Southeast is in the game

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Southeast Missouri State University football players take their sport very seriously. They're highly competitive, like most intercollegiate athletes around the nation.

But many of the Indians also seek gridiron glory of a different form.

It's called video football. There is an NFL variety that is extremely popular with the actual players in that league, and the NCAA version of the game is a favorite on numerous college campuses across the country -- Southeast included.

"I'd say at least 70 percent of the people on the team have this game, as much as they might not want to admit it," said Southeast senior Justin DeShon. "And I think most players at schools all over the country have this game."

Added a smiling DeShon, "And we take it pretty seriously. We're all competitive, and nobody likes to lose."

The game DeShon was referring to is "NCAA Football 2005," a product of EA Sports, which puts out video games for virtually all of the major professional sports leagues and organizations. Although there are a variety of companies that produce sports video games, EA Sports is the only one that has an NCAA Football version.

According to an EA Sports press release, last year NCAA Football 2004 sold more than 1 million copies and was the second-best selling football video game in North American, behind "Madden NFL 2004," also produced by EA Sports. Early sales for "NCAA Football 2005," which came out in July, were more than 50 percent above the same period last year.

"We're the only company putting out college games, and it's very popular," said EA Sports publicist Jennifer Gonzalez, whose company is headquartered in Redwood City, Calif.

A realistic game

DeShon, who is widely regarded as the NCAA Football guru of the Southeast squad, said he believes what makes the game so popular is its realistic nature as virtually everything that goes on during a real contest can be recreated on the television screen.

"NCAA Football 2005" features all 119 Division I-A teams and has added 16 Division I-AA teams -- including Southeast and the rest of the Ohio Valley Conference -- to bring the total number of I-AA squads to 78 (EA Sports also puts out an NCAA basketball game featuring every Division I team, including Southeast, and that has also proven to be popular with the Indians' basketball players).

"Since they added us this year, I thought that was pretty cool," said sophomore starting offensive lineman John Ball. "It's pretty much like our roster."

Players with the "NCAA Football 2005" game can use any of those 197 teams to be their squad for a particular contest, and they can match up that team with any other of the squads. The game also comes with historic teams featuring some of the great squads from the past.

"You can play any team you want, this year's SEMO team with the 1998 Miami team if you want," DeShon said. "It's pretty neat that way."

"NCAA Football 2005" features virtually everything from announcers -- in this case Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso from ESPN and ABC fame -- to packed stadiums with roaring crowds to the opening coin toss to halftime shows to late heroics and just about anything else that might take place on a typical Saturday at most college campuses across the country.

The video players determine everything that goes into a game, including calling all the plays, setting up offensive and defensive schemes, moving the players, and passing and handing off the ball -- all with their controller.

Every team in NCAA Football 2005 features players wearing the uniforms representing the particular school, and also the actual uniform numbers of the players from that school, along with fairly accurate representations of height and weight.

A difference between the NFL game and the college version, however, is that since NCAA regulations prohibit the official re-creation of any player, names cannot be used, although numbers can. However, actual names can be downloaded into the system to match up with the uniform numbers, which DeShon said is a fairly easy thing to do in order to make the games even more realistic.

"We put in the names, and it makes it even better," DeShon said.

Said Gonzalez: "This takes so much research to have all these teams as realistic as possible, but our tagline is 'If it's in the game, it's in the game.' And the NCAA has been a very good partner in that they provide as much information as we need. We also work closely with the conferences and teams."

As for the announcers, yes, Nessler, Herbstreit and Corso will actually talk about Southeast if that team is chosen, although no players will be named, just the numbers because of the NCAA regulations.

"The production team that makes the game spends hours upon hours with scripts and scripts," Gonzalez said.

I-A teams have an edge

One of the few things DeShon said he doesn't like about the game is that he doesn't think the I-AA teams and players are portrayed fairly enough, making it almost impossible for those squads to compete with the I-A programs based on the player and unit rankings (offense, defense, special teams, etc.) that the game assigns.

DeShon believes most I-AA players are ranked particularly low, perhaps in part because he figures that, with so much research to do, the game's producers simply don't have the time to devote to I-AA.

"So the I-AAs are like the stepchild," DeShon said. "The player ranking has everything to do with it, no matter how good you are at the game, so basically the I-As will dominate.

"That's why we don't really even use SEMO when we play, because they've made the I-AA teams slower. We use the best teams the most."

However, it is possible to customize the players and change their rankings, which then can even up things against the major programs.

The I-AA programs also get pushed a bit into the background with the game because, whereas all 119 I-A stadiums are recreated, the I-AA teams simply use one uniform stadium.

"With all the teams that are in there, it's just too hard to re-create every single stadium," Gonzalez said.

DeShon rates the best

DeShon, a reserve defensive end/linebacker from Maryville, Mo., has seen limited positional action during his Southeast career, although coach Tim Billings said he is invaluable as the Indians' long snapper.

But DeShon is rated hands down the premier player in NCAA Football. When the teams players use are fairly close in ranking -- which DeShon said is basically a must in order to have a competitive game-- then he generally comes out on top.

"Justin is the best, no doubt about it," said senior All-American offensive lineman Dan Bieg.

Added assistant coach J.P. Hall with a laugh: "Justin's the computer geek on the team, so that might explain it."

DeShon laughed at that comment, but he's not about to dispute the fact that he's the video football king of the Indians -- or that he spends plenty of time with the game, although he did want to point out that he also still finds plenty of time to study and have a social life.

"I just really love to play. It's pretty realistic, and if you play football, no matter what school you go to, these games might not be like the ones on the field, but it's as close as it gets," he said. "I saw a deal on ESPN where Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said he plays the NFL game like seven hours a day. I don't play that much, but I usually play a game or two a night, and the good thing is you can make a game last 30 minutes or three or four hours like a regular game.

DeShon is not alone. Said Bieg: "Pretty much all of us play."

Added DeShon: "We play all the time on weekends if we don't go out, on weeknights. During two-a-days, when we were in the dorm, we played all the time at night."

More often than not, DeShon -- who has been in the program five years after redshirting his freshman season -- prevails.

"I'm undefeated against anybody on the team this year," he said. "I've lost to some guys since I've been here, but I usually win."

And how do DeShon's teammates take it?

"Nobody likes to lose. It's that competitive fire," he said, smiling.

DeShon also often tries his hand against online opponents, and he said he still fares pretty well.

While the initial investment in NCAA Football 2005 can be fairly expensive -- the game itself generally costs about $50 and a game system can be as much as $150 -- once those two items are purchased, DeShon said the enjoyment derived can be immeasurable.

"It's not that cheap, but once you have the game, then you can basically use it all the time," he said.

At least until NCAA Football 2006 comes out next summer. Then you can expect Southeast players to once again rush the stores.

"Since we've been here this summer, we've been waiting for this game to come out, and it did in July," Bieg said. "It'll be the same thing next year and probably every year after that. Everybody likes to play, and I don't see that changing."

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