The ballad of Bam Bewton: What I learned from playing a bunch of NCAA Football 14

May 22, 2020

Ahead of the 2013 college football season, Bam Bewton was a 6-foot-5, 238-pound quarterback from Iron Mountain, Michigan with the college football world tracking his every move. He’d just completed a stellar senior season in which he led his team to a state championship, he was the consensus top recruit in the nation, and he had yet to commit to a college program.

He wanted to start right away, which eliminated dozens of schools right off the bat, from powers like Alabama all the way down to also-rans with established upperclassmen at quarterback, like San Jose State. He also wanted to go to a school with a good chance of competing for a national title, which meant he was left with three choices: BYU, Auburn, and Baylor.

BYU was an independent, so its road to a national title was a bit tougher than schools with the opportunity to win a conference championship, and it also had a talent deficit compared to the other two schools. Auburn seemed like a good fit, except that Bam wasn’t sure his abilities would be put on full display playing in Gus Malzahn’s run-heavy system. That left Baylor, where Art Briles’s system combined downfield passing with power run concepts for both the tailback and quarterback, and, in this universe, at least, Briles isn’t the kind of monster who obstructed sexual assault investigations.

From the first game, Bam was special. That week, he completed 17 of 22 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 70 yards with 3 touchdowns on the ground. The entire season, he put up monster numbers, won the Heisman with a record number of first-place votes, then body-slammed Ohio State in the national championship game, completing 29 of 39 passes for 321 yards, rushing for 59 more, and accounting for 4 total touchdowns.

And then, in my headcanon, Bam decided to quit playing for free and immediately challenged the National Football League’s age limit.

* * *

Playing the NCAA Football 14 video game over the past few weeks was something to do, for sure, but again I’m left with a feeling of emptiness, just as I did when I tried playing Fight Night Champion a couple months ago, and just as I did when I lost a month of my life to Out of the Park Baseball last spring.

I think it’s because these games, and sports video games generally, avoid controversy and prevent gamers from playing from a perspective any more complicated than “this sport is good and fun”.

In contrast, ever since my first playthrough, I’ve considered Red Dead Redemption the best video game I’ve ever experienced. Red Dead is not some self-contained masturbatory violent fantasy that only refers to itself; it makes a clear argument about the viciousness of the American character and does so by implicating the gamer through their choices. It’s art presented in a way only a game could.

What would elevate a sports video game to art? I think a few games hint at art by allowing gamers to play with the foundations of the sport. For example, versions of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series had a skate park creator where gamers could set up their own obstacles or tools for tricks. The old Earl Weaver Baseball computer game let gamers design ballparks, something I wish the MLB: The Show series would implement in a more detailed fashion, or with an online component so that other people could download created ballparks. But in each of those cases, the game’s creators would be punting the artistic work to gamers instead of making an artistic statement themselves. In a similar vein, special shoutout to Ricky O’Donnell for building a fan community around his video game college basketball dynasty. (#GoNecks #DekeVan)

Now imagine, say, NBA 2K21 included a collective bargaining component. If you play in My Career, you could let other members of the NBPA handle everything for you, or you could try to be a team rep, or you could even one day try to become NBPA president and handle negotiations directly. If you play in MyLeague (franchise) mode, you could take on different roles when it comes to negotiating with players, or let execs from other teams make those decisions.

I’m not saying this would necessarily make the game better (it could easily be tedious), but at least it would ask gamers to play-act taking a position of consequence, and how that’s implemented could elevate the game to art by forcing the gamer to consider the consequences of their choices in both the game and real life.

It’s clear why these games don’t do let gamers engage with those issues: The games are advertisements for their leagues, and the league executives would prefer fans not concern themselves with player labor conditions. Instead, the leagues, and apparently studios, appear content to create high-powered versions of Super Mario, which can be plenty fun as diversions, but don’t actually mean anything beyond themselves the way that, say, Metal Gear Solid comments on the nature of gaming, itself, or how Flower might induce the gamer to consider their relationship with nature.

Interestingly, the NCAA Football series used to include NCAA violations, player suspensions, fans storming the field, and taunting penalties, but all of those were eventually excised. Note, also, that every stadium is packed for every game (even Akron!), academics are only mentioned as a single recruiting category that players might or might not value, and there’s no mechanism for Bam Bewton to transfer in the Road to Glory mode — if I’d chosen a situation where the coaches were making bad calls or the offensive line was incompetent, or whatever, then my only recourse was to have created a separate save file at the point just before signing day so I could start over. Bam isn’t even allowed to declare for the NFL draft early, and EA Sports disconnected Road to Glory from its Madden series that year, so I couldn’t continue with Bam in the pros even if I wanted to.

All that’s to say I could devote 40 more hours to trying to have Bam win three more Heismans and three more national championships, or I could try to build up the Hawaii program into a national power in the Dynasty mode… Except that there’s no accomplishment in it. I’m not going to learn anything from either exercise. Even in an era when I’m less anchored to time than ever before, I’ve realized yet again, with a suddenness, that I’d rather do almost anything else.