College Football by the Numbers

Curator's Note

The Electronic Arts NCAA Football (1998 – 2012) videogame series immerses players in the world of college football. The gameplay mechanics and play-calling strategies are similar to other contemporary football simulations, especially the NFL name-brand franchise Madden Football, also by Electronic Arts. The specific lure of NCAA Football, then, is the pinpoint accuracy by which it renders each college’s football program. Every possible detail—uniform colors, stadium layout, fight song, mascot, even marching band formations—provides gamers with the feel of the game-day traditions for their preferred college football team.

Despite the videogame’s emphasis on verisimilitude, NCAA regulations prevent the inclusion of actual player names; consequently, the athlete’s avatars are constituted primarily by their abstracted attributes. For instance, Justin Blackmon, the star wide-receiver for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, appears in the game only by strong numerical and statistical suggestions: the virtual player who occupies his position bears the same uniform number (#81), body type, and skill set recognizable as belonging to the real Blackmon. Game players may then choose the time consuming task of manually entering each player’s name. Thus, instead of a proper name that identifies a unique individual around which a series of attributes, accomplishments, and personal style become associated, a name, here, serves as a retroactive confirmation of an identity already established by number.

For McKenzie Wark, videogames provide theoretical insight into “gamespace,” Wark’s term for reality after the proliferation of digital technology. In the growing consonance between the virtual and the actual, between videogames and “game of life,” signs no longer point to other signs but instead “point to numbers, the numbers to algorithms, and algorithms to allegorithms of everyday life in gamespace, where signs likewise are devalued, arbitrary, but can still stand as allegories of the one thing that still makes sense, for the logic of the digital” (41).

What is NCAA Football if not an allegorithm of a broader digital gamespace in which we are all increasingly reconstituted as digitally numerable subjects? And not just as individuals turned into statistics, but where our activities, translated into algorithms, allow corporations access into our most personal activities (see, “How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did”).   



It seems to me that you, or perhaps better to say--Electronic Arts--has inverted the logic of the empty signifier, as Laclau conceived of it, insofar as the name is no longer a willed instance of catachresis, but is instead something that merely completes what has been formed before and around the name to come. The number, if I understand you correctly, is something contingent, to be sure, but has taken on the form of a totality, or an essence (hard to decide, sometimes, which comes first), such that the name is almost now beside the point. I can see this, and it's worrying for exactly the reasons that you state. But I'm wondering about 2 things. First, I'm intrigued by Wark's use of "allegory" in the passage you cite--wondering in particular how that might leave open a sense of irony or contingency that makes tracking less certain. Second, couldn't we also say that the name--Blackmon in this instance--goes without saying because we already know it that well, and that code has in fact been determined by it and precisely as instance of the empty signifier that has gone, quite literally, empty? The absence of the name, which keeps on appearing, is a reminder of contingency that nevertheless feels pretty permanent. For instance, consider baseball teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees, whose uniforms never include names. Now, if you're uninitiated--the kind of fan that would never get geeked out on NCAA Football videogames (I'm not pointing any fingers)--it would be very difficult to know who's who. And if you are initiated, even the #42 is redundant, knowing as you do all to well, that it's Mariano Rivera. If anything, you might have a look at the #42 in this particular uniform one more time (and I recommend doing so THIS year), because once Rivera retires, the number is sure to follow. Maybe another way of asking this question is: what happens when Blackmon starts playing for the Bills? Maybe that's just wishful thinking. 

That's easy. Buffalo Bill Blackmon will put up some good numbers, experience some crushing last minute defeats, and go to Dallas in free agency. Bills' fans would be hoping that he does for #81 what Michael Jordan did for 23 and Rivera is doing for 42: making it iconically inseparable from his own unique history.

When he goes pro, Blackmon will also have a union and a contract that give him some remuneration for his "appearances" in Madden 2013.  There's a fetishistic perversity to recreating the players so faithfully and then erasing their names, but in fact its perfectly logical in this context. This simulated bit of televisuality--the Coke Zero ads in the middle are mind-blowing--is maybe most faithful in its reproduction of the labor relations of college athletics, where everyone is allowed to brand themselves and profit from the spectacle except for the players on the field, who have to content themselves with promises. Is this "reading" the kind of ironic possibility of allegory that Brian's describing, or that you're pointing to in your final paragraph, Scott? Does the fact that EA feels compelled to imitate television have any consequences for the model of allegorithim?

This also makes me think of another context where the name does appear, yet some the structure of allegorithim also seems to be in place: fantasy college sports. In that case, the name makes possible the "ownership" of an individual player, who is devolved into a statistics. These stats, though, don't substitute for the player. They just reduce the spectacularity and complexity of his or her effort into a series of comparable figures. Studies of fantasy sports, though, indicate that they are often a supplement to televisual spectatorship of games, which suggests a kind of intertextuality that complicates the allegorithimic picture. Tim Tebow's running produced some good fantasy stats, but his passing numbers were atrocious--yet he's a star in part because of the "intangibles" that he brings to the game.

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