Hokies of the Virtual Gridiron
by Greg Zesinger
TSL Extra, Issue #22

So another late summer was upon us, with its annual rites of passage. The college football preview magazines hit the stands, and the Hokie faithful were either jubilant or up in arms over their predictions, depending on whether Maurice DeShazo is labeled a dark horse Heisman candidate, or Lane Stadium is neglected from a list of "most intimidating places to play."

With the preview magazines and the message board discussions about starting QBs, tardy season ticket delivery, and the latest Charlottesville fashion craze, another entity appeared in late summer to help get many of us ready for the football season – the college football video game.

For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the NCAA video gaming world, new versions of EA Sports’ and Sega Sports’ college football games come out every year, with updated rosters, graphics, and features for the new season. Having worked in the sports video game world for over three years, I was part of this process at EA Sports of determining how fast a given cyber-player is, which stadiums needed to be updated, and how good the Hokies ultimately ended up being in a given year (heh-heh).

While not everyone on TSL is a video game connoisseur, how the Hokies come across in virtual form is important, as thousands of kids (and probably the same amount of adult college football fans) are playing these games, and potentially learning more about Virginia Tech than they might otherwise, via occasional glimpses on SportsCenter and nationally televised games.

Anyway, with that in mind, here’s a glimpse into the world of NCAA video games, with some answers to some Hokie-relevant questions. Keep in mind, these answers are based on my experiences through 2000, so the exact processes may have changed slightly since then.

Why Isn’t Lane Stadium Up To Date?

In this year’s games, the new SEZ is nowhere to be found (although painted end zones strangely are). With the games coming out in July, time is limited with how much can be updated. The game is usually completed in late spring. The video game artists generally rely upon reference photos, press guides, and videotaped games from last season to update stadiums. Unless the production team has someone really in the know about a given team who can point the artists to stuff like concept drawings of how the new stadium additions will look, you are generally stuck with last year’s stadium.

Where Do They Get Player Ratings From? Do They Know That Receiver X Was a QB In HS?

The bread and butter of the games are player ratings. Between 40-60 players per Div-1A team (and a handful of Division I-AA teams) are individually rated on a scale of 0-100 in attributes ranging from speed, pass blocking, catching ability, resistance to injury, kicking accuracy, and arm strength.

Who is responsible for coming up with these ratings? It varies from year to year. In past years, we worked with a conglomerate of reporters associated with CBS Sportsline and Lindy’s College Football Preview magazines. The new ratings were almost always the last thing to go in the game, so most of the development of the game is spent using last year’s rosters.

We generally received the ratings from our sources a little after spring football was over. In theory, each team was rated by the reporter who covered that team throughout the year. They turned their ratings in to the supervisors of the project, who then went through all of them, tweaking them to make sure one person’s rating scale wasn’t significantly different than another. For instance, a PAC-10 guy might decide that a 4.3 forty equates into 90 speed for an Oregon receiver, whereas a reporter in Big East country might assign that same forty time a 95. After we received these ratings, we would go in again and tweak them as well to make sure we didn’t have these inconsistencies.

The ratings are rarely perfect, but you can usually bank on the superstar players being rated pretty well, along with most of the starters on the upper level teams. It’s the backup players and smaller schools where it gets a little iffy. In general, the starters are always going to be rated better than the backups. Speed is the great equalizer in this game, so even though a player (say a Cols Colas) is faster than any other defensive end on the Hokie roster, since he has not been designated a starter, he will generally be slower than your Adibis and Davises.

Most of the time, players like Richard Johnson, Chris Clifton, or Bryan Randall who played multiple positions in high school at a high level will not have ratings that reflect those other positions. While I was there, I tried to incorporate some of these ratings for those I was aware of (for instance, I made sure Andre Kendrick had better passing ability than other running backs), but generally, the ratings won’t reflect anything beyond what their collegiate position dictate.

The same would go for the inclusion of true freshman. Most of the time, you’d have to make an educated guess on what number the player would wear and how good they would be. Sometimes you’d guess right (a certain freshman RB #22 turned out okay) and sometimes you’d guess wrong (a freshman receiver #1 was rated exceptionally well, but never made it onto the field, at VT or Norfolk State).

Does It Help If An Alumni From A Given School Works On The Game?

