The annual release of the Madden NFL video game is, for some, a holiday. But for diehard college football video gamers, it’s a somber reminder of what’s been lost.
EA Sports’ Madden 17 came out on Tuesday. But the last release of EA’s NCAA Football game was in the summer of 2013, before it got swept up in the NCAA’s battle to avoid paying its players for much of anything, including their in-game likenesses.
It’s not impossible that the game will someday return, bringing with it the chance for thousands of armchair head coaches to build programs from the ground up and deliver them to national glory. Players started to get paid earlier this year as part of a settlement on the matter, and most gravy trains of this magnitude don’t sit still forever. As long as so many of us are willing to shell out $60 to play it, someone will want to make it, right?
But that’s not how this has worked, at least not yet. Right now, all we’ve got are the memories and old copies of the last game -- NCAA Football 14 -- often collecting dust on our shelves. In tribute, we’ve put together a chronicle of our best dynasty stories from years of playing this video game.
We want yours, too! Here goes:
Turning Meek Mill into the starting QB for Temple and leading the Owls to a national title
By Tyler Tynes
We have all known for years that Temple University -- or North Philly University (screw you, La Salle) -- has been the nation’s most hidden gem of talent in college football.
Oh, word? You don’t believe me? How about you ask Christian Hackenberg if his face is still imprinted at the 50-yard line of Lincoln Financial Field from last year’s Temple ass-whippin' of Penn State. Anyway, when I was a young man, I had a dream that Temple finally got over the hump and beat Alabama and Darth Saban in the big dance.
And this was only attainable with North Philly’s own Meek Mill as their do-it-all quarterback. This was the time when NCAA Football 14 was out, and I was still doing hoodrat things with my friends in college. So one day, when "DreamChasers 3" came out with its god-awful, dopey, drug-inspired beats, I said "fuck class" and went and bought the game.
I spent the next two weeks downgrading every damn team in the country and letting Meek Mill quarterback the Owls to glory, knowing the only two teams good enough to get to the title were us and them ol’ country boys from Tuscaloosa. And if it didn’t work out that way, we started over. Again, fuck class. This was about my ‘Merican Dream.
After beating Alabama like the school from Netflix’s Last Chance U beat up JUCO schools in that documentary series, Meek maximized on his prowess and made a rap label with Vince Young.
That last part may or may not be totally fictitious. But only haters will tell you it ain’t real.
Yavapai County Community College Roughriders, national dynasty
By Jason Kirk
I've spent two months of my entire life living anywhere besides Atlanta or its metro area. Those months were spent in the middle of Arizona, halfway between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon.
My fiancee worked 30 miles away, leaving me with nothing to do all day besides take two classes at the local community college, play video games, play Pokemon with her little brother and boast about 110-degree dry heat being nothing compared to 90 degrees in Georgia humidity. (This is true.)
I made my inherited Roughriders as bad as they could possibly be, lowering the default worst program ("Cupcake") even more before beginning my first season. A decade-plus later in real-life years, I still remember beating No. 1 Texas in year two by pulling two 10-minute scoring drives and forcing maybe a half-dozen turnovers. This was the highlight of my entire life for that particular week in the middle of the American Southwest.
Yavapai, a three-time national champion and recruiting tyrant, shuttered its program when we piled everything we owned into a trailer and drove it across the continent. The Riders' aluminum bleachers, surrounded by digital Mars ("Rural"), overflowed until the end.
Moving Hawai'i to the Pac-12 and winning national championships
By Alex Kirshner
When I played NCAA Football 14, I wasn’t trying to take over Alabama and win national championships over my first few years. I was all about building up a program and quenching my own college football god complex, so my favorite project was starting up at Hawai'i, recruiting well for a few years and eventually kicking Oregon State out of the Pac-12 and replacing them. (Sorry about this, Beavers.) (It might have still been labeled as the Pac-10 in this game. Time blurs.)
Once I had the Warriors in the Pac-10/12, I scheduled non-conference games with Alabama every year and always beat them, and I delivered four consecutive national championships between 2016 and 2019.
