The Slow Decline of College Basketball Games

Why can't a tremendously popular sport support a successful video game franchise? We have a few theories.

As a nation, we love college basketball. Once the new year rolls around and the nation's eyes move away from college football and the NFL playoffs, college hoops heats up, leading to perhaps the greatest of all American sporting events: the NCAA men's basketball tournament. March Madness is undeniably huge: The 2008 championship game between Kansas and Memphis drew a 12.1 rating (about 19.5 million viewers). Last year's game between North Carolina and Michigan State drew a 10.8, down from previous years but still an entirely respectable number.

Still, despite the sport's popularity with the television viewing audience, there's a very real chance we won't see a college basketball game released in 2010. In its latest fiscal 2010 financial report, EA did not list a new entry in the NCAA Basketball series for its fiscal year 2011, which begins this April. The series has struggled in sales in the past few years; last year's game sold just over 155,000 copies on all platforms. These are paltry numbers, especially considering that the game has no direct competition since 2K canceled its NCAA College Hoops series in early 2008.

GameSpot has contacted EA Sports regarding the NCAA Basketball series but as of this writing has not received a response. Regardless of that game's ultimate fate, it's clear that college basketball games just aren't what they used to be. So why can't a tremendously popular sport support a successful video game franchise? I've got a few theories:

Scheduling Problems
Traditionally, college basketball games have been released in the fall. NCAA Basketball 10 was released on November 19, 2009, and the last 2K college hoops game, NCAA College Hoops 2K8, was released on November 19, 2007. That's smack-dab in the middle of the busiest time of the year for video game releases. In addition to getting lost in the Triple-A title shuffle, college basketball games also feel the pressure of their NBA rivals, which have traditionally been released in the October time frame. If most NCAA fans are also NBA fans, and you have games like NBA 2K10 and last year's revitalized NBA Live 10 sitting on store shelves a month prior, the "either/or" buying decision becomes an easier choice to make.

Interestingly, publisher experiments with college hoops delays have met with mixed results. In March of 2006, 2K Sports released the Xbox 360 version of NCAA College Hoops 2K6, nearly four months after the release of the game on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, which were both released in November 2005. The move was a mild success, with the 360 version selling nearly 100,000 copies and accounting for more than a third of the total number of games sold on all systems, despite coming out after the regular season had ended. Last year, EA tried a similar experiment--looking to capitalize on the men's basketball tournament by releasing the download-only NCAA Basketball 09: March Madness Edition for the Xbox 360, a slimmed-down version of MM 09, with a focus solely on the tourney. Sales numbers weren't released for the online-only title.

In the end, the release schedule has become a conundrum that publishers have yet to crack. Do you release the game in the fall before most fans are even thinking about college hoops and game fans have plenty of other choices? Or do you release at the end of the season when the season nears March Madness and most fans will be thinking about the sport for only a month and a half at the most?

The Name Game
College hoops' greatest bounty--its astounding variety of teams and players--can also be its greatest hindrance. The Cinderella story that everyone loves to talk about in March (think 11-seed George Mason making it all the way to the Final Four in 2006, the first 11-seed to do so since 1986) has a problematic flip side--namely, a level of player anonymity that can border on the maddening for the casual fan.

It seems that only a handful of players in college basketball become the kinds of sporting household names that college football creates in droves on an annual basis. That those upper-echelon players sometimes spend only one or two years at their school before declaring for the draft gives college hoops fans even less time to identify them with their favorite team. Florida fans couldn't wait to get their hands on Tim Tebow in last year's NCAA Football 10 to see how the star quarterback would play after several successful seasons with the Gators. By contrast, fans of NCAA Basketball 10 cover star Blake Griffin saw their college hero leave school early to become a mediocre NBA benchwarmer on a sub-.500 team before ending his inaugural real NBA season with knee problems.

Quality Isn't Job One
The NCAA Football series might play second fiddle to Madden in terms of sales, but few would say the series is creatively bankrupt. NCAA Football 10 has several important additions like Teambuilder and game planning that made a significant impact on the game. On the other hand, there has been the lingering impression that college basketball games are secondhand imitations of their NBA cousins. Even with 2K's College Hoops series--one of my favorite sports franchises of all time--I rarely felt the on-court play was any better than that found in the NBA 2K series. Instead, I enjoyed the features surrounding gameplay--like legacy mode and, in particular, player recruiting.

