I had played football video games before -- Deion Sanders' Primetime '95 was an early favorite of mine -- but when I got NCAA Football '99, the one with Charles Woodson on the cover, it was the beginning of a lifetime obsession into not just a video game series, but the entire concept of building a football team.
Before that time pretty much any major sport existed as something that took place exclusively between the whistles. I had no great insight into how the teams I watched came to be outside of abstract notions like free agency and drafts and trades. These were all ancillary yet obscure to a middle school kid that just liked watching Michael Jordan effortlessly dominate and Barry Sanders make people look foolish. I had played sports enough by then to be thoroughly bored by the only cliche "there is no I in team", but I had yet to understand just how hard it was to build the right team.
But watching Jordan win and Barry lose was the first step in understanding the idea of what it took to win on a team level. I connected with the stars early, but the more I played the game on my own, learned the fundamentals, the more I came to realize that the Bulls weren't just Jordan, but the all-around brilliance of Scottie Pippen, the offensive versatility of Toni Kukoc, the outside shooting of Steve Kerr, the rebounding and hustle of Dennis Rodman, and the other skills that the rest of the roster brought to the team. Conversely, in spite of Barry Sanders' ability to make it look like he was able to beat entire defenses on his own, the fact was that many times he was left to try and do it with very little help. His offensive line was a mess and Scott Mitchell was maddeningly inconsistent as a starter. Both Jordan and Sanders were great players, but the team situations were vastly different which had a incalculable effect on the outcome of games and seasons.
I received NCAA '99 for my birthday midway through eighth grade, and my first major exposure to the game came from booting it up and playing a marathon session during a birthday party/sleepover with a couple friends. We started a dynasty with Michigan, but unlike most football games prior to that, we didn't spend much time playing the actual games. We would spend hours that first night simulating games, building cupcake filled non-conference schedules (boom, SEC'd), and occasionally playing bowl games.
We got fired from our first job.
Despite a new found fascination with recruiting, we still weren't very good at it. We would waste too much time on five-star recruits with no interest while ignoring glaring holes in the roster (boom, Rich Rod'd). Our Michigan team won eight or nine games a year, but failed to win the conference and go to the Rose Bowl. None of that was good enough -- it was Michigan, fergodsakes -- and by the end of the night we were searching for a new team.
The obsession would only grow from there. I would continue playing that dynasty for the video game equivalent of 35 years. I started actually playing the games instead of simulating seasons, and I spent around two decades at North Carolina before leaving to take a job at Kentucky. My understanding of recruiting was all the while improving.
As the years passed and I got new versions of the game my recruiting approach began to shift. I wasn't so concerned with chasing five-star prospects, but instead went after as many solid players in the four-star range that I could find. I began to plan my roster ahead so that the depth chart was always stocked with plenty of young talent, and I began to view my roster as an amorphous thing which was under my control, rather than a defined set of players I was left to work around. I could build my team around a star running back, adjust my roster to capitalize on the fact that computer zone coverage was marshmallow soft against five-wide corner and post routes, and highlight the positions I relied on most while ignoring those I didn't have a use for. I could also recruit fast quarterbacks, which if you played a lot of NCAA football in the 00's, you realized was an incredibly unfair advantage.
The game also changed with the times. The off season recruiting options became more varied as I could do rudimentary scouting, get more information on players, and vary my approach further. Then there was the introduction of in-season recruiting which mirrored real life with official and unofficial visits and the dreaded soft verbal -- which I found almost always meant a player would go elsewhere.
As college finished up and I began to explore the sports news and information world that existed outside the ESPN family of networks, I found that my virtual recruiting obsession was easily transferable to what was happening in real life. I began reading Varsity Blue until it was swallowed up by mgoblog -- which I then became a dedicated follower of. The things I loved from the game were all there. The chase of high level prospects, the uncertainty that was inherent in the boom/bust nature of recruiting, and the myriad of possibilities one could extrapolate simply from the commitment of one 18-year-old kid.
NCAA '99 was my gateway drug into the world of college football recruiting, but more than that it helped me to gain a deeper understanding of not just what it takes to field a great team, but all the things that go into building a great program.
I don't spend nearly as much time playing video games these days, but I spend more time thinking about and writing about sports than ever before, and I have a hard time believing I would be nearly as dedicated -- much less as fervently interested -- without those formative years sweating over week five when I was still waiting for that star quarterback to pick my team.
This post was sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 13. Check out the video for the game below.
EA SPORTS NCAA Football 13 TV: "Son" (via EASPORTS)