U.S. District Chief Judge Claudia Wilken, Northern District of California
U.S. District Chief Judge Claudia Wilken, Northern District of California (Hillary Jones-Mixon / The Recorder)

OAKLAND — Electronic Arts Inc.’s chief legal officer took the stand Wednesday in Oakland federal court, testifying his company’s video game production was stunted by NCAA restrictions on the use of college athletes’ names and likenesses.

Joel Linzner, EA’s executive vice president of business and legal affairs, said his company tried for years to develop college sports games featuring specific football and men’s basketball players but ran up against the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s blanket prohibition on players licensing and earning money off their names and likenesses. NCAA executives told Linzner that athletes who appeared in EA games would be at risk of losing their eligibility to play, he said.

“Consumers like having the real players in the simulated sports that we develop and publish,” Linzner told U.S. District Chief Judge Claudia Wilken during the second week of the antitrust bench trial. A class of Division I football and men’s basketball players is fighting for the right to enter into licensing agreements and collect royalties based on the use of their names and likenesses.

Lead plaintiffs attorney Michael Hausfeld of the Washington, D.C.-based Hausfeld firm said after court Wednesday that Linzner’s testimony is crucial because it shows there is a market for that information.

The most common request EA consumers made of the company’s college games was to include the real athletes, as it does for its professional sports games, Linzner testified. EA values producing realistic sports games, and abides by the slogan, “if it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” he said.

Linzner and his team met multiple times with NCAA executives in an attempt to convince them to change their rules. In a report produced for one such meeting, EA executives listed those rules as the No. 1 factor holding back their company’s video game growth.

After more than a decade of consistent releases, EA discontinued its college basketball game in 2009 and abandoned its college football game this year. Linzner said the company still would be interested in relaunching the games and obtaining licensing for the players’ avatars once this litigation comes to a close.

Talking to reporters outside the courthouse, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said Linzner’s testimony affirms the NCAA’s position that its rules never wavered, even under pressure from EA to make an exception. “The NCAA and its membership refused,” he said. “That’s very, very clear.”

Plaintiffs attorneys have questioned the NCAA’s commitment to rules prohibiting the payment of student athletes. Last week, the NCAA settled a similar suit, agreeing to pay $20 million to current and former student athletes who claim they were depicted in NCAA-licensed video games without their consent. The NCAA claimed the settlement did not amount to paying athletes for their performance, but plaintiffs attorneys disagreed.

Last year, plaintiffs also settled claims against EA and the Collegiate Licensing Company for $40 million. Plaintiffs had accused EA of misappropriating student athletes as avatars in its games, something EA maintains it did not do.

NCAA attorney Glenn Pomerantz, a partner with Munger, Tolles & Olson, brought up the point during a brief cross-examination of Linzner.

“Our view was that we did not use the name, face, or likeness of any athlete, but there’s lots of plaintiffs lawyers here who claimed otherwise,” Linzner said.

While Hausfeld handled every witness examination Wednesday, Munger Tolles cycled through a roster of litigators, including Pomerantz, Rohit Singla, Kelly Klaus and Carolyn Hoecker Luedtke.

Due to a scheduling conflict, Linzner, a plaintiffs’ witness, testified during the defense case. University of Chicago economist James Heckman, University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides and Stanford University athletic director Bernard Muir testified about the ways in which college sports benefit student athletes.

Pastides testified his school would be in trouble if plaintiffs prevail and athletes are allowed to share in universities’ licensing revenue. The University of South Carolina brings in about $19.7 million a year in royalties from the broadcast of its football and men’s basketball games. If plaintiffs win, they will take about $9.5 million of that revenue, he said.

“That would be a very serious challenge,” Pastides said. “We would look to cutting programs within athletics to make up for that shortfall.”

Contact the reporter at mkendall@alm.com.