While it isn't fair to say that EA Sports has ignored the NCAA Basketball series, it's obvious the publisher's focus has been on the NBA Live series for the past several years. Last year's NCAA Basketball 10 is perhaps most emblematic of that. Whereas the NBA Live team was actively engaged in showing the gameplay improvements that looked to turn around last year's NBA Live 10, one of the most talked-about features with NCAA 10 was the integration of CBS graphics packages to the games. Naturally this presentation tweak wasn't the whole story with NCAA 10--the motion offenses that were introduced in that game were a great addition, one that could be built on in future iterations--but it spoke to NCAA's emphasis on veneer over substance.

There's more to the story of college basketball's slow decline over the years--the weakened economy has certainly played its part, as has the NCAA's ongoing ban on the use of player names and likenesses in sports games. But while college football continues to thrive in the real and virtual worlds, college basketball hasn't been able to overcome its shortcomings. Perhaps it will take a new platform or a new technology (like Microsoft's Natal or Sony's Arc) to revitalize the sport in virtual form. Perhaps a couple years' break will give developers time to focus on innovating again and give fans of the sport enough of a break to start missing it in video game form.

Perhaps.

It's hard to believe that this could be the last we've seen of college basketball games. Should the sport survive this year in video game form--or rise from the dead a few seasons from now--here's hoping it returns in a form that will be as inspirational and exciting as the real thing is for four weeks every March.

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65 comments
DeViLzzz
DeViLzzz

The problem with the college basketball games for me is that they don't have the names of the players ... period .... that is the only problem

butterlou
butterlou

Honestly, look at the first problem... this article only boasts 60+ comments. People don't really care. The NBA Live series seriously lacks (can anyone drive the lane in ALL Star or above?!) but with NCAA BB it IS the exact same. They don't hype it enough. Truthfully, with all the sports games they just don't hold as much value anymore. They are hot for about 6 months, then it's almost time for the next one to come out. You have to trade it early or c-list/ebay it quickly to earn back some of that $60 price tag you spent on updated rosters and a new cover athlete. The College Hoops series was supreme, but why can't I draft my college hooper to the NBA? I'd hate not to see another college BB game as it's my favorite sport (GO HEELS!!!) but it just isn't holding up to par.

DVOK731
DVOK731

@jazztrumpet5 and what are you talking about you idiot? same goes for you for posting that at me...lol wow considering you're reading mine...touche..douche

DVOK731
DVOK731

@jazztrumpet5 i read like two posts..that's enough for me to say you're a loser, and it's hangin pretty good my friend, better than you i'm sure

notorious98
notorious98

@SDBusDriver1979 Buy a PS3, play MLB : The Show. Best major US sports game around. And did you just say High Heat Baseball? "It's so real" like Sammy's home run numbers.

jazztrumpet5
jazztrumpet5

@DVOK731 And you're taking the time to read AND post on the same topic. How's it hangin' for you?

mrzero1982pt2
mrzero1982pt2

i agree. when it comes to sports games, it is basically a stripped down engine, or the SAME engine, even arenas, but it doesnt have to be the same game. heck, look at mvp baseball. remember that game? went from one of the worst games, then revamped and considered one of the best baseball games ever made. but ea got greedy and buying exclusive contracts with sports organizations, and then 2k bought it, ea had to use that engine for ncaa mvp baseball. which was never heard from again now a lot of folks say why do we get excited about sports games? COLLEGE sports games? its about pride. when it comes to college sports, its the only thing you can say you were a part of. you have a chance to go to these schools, me, i am a u of m student, was there during the final four run and everything. that is a part of you. when it comes to pro sports, its different. hard to explain, but it just is.

SadPSPAddict
SadPSPAddict

I live in the UK so who cares about basketball period?!?

juan5547
juan5547

Who cares about college basketball games anyway? Its not like they were ever good in the first place as most of them were just college versions of NBA games.

