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:
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.
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.