‘They didn’t take no for an answer’: Inside the return

  • Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff WriterMay 17, 2024, 11:00 AM ET


      Michael Rothstein is a reporter for NFL Nation at ESPN. Rothstein covers the Atlanta Falcons. You can follow him via Twitter @MikeRothstein.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Daryl Holt shopped at a Books-A-Million near Auburn, Alabama, around Thanksgiving in 2019 when his clothes caught the attention of the person standing behind the counter. The EA Sports logo Holt wore led to the question he always received when wearing his company’s gear publicly.

When is the college football game coming back?

Holt smiled. It had always been a desire to bring back the college football game, but at that moment Holt knew something no one else outside the EA Sports offices in Central Florida did. When he returned from his trip, he had another conversation ready to potentially solve concerns and bring back one of the most resonant titles in the company’s catalog.

“I think I even said, ‘I don’t know, but maybe sooner than you think,'” Holt said. “And it kind of gave me that little extra push that I know that there were people that wanted this game to come back as much as I did, more so than I did.”

Holt, now the senior vice president and group general manager of EA Sports, understood the concerns and questions his bosses might have when he pitched the potential return of EA Sports College Football in December 2019. He was ready for all of them when he stepped into a half-hour meeting with EA Sports president Cam Weber’s offices at the company’s former facility in Maitland, Florida.

Holt reframed how the company looked at the college football game — one which EA Sports stopped making in 2013 in part due to a lawsuit from former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon surrounding name, image and likeness rights. NIL was still an unknown. So were logistics of reviving a franchise dormant for, at that point, more than six years. At one point during the meeting — Holt wouldn’t say how other than it was a creative solution the company ended up not needing — Holt knew he had done it. Unofficially, EA was going to bring back college football.

It would be over a year, in February 2021, before EA Sports publicly announced the eventual return of the game. By then, EA Sports started assembling — and in some cases reuniting — the development staff. It took another three years to bring the game to market this upcoming July 19.

What happened between? Building a game from scratch, inventing technologies, reining in overambition and creating a foundational game for a returned year-to-year franchise. They collected assets from all 134 schools, packing in as much as they could. They navigated having — and paying — actual college football players in the game thanks to current NIL rules. They added components of NIL in the game along with the transfer portal.

If they needed a reminder of their mission, they didn’t need to look far. On the wall of the college football development cluster at the EA Sports offices is a long banner with former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and the EA Sports NCAA Football 14 cover. It’s the last time the game was produced. They walk by it every day.

It led to a motivational mantra which kept focus and the need for authenticity in their aims.

“Every school is somebody’s favorite school,” Holt said. “Became kind of a rallying cry for us as a dev team.”

TICKET STUBS LINE the back of Ben Haumiller’s office on the third floor of EA Sports’ Orlando headquarters. There’s Florida State gear everywhere, too. Years ago, Haumiller was a college student at Florida State. He played in EA Sports’ competition to find the best college football game player in America.

He lost in the tournament in 1999, but it led to a job as a quality verification tester with the company and eventually as a designer and producer on the old version of NCAA Football. The game went away after the O’Bannon lawsuit, and Haumiller transferred to different areas of the company. Like many of his colleagues, Haumiller hoped for College Football’s return.

EA Sports licensed a small number of schools as part of a college storyline in single-player mode for Madden ’18 and Madden ’20. Haumiller said putting college teams into the company’s popular NFL franchise was a way to get universities comfortable with EA Sports again.

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Then Holt made his pitch. The game was greenlit and hiring began.

“The opportunity came to come back on the development side,” Haumiller said. “So I made that jump and came back to help get us on solid footing and where we go on this rebirth.”

It was the game Haumiller, now the principal game designer for College Football, always wanted to work on.

Rob Jones, the senior production director of College Football, was Holt’s first hire. A devout Michigan fan with memorabilia all over his office, Jones returned to EA in 2020 from 2K Sports, where he worked as a producer on the NBA 2K series for most of the 2000s and 2010s and helped launch the company’s College Hoops series as the game’s first producer. Together, he and Holt started building the college football team.

Holt said it was the easiest team he’s built in his time at EA Sports because there were existing employees across the company and new hires who wanted to bring back college football. There was reverence for the game inside and outside the building. The dedication and passion were clear to Holt early on. Every conversation of the game became a debate of what might work best.

The passion for colleges is clear throughout the college football cubicles, where almost all have some marker of college football fandom.

