Making people into numbers sounds like a weird job.
The most interesting and widely debated aspect of any sports video game revolves around the process of establishing player ratings. You're taking a human being, creating a digital version of him, then trying to use various measures to modify that version to be as close to the real thing as possible. It's basically a digital clone. And it's a business taken very seriously.
Athletes check their video game ratings and, predictably, almost never agree with them. It causes debate, stirs controversy, and most importantly, can swing the tide of a game. But how are these measures created? In the past, it's just been random subjective evaluations. But in the now, games are creating new and more objective ways to create these ratings.
EA Sports is set to return to the basketball field this summer with NBA Live 14. It's the studio's first release since 2009 after the disastrous NBA Elite 11 title was canceled. 2K Sports' "NBA 2k" franchise has had a lockdown on the genre for years, and is considered the standard bearer, but EA believes they're bringing a real contender to challenge 2K with NBA Live 14.
I wanted to know more about what EA has done to develop its rating system, so I spoke with NBA Live Executive Producer Sean O'Brien. What follows is a Question & Answer & Response, where I give a little bit of reaction and analysis to O'Brien's answers:
Q: What goes into the process of evaluating and determining rankings?
A: With our exclusive relationship with Synergy Sports Technologies, we have somewhat of a unique approach to how ratings work in NBA LIVE vs. other sports games. Synergy Sports provides us with the same data and tendencies that they provide all 30 NBA teams. That data drives player tendencies in our game ... who shoots the ball, where on the court do they shoot it from, does a player drive left or right, do they look to score in the post, through an isolation, through a screen and roll, etc. This data is then fed to our connected consumers within an hour of when a game is played in the real world. For the entire season. That way, NBA LIVE is able to evolve just like the real NBA season. We are attempting to be the first sports game to only use objective data to drive how the players and teams play within our game. There are still some subjective ratings within the game as this is a multi-year process and an enormous amount of work. Physical ratings such as speed and strength are still created and used. They are based on objective data that we've gathered. As I mentioned, our goal is to move completely away from any subjective data to ensure that we are truly an authentic NBA experience that evolves as the NBA season evolves.
R: It's an interesting philosophical approach, to essentially be able to rely on actual data to support player tendencies. But this is a long-standing partnership between the two companies and that never gave EA a huge advantage. But with the kind of update technology being used,there are some fascinating ramifications. If a player shows that he's worked all summer on his left, and starts driving more to that side because defenses are hedging him that way, that's a really cool adjustment. The question of course will be how this "objective" data merges with the gameplay. The approach is right, it's just a matter of whether the results reflect that.
(Note: Synergy Sports relies on loggers to classify play types and results, which means that at some level, there's still a degree of subjectivity to the process, but overall, it's got a high level of reliability.)
Q: Is there a review process after they've been established? In other words, is there an ombudsman for these rankings to go "Whoa, that can't be right?"
A:We have a review process to ensure that our data and tendencies from Synergy Sports are doing what they are intended to be doing within the systems and artificial intelligence of our game. We also ensure that when we update the data to our connected users, the behavior of the game and the players gives us the expected and desired results. The subjective data that remains in the game, due to the nature of it being subjective, definitely causes discussion and in some cases arguments about the validity of a player's speed vs. another player, etc. We have someone responsible for doing the research and justifying the results, but the entire production team takes on the responsibility to challenge those ratings to ensure that any bias is removed and it's a decision by committee in the end.
R: The key going forward is how new technologies influence these things. For example, Synergy can't classify speed and teams don't release any speed tests they perform on their own (hint: Ty Lawson would likely win). But new technologies like SportVU which uses motion tracking cameras are going to actually be able to show how fast the average full-court drive for a player is. This kind of data could revolutionize the game in terms of validating the results, but will take away some of the fun of the rankings debate, as well as cause more complications for how to integrate that data.
Q: How are the physical attributes established, is it all by eye test and perception? Do you receive any input from the teams?
A:We have someone dedicated to ensuring that physical attributes are spot on. He is responsible for ensuring that all tattoos are up to date, hairstyles, accessories, footwear, etc. are all accurate. He works closely with our team of artists to ensure that we get this right. Because of the nature of the sport of basketball and how the NBA is consumed, these things are extremely important to our consumer. They expect nothing short of 100 percent accuracy in this area. We take a lot of pride in delivering that to them. And one of the things that I'm excited about as we move into a new generation of hardware is that we have the ability to maintain this authenticity throughout the season. If a player breaks his nose, we can update him with a face mask. If a player starts wearing a new shoe part way through the year or during a special game such as Christmas Day, we make sure he's wearing it in NBA LIVE. Same goes for if a player cuts his hair in February. I can go on and on. We will be striving to ensure that we stay in lock step throughout the entire season so that you'll never see anything that's out of date in our game.
R: I very much want to spend a day with the guy who's job it is to validate the tattoos. This sounds like the most bizarrely cool job on the planet. "Hey, Andrei Kirilenko, could you let me see your back? I need to see how exactly how big that dragon's wing is." The ability for these things to update during the season could cause for some hilarity with some of the stuff the players pull.
Q: There's been a push by teams to use biometric data to track actual body responses. Do you think this could be a part of the future of the product, to where you guys could actually know "how many minutes does he play before he starts getting tired"?
A: I'm very interested in biometric data and how teams currently use it and how it's usage will evolve over the next few years. The expectation moving forward is that our players look and feel alive. Individuality of behavior and physical performance is something that is better understood and something that our fans want to see in our games. I love the idea of how we can understand the differences in the human body and how these differences impact performance and then how we can incorporate this data within our game design is an exciting glimpse into the future and will be a big part of bringing our cyber-athletes to life.
R: Biggest reason you're never going to see this data integrated? Can you imagine if an update to a game revealed that a player had gained 10 lbs. during the season? Players' union would riot. Biggest reason it should be added? Imagine scientific data to actually track when a player gets fatigued, ex. "JaVale McGee starts to show physical signs of exhaustion after eight minutes of continuous play."
Q: Are there categories we're not used to with other games you guy will be using?
A: I think our use of data and tendencies is something that other games don't even come close to touching us. The key for me is objective data vs. subjective data. I don't want to play a NBA game or play with NBA players rated by some guy. That guy will inherently come with a bias based on his views or understanding of the game of basketball and the players who play. Objective data doesn't lie and comes without bias.
R: Can that data be integrated in a way that "feels" superior? That's going to be the question, and it's a complicated one that involves control systems, graphics, game design. It's a steep hill to climb to catch 2K, but really, considering EA's history in the industry, don't you like their chances to put out something legitimately competitive?
EA Sports' NBA Live 14 is set for release Nov. 15 for Playstation 4 and Nov. 22 for XBox One, one of the first next-gen exclusive games.