I've been playing video games for nearly my entire life. It's something that I've always loved for more than 25 years. Yes, I'm old. Shut up.
Sports games have always been a particular passion of mine. Over the past 17 years, one of my favorite games has been the NCAA Football series published by EA Sports. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Ben Haumiller, Producer with EA Sports. Here's our conversation, in all it's glory.
Cam Underwood (CU): Thanks for joining me today Ben.
Ben Haumiller (BH): No problem. This should be fun.
CU: I’ll do my best to make it interesting. Let’s hop right in: What new additions to this year’s game are you most excited about?
BH: Gameplay is what it’s all about. Obviously, you want to make the gameplay experience the best it could possibly be. This year: it’s the inclusion of the new physics engine, the Infinity Engine 2, making it’s debut and adding physics to gameplay for the first time. This adds a whole new look and feel to how the game plays. Also, the force impact system, putting physics on things like stiff-arms for the first time to determine the outcome of how that stiff arm is going to be. It’s not just a pre-canned animation but factors in things like where the runner makes contact, the momentum of both players, ratings, the size, everything kinda coming into to play to formulate how that stiff arm is going to be enacted.
CU: I’ve had some time with the game, and love the new option system. It’s clear that was a focus for the playbook additions this year.
BH: Yes, since this is a college game, we wanted to update the option game so you can run it the right way, Making that a lot of fun to run. You can run that Oregon-style offense, that up-tempo, spread option attack. And it goes further.
You’re a Miami guy and you have to play against Georgia Tech every year. We wanted to make sure that when you play against Georgia Tech it is a challenge to shut down an offense you don’t see every week since they run that option so crisp and so tight against you. So, it’s not just you as the guy playing the game having the ability to effectively run the option, but also upgrading the game so the computer can run their version of the offense against you as well.
This is a change from the past, when if you were playing a dynasty against GT, you could probably make them one dimension pretty easily, shut down the run, and take them out of what they do best. Now, they’re going to be so much smarter when they play against you, so much more effective, that you have to make more of a concerted effort to play assignment defense to shut down the option variations. Now, you can give up 300 yards on the ground to the computer for the first time and not feel cheated by it. That’s been a big change for us, and it’s been fun seeing fans of the series, longtime fans of the series, react to that.
CU: The major addition to this year’s game is Ultimate Team. What is that, and how does it work?
BH: This is a game mode that’s getting a ton of momentum and positive reviews from people. They get a chance to go in and play with all kinds of college greats. This is the first time we’ve had this mode in the game, and it’s very exciting. To start, we signed a deal with the NFLPA that gives us rights to every active NFL player. Then, we went out and signed a bunch of guys, in addition, that are some of the all-time greats in the history of College Football. Looking at Miami specifically, guys that we’ve signed are players like Warren Sapp or Ray Lewis. We also got the rights to Edgerrin James and the late Sean Taylor.
We also wanted to get guys who were campus heroes, but maybe didn’t have the huge NFL success. That let us go get a guy like Ken Dorsey, who was so instrumental to that early 2000s run, and we wanted to make sure he was involved in the game as well.
CU: Staying with Ulitmate Team, you said you went out and got some campus heroes, those college stars who might not have had great NFL success. What was the selection criteria that you used to pick those players, and how did you go about securing their licenses for the game?
BH: I think a lot of that came down to a simple question: Who would the fans want to see? We did individual licenses with those additional guys, so we were kind of limited with how many of them we could get. But really, it came down to who do the fans want to see? If you’re a fan of a school, and you pull a pack and get an item, we wanted it to be "Oh, COOL! I love Dan Morgan. I can’t wait to put him in on my defense." Or "Warren Sapp! That’s great!" We wanted to make sure we had those guys in there. We didn’t want to go after guys with "name value" that nobody would really be excited to play with.
Let’s talk about a guy like Bo Jackson. This is the first time he’s been in a game since Techmo Super Bowl. And he was such a video game legend.
CU: Yeah! I’d say he’s one of the greatest video game athletes ever, if not THE BEST.
BH: Yeah, exactly. So, he was a guy that we had to go after, that we had to make sure was in the game. And it’s really cool that we got him in there.
And then from there, it’s just "who else makes sense"? Who else is a guy that we feel as college fans is somebody that we really want to see in the game. So, our list way 100 times larger than our budget, so we kind just went down and did everything we could to get as many guys as we could in the game, and when the budget was used up, we feel that we’ve gotten a good group of players that fans will be excited to build their Ultimate Teams with.
You've seen this video, but it's still awesome.
CU: Wow. That’s really great. Now, can you describe how Ultimate Team works? How do you build your team?
BH: Well, when you choose your favorite school, you get a baseline team of players from your school. They’re usually going to be your average players. After that, you can acquire more players [through gameplay challenges and the online store] and be able to build your team using only Miami guys, if you want, or you can switch it up, bring in other guys you’re a big fan of from their college days that you want to have in there. You can have Ken Dorsey throwing to Andre Johnson, Santana Moss and Michael Irvin, and handing off to Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, or any of those other great players. It’s a really fun mode that people are really going to like.
