The latest installment of an eight-year-old franchise, NCAA Football 06 from Electronic Arts delivers just enough razzle-dazzle to camouflage the fact that its core audience likely plunked down $49.99 for a similar version a year ago. This game's best features--highlight-reel animations, voluminous playbooks and commentary from ESPN announcers--were on NCAA 2005. The improvements are subtle: crisper graphics and a Race for the Heisman mode (which explains why Desmond Howard is on the cover) that begins with the gamer as a recruit. After choosing a school, one can decorate a virtual dorm room with the trophies and fan mail that come with on-field success--a new take on the rewards systems that have been standard in games for years.
If that's not what you're looking for in a college football game, tough. In April the NCAA and EA signed a six-year deal that prevents other companies from using real college teams in their games. Such arrangements are becoming common in the $1.3 billion sports-game market. Last December, EA, which also makes Madden NFL, outbid its competitors--including Take-Two, which made NFL 2K5--for exclusive NFL rights. EA's five-year deal was worth more than $400 million. EA also shelled out $800 million to ESPN for the exclusive rights to its broadcasters and logo and locked up Arena Football League rights for four years. Take-Two countered with a $200 million deal with Major League Baseball that locks EA out of the baseball market. Bryan Intihar, the editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly, calls that a "minor obstacle" for EA. "Football's where the money is," he says. "Especially NFL games."
Exclusivity deals are a boon for the leagues; the NFL doubled its game licensing revenue this year. Whether EA's massive outlays pay off won't be known until after the new Madden hits shelves on Aug. 9. Its competition will be knockoff titles, most notably Midway's Blitz: The League, which is reminiscent of ESPN's Playmakers--players cheat, gamble and do drugs. And just because there are no NFL stars doesn't mean there won't be some recognizable players. Blitz has a team called the Atlanta Redhawks, who have a quarterback called Ron Mexico, whose athleticism brings to mind Michael Vick. "Will these games take away from the sales of the legit titles?" says Intihar. "Probably not." But they should push the exclusive-rights holders to keep improving their titles every year--something EA could have done a little better with NCAA Football 06. -- Adam Duerson