With the team largely built, they needed to figure out how to make a game centered around authenticity. That meant everything: stadiums, rosters, mascots and crowds.

The team created a pageantry database, which became a rolling list of traditions and idiosyncrasies for all 134 FBS programs. They asked schools for help, added what they knew from their own college football fandoms and even scoured fan forums to find things they may have missed — or to learn that a school no longer did tradition X or hand signal Y.

Production director Christian McLeod said every school had to have something. Not every tradition or chant or hand signal ended up in this year’s game, but they wanted something for everyone.

“We want to make sure that, again, everybody’s team is somebody’s favorite,” McLeod said. “Texas and Texas State need to feel the same when you’re playing as them if you’re a fan of that school.”

Building this took time. In all, EA Sports received tens of thousands of assets from schools in addition to their own work. They asked for and compiled touchdown celebrations for each team and stadium, how players celebrate after turnovers, how teams run out of tunnels, crowd hand signals, chants on key downs and details for stadiums, mascots, cheerleaders and uniforms.

Once received and researched, they had to figure out how to build them.

Courtesy EA

THERE WERE SOME helpful things for the team at the start. Some stadiums — including Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for the SEC championship and USC’s home field, the Los Angeles Coliseum, from when the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams played games there — could be taken from Madden and repainted for whatever uses necessary.

But the majority of the almost 150 stadiums in the game had to be built from scratch. Even though the Frostbite engine is the same as Madden, what the college football team needed to do was much different — one of the many reasons EA Sports insists it won’t look or feel the same as the Madden series.

At one point, developers went to Holt and said they weren’t sure if they could get every stadium done in an authentic manner. It was a lot of space and capability. Both Holt and the development team knew the answer — 50 wasn’t going to cut it. They needed all 134.

As the team started construction, they began to look at innovative ways to solve problems and tech they could borrow from other EA games or create themselves. McLeod said they realized they needed a new lighting system in the game to create the scale they needed — Global Illumination Based on Surfels, or what they commonly call GIBS. GIBS is a dynamic, real-time lighting system that helps create different atmospheres in the stadium for a noon game, a 3:30 game or a night game, including how light might refract off helmets.

With GIBS in place, the team created a Stadium Toolkit, which McLeod said allowed designers and developers to almost go brick by brick, section by section to recreate stadiums to make sure the color schemes were correct down to the individual railings, tunnels and walls. It almost, McLeod said, became like a virtual Lego set putting it all together.

While there were some pieces from NCAA Football 14 they could use, those stadiums and mascots were built on a different engine for a different console. Not much would translate, so they had to start from the beginning.

Building an empty stadium took about a week depending on the venue, with Syracuse’s JMA Wireless Dome among the trickiest because it was indoors and cavernous, so lighting had to be set up a bit differently than other schools. McLeod called it “the perfect storm of stadiums.”

Understanding the crowd’s importance to college football, McLeod said he knew they had to “make sure that crowd looks amazing.” Are the bands in the right place? The visitor sections? The patterns some schools have within their crowds — think Tennessee’s Checkerboard and Penn State’s White Out games. The design team entered the empty virtual stadium and tagged where everything would be, a process taking multiple weeks.

There were some concessions needed to make sure the game still performed well, which is where the JMA Wireless Dome and its unique architecture helped. As the team tested everything from equipment pieces to plays, they put it in the Dome to check for performance and make sure the frame rates didn’t slow down.

There were small things in stadiums which held import, too. For McLeod, a diehard Michigan State fan, it came from Arkansas State, where there is a waterfall in the stadium and when the Red Wolves score a touchdown, fountains go off.

“That was one of those things that was a stretch goal for us to get in,” McLeod said. “And to see it actually manifest itself in the product. I’m so proud of the team to see that.”

Courtesy of EA Sports

MASCOTS — NOT ALL will make this year’s game — were another struggle point. One of the hardest things for the development team to create were four-legged friends like Texas’ Bevo (a longhorn steer) or Colorado’s Ralphie (a buffalo).

They had to develop new animation rigs different from those for players, coaches or fans because of four legs versus two.

McLeod said they created four different rigs for dogs, one for cows and one for Ralphie. Bevo was one of the first the team built because it proved they could do it.

Ralphie took the longest, about a month from start to finish, McLeod said.

“It’s the actual animation,” McLeod said. “It’s to make sure that Ralphie runs fluidly. We call them quadrupeds, right? A human on two legs has a totally different mocap rig or animation rig than an animal on four.”