Absolutely. With over 117 teams, the amount of research that can be devoted to each team is limited. Pre-existing knowledge on the part of the production team can only help a team’s presentation in the game.

And of course, little biases tend to work themselves in as well. That’s part of the reason (since the game is developed in Orlando), teams like UCF, Miami, FSU, and Florida always get special treatment. It’s also part of the reason why, in years past, when you played with Tech, you’d hear a cannon fire when scoring a TD at Lane Stadium, have the option of playing in all maroon uniforms at home, and hear the in-stadium commentator announce the names "Vick" and "Suggs" over the PA before those two were stars.

Wait A Minute – I Thought Collegiate Athletes’ Names Couldn’t Appear In Commercial Products.

They can’t. All players are recognizable only by their jersey number, position, and in most cases, appropriate skin color. However, for the past few years, the game has given you the ability to type in the names of each of the players on your team. We had Chuck White, the Rose Bowl’s announcer, record several hundred names prior to the 2000 season. If you happened to type in the name that had been recorded, the PA announcer would say the name. Names like Suggs, Vick, Burnell, and Zesinger.

Who Approves All This Stuff?

For most colleges, we worked with the Collegiate Licensing Company, who pretty much serves as the middleman between schools and manufacturers. However, everything, from the look of the Hokie Bird, to the correct shades of orange and maroon, to the use of the fight song, had to get ultimate approval from the licensing folks in Blacksburg.

Any Cool Hokie-Related Stories You’d Like To Share?

Sure. While I was working at EA Sports headquarters in San Francisco, Jim Druckenmiller came to the office with his girlfriend. I had a nice chat with the both of them, and I had a VT mini-helmet at my desk that I was going to give to him to sign. However, he ended having to leave before I had the chance, so I gave it to our player relations person to give to Druck (which he did).

However, before I could get the helmet back, I ended up transferring to the office in Orlando. Druck was traded to Miami, and I doubted I’d ever see the helmet again. However, I was able to get his email address, and emailed him to see if he still had it. To my surprise, I received an email back, saying that it had probably gotten packed with his stuff to go to Miami, and that when he unpacked, he would send it to me. To make a long story short, I have a mini helmet on my bookcase autographed by Jim Druckenmiller that traveled with him from the 49ers to the Dolphins.

While working with EA, they held video game tournaments in the fall for a few years, several of them coming to Tech. I watched Cornelius White throw passes to WR #4, J.C. Price lay out some cyber-punishment, and I busted Andre Kendrick when he told me, while playing the game with Shyrone Stith, that he was Marcus Parker.

One fall, the finals were played at the Orange Bowl (the year Florida played Syracuse), and members of the production team were going to each of the qualifying sites to run the events. A co-worker and I drove from Orlando to the campuses of Marshall, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and NC State and held tournaments at each one.

We drove a rented van full of TVs and Playstations. As many of the tournaments occurred on consecutive days, we’d have to pack up quickly, and drive after dark. If you ever feel like being adventurous, try driving a van through the winding, poorly-lit mountain roads on your way from Morgantown to Huntington in the middle of the night!

At Marshall, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Mike Bianchin. As most of you know, he was one of our better offensive linemen a few years back, and is now an associate AD for the Thundering Herd. He’s a big video game fan, and he treated us really well, though with the season coming up, I’ve felt funny wearing the Marshall practice shorts he gave me.

At Tech, we also had a spare Playstation left over from the tournament, so we decided we would donate it to Tech for the players’ lounge. We walked into the newly-built Merryman Center to find out who we should talk to. As we were walking around, I noticed a player walk by with the #18 on his practice gear. Little did I know that he would lead us to a national championship game the following season. Spotting huge Derek Smith, I asked him who we should talk to about donating the Playstation. He directed me to John Ballein’s office, and we walked down to it.

When we came to his office, John was surfing the Internet, trying to find some information from the NY area about some Syracuse players who may or may not be injured for our upcoming game in the Dome. He was extremely gracious, giving us both a nice VT hat, and chatting with us for a little while. We would both receive thank you notes from him in the mail a week or so later, along with one from Coach Beamer. We thanked him as we left, hats and football posters in hand, and he went back to his computer, eager to find an extra edge for our team. Guess what site he was on?

So there’s a little bit of insight into the world of sports video games. If anyone has any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them in a later article. Feel free to write me at gzesinger@apii.com.

 

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