My Heisman-winning quarterback was Blake Bolden, a 6’4, 205-pound force from the Florida Glades who diced up Pac-12 defenses on the regular. We still talk on the phone from time to time. He calls me Coach and I call him QB1.
Winning the Rose Bowl with Cal and turning Kyle Boller and Nnamdi Asomugha into first-rounders before it happened in real life
By Luke Zimmermann
I am an old. I've played every version of this game since Bill Walsh was on the cover. Bill Walsh!
I was there for the DT Linder/Fairdale Kings roster plagiarism wars. And I rushed for 500 yards in a game with Ricky Williams while he was in the game.
There are no recruiting points allocated in this tale. No SPARQ scores, no Ultimate Team to write home about. None such modern sorcery.
My favorite thing to do each year in NCAA was to take the Power 5's worst, most desperate team and turn them around. All-American difficulty, default everything else. Play every single play. No Super Sim. A good, old-fashioned, organic rebuild.
NCAA Football 2003 – the one with Joey Harrington on the cover – provided Cal as that challenge. The Golden Bears were 1-10 in real life 2002. RIP the Tom Holmoe era, etc.
With new blood needed, young former offensive coordinator Luke Zimmermann brought just the aggressive, spread-principled multiple offense the Bears desperately needed.
Complete with the name rosters patched and everything through a $30 peripheral you hooked up to the USB port on your Dell desktop, I took a mediocre quarterback in Kyle Boller and did, well, roughly the same thing Jeff Tedford did with him. I turned him into a first-round NFL Draft pick.
Nnamdi Asomugha won every major defensive individual player award he was eligible for. In my export to Madden NFL 2003 -- we were serious as a heart attack about Xbox/PS2-era football sims, folks -- both would go on to be picked in the first round of the following season's NFL Draft.
While I didn't win a national championship in year one, I did take Cal from 1-11 to 11-1 and a trip to Pasadena. This was bittersweet, as my lone regular season defeat was a late defensive collapse on the road in the Rose Bowl against USC.
And Stanford? Tedford beat a particularly paltry Stanford side 30-7 in real life in his inaugural Big Game. Your boy took the tree to task to the tune of 55-plus points. Eat your heart out, Digital Buddy Teevens.
Big 12 expansion winner North Texas goes on a national run of dominance
By Pete Volk
My fiancee went to North Texas. Nobody at North Texas really cares about football, but it’s in a good place for football talent and the new stadium looks nice, even if nobody really wanted it there. I decided I wanted to be a bigger North Texas fan than my fiancee, so I played with them in my NCAA 14 file.
I ran a two running back read option offense and BLASTED through Conference USA. After three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and two national titles, I moved onto the Big 12, kicking out Iowa State (no one noticed) and winning more titles there. I’ll never forget Heisman-winning QB Jeremy Fry, a 6’5 juggernaut who could only run or throw in a straight line.
Turning BYU into a recruiting powerhouse and racking up the trophies
By Matt Brown
I root for Ohio State in real life, but they’re kind of a boring team to play in dynasty mode, because they’re typically already a power. (Ed. note: humblebrag!) If you’re playing with the Buckeyes and you're not competing for titles and signing top recruits, you just suck at this game.
After bringing some one-star MAC program to respectability, I’d take the first mid-tier college job I could, and when I was lucky, that team would be BYU.
The Cougars are a great video game team. They’re an independent, which means I wouldn’t have to worry about getting shackled with dead weight like UNLV or Kent State or, uh, Kansas, every season. I’d be free to schedule every team in the top 10, plus a single game against an Idaho or something to try and hang a hundred. Their stadium looks great, even on the PlayStation 2, and since my wife is a BYU grad, she’d be a tiny bit less likely to roll her eyes when she saw me playing and asked me to clean the bathroom or something.
The whole fun of dynasty mode is to play out a college football world that would never really happen. So if you’re going to do that, why not take BYU, install a devastating option-based rushing attack and kick everyone’s ass with your dreadlocked QB and your team full of five-stars? Ain’t no honor code or ecclesiastical interviews on the PlayStation, after all.
