WVU football: EA Sports invites Mountaineers to help overhaul NCAA Football recruiting
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Spring football started Sunday at West Virginia University and the focus for a brief window into the first workout was on the five freshman and two junior college players who enrolled in January.
New to the program, they're first-year players who are here ahead of schedule so they can participate in the 15 spring practices before the rest of the newcomers arrive during the summer.
Chances are that they'll be pretty good players because WVU is pretty good at recruiting - at least according to Electronic Arts. The video game giant asked WVU for help last summer in modernizing recruiting for the EA Sports NCAA Football franchise. EA Sports had never consulted with a college about recruiting.
"Everything we've done for the game previously was what made sense to us and what we felt was the right way to do recruiting with the limited abilities within the game to emulate recruiting and have it be fun," said EA Sports producer Ben Haumiller.
"Then it was, 'OK, we've done that. It's time to change the way recruiting works.' It got a little stale, a little old, and we thought it was time to give it a new feel and a fresh look. We wanted to go out and take advantage of the opportunities we have. We have connections. We bring in coaches to talk Xs and Os and concepts and break down film all the time. We'd never extended to other aspects, particularly recruiting."
EA Sports invited the Mountaineers to its Tiburon Studios office in Orlando, Fla., in July. The insight from director of football operations Alex Hammond and coordinator of recruiting operations Ryan Dorchester will be incorporated into the next NCAA Football video game due out this summer.
"From a branding perception, whenever you can get West Virginia involved in something that is such a national icon in the very demographic, to the very market we're going after, that's certainly an exciting opportunity for WVU," said Hammond, WVU's recruiting coordinator before his promotion in 2011.
"I think it shows that what we do in recruiting is interesting and relevant to people who bring the world of recruiting to a mainstream use."
Hammond and Dorchester bought the most recent game a few weeks before their trip. They spent one weekend when Hammond's wife was out of town simulating the games and giving great time and attention to the recruiting process.
They decided to focus on the parts that were either too simple in the game or weren't quite like real life.
"It wasn't necessarily how you recruit a kid," Dorchester said. "That's hard. I don't know how you can really replicate that in a video game. A lot of it was saying, 'Here are some things that we feel aren't necessarily realistic in the video game and here's how those things happen in real life.' Understanding it can't exactly be simulated in a video game, we just wanted to give them an idea of what it was like on this side of the table."
EA Sports will specifically thank WVU for its help in the next edition, which is something the Mountaineers can point at when recruits are visiting.
"What's exciting to me is that WVU and what we're doing has a place on the national radar," Hammond said. "There could have been plenty of colleges they wanted to talk to and they talked to us."
When NCAA Football '14 comes out in July, it will introduce some changes influenced by WVU's visit, though EA Sports can't share them just yet.
"There are definitely features that we've added and things that have happened that are based on the conversation we had with them," producer/designer Christian McLeod said. "There are a couple key points that eventually we'll be able to talk about that are the direct result of the conversation we had."
Expect recruiting to be more realistic. That was the only goal Hammond and Dorchester had. They found it odd a player never de-committed. They noticed variables like academics, coaching changes and the success of a season weren't factored into the process. They didn't think junior college recruits were represented in ways that explain their value.
Once they had a list, Hammond and Dorchester created had a PowerPoint presentation that opened their meeting and explained their position. When the Mountaineers were done representing themselves, EA Sports people started firing off questions. The meeting went for hours, pausing once for lunch, when the conversation was again mostly about recruiting and how WVU would advise EA Sports to do it better.
"One thing that struck us was how well West Virginia recruits the state of Florida," McLeod said. "Look at Morgantown and the snow and cold. How do they come in and steal kids from the sunny warmth of Florida? I'm from the north and I'd never go back there after living (in Florida).
"It was so fascinating to hear their stories and see strategies and find ways to translate that into the logic of the game. You have different player types, different personality types. How do you have success building those pipelines? A lot of schools up north face similar challenges."
Hammond and Dorchester knew topics like that could explain the depth of the recruiting process, but also validate their assistance.
"What West Virginia has to do on the recruiting front is a microcosm of college football recruiting in general," Hammond said. "We deal with issues that maybe some schools don't have to deal with as much as we do. Some schools draw a border around their state and say, 'That's it.' Some schools don't recruit junior colleges. We have to recruit a little more nationally and we have to look at junior colleges."
By the end, the Mountaineers had explained their obstacles and their familiarity with getting around them to give EA Sports a better look at how varied and challenging recruiting is. EA Sports knew quickly it had invited the right people.
"I don't think if we'd gone down to the University of Texas and sat down and talked about recruiting we would have gotten the same input," Haumiller said. "They'd say, 'We go around our state and pick who we want.' It was very interesting to listen to West Virginia, because they don't have that."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.