TRENDING NEWS:  Tuesday, Feb 24th 2015

How Madden Ratings are Made

THE SECRET PROCESS THAT TURNS NFL PLAYERS INTO DIGITAL GODS

[Five Thirty Eight]

unched over a keyboard, surrounded by computer monitors, Donny Moore, 37, controls the fate of the National Football League. Its players throw as hard as Moore wants. They run as fast as he says they should. And the stars of America’s most popular sport aren’t always delighted by his judgments.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, for instance, was upset. “I want to talk about my speed,” Moore remembers Newton saying as he clambered into Moore’s cubicle last April.

Despite leading all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards in 2013, Newton ranked as only the ninth-fastest QB in the league, according to Moore — hence Newton’s unhappiness. But as Moore wheeled around from his den of screens, he was confronted by not only Newton, but also an enormous boot on Newton’s foot, the result of recent ankle surgery.

“Yeah,” Moore said as Newton hobbled toward him, “let’s talk about your speed.”

Eventually, Newton was pleading with Moore to not make him slower.

Such is the power afforded Moore, a hyperactive Floridian who works as the official Ratings Czar1 for EA Sports’ Madden NFL video-game franchise.

In that role, Moore is tasked with assigning more than 40 numerical grades to each of the NFL’s roughly 2,600 players,2 evaluating them in categories ranging from passing accuracy to tackling ability. Moore’s process has largely been a black box, and yet it shapes how more than5 million gamers simulate pro football — particularly because there’s no official alternative to his numbers. A decade after signing acontroversial exclusivity deal with the league and the players union, Madden3 is still the only licensed NFL game in town.

In fact, an entire culture has grown up around Madden and its attempts to distill human athleticism into numbers. It is all good marketing for EA Sports but also speaks to the sway Madden holds. The ratings are a de facto time capsule from the year they were produced, a digital archive that offers players some measure of immortality in a sport where the average career lasts only a shade over three years.

“It’s important to these guys that they be rated 99 in speed; it’s important to somebody that he have the best arm in the game,” Owen S. Good, a writer for the video-game news site Polygon, told me.

The allure of the Madden rating might also speak to the relative lack of meaningful statistics in football itself. It would be strange for a baseball player to complain about his ratings in MLB: The Show, for instance, because a realistic baseball simulator (by necessity) has ratings grounded in actual statistics. But in a sport where objective measurements are often inadequate, subjective numbers — like those generated by Moore — take on greater currency.

All these factors put more pressure on Moore to produce ratings of ever-increasing accuracy even as they highlight the fundamental paradox limiting Madden’s realism: It’s nearly impossible to accurately simulate some players as long as a gamer must assume control of the athlete’s brain.

Madden has generated more than $4 billion in revenue over its 26-year lifetime.

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