There Are No Good NCAA Basketball Games, and Maybe There Never Were
Revisting 'College Hoops 2K6' after the Rice Commission doubled-down on the NCAA's phony amateurism.
'College Hoops 2K6' screenshots by author
Eight seconds remain. My Colgate Raiders are down by two points against Syracuse, New York's college basketball powerhouse in the 2008 NCAA tournament. Without a timeout to call, my point guard races down the court, passes the ball off to my senior shooting guard. He can't get any separation, has to take a contested three-pointer—maybe the final shot of his career—right as time expires. It goes straight through. He, and the rest of my Raiders, have lived to play another weekend.
This is a fantasy I revisit every spring, right as college basketball nears its postseason and once again dominates sports media. The urge to play along with the world around me comes back, and I dust off my original Xbox and return the Raiders to basketball glory in College Hoops 2K6.
Let's be clear from the start: It’s no classic. It’s a mediocre simulation of basketball, the very definition of a yearly-release title that never asked to be—nor should be—anyone’s definitive March Madness simulation twelve years later.
Still, it’s what I have. 2K sports stopped producing games in the series only two years after 2K6’s release, and publishers have been scared away from producing NCAA-licensed games since former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon’s 2014 lawsuit against Electronic Arts made it to the United States Supreme Court. The last college basketball sim was released in 2009, and the few that came out on the Xbox 360 and PS3 were glitchy and unintuitive anyway. No licensed college sports game has come out since 2013's edition of NCAA Football.
College sports video games always existed in something of a legal gray area. Official licensing rules entitled developers to the use of real institution names, colors, and logos. The NCAA’s definition of amateurism kept developers from using the players’ actual names and likenesses. As April 2018’s Rice commission report on corruption indicates, they still hold tight to that definition today: “Paying modest salaries to Division I basketball players will not address the particular corruption the Commission confronts; nor will providing student-athletes a modest post-graduation trust fund based on licensing of names, images and likenesses.”
Most college sports games worked around that amateuristic concept, using relatively accurate player likenesses—height, race / ethnicity, play-style tendencies—but no real names.
That virtual Colgate shooting guard had an accurate real-world counterpart, the 6’3” Kyle Roemer, but any likeness shared between the real Roemer and the game’s Colgate SG #13—who, like Roemer, was 6'3" and white—was considered coincidental. Ed O’Bannon, a power forward on the 1995 National Champion UCLA Bruins was pushed towards his lawsuit against the NCAA after seeing his likeness used in NCAA Basketball 09. Once the O’Bannon lawsuit closed that loophole, the prospect of future college-based games sat at a precipice: Use players’ actual names and likenesses, and, thus, compensate them, or don’t make college sports games at all.
Electronic Arts, 2K Sports, and the NCAA chose the latter option.
College ball didn't completely vanish from video games. When 2K Sports licensed ten college teams for NBA 2K16’s career mode, rosters were filled out with randomly generated players and recently-drafted alumni already licensed through the NBA Player’s Association.
So when I want to play a college basketball sim, College Hoops 2K6 is the best that I can get. It’s far from great: The game has a habit of freezing when a player gets injured, certain arenas skew camera angles away from the court itself, and AI players sometimes dribble out of bounds without reason. But at least, I can play through my legacy mode, building up a tiny Colgate program to pseudo-prominence until a larger program scoops up my coaching avatar, starting me up the rungs of the ladder to coaching the likes of my alma mater’s team, the traditional powerhouse Kansas Jayhawks.
College Hoops 2K6 presents a world that I remember, but never existed. The 2006 college basketball season lives in my memory and in artifacted YouTube clips. At age ten, I was at the peak of my fandom, attending every Kansas Jayhawks basketball game that I could, the starting lineup and bench rotation memorized. And I remember getting crushed at a first round tournament loss to the Bradley Braves.
I can still recognize the likenesses of College Hoops 2K6’s Jayhawks, but now I also recognize that none of them were compensated for their use. The official number 25 jersey I owned and the number 25 freshman Small Forward I control in College Hoops 2K6 both represent the same person—former Minnesota Timberwolves forward Brandon Rush—but unlike Adidas, the University of Kansas, and 2K Sports, Rush saw no compensation for it at the time. I can’t shake that understanding twelve years later.
In March, where I live in Lawrence, Kansas, the entire city turns eyes towards basketball. People at the coffee shop chat about our postseason chances. My friends in the pep bands prepare to travel alongside the team. The city shuts down the downtown streets in anticipation of celebration. Even I profit somewhat: The liquor store where I work sees some of its best sales on gamedays in late March. I love this, the feeling that the oft-splintered community in which I live is unified around the team for at least a few weeks. Yet, this feeling can’t be shaken free from the pricklier aspects that come with college athletics.
