Sports video games have come a long way since Pong.
These days, franchises like Madden, FIFA and NBA2K let gamers immerse themselves in an alternate reality in which they control their favourite teams and players both on the field of play and through the front office.
The depth involved in a lot of these games has pretty much reached mind-blowing status in recent years. Individual players have signature styles, tendencies and personalities. Gear and uniforms are personalised from head to toe. Specific team strategies and playbooks are implemented to honour the way they approach competition. Heck, MLB The Show even switches every player's number to 42 when it's Jackie Robinson Day.
Younger gamers may be jaded by the amount of detail that's programmed into newer games, but those who are old enough to have been around for the clunky, dated instalments can appreciate the insane level of commitment that goes into making modern digital sports worlds as authentic and true-to-life as possible.
And with each new annual release of these games come new features and old tweaks that bring an even more intense level of depth and detail. EA Sports' Madden NFL, one of the longest running and most beloved sports games on the market, drops its latest release (Madden 17) this week, and with it comes a variety of new bells and whistles.
But just like people are obligated to complain about the wonder of human flight being too inconvenient or the magical little cellular devices in their pockets not working as desired, people have to find something to complain about with video games. For sports games, arguably the most common complaints surround player ratings.
Player ratings are essentially the lifeblood of sports video games. However different each game's process of determining ratings may be, the end result helps create digital characters that possess similar strengths and weaknesses as their real-life counterpart. Without player ratings, all the other details are rendered pretty much useless. Who wants to take control of a digital character that looks and acts like Cam Newton but plays nothing like the MVP? If you've got a world full of generic, uniform, unspectacular players, you've got nothing at all.
So, with player ratings being so crucial to an authentic sports simulation experience, it's not shocking that some people get upset when they feel that a certain rating doesn't accurately represent a player's skill level or ability. But what about the actual, real life professional athletes ... do they get frustrated when they feel their digital selves don't get enough love?
"Yes. All the time," said former NFL lineman Clint Oldenburg. If anybody would know about the delicacy of player ratings, it's Oldenburg, a journeyman offensive tackle who spent five years in the NFL with the Patriots, Jets, Rams, Broncos, Vikings, and Redskins. After retiring from football in 2012, Oldenburg joined the Madden development team at EA Sports, where he still serves as a gameplay designer.
"I have yet to hear an NFL player contact us and say 'Man you really nailed my rating, you got it right,' which is understandable," said Oldenburg when I spoke to him over the phone. "Everyone in the NFL is competitive and think that they are really good at different things but we have to balance the game and make it play the way that we think it needs to play to reflect real life, and it is what it is. Guys are just not going to be happy. It's just like the NFL draft, if you're not drafted No. 1, you're probably not going to be happy."
Just recently, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson took to Twitter to voice his displeasure with Washington Redskins corner Josh Norman taking the honours of highest rated CB in Madden 17. Peterson replied to a video of Norman getting burnt in practice and called Madden "a joke."
Norman, who is a rated at a 94 overall, clapped back at Peterson (rated 91 overall) and poked fun at him for being just the fourth best corner in the game. Kermit the Frog is not impressed.
While Peterson is one the latest to share complaints regarding his Madden rating, he's certainly not the first, and he likely won't be the last.
Peterson's approach was pretty salty, but some guys approach their displeasure in more lighthearted and creative fashion. Take veteran Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano.
Back in 2013, Gano approached Oldenburg, a former teammate on the Redskins, with a request to bump up his speed in the game. Gano, who was given a 65 speed rating in the prior year's game, thought that he deserved more credit for his wheels. After all, Gano still holds his high school records for the 100-meter dash (10.55), 200-meter dash (21.70) and 400-meter dash (50.00) more than 10 years after he set them. The guy can run.
"He showed me a video of when he won the 100 meter dash when he was in high school to get us to increase his speed rating," said Oldenburg of Gano. The best part? It actually worked. Gano's speed went up to a 75 in the next edition of Madden.
"We did give him a bit of speed boost, because he showed us evidence that he was faster than what we had him rated," said Oldenburg. "Giving him a bit of a speed boost in Madden isn't going to break the game because you can't put a kicker at wide receiver. So that one was safe."
But, as the old saying goes, you give someone an inch and they'll try to take a mile.
A couple years later and Gano was back campaigning for ratings boost again, this time clearly unsatisfied with his strength rating. He openly campaigned for a revision by tweeting a video of himself bench-pressing to a couple of the guys involved in the ratings process at Madden, including Oldenburg.
Despite the impressive weight room display, there was no increase this time around. But Gano can take solace in the fact that he's not the only player to have his request denied. Even MVPs get shut down sometimes.
"Cam Newton stopped in a couple years ago after he had his foot surgery," Oldenburg recalled. "He came in with a walking boot and crutches and he was sitting down with our ratings guy and he looked over his ratings and he said, 'How come you have my speed so low? You've gotta bump me up like five points. I'm faster than x y and z players ahead of me.' And our ratings guy looked down at him and said, 'Dude, look, you're wearing a boot, how could I possibly give you a speed boost?'"
But, at the end of the day, Oldenburg understands. Even he had his own fair share of gripes with the Madden series during his playing days. Not only was he unhappy with the fact that he was "rated very poorly," but he says that the game also frequently misrepresented the type of player he was by screwing up what he believed were his strengths and weaknesses.
"They had me rated as a power or gap type blocker, so all my strength ratings were really high and my speed and agility ratings were really low, but I was a zone blocker," said Oldenburg. " I was more of an agile lineman - smaller, quicker, lighter. I played in zone schemes in college and all my pro teams were zone schemes. So, I was like 'man ... do they even know what kind of player I am?'"
And while it's unfortunate that older versions of Madden inaccurately represented his skill set, at least they recognised the position he played. That's more than can be said for guys like Joe Cardona, current longsnapper for the New England Patriots. Though the 24-year-old Cardona played in all 16 regular season games for the Pats last season, he shares the lowest rating in all of Madden 17 with a 40 (out of 99) overall, mainly because Madden doesn't support the longsnapper position yet.
Cardona is aware of that distinction and, while he told me he's not that bothered by it since he doesn't play the game himself, he does feel like longsnappers are "being thrown under the bus a little bit." When asked if he wanted to relay a message to the folks at Madden, he had a simple request: "Respect the position."
"That's actually one of our shortcomings," said Oldenburg. "The reason why the long snappers are generally rated the lowest is because we have to put them at another position like linebacker, tight end, and when we put them at that position we can't give them a rating relative to the importance to the team because if that user were to put them as linebacker or at tight end, we would want to reflect that players skills at playing that position."
One of the most famous Madden player rating protests came involving another longsnapper, former Washington Redskins snapper Ethan Albright. After the release of Madden 07, a now-defunct sports blog penned a hilariously vulgar open letter (as Albright) to John Madden complaining about the longsnapper's atrocious rating in the game, saying they may as well have "slapped a - 4 on me and had the EA staff ambush me with paintball guns."
Supporting the longsnapper position is something that Oldenburg says they "want to get in the game very badly," but it just hasn't happened yet.
The ratings process isn't perfect and Madden is never going to make everyone happy, but while a gamer's eye test may tell them that a certain player may be underrated or overrated, there's a good chance that the developers at Madden have more resources at their disposal. According to Oldenburg, film analysis accounts for "well over half" of Madden's data when it comes to rankings, but they also consult metric sites and player grade sites like Pro Football Focus. The team even weighs public perception of players when arriving at a number.
Where it gets tricky is when they're forced to factor in the effects of injury or age. Rating the physical attributes of younger guys is easier because they usually have a ton of combine or Pro Day data that can be plotted on a scale, with relatively low physical wear and tear to consider. Veterans or oft-injured players present a tougher approach.
"Anquan Boldin has been a great player in the NFL for a number of years, but we have a hard time trying to figure out how much speed he has lost over his career," says Oldenburg. "Or a guy like Robert Griffin, who has had multiple knee injuries. How big of an impact does that have on his physical ability? It's something that, once you're an NFL player and out of the combine, they don't really do those tests. There's no metrics that really tell us how fast you are how strong you are when you're 30 instead of 21."
Though sometimes they get it wrong, the game has continued to show a willingness to adapt. During the season, ratings are tweaked weekly to reflect recent performances of players, so if a guy is coming off a few big performances, he'll likely see a spike in his rating(s). Conversely, if somebody is stinking it up on the field, they'll probably have to deal with their Madden rating slipping as well.
By all accounts, rating players is a tedious and painstaking process that is still far from a perfect science. Maybe some day football fans and players will boot up their copy of Madden and all harmoniously praise how spot-on the in-game ratings are before dancing in the street and then going out for ice cream. But for now, even with its imperfections, the science is still nothing short of incredible.