CU: Sounds good. Now, you’re a gamer like myself, and have played every version of the game since it’s inception. Which game mode is your personal favorite?
BH: I’m a longtime NCAA fan, going back to before I was even in the gaming industry. This is the game that got me in this building, and working on video games. But, for me, the best has always been Dynasty mode.
CU: No argument here! Dynasty is definitely my favorite game mode as well.
BH: It’s something that’s been great for us. Back in the early years like NCAA 98, there was only season mode. But, with NCAA 99, that was first time you could play multiple years. Where you could recruit and go season after season and continually chase after the Heisman, and always try to win the National Championship and different bowl games, and have a persistent game mode. I was in college at the time, and that was just what we did. Friends got together and played in the same dynasty, season after season with each other.
CU: I think we all had a similar experience with Dynasty mode at that time through college. But then, college ended.
BH: Yeah, people started moving away from whatever college you went to, and it killed those longstanding dynasties that had gone on in dorms and apartments for years. But, when we debuted Online Dynasty in NCAA09, it was just like college all over again. Friends could all play in the same dynasty again, and have the same experience as before. Playing against each other season after season, and having head to head recruiting battles against your buddy, and not just the CPU. Or playing against your buddy, and not just the CPU. It gave weight to the experience, where the result was more than just a score. It had effects on the top 25, and other effects on recruiting, and if we’re in the same conference what bowl game we all went to. All kinds of things. So, without a doubt, Dynasty and Online Dynasty are where it’s at.
CU: You don’t have to tell me. It’s by far my favorite game mode. I think I have 3 Online Dynasties going right now, so my work is cut out for me.
BH: [laughs] Yeah, sounds like it.
CU: Now, this is something that spans all of the game modes, but a big part of the College Football game as opposed to Madden is the pageantry of college athletics. That love for your school, whether it be Miami or Michigan or USC or any other school. There are great aspects of the gameday experience that make every stadium, every school, every game special and unique. What did you do to recreate those things, and improve upon the presentation from previous year’s games?
BH: Yeah, that is exactly what college football is about. That pomp and circumstance. That pageantry. It’s those traditions that make each school unique, and make playing in one stadium completely different than the experience you get playing in another. There are a lot of different factors that go into make that homefield experience feel legit for the actual school.
Part of it is capturing audio from the actual games themselves. So, we’ll go out to games every year, have handhled recorders set up on the sideline, and just capture ambien crowd sounds, capture the cheers from the different schools. That’s what makes it special. It’s so much better to hear the crowds actually doing the chants themselves than what we had before, which was a bunch of us [EA Sports employees] on the roof of a garage trying to do our best to emulate what the cheers sound like. There’s only so much passion we can have as opposed to 50,000 or 100,000 fans, depending on the stadium, doing their school’s chant all in unison. Adding that audio makes the game sound more authentic, because it is more authentic.
CU: Yeah, that’s definitely an upgrade over the garage rooftop recording sessions. What other things were added to make the experience feel more realistic?
BH: We’ve added, or kept, other traditions like running through the smoke for Miami. Keeping those things in there so that they look correct to what you would see in the real world.
We had a bunch of intros with a bunch of traditions in the past, and it started getting a little bit stale for us because they were the same scenes every single year. This year, we’ve changed the pre-game intros into a music video kind of format, kind of a hype piece, that shows a little bit about what the game upcoming is, hits you with some traditions still so you see those in there, uses some text swipes with verbiage specific to the school, and a lot of stuff that you see on an ESPN primetime game. That has helped give the game a fresher look, make it feel a bit different, but still keep the traditions a part of what sets the table for a College Football game.
CU: I did notice that the first couple of times I played, I looked up and was like "whoa, this intro is different!". It was cool seeing a new start to the games.
BH: Nice! I’m glad to hear that.
CU: Well, moving on from that, it’s time for the question I know everyone is asking you: with the NCAA’s recent decision to end their involvement with EA Sports, presumably due to the O’Bannon lawsuit, what can we look forward to in future versions of the College Football video game series?
BH: Yeah, you know, that was a very interesting day. I think it shows, really, the effect of Social Media, and how quickly people can react to a headline, and frame an entire story based on just that headline. About half an hour after the first broke, you started seeing some changes to how the story was being told, because people had actually read the rest of the story. When they did they realized, ultimately, for a College Football game, the NCAA name and likeness didn’t really lend everything that was first thought for us making the game.
We still will have all of the rights to everything the CLC [College Licensing Company] provides for us. So we’ll have the schools, the stadiums, the conferences, bowl games, and trophies. All of these things are licensed outside of the NCAA name so for us, it really comes down to a name and logo change mostly. And, for me, that’s going to be the toughest thing. Being a guy who’s worked on this series for a long time, I have to train myself to NOT say "NCAA15" or "NCAA16" or whatever by default in future years. That retraining of my brain will be the hardest thing.