Then there’s leg spans and strides and weight within the movement. McLeod said they knew that when they started. Like the stadiums, McLeod said shipping a game without Ralphie and Bevo “was not acceptable to us.”

While part of the team built out stadiums and mascots, another focused on game play with the same intent as everyone else — College Football would not look or play like Madden.

So playbooks matter. Game speed matters. Jones said they had to push the boundaries of what was possible. They had to have 134 specific playbooks, received help from their access to Pro Football Focus and had conversations with those within the game to help understand what styles teams run.

There were base plays and concepts they could use, but the key was playbook individuality. They wanted players to feel like they were playing as Tennessee or Michigan.

THE MOST SURPRISING thing came not from something they created or a hurdle they faced, but rather from what happened after they announced the name, image and likeness plan for athletes. Any athlete opting into the game who ends up being used in one of the 85 roster spots per team will receive a free copy of EA Sports College Football along with $600 with the option of remaining in the game yearly as long as the player has eligibility. There are also separate NIL deals made with athletes who could serve as ambassadors or cover athletes like Michigan’s Donovan Edwards, Colorado’s Travis Hunter and Texas’ Quinn Ewers.

EA Sports thought they’d get 7,000 or 8,000 players the first week. Eight days in, 10,000 players had agreed to be in the game. At present, more than 13,000 players have opted in.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” Jones said. “By the enthusiasm with which people were coming in.”

Not all of them will end up making it into the game due to the 85-person roster limit, but it’s still a large undertaking.

EA staffers created a system they call “Generic Plus,” developed by the art department. It takes about two to three hours to construct a player’s face in the game. EA does this by taking a reference photo of a player — think a passport photo or team headshot — and machine learning then creates an image of what the player looks like.

EA staffers then go in and make tweaks on what the machine missed or didn’t accurately portray, from hair to eyebrows to eyes, which could take 10 to 15 minutes. McLeod said if animators had to do the entire process, it might take a day per player, which was not an option.

“It was just a brand new way,” McLeod said.

Holt said the player raters for Madden have assisted with the ratings for college football players, but declined to go into specific detail.

When a player is in the game, there will be multiple uniform options. Each team will have at least a home and away jersey and, if an alternate jersey exists, at least one alternate. Some schools will have more than that and McLeod said after launch, they could end up adding more jersey options. Like everything else, uniform specifications came from a combination of school information and the research of EA’s staff.

WHILE THE GAME was being created on-site, EA Sports had to get announcer tracks recorded, featuring multiple broadcast teams including one led by ESPN’S Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. Fowler said on Instagram he taped more than 115 hours of commentary over a two-year process.

Some of the sessions were done separately. Some were done together with the broadcast crews. Almost all had someone from EA on Zoom helping the process. Fowler said on Instagram he did calls of everything from touchdowns for every team — which took an hour to go through every team in the game — to a team punting on second down.

Jones said there was a baseline of calls they needed from both crews and a list of situations they needed. Both sets of commentary teams had to cover the entire game.

“It was a lot of writing scripts, but then eventually what starts happening is in order to get the best performance out of them, you have to let ’em ad-lib,” Jones said. “You kind of need to let them know what the situation is so that you can actually get the right amount of back-and-forth between them.”

As they maneuvered through the two-year process, the commentary became more comfortable and what you’d typically see from the crews during real games. The toughest thing, Jones said, was working around the broadcaster’s commitments.

In all, there are hundreds of hours of sound in the game. Different sounds will be triggered by events, Jones said, put in place by one of his team’s software engineers, Rick Mancuso, to make it all flow seamlessly. Mancuso was also in charge of adding the small sounds for schools in the game, like a “Let’s Go Blue” chant at Michigan.

THERE IS CLEAR excitement throughout the EA Sports College Football team. You hear it in the way they talk about the game and how they all stress the same thing: Authenticity is the foundation.

This isn’t a one-off. What they build for this year they’ll be able to add to and tweak in iterations to come.

They know they couldn’t get everything they wanted in this version. A combination of time and capacity wouldn’t allow it. There’s already a list — some from the pageantry database, some from ideas they couldn’t quite reach — of what they’d like to add in next year’s game.

They also recognize this: Four years after Holt went into Weber’s office and three years after announcing the game, college football is back. And here to stay.

“I would definitely put it, in terms of my 20 years with EA Sports, as one of those big achievement moments,” Holt said. “In terms of saying how do we not let scale or let a problem deter, derail or stop us.

“That’s the key for this team is they didn’t take no for an answer.”

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