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Performance Enhancing Plugs – Which Sports Game Is Guilty Of Inflated Ratings?

by Matt Bertz on Apr 06, 2015 at 11:23 AM

Every year when I fire up the latest NHL game, I shake my head in disbelief at the questionable decision-making surrounding the player ratings. Old players way past their prime (Martin Havlat), young players who never amounted to anything (James Sheppard), and career fourth liners (Eric Nystrom) are perennially placed on the same level as hot up and comers like Flames rookie phenom Johnny Gaudreau. 

We’re not sure who in their right mind would give frequent healthy scratch Sean Bergenheim (who Florida just traded near the deadline) the same rating as a budding star like Nick Bjugstad (who Florida just signed to a lucrative six-year contract), but someone at EA Canada thinks that makes sense. Inconsistencies like this abound, and are made worse by EA Canada’s stubborn resistance to adjusting player ratings on a regular basis throughout the course of the season. 

Based on my experience playing other sports games, skewed ratings seem to be an isolated issue with the NHL series, but to make sure I decided to run the numbers. We tallied the ratings for each player on the professional rosters for NHL 15, NBA 2K15, Madden NFL 15, and the recently released MLB 15: The Show.

Which game gives the most generous player ratings, which is the stingiest, and which has found the best balance? The results proved interesting.  

Sony San Diego takes an even-handed approach to player ratings, placing the majority of ball players in the 70s to keep the league from feeling top heavy. Rating a mere 3.8 percent of players 90 and above puts a premium on star players. This approach places the series in the middle of the pack compared to other sports games.

Looking at the players rated 80 or above, starting pitching took a major precedence over the other positions. A whopping 73 starters cracked the 80 mark, with 18 relievers and 18 closers crossing the same threshold by comparison. The most skill rich positions on the rest of the diamond were second base and left field, with 17 players apiece rated 80 or above. 

Overall, Sony embraced a wider range between good and bad players; MLB 15 is one of only two sports games to stretch ratings into the 40s and 50s. While that may anger the Joe Pattersons of the world, it's a more forceful approach to player differentiation, which can sometimes be necessary given the majority of players are constructed from the same set of animations in sports games. 

The tough graders at Visual Concepts are stingy with handing out exceptional grades. Of the 413 players on the NBA rosters, only 4 were deemed dominant enough to get a 90 rating or above when the game shipped – LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Tim Duncan. That number eventually rose to seven through roster updates throughout the season. The new members of the 90-plus club were well deserved given the on-court dominance of Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. The 38-year-old future hall of famer Duncan had his rating drop to 89.

The NBA 2K ratings accurately reflect positional talent surpluses and deficiencies found in the NBA. The league is going through a point guard renaissance, which is why this position had the highest number of players rated 80 and above. Centers and power forwards had similar numbers ranked in the 80s, leaving the wing positions as the weakest in the league. Only nine shooting guards and eight small forwards cracked the 80 threshold. 

Like The Show, the majority of players received average grades in the 70s. Visual Concepts didn’t bother using any ratings below 60. I’m sure anyone who has been forced to watch the Knicks, 76ers, and Timberwolves this year would disagree with that decision…

I’ve felt that Madden has the most accurate player ratings of any sports games for years now, so I was curious to see how the game stacked up against the competition. The development team at EA Tiburon has a not-so-secret weapon in ratings czar Donnie Moore, who works tirelessly to keep rosters up to date and accurate. With 2,219 players to account for, this is a full-time gig. Most importantly, he is visible in the Madden community and willing to defend his ratings should someone ask how he came to a particular decision. That transparency and malleability is valuable.

Of all the sports games we analyzed, Madden has the highest percentage of players rated 90 or above. But at the same time, it’s the only game that has more than 20 percent of players rated 60 and below. This wider talent gap on paper manifests itself well in the game; when you are controlling a highly rated skill player, you truly feel like he can be a difference maker. At the same time, if you have a lowly rated player you are going to have to adjust your play calling to keep the opponent from exposing your weakness. This aligns with the chess match game planning NFL coaches do on a weekly basis. 

My initial thinking regarding NHL proved correct – the player ratings are grossly inflated in comparison to other sports games. The average player rating is 82 – nearly 7 points higher than the other games we analyzed. An astounding 74 percent of players are rated 80 and above. Since only 4.4 percent are rated 90 or above, that means the game has a glut of players in the 80s. 

This intense grouping of similarly rated players means that the skill gap between good players and average players is barely recognizable, which hurts the on-ice experience. Goalies in particular are hardly distinguishable; only 5 of the 68 netminders on the current NHL rosters are rated below 80. This includes sieves like Edmonton Oilers goalie Viktor Fasth, who has an embarrassing 3.41 GAA and .888 save percentage, making him the worst goalie in the league of those who have appeared in more than 20 games this season. His rating (84) is only one point lower than Minnesota Wild savior Devan Dubnyk, who is second in the NHL with a 2.06 GAA and .929 save percentage.

The inflated ratings also makes teams who are tough to watch on a nightly basis in the real world seem like contenders in the video game. For instance, the bottom dwelling Buffalo Sabres, who have only won 22 of 77 games thus far this year, boast 15 players rated above 80 on the roster. That’s enough to fill out three forward lines and three defensive pairings of capable players. If coach Ted Nolan's roster with that many quality players on it, chances are they would be fighting for a playoff spot instead of angling to win the Connor McDavid sweepstakes in the NHL Entry Draft. This is a far cry from the series that once awarded pros like Tony Twist and Shawn Chambers single digit ratings.

So there you have it – NHL is the clear outlier on player ratings when you compare them to the other North American sports games on the market. Hopefully, the developers at EA Canada take corrective measures and find a new ratings philosophy that feels more aligned with reality.