But, that’s ultimately what the biggest change is going to be: a different name and a different logo. We don’t have to get NCAA approval for what we’re doing in the game, but we do have to get individual school approval. So, in the end, it’s removing on piece of the equation, but doesn’t change everything drastically. It won’t be the wild wild west as far as features in Dynasty mode or other things, because we’re still going to be respectful of what the Schools wish to have in the game.
CU: That’s great to hear. I was on twitter when the NCAA decision was announced, and I had that same kneejerk reaction you were speaking about. But once the information was finally put out there, I think I calmed down a bit, just like all of my fellow gamers who were having mild panic attacks.
BH: [Laughs] Yeah, I hear ya. Like I said, that was a very interesting day.
CU: I know EASports is always looking to integrate something new with each new version of this game so that it stays fresh and unique. I’m not asking for the whole list of things you’re considering, but what is the number 1 thing you would like to see that would be a valued new edition for next year’s game?
BH: At this point of the year, we’re really working a lot on post-launch support for NCAA14. So, we’re working on things like title updates, and uniform updates and things like that. But yeah, you are correct. We’re always looking at and working on what’s coming up.
CU: So, what’s coming up?
BH: First thing, [EA Sports Executive Vice President] Andrew Wilson has already announced that we will be making a College Football game on the next generation of consoles. [That’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox1 in case you’ve been living under a rock]. So, what does that mean? How can we take advantage of the new hardware coming out? What will that do to change the way that College Football is represented in a video game?
CU: Are there any new game modes or features that you’re looking to bring into next year’s game?
BH: I don’t think it comes to anyone’s surprise or shock to hear that there’s a new day of College Football ahead of us: Playoffs are starting. So, we have to figure out how does that come into the game? How does a playoff system work it’s way into Dyansty Mode and into a Road To Glory experience where that’s the ultimate goal now: to get into the top 4 and be a part of these playoffs? How do those work?
We’re learning everything as it’s coming out, real-time. And, there’s still a ton of questions about how Playoffs are going to work, so that’s why we didn’t add it into this year’s game. There’s still not even a selection committee. We still don’t know for certain how those 4 teams will be selected.
We don’t have it yet, but we’re going to have a meeting with Bill Hancock of the BCS, who will be the head of the Playoff Selection Commission. We just want to sit down and iron out details and talk to him about things that we need to know so that we can develop this thing in the right way. This may involve things that the casual fan isn’t concerned with or aware of.
CU: Can you give me an example of one of those items?
BH: A great example is this: if LSU is the #4 team in the Playoff in the year that the Sugar Bowl has the #1 vs #4 matchup, the Selection Commission is going to do whatever they can to try and move LSU to a different game, probably that Rose Bowl matchup, so that a lower seeded LSU doesn’t have home-field advantage over the #1 team in the playoffs.
That’s a major detail that, if we had put that mode into this game, we wouldn’t have had it right. I know that. So now, with our meeting and conversation, we can iron out all of those details, and ensure that we are being completely authentic to what would actually happen in the real world.
CU: In my brain, when I asked that "new additions" question, I was thinking about gameplay, but the addition of the Playoffs to the end of every season is something that I hadn’t considered. That’s a great answer.
While you were talking, I had another question just pop into my brain: we can all agree that Miami has the greatest Ultimate Team ever, yes?
BH: [Laughs] So, this is actually a difficult and a sore subject for me because I’m a Florida State grad. I don’t know if you knew that….
CU: I did not until right now. I’m so sorry for you!
BH: [Hearty laughter] See…when I was there, that’s when things were good. Um but….yeah. It’s been a rough decade.
BH: Yeah, you’re right. But, putting together this Ultimate Team, and working with ESPN to come up with who the Ultimate Team is…um…I mean…..ugh….yeah….it’s…. Miami’s Ultimate Team is outta control.
It pains me to say it. Having lived through watching all of these guys, at one point or another do something that, you know, crushed the dreams of my school…yeah…you guys…yeah. It’s worked out. Miami is DEFINITELY the Ultimate Team.
CU: I was a Freshman in 2000, so I came in on the back of that famous Edgerrin James game against UCLA in 1998.
BH: Only time I’ve ever cheered for you guys!
BH: Oh yeah! I went crazy that day! Thankfully that Hurricane moved that game to the end of the season, and we needed 2 of the 3 games to go the right way for Florida State to make it into that first BCS Championship game. And, that was just a crazy day, an absolutely amazing day, and the ONLY TIME I’ve ever cheered for Miami.
CU: Well, you picked a good day to be a Hurricane, I guess. But yeah, being there for all of those games, and being on campus and in class with guys like Najeh Davenport and Willis McGahee was something special. And the 2001 Hurricanes team…WOW. I’ve made a personal statement that I’m not gonna discuss them anymore because they are, far and away, the greatest team that I’ve ever seen, that we’ve ever seen in College Football. So, having this Ultimate Team thing is kinda cool. So yeah, Miami’s #1.
CU: I’ll take that as a yes. Ben, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for the time.
BH: This thing took a downturn at the end, but it’s been fun. Take care.
Thanks to Ben Haumiller of EA Sports for this interview. You can follow him on twitter @BenHaumiller.
NCAA14 is available in stores worldwide, and through many online retailers.