Just like the players I idolized as a child in 2006, today's players wear the same uniform and play in the same arena as the guys with whom I had classes as a student years later. They attracted thousands to the arena and even more to CBS on a Saturday afternoon, but I’d see them the next day saving money shopping at the South Lawrence TJ Maxx. What do they get for all the money they make for other people, and for all the joy they create for their communities?
Even in College Hoops 2K6's functional and unconsidered way, the messiness of college ball still comes through in ways that feel very different in today's sports landscape.
In legacy mode, my coach recruits high school players to his school starting during their freshman year. Players warm up to his program because I’ve put a lot of weight in his “charisma” attribute, and he contacts them once a week by phone and offers them one official visit to the campus to build up the relationship, and nothing more.
The real experience of high-level recruiting doesn’t necessarily follow those rules. In 2017, an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption revealed instances of wire fraud, money laundering, and bribery of recruits at several powerful programs, Kansas included. The underlying understanding of KU’s involvement in the investigation cast a strange air over the jubilation this spring. Other programs saw other sanctions: Assistant coaches at Auburn, Oklahoma State, USC, and Arizona were arrested under FBI accusations of bribery in September 2017. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino lost his job as a result of this scandal, and saw his team’s 2013 national championship stripped because of a prior incident involving hiring escorts for recruits during visits. Yet, in College Hoops 2K6, it’s just my coach’s charisma that brings players in.
Progression in legacy mode builds your coach up to the legendary status that only the elite have the chance to reach. In my coach’s third year, I was able to recruit better prospects, improve current players, and keep good players well disciplined on the court, and most of that credit comes at the hand of my coach. After a good season, contract negotiations come up, and my coach gets compensated for the wins he earned, all the while the players who worked for those wins, accurate to life, receive none of it. After a few winning seasons, larger programs came calling for my coach with larger salaries and bigger recruiting potentials in hand.
For players looking for a college basketball fix in a modern game, the options are limited. Robust fan-made roster mods for NBA 2K18 feature up to 118 college teams, but they’re far from perfect: While the players and team colors are there, it’s still a simulation of wide-open, quickly-moving NBA basketball on the court, and it feels like as much of a stop-gap as it is. This also changes, but does not eliminate, the ethical issues. While these mods are available for free, they still use the official names of players and teams, which means that, while modders aren’t necessarily profiting off of players, they’re still using their likenesses without permission or compensation.
I would love to play a modern college basketball sim. Having seen how the NBA 2K series improved and grew in complexity between then and now, I can’t help but wonder what a College Hoops 2K18 would look like. The prospect of online legacy modes, in-depth recruiting, and even just a modern recreation of the intense in-arena atmosphere of a late-February rivalry game makes me yearn for what College Hoops used to bring. The ability of college basketball games to take the smallest programs from the smallest towns to the biggest stages can’t be matched in professional sports games. To date, the only representations of my little town in any game were college football and basketball games.
Since NCAA Football 14, Lawrence, and every other Lawrence around the country, have gone unrepresented in games. Never since have the quirks and details reflected in those virtual stadiums been seen again—the crimson-and-blue bleachers of KU’s Allen Fieldhouse, the unusual, oversized floor at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium, the mountain rising over the stands of UTEP’s Sun Bowl—they’re all frozen in memory from their last in-game interpretation. When my Colgate team began winning, more fans showed up to the games, providing a sense of identity to a Colgate Raiders community that I would’ve otherwise never thought about. I miss that. College athletics at its best provides a face and a voice to smaller communities that don’t receive representation in popular media. College Hoops 2K6 gave me that.
Ed O'Bannon didn't mean to kill NCAA video games. As he wrote earlier this year:
People sometimes come up to me saying, 'Hey, you’re the dude that stopped the video games.' But those weren’t the intentions our side had. Our intentions were, first and foremost, starting the conversation of players getting paid. The amount of money that student-athletes are bringing into universities is staggering—it’s in the billions.
College sports games were the one form of NCAA exploitation that players had a clear right to refuse, but the case was always about shining a spotlight on that exploitation and the hypocrisy underneath college sports' veneer of amateurism.
As O'Bannon said at the time of his case, "I want players to get what they deserve. I want to right a wrong, I want the game to change. I want the way the NCAA does business—I want that to change."
The NCAA has done and continues to do everything its power to avoid that change—including somehow getting the FBI to enforce its rules—and that is why we have not seen another College Hoops or NCAA Football game.
For my Colgate players who had no professional basketball careers, the College Hoops series immortalized their playing careers in a major video game. But they were also rendered nameless and uncredited, their likenesses and statistics present but unaccounted for. It's hard to shake that understanding when I play the game today.
I like to think that we might see an ethically-produced and licensed college basketball game someday. The work put into popular college mods for the 2K series sure proves the fan interest is as intense as ever. But with the NCAA issuing the self-justifying Rice report and enlisting federal law enforcement to quash out the corruption engendered by a corrupt system, that day seems farther away than ever. So like fans and players do every year, I make my compromise and go back to College Hoops 2K6.