A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Sep 30, 2018

Why Pro Athletes Dispute the Performance of Their Videogame Doubles

Everyone, in every sport, thinks they are better than they're online avatars. JL

Sarah Needleman reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Each year, sports-videogame developers strive to capture the on-field talent of hundreds of athletes in their games, ascribing numerical ratings to player skills. And each year, athletes grouse: No fair. The scores determine how well an athlete’s double performs in the game. “You know people are going to be upset." Some sports games rely on algorithms and human decision-making to update athletes’ ratings. Madden adjusts scores each week for 750 players, based on their real-world performances in 53 categories that include awareness, acceleration and elusiveness.
God was said to make Adam out of clay. Dustin Smith’s creations are built from zeros and ones, but he probably hears many of the same complaints.
Mr. Smith is the ratings czar for the popular videogame series Madden NFL, responsible for imbuing the digital doppelgängers of real-life National Football League players with varying levels of speed, strength and agility. Like most people, players want more.
“My little brother, he always says, ‘Why do they make you so slow?’ ” Baltimore Ravens safety Tony Jefferson said. Mr. Jefferson, himself a longtime Madden player, beseeched Mr. Smith in a private Twitter message last year, saying he deserved a higher score for speed.
Mr. Smith, who works for Madden publisher Electronic Arts Inc., told him to prove it.
“I was like, come on now, do I really have to pull up tape?” said Mr. Jefferson, 26 years old, who nonetheless sent some NFL game highlights.
Mr. Smith bumped up Mr. Jefferson’s speed score two points, to 85 out of a possible 99. Mr. Jefferson said he wasn’t satisfied but let it go.
“You don’t get hardly any praise in this job,” Mr. Smith said.
Each year, sports-videogame developers strive to capture the on-field talent of hundreds of athletes in their games, ascribing numerical ratings to player skills. And each year, athletes grouse: No fair.
The scores determine how well an athlete’s double performs in the game. And Mr. Smith, 33, stands by his calls with the stoicism of a sideline referee getting an earful from a coach. “You know people are going to be upset,” he said.
Some sports games, such as the Sony Corp. baseball series MLB The Show, rely on algorithms and human decision-making to update athletes’ ratings. For Madden, Mr. Smith adjusts scores each week for about 750 players during the season, based on their real-world performances in 53 categories that include awareness, acceleration and elusiveness. He also hears them out.
Mr. Smith got the job of deciding Madden ratings in 2016 and is now experienced handling athletes who claim they are faster and stronger than their videogame doubles.
He learned a rookie lesson when he gave out his cellphone number. Early in the job, he passed his digits to Orleans Darkwa, a free-agent running back who last year played for the New York Giants. Mr. Darkwa said he sent preseason messages to Mr. Smith asking for specific ratings and texted two to three times a month during the season to highlight his achievements.
“I try to make sure he’s minding his P’s and Q’s,” said Mr. Darkwa, who continues to question Mr. Smith while trying to land on a new team. “We argue to this day that my ratings didn’t reflect what I did last year,” Mr. Darkwa said.
Fans also love to second-guess player ratings. “There are ones that hit me up every week” on Twitter, Mr. Smith said, including a Houston Texans fan “who has not let me alone for three straight years.”
Sports videogames ranked third last year in U.S. console and PC sales behind action games and shooting games, according to NPD Group, a market research firm.
The most popular sports videogames release new versions annually, with the yearly unveiling of ratings part of the marketing push. Developers enlist athletes to participate in reaction videos to share on social media.
Player-rating chiefs say they contend with efforts at corruption. “I’ve been propositioned in many different ways,” said Ronnie Singh, also known as “Ronnie 2K.” He is the digital marketing director at Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.’s 2K studio, which makes the NBA 2K basketball games.
One baller recently dangled the possibility of high-end collectible sneakers in exchange for a better score, said Mr. Singh, the liaison between National Basketball Association players and 2K. He isn’t always sure when such offers are a joke, but studiopolicy
prohibits any of it.
In 2009, the now-retired NFL safety Kerry Rhodes went on a mission to prove that he deserved a higher rating in Madden for “throw power,” a stat that, in general, applies only to quarterbacks.
Mr. Rhodes, who played quarterback in high school, created a YouTube video titled “WTF Madden!” He took umbrage that New York Jets teammate Nick Mangold, an offensive lineman, had a higher throw-power rating. The two players competed in skills tests for the video.
Electronic Arts’ ratings guru at the time, Donny Moore, said he raised Mr. Rhodes’s throw rating to 65 from 21. “If we ever add a ‘trolling creativity’ rating to Madden, both Rhodes and Mangold will be rated 99 overall for sure,” said Mr. Moore, who endured player bellyaching in the job for 16 years.
Sports videogames have zero impact on pro careers, but athletes say they can’t help but care about how they are portrayed. Many say they played the games growing up and long dreamed of seeing themselves on the screen.
Rams player Johnny Hekker, the highest-rated punter in the latest NFL videogame, said “to make Madden is the pinnacle of a football player making it.”
This year, Madden has incorporated the faces of more players, including those whose images haven’t yet been scanned into the game. Some players were horrified by what they saw.
“I looked like a thumb,” said Christian Covington, a defensive end for the Texans, “a bald, sweaty, glistening thumb.” He tried drumming up sympathy on Twitter: “Guess I have to accept the fact that I’m ugly now…. Say it ain’t so Madden,” he tweeted last month.
Mr. Covington said it was his dream since a boy to be on Madden NFL and that he has no beef with his player ratings. But, he said, “I feel like I’m above average in looks.”
Tyrone Crawford, a defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, tweeted at Electronic Arts: “Who on your staff felt it ok to make my body look like humpty-dumpty?”
Mr. Smith pledged a digital makeover for some players. Mr. Covington’s replica “does have hair,” Mr. Smith said, in defense. “It’s just not much.”

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