DVOK731
DVOK731

you guys are debating why a college basketball game is bad...get laid

VTHokie2004
VTHokie2004

@notorious98 Ha, well, VT isn't a traditional powerhouse filled with stars, but we have one now in Malcolm Delaney. And after my post last night, I tried 2K8 again. For some reason, I really misread this game. It is pretty sweet. I think I was just such a fan of NBA 2K8, it overshadowed NCAA 2K8 at the time.

JohnisGodd
JohnisGodd

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

GWIII
GWIII

One thing: Blake Griffin didn't play a minute this season. He hur his knee in the summer, and never got on the court for the Clippers. So to call him a benchwarmer is a little premature.

VolcanoMan001
VolcanoMan001

@maverick_76 Yes, I agree, but I am speaking in relative terms to the sales that they generate (the profit margin is even less). Either way, no doubt that licensing costs + low sales are what is steering the devs away.

maverick_76
maverick_76

@Nodashi Actually basketball is the most popular american sport for the rest of the world. People would buy the game more if NCAA BB was more relevant to the development of players, like NCAA football is.

maverick_76
maverick_76

@VolcanoMan001 True, but the NFL charges the highest licensing fees in the history of gaming and EA says, "No problem." The reason is they know people will buy the game because the NFL is the most popular sport in America. College basketball, not so much. So I do feel that licensing fees, while high, are not as much of a factor as poor sales are. I mean Madden averages 2-5 million copies sold every year, and NCAA 10 can only do 150,000?

VolcanoMan001
VolcanoMan001

There is also something else that the author of this article and everyone else is not considering: licensing costs. I suspect that the NCAA, being who they are by nature (money grubbing), have either had their licensing fees outrageously high, or they have been seeking to raise them since 2008 (when College Hoops was canceled). My guess is a combination of both is driving less of a profit margin to the game producers, so they opt to get out of it altogether. Perhaps when the NCAA isn't earning any money at all for licensing of video games, then maybe they will be more resonable to work with and we might see some NCAA / College Hoops games again.

maverick_76
maverick_76

Reasons why they don't sell: 1. It costs $60, the same as the NBA game 2. The quality of the game itself is subpar, they are not even close to being simulation 3. The NCAA cannibalizes itself by allowing players to go pro after one year, if they could get the NBA to make a rule like the NFL (you have to be 21 or have two years service at a NCAA football program to be qualified to play in the NFL) then it might get people more excited in the game, the reason that college football is so big is because the best of the best play it before they move to the NFL, while in college basketball most players are not ever going to even see the bench of an NBA team. And many go pro overseas then come back to the NBA when they are age eligible. There is too much talent dilution in college basketball because of opportunities outside the US, college football doesn't have to deal with that.

ThisIsntLeonard
ThisIsntLeonard

I think part of it is because: A) The person on the cover has already entered the NBA nine times out of ten. B) NCAA games, because of sheer amount of players, don't include names, so you can't connect to your team, unless you find personality in "No. 18" or "PG # 5"

delcidanddarth
delcidanddarth

NCAA college basketball should be on the same level of popularity as any other predominantly american sport, whether it's college football, pro basketball, or pro football. March madness alone makes college basketball unique enough to stand out. However, there are a couple problems with the current situation. One, as the story already pointed out, there is much less tradition following a team nowadays, since a large number of good players are "one and done". You can blame this on the NCAA, requiring all players to play at least one year, rather than pulling a Lebron and going straight from high school. Second, probably the biggest demographic for buying these games is not just the usual 18-24yo males... these are college males who are big sports fans, especially of their college. Combine their education related financial issues (cost of school, room/board for the first time in their lives) with the extracurricular activities (copious bar-hopping, drinking), they have less money than usual to throw around for video games (as compared to high schoolers).

-Fable-
-Fable-

the reason people don't buy college basketball games is because they lack the features of the NBA games - so why pay $60 for a college B-Ball game when you can pay $60 for the NBA B-Ball game that is overall better? I would really like to pick up a college B-Ball copy, but when they get crappy reviews and cost $60 - I'll pass every time.

Nodashi
Nodashi

There's also the fact that NOONE outside the US would buy a game about college american basketball. So it really limits the market. I mean, many countries don't care about basketball a whole lot, but about a specific championship that is not the top tier pro stuff? Noone would give a crap.

