Caleb Williams used to be a Duck. An Oregon Duck to be exact.
Picture it: 11-year-old Caleb wielding controls of his Playstation while, on the screen, Oregon’s explosive tandem of Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas danced to touchdowns in the EA Sports' College Football video game.
“I used to play with the Ducks and go tear it up,” Williams, now the quarterback of Pac-12 rival USC, said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to play the game again.”
Soon, he’ll have the chance. But will the next version of the EA Sports college football game include the reigning Heisman Trophy winner’s name, image and likeness?
He’s not so sure.
During an interview with Yahoo Sports, Williams expressed excitement in the game’s scheduled return in 2024 while also questioning EA’s reported compensation plan of paying each player $500 to appear in the game without royalties — an amount and concept reported by On3 and one that EA itself described as “speculation.”
Williams suggested a player’s value — experience, playing time, accolades, etc. — should be considered in determining their compensation level.
“Thing about life is, you have to adjust to anything. Businesses and brands and things like that have to adjust to the new brand of college. I’d love to have the game back, but it’s the new day and age and everybody knows what the new day and age in college is,” said Williams, referencing the burgeoning NIL industry in which he’s thrived.
“It’s like if you go to school and you are a straight-A student and there’s another kid whose strong suit isn’t school and he gets B's or B-minuses. How fair would it be if you get the same grade as him? That never works in school and it doesn’t make sense. That’s how I look at that game with the situation with the $500.”
For some players, the $500 is adequate. For others, it is not, Williams insisted.
“It depends on who you are and your situation and if you earned it,” he continued. “There’s certain people that have been in college for many years and been playing for many years, and there’s other guys who have been in college for many years and haven’t played and haven’t been doing this and that. It depends on your situation and who you are and what you have actually earned. I’m not talking about money earned… I’m talking about all the hard work you’ve put in.”
Fittingly, Williams spoke to Yahoo Sports in promoting one of his newest NIL endeavors — a partnership with United Airlines. Williams, a Washington D.C. native who broke out as a freshman at Oklahoma and then followed coach Lincoln Riley to USC, has entered into deals with several brands, including Neutrogena, PlayStation, AC+ION Water, AT&T and Beats by Dre. He recently was announced as the newest face of "Fansville," Dr. Pepper’s series of college football-inspired TV commercials.
Like many within the college athletics industry, Williams believes that NIL is only the first step in a more extensive athlete compensation system. He’s unsure if he’d want to be an employee of a school, but he expects that college football will continue evolving. He is encouraging leaders to stop preventing the sport’s evolution in terms of athlete pay, firing a flare toward administrators who create NCAA legislation.
“I was talking to Matt [Leinart] and he said he went into shotgun six times the whole year at USC,” Williams said. “That’s football evolving. Outside of football, we have NIL now. College has to evolve. Sports have to evolve.
“It’s just, how do the people in charge adapt to it and not hold things back and make stupid rules to affect people instead of protect people?”
Williams was the featured player of Week 0, when a handful of college football teams kicked off the year. His USC Trojans, ranked No. 6 in the preseason AP poll, rolled over San Jose State on Saturday, beginning his Heisman Trophy defense with a bang.
Williams’ thoughts on the EA Sports college football game follows a movement from leaders of the College Football Players Association to encourage athletes to boycott their appearance in the game because of the reported small payout and lack of royalties. Jason Stahl, the CFPA’s executive director, said he’s pleased with the conversation sparked by his group’s statement earlier this summer.
“Even if players disagree with our position, we’re happy that there is a thought process happening,” Stahl said. “In terms of where it goes, that remains to be seen. Now EA has come out and said that EA hasn’t offered yet and are going to wait until early 2024 to offer players. That’s all fantastic in my mind. I think our campaign had an effect. We raised the questions and it is now being talked about.”
In multiple public statements this summer, EA Sports has been clear that the company has not yet distributed offers to any players for the potential use of their likeness. In May, EA Sports announced that it had contracted with OneTeam Partners, a college sports group licensing company, to facilitate deals with athletes.
This prompted a lawsuit from another college-based group licensing entity, The Brandr Group, which works with more than 50 Division I schools. A judge rejected The Brandr Group’s attempt to issue a restraining order against EA. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 19.
Despite the lawsuit and boycott movement, EA Sports is on schedule to release the game in time for the 2024 season after a decade-plus hiatus. The company last released a game in 2013 before legal challenges over the use of players’ NIL discontinued the series, most notably a case involving former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon.