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March 13, 2015

How Madden’s Ratings Czar Rules NFL Analytics

Donny Moore probably knows more about the 2,600 players in the National Football League than anybody. As the so-called Ratings Czar for EA Sports, the company behind the Madden football video game franchise, Moore’s numeric assessment of how well each player runs, passes, catches, and tackles holds an improbable level of sway over the game.

While the ratings Moore assigns to each NFL player are used for the purpose of simulating their athletic skills in the Madden video game, it turns out they’re among the best player-by-player collection of analytics down on the gridiron too.

And the fact that Moore maintains his collection of individual player attributes largely by himself leads to some interesting juxtapositions, like when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cameron Newton showed up at Moore’s cubicle at EA Sports campus in Orlando, Florida recently to talk about his ratings.

Madden Attributes_4

Courtesy: FiveThirtyEight

“’I want to talk about my speed,'” Moore remembers Newton saying, writes FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine in an excellent article on the dark art of the Ratings Czar. But when Moore turned around from his bank of computer screens and Newton hobbled across the room on a protective boot—the result of recent ankle surgery–Moore said, “Yeah, let’s talk about your speed.”

It’s harder to rate football players than players in other sports. Baseball, for example, has always been a game of numbers, and statistics like batting average provide a constant variable against which generations of baseball players have been judged. And thanks to the fact that each Major League Baseball team plays 162 games per year, there is an abundance of data to minimize the impact that outliers might have.

But the data is much more sparse in the NFL, whose teams play only 16 games per season. Because of that, analytics has not gained as strong a football in the NFL as it has in other sports. In fact, some general managers and coaches in The League are downright suspicious of analytics.

The NFL’s doubt over dynamics were covered well ESPN, which has a partnership with FiveThirtyEight. ESPN recently rated the analytics prowess of each professional sports team in all four major sports. Interestingly, there were no NFL teams that were “All-In,” or extremely strong believers in sports analytics. Only nine teams made listed as “Believers,” seven were listed as “One Foot In,” 12 were listed as “Skeptics,” and four of the 32 NFL teams were rated as “Nonbelievers.” The situation is reversed in the MLB, according to ESPN, which listed nine teams as “All-In,” seven as “Believers,” six as “One Foot In,” six as “Skeptics,” and two as “Nonbelievers.”

The lack of widespread NFL rankings makes Moore’s ratings, albeit subjective, all the more important. Nevertheless, the fact that Moore comes up with his ratings in relative isolation and with little transparency has irked some fans, and players too.

Madden Attributes_1

Courtesy: FiveThirtyEight

Moore ranks each NFL player across 43 individual attributes, giving him more than 110,000 individual player attributes to set and maintain. Maintaining the accuracy of those ratings–which together are used to generate Madden’s fabled Overall Rating—is of paramount importance to Moore and EA Sports, which has enjoyed an exclusive licensing deal with the NFL for the past 10 years.

Paine writes: “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.”

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