Airwalker810
Airwalker810

One quick comment, Blake Griffin wasn't gonna be a bench warmer until he landed a dunk bad and busted his knee. He was the best performer in the NBA summer leagues averaging a double double. I'm not a Clip fan, but if they had Blake, it might have been a better season. Long live the Clippers curse? Sorry just had to put in my two cents about that. Other than that, however, and I have to agree with the lame production values of ALL college sports games. Who wants to play as Joe Shmoe from University of Idaho when you can play as King James, Kobe, D-Wade, or Superman. I think one of the key arguments you could have made is the change in skill level from college to the NBA. The game is faster paced, fouls are different, and reffed different. I'd rather sit down with an NBA game.

DirtyAl
DirtyAl

Well... I feel that this years college basketball game was on its way to be a good one... It was a fun game to play... I had some good games and was actually enjoying the experience until... I found out you couldn't draft players over to NBA live... its reason like such that make people write colums like we are reading. Its lazy programming like this that leaves us gamers hung out to dry. 2K8 gave us gold and then stopped because for some reason, they failed to give themselves credit for the product that they produced... All I have is thoughts of what college 2k10 would have felt like... The feeling of running a my player on the college front and then starting him in the NBA experience... Having draft classes... Instead, we get half-a$$ed production like College B-ball from EA... What leather chair a$$ sitter said, ok ship this knowing that it was missing so many key elements... Its that kind of representation that makes people turn their backs on a great concept. Its not that hard (thats what she said) to understand why College b-ball is falling off the charts. The second hand product becomes the only option and people purchase it because they love the concept and rest on the hope that they will get an inkling of what it is they want to feel when the play the game. Well, as a dedicated college b-ball fan, I would accept any well-thought, technically sound entry into the genre of college ball.

SDBusDriver1979
SDBusDriver1979

If anything, its been a rapid decline in all sports games. Publishers are not shoveling out as many NBA games as they did 5 years ago. We don't have MVP and High Heat Major League Baseball anymore. Kind of weird but the only thing that is growing in the sports genre is golf with the Tiger Woods games on the Wii. For better or for worst, browsing the 360 bargain bin for games is now tolerable since its not buried under a bunch of 4 different years of NBA Streets, Ballers, etc.

notorious98
notorious98

@ ohjtbehaaave The same thing can be said for 2K. They got the rights to the MLB and put out a horrible product year after year. I almost feel bad for 360 baseball fans who have to play that trash. MLB : The Show is a vastly superior product to that piece of crap that 2K puts out.

notorious98
notorious98

VTHokie2004 is just mad because the last star VT had was Bimbo Coles. :P

mechberg
mechberg

@rued2k6 -- Wow, I can't imagine EA ever ditching the NCAA Football series. The sports seems to be too ingrained in the culture (much moreso than college hoops, which only really becomes a big deal for most towards the end of the season and into March Madness). I personally would never choose Madden over NCAA Football-- of course, maybe it's because I'm from the south, where college football is religion and the NFL is just a pleasant thing to watch on Sundays... ;)

octotoke
octotoke

they need one game and massive amounts of dlc instead of a new very similar game year after year... if we could just update rosters and rankings it would be perfect

VTHokie2004
VTHokie2004

I'm not going to buy an EA basketball game, simple as that. I'm really wanting to buy a new college basketball game, and I almost bought the new March Madness, but I held off. If 2K starts making them again, then I'll pick it up. Until then, I'll play 2K6 for my NCAA fix (I like 2K6 better than 2K8, and I didn't buy 2K7 because it had JJ Redick on the cover, lol).

jedikevin2
jedikevin2

NBA JAM college edition is all we need. 3 vs 3 style FTW. Lol. Seriously though, college basketball just feels weird to play. Maybe its because you don't really know all the players or just a different vibe but i've always had a lackluster vibe whenever I played one.

rued2k6
rued2k6

I can see this happening to NCAA football in the future. It does not make sense to buy the college and pro games especially for the same price. EA needs to make bundle the college and pro games, or offer a better discount for those who buy both games.

ohjtbehaaave
ohjtbehaaave

Well the reason nobody bought the EA college hoops game is because it was average at best! Didn't EA buy the NCAA license and 2K was unable to make a NCAA Hoops game? I'd much rather see 2K give a shot to another College hoops game. EA just seems stuck in the mud with the game and can't take the game up a notch. It's pretty mind boggling if EA bought a License and then doesn't even put out a NCAA Basketball game! JOKE!!! It pretty much confirms the dirtbag EA strategy of If you can't beat 2K Sports straight up with the 2 companies COMPETING for gamers cash.... you just BUY the exclusive License to make the competition who makes a superior product GO AWAY! No doubt in my mind if 2K was still making NFL and NCAA games... it would push EA to put out a better product. But with no competition EA does it's usual lameness. I could care less that there's no NCAA Hoops game this year since only EA can do one.

