multimillion-dollar court settlement at bay, but it also kind of ruins the in-the-game authenticity that real fans are looking for when they play these games.
It seems that EA may have finally found its "uncanny valley" — the distasteful gap when something that's fake becomes a bit too real — and is frantically trying to step away from the ledge. For gamers, it's a shame that the move is inspired more by finances than by technical ability.