It’s been four long years since college football fans have been able to recreate the pomp and pageantry of the latest season on a video game console.
Lawsuits and legal concerns led top-shelf producer EA Sports to abandon its decades-running “NCAA Football” series in 2013, but a former Troy University student and his cousin are working to bring back the feelings those games elicited in fans.
Alex Lewis, a 2015 TROY graduate, and his cousin, Kameron, formed a company last year aimed solely at bringing their vision of a new college football game to life.
It all started with a social media post by EA Sports during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship game that led many to believe the series was returning.
“I was watching the national championship between Clemson and Alabama, and EA released the heartbeat (video) on their social media, which struck me the wrong way,” said Lewis, who graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism and a minor in graphic design. “I thought the game was returning, and when I found out it wasn’t, I got furious. I said, ‘I want to find out if there’s a way for this game to come back or for me to bring it back myself.’”
After he contacted Kameron, a software engineering student at Bishop State Community College, the two cousins threw themselves into their new mission, spending months researching the many nuances and complications of collegiate licensing and video games while forming an LLC, iMakulate Vision (IMV) Gaming.
Over the course of their research, they learned the chances of obtaining licenses right out of the gate were slim due to the sheer cost and the legalities of dealing with individual schools and conferences.
“I called the companies that handle most of the schools’ licensing responsibilities, including the bowl games and things like that,” Lewis said. “We ended up creating what we call a generic model, which we feel would be in everyone’s best interests legally, but also protect ourselves and give users the ability to get the game as quickly as possible.”
The issue that ultimately led to the NCAA Football series going away was the usage of player likenesses, something Alex and Kameron opted to avoid entirely.
Instead of obtaining licensing agreements with the NCAA or individual institutions, they decided to focus on a game that replicates the college atmosphere while allowing players to customize the game world, from jerseys to names and everything in between.
“We just wanted to do away with (licensing) completely,” Lewis said. “Everything will be generic except names submitted by community members. (The licensing companies) approved of that, said it’s fine and goes along with NCAA rules. From there, it became about raising money and figuring out how to fund development.”
By putting the onus on the player to modify the game however he or she chooses, the game will both avoid legal troubles and expand upon some of the concepts hinted at in the old NCAA Football series.
“We want to give users the ability to be as creative as possible,” Lewis said. “The limitations put on these next-generation consoles weren’t really good for the users. That’s what made those (older) games as good as they were and as unique as they were. With our game not being licensed, it also gives users the ability to create their own authentic college football experience. People can download rosters from other individuals, but for others who want to create their own schools and players, that option is there.”
While NCAA Football 14 – the last in the series – gave some customization options to players, Lewis was left wanting.
“I still play NCAA and have a dynasty with TROY, and I went into the TeamBuilder mode to get our new uniforms in there, and it was not easy,” he said. “If you want to have a new experience to create those up-to-date TROY uniforms, this is the game you need.”
With a game in mind – IMV opted for the title “Gridiron Champions” – the cousins set out to raise money for the project through a Kickstarter campaign last September.
Though that campaign ultimately failed to reach its goal, Lewis learned valuable lessons and sought out a new strategy.
“We didn’t have a large enough reach and we didn’t have enough product in place for people to see,” Lewis said. “In the next year, we partnered with Big Ant Studios out of Australia, which is willing to develop the game and is an established development company. We also partnered with independent designers to help with more visuals we can release that are pre-production: player models, things like that.”
With a focus on customization and a partnership with an established studio — Big Ant has published well-received rugby, cricket and lacrosse games in recent years — Gridiron Champions now has more of a foundation on which to build.
According to the IMV Gaming website, Big Ant has pledged to pay half of the $5 million production cost if IMV can raise the rest.
The company is raising that money through an “insider program” of crowdfunding and by reaching out to potential donors and investors.
IMV is aiming to release the game in 2019, but that’s entirely dependent upon funding.
“Ideally we want to get the project (finished) at some point in 2019, but we have to secure the funding first,” Lewis said. “I think we will be able to obtain the funding. We just have to get something visual and I think we’ll garner a lot more attention. We simply need 7,000 people to sign up for a package in our program and we’d have the funding we need to start production today.”
Lewis knows it’s an uphill battle, but he also knows the demand is there. His hope is that, regardless of its success. Gridiron Champions draws other video game companies back into the college football genre.
“The time lapse between the last installment of the game is the biggest factor in why people want this,” Lewis said. “Number two, when I grew up, the games were all on PlayStation 2 and there was more variety in the sports gaming world. You weren’t just limited to Electronic Arts video games, you had 2K Sports and other studios were around. There’s more of a monopoly now, and people are ready for something different, whether that’s us or something else. People aren’t necessarily tired of playing ‘Madden,’ but they are definitely ready for something new.”
Lewis stressed that any current player models or images released to the public are preliminary, but they give an idea of the look IMV is aiming for in its partnership with Big Ant.
If Gridiron Champions is successful, licensing could follow.
“We do want to become licensed, but there’s a process, and once this generic model becomes successful, we can go from there,” Lewis said.