How EA Sports Profits Off College Athletes—Without Paying Them

(Credit: EA Sports)

EA Sports designed virtual players in college sports video games to look and play like their real life counterparts, according to testimony from a former company executive obtained by The games didn’t, and couldn’t, use the names of those players under NCAA rules, the same rules that let EA Sports and other companies profit off of those athletes without paying them a dime.

Former EA producer Jeremy Strauser and EA executive vice president Joel Linzner both testified in December as part of former University of California-Los Angeles basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against EA Sports and the NCAA. The suit claims that both violated antitrust law by using the images and likenesses of former college athletes without compensation. Both Strauser and Linzner testified that EA Sports, which is trying to get out of the case, designed players to resemble the actual players they were meant to depict, reports:

Jeremy Strauser, who worked at EA from 1995 until 2011, testified last December that computer-game avatars were linked to specific player identifying numbers and biographical information, such as team depth charts, was used to make the game realistic.

“We generally tried to make the players perform as their real life counterparts, short of their name and likeness,” Strauser testified. […]

Linzner said the video game’s purpose is to “evoke or create the impression that these are the real life counterparts, and the heights and weights are sometimes accurate and sometimes not.”

Well, of course they did. Anyone who has ever played any of the EA Sports games based on college athletics knows that the players in the game, from position to number to height and weight to skin color to skill level, are based off their real-life counterparts (notice how much this guy looks like this guy?). That’s why EA Sports comes out with a new game each year, because nobody wants to play with USC or Alabama’s rosters from last year when they can have a more realistic experience by playing with their rosters from this year. If it wasn’t (some dude who looks like) Matt Barkley throwing the football to (two dudes who look like) Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, well, EA Sports would almost surely sell a lot fewer games. At the least, they’d have to market the games as far less realistic experiences.

It isn’t just video games: Nike and the University of Kentucky didn’t spend all of 2012 selling #23 basketball jerseys at random. They sold #23 jerseys because UK’s star player, Anthony Davis, wore #23. College bookstores around the country, and retailers who sell college merchandise, do the exact same thing, and they do it because nobody wants the walk-on’s jersey.

The NCAA argues that none of this matters because they aren’t using the players’ names or images, and thus they aren’t exploiting actual people. But of course they are, and everyone knows it. Because if they weren’t using the likenesses of actual people, they wouldn’t be making nearly as much money by using them in broadcasts, selling merchandise based off of them, or selling their rights to video game manufacturers. That’s precisely what makes the entire system such a sham, and precisely what makes the O’Bannon case so promising: it has a chance to bring the entire sham to light, one admission of the obvious at a time.

None of that means that O’Bannon is going to win the lawsuit, which is still far from over. The next step is a hearing in June that will determine if the case can be certified as a class-action complaint, which would allow current college athletes to join the case. If that happens, the O’Bannon case won’t just serve as a valuable exposé of the absurdity of college athletics. Rather, it would have the chance to bring the entire system crumbling down.