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Galen Clavio
IU School of Public Health-Bloomington

Tracy James
IU Communications

Charles Rondot
IU School of Public Health-Bloomington

Last modified: Wednesday, May 1, 2013

IU study: Gamers recognize college football players in video games

May 1, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The compensation of college athletes -- illegally and potentially -- is a contentious issue and the subject of a lawsuit challenging the use of college athletes' likenesses in video games. An Indiana University study found that many video gamers not only recognize athletes in the games but erroneously think the amateur athletes endorse the games.

"The results paint a picture of a college football video game experience which exists as a virtual mirror image of the 'real' college football world, containing not only the officially licensed and easily recognizable marks and logos of the NCAA and its members, but also the recognizable, but unlicensed, likenesses of college football players," Galen Clavio and Patrick Walsh, assistant professors in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, wrote in "Digital Representations in College Sports Video Games," published in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics.

The lawsuit, Ed O'Bannon v. the NCAA, accuses the NCAA of unlawfully using college athletes' likenesses in video games created by EA Sports, also a defendant in the lawsuit. The games have generated hundreds of millions of dollars, said Clavio, an expert in sports communication and marketing. But athletes, current and past, see none of this revenue because regulations forbid the compensation of college athletes beyond scholarships.

The lawsuit could become a class action lawsuit after a class certification hearing in June. The NCAA maintains that, under present amateurism rules, student-athletes may not receive compensation for the use of their likenesses in commercial activities of the association and member institutions.

EA Sports argued it does not use athletes' likenesses in video games. Athletes in the football games, for example, do not have names. Clavio, who enjoys playing sports video games in addition to researching them, said that attributes assigned to video game athletes -- along with a video game culture that includes online user groups populating rosters -- make it fairly easy to identify athletes.

Clavio said he found it troubling that the NCAA and EA Sports said they were not using athletes' likenesses when it seemed obvious that they were. So he designed a study to see what other video gamers thought. The game "NCAA Football" is heavily marketed to college students, so Clavio surveyed 422 students from four small, medium and large NCAA-member universities.

Here are some findings from the study:

  • About 56 percent of respondents reported that the presence of real players in the games was somewhat or extremely important.
  • Respondents identified national marquee athletes 50 percent of the time.
  • Respondents identified local players 24 percent of the time.
  • 15 percent of respondents were uncertain and 10 percent were under the impression that athletes endorsed the games in which they appeared.

Clavio said video game players are more interested in having actual players in their games. Professional athletes appear in popular video games involving NFL teams, for example.

The lawsuit involves football video games, but Clavio said the likenesses of players is also an issue in video games based on college basketball. The attributes of players in the video games resemble those of marquee players, and names similar to these athletes are listed on the video games' rosters.

"It's disingenuous for the NCAA to say, 'We're not using college athletes' likenesses,' but then to make millions of dollars from these likenesses," he said.

Co-authors include Anastasios Kaburakis, St. Louis University; David A. Pierce, Ball State University; and Heather Lawrence, Ohio University.

Clavio can be reached at 812-855-3367 or The Sports Management, Marketing and Communication Program is in the School of Public Health's Department of Kinesiology. For additional assistance or for a copy of the study, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 or

About the School of Public Health-Bloomington

With nearly 3,000 students in an array of undergraduate and advanced degree programs, the School of Public Health-Bloomington offers a traditional campus experience enriched by 21st-century innovation. More than 120 faculty in five academic departments -- Department of Kinesiology;Department of Applied Health Science; Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies; Department of Environmental Health; and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics -- conduct major research, teach and engage with communities across a broad spectrum of health, wellness and disease-prevention topics. Each department offers numerous majors, minors and opportunities for graduate and undergraduate studies. In addition to its academic departments, the school administers Campus Recreational Sports, which serves roughly 80 percent of the IU Bloomington student body through various intramural, club and individual sports opportunities.