Shooter12123
Shooter12123

maybe if they would have legend for ncaa basketball games. Like they do with the ncaa football games. The games would be more popular

dtujd2
dtujd2

Its ironic how much more popular in the US college basketball is than hockey, but you would never know it by comparing sales of NCAA Basketball '10 to NHL '10. The NCAA franchise, like the NHL franchise a few years earlier, needs a true overhaul. Maybe add some sort of online dynasty mode like there is in NCAA football so everyone is fighting for recruits and so you could make up some custom conferences. That would help as online modes in NCAA B-Ball '10 were almost non-existant. And tweak the gameplay so every game does not seem to devolve into an alley oop fest or other questionable tactics. Thats been my problem with the basketball games, both pro and college, the past few years. There just seems to be a real lack of anything resembling a sim based experience. If I wanted to play NBA Street, I'd play NBA Street.

rello91
rello91

2k's game was way better in everyway i kept trying ea version of college jus wasnt happening.

dalejrgamer
dalejrgamer

Brian, he didn't even play a single game for the Clippers and rushed his rehabilitation schedule which further harmed his recovery time. But yeah, next year, perhaps. I don't want to see another Greg Oden.

iamdanthaman
iamdanthaman

Just put college and NBA into the same game, it's not like it would be too much data for the disc, or that the games are that much different.

mechberg
mechberg

@TJSOONERFAN -- Fair enough and spoken like a true Sooner fan! ;) I guess we'll see whether Griffin is warming benches next season once his knee heals.

Sins-of-Mosin
Sins-of-Mosin

I'd say it's only popular because football is over and baseball hasn't started yet.

swarlesbarkley1
swarlesbarkley1

every college basketball game it crapy and underdeveloped

sleepyj327
sleepyj327

As a division I college basketball player. I think it comes down to the fact that simply, college basketball games suck and they have for a while. They come nowhere close to capturing the atmosphere, emotion, and mechanics of a real-life college basketball game. I would say that its just an EA sports thing (because I believe that all EA sports basketball games have sucked for a while), but the College Hoops 2k series wasnt good either. I think on the other hand, that the College Football series is awesome and captures the realism of an actual college football game and thats what sets them apart.

999eric
999eric

I love ncaa basketball I think its the best

TJSOONERFAN
TJSOONERFAN

"By contrast, fans of NCAA Basketball 10 cover star Blake Griffin saw their college hero leave school early to become a mediocre NBA benchwarmer on a sub-.500 team before ending his inaugural real NBA season with knee problems." I can't take this article seriously since Blake Griffin hurt his knee before the NBA season even started. No one has seen him play, so how do we know he is mediocre."bench-warmer!" CP3 hurt his knee and he is on the bench. Is he a bench warmer? I think not. You can't make a good point if you don't have your facts right. I agreed with everything at first, and I thought this article had good reasons for the decline of college basketball games. Maybe your theories are right, but your facts are wrong.

jazztrumpet5
jazztrumpet5

And here's hoping it's 2K that paves the way, NOT EA.

lance_7
lance_7

@BrianEk, thanks. I just wish we could get College Hoops back. That was a solid series. Even if they built off your idea and made it stripped down and downloadable. Instead of Draft Combine they make you a stud college recruit that leaves after freshman year and instead of combine games you play through a college season. They could probably sell that for $15-30 depending on the quality of the experience.

They could even make it where you are playing the season of the year prior so that they can have the guys that were actually drafted into the NBA on their college teams. That would possibly eliminate the issue of colleges not allowing player names and likenesses. They would only use names and likenesses of NBA rookies. It could make for a great one year experience.