Recruiting, and what it taught me about other people
By Ryan Nanni
Recruiting in the era of NCAA Football 11 (or thereabouts) gave you two guiding principles. First, get to know the recruits you’re going after so you can understand what makes them tick. Second, don’t make promises you won’t be able to keep. Those both seem logical; hell, they’re pretty good starting points for any extended relationship with another human being.
But it was all a lie, wasn’t it, EA Sports? I’d designate precious recruiting time to that four-star who, somehow, was interested in my humble program. Over the first few weeks, he’d tell me what he was looking for from his college football experience, and I’d tell him how we could provide that for him. He’d cut his list, from a top eight to a top five to a top three. We’d survive those elimination rounds, and then I’d offer a solemn vow that was meant to seal the deal. This wasn’t some bullshit meant to trick this e-recruit. If I said you weren’t going to redshirt, I meant it.
And then he’d commit to the school that hadn’t paid him any attention until they started wooing him in Week 12.
What was the point? Why had we bothered getting to know one another if he was just going to leave for a bigger and better program? How was I supposed to tell this recruit, "You and I will build something together, something that did not exist before!" That was the real lesson of recruiting. I never really knew these people, and they didn’t know me. Either that or they hated my offensive playbook.
Denver wins the Mountain West and national championship in 2003 and 2004 and then gathers to celebrate it years later at a hallucinated booster dinner
By Polygon's Owen Good
In my mind's eye, I am at an outdoors family-style barbecue joint in Glenwood Springs, Colo., where rich people from the city have driven two hours to put on cowboy hats and long-sleeved gingham shirts. They sit at long picnic tables to listen to the players who made me famous grip a lectern and confront their memories of 2003.
Any reference to that year crowbars the bucks out of all these goddamn accountants and water-rights lawyers from the city, and God, was it ever a bitch working this scene. I am grateful that I am old, wheelchair-bound and mute, and don't have to make the sales pitch with anything more than a wan smile.
I can tell what's happened to my players' lives by how they are dressed. Most wear open-collar shirts and slacks. A few wear sport coats. David Kesmodel wears a suit, but shit, he was the kicker, though he scored every point — including a touchdown and two point conversion — to beat Nebraska in Lincoln. Lonnie James, the last Sixty Minute Man of major college football playing at fullback and linebacker, has come over from Idaho Springs wearing his Sons of Silence kutte. His bare arms recall the cold struggles in Laramie or the Springs, where any loss would have annihilated all we'd gained in Eugene and Norman.
Robert Sanchez is next, and he bites out the words of a performative tribute. He's still angry. I try to speak an apology but I can't. I remember him cursing orders at the line in his first game at Lawrence, then changing everything after the snap in the pistol/flexbone. He won't forgive me for what I put him through those two years, and I can't either, even though we never lost west of the Mississippi.
Jim Tankersley, always the all-American, mercifully takes the podium and claps off Robert before launching into that old saw about us going to Berkeley and crapping in the locker rooms and not flushing after we beat them. A chant flies up: Shit on the Bears! Huge applause.
And then Jim delivers the money moment. We're all here for a reason, right, Jim coaxes, and everyone shifts uncomfortably. Look, we didn't bring y'all out here for nothing, he says, and through the double-swinging doors at the back, by God it is Him. The Heisman Trophy winner of 2003. And 2004. LaDarryl Moser. The Golden Bulldozer.
LaDarryl pushes through the crowd gently, even turning his shoulders the way he would against a cloud of defenders in Fort Collins, and emerges at the podium to an enormous roar. He leads the clapping and chanting before launching into a ham-and-egg tribute to DU and all of the opportunity it gave him, in the NFL, as a TV analyst and as a partner in a sports marketing business.
There is great applause and, finally, the food, and I help myself to the brisket as best I can with my old teeth, before going to the creamed spinach. Lots of people walk to me to pat me on the back or try to shake my hand but I don't really know who they are, or why they're here, or why I would be up here in Glenwood Springs, with a wildfire at Parachute turning the night horizon orange.
Then a young man in a white shirt with a zipper front gently says it's time to go and I am wheeled down a long, quiet, carpeted corridor to my room. And I know that though I love them all, every face I have seen tonight is a shadow upon my demented mind.
My emergent narrative is dedicated to all who made the NCAA Football series at EA Tiburon.