See more college football predictions Oh, and don’t forgetBills fans were very generous after Andy Dalton won them a playoff berth We’re launching a sports newsletter. 🏆 Join the squad. Subscribe See more NFL predictions Things That Caught My EyeWater is technically snake oil, I guess?Tom Brady is really great at being a football player, but his provenance as a nutritionist or health expert is suspect. In the spirit of “just because you’re a bird doesn’t mean you’re an ornithologist,” Christie Ashwanden took a serious look at the TB12 method, and the reality is that drinking lots of water isn’t the same as putting on sunscreen, drinking too much water is actually pretty dangerous, and “pliability” could have less to do with Tom Brady’s continued efficacy behind center than, say, a continually successful offensive line that’s been adept at protecting him from injury. On the other hand, as I’m currently on day four of The Gronk Cleanse, I am pretty hammered. [FiveThirtyEight]The Bills are IN! But…The Buffalo Bills have snapped the longest active streak in the NFL and made the playoffs after 17 years of not doing that. The organization is in heaven right now. Still, making the playoffs can have a lot more to do with luck than skill, and this Bills group is pretty middle-of-the-road talent-wise when compared to those 17 other teams. While they finished 9-7, teams that got outscored by 57 points over the course of the year usually get fewer breaks in their direction and finish with six or seven wins. [FiveThirtyEight]Jordan Greenway with a firstOf 1,690 men’s Division I college hockey players, 13 identified themselves as black. One is Jordan Greenway, a Boston University forward who became the first African-American hockey player to represent Team U.S.A. at the Winter Olympics. [The Undefeated]UCF is committing to the bitThe University of Central Florida is claiming that they’re the national champions of college football. Despite not making the college football playoff, UCF argues that, since they went undefeated and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, they get to be champs. This stunt could be a lot of things, but it’s not a half measure by any stretch: Athletic Director Danny White said that the coaching staff is getting their national title bonuses and all. [SB Nation]Try out our interactive, Which World Cup Team Should You Root For?They get a parade!Cleveland went 0-16 this season, joining the Detroit Lions as the only franchises to lose 16 regular season games. Thousands of Cleveland fans will reportedly gather this Saturday to watch a parade commemorating the season of “perfection.” [Cincinnati.com]Four out of five top broadcasts!Off the top 100 most viewed telecasts in 2017, 81 of them ended up being sports events. Live sports continues to be one of the main attractions on the television. Put in a historical context, even the NFL is doing alright: While Fox telecasts of NFL games were down from 2016 and 2015, viewership is still up compared to 10, 15 and 20 years ago, according to Sports Business Daily. [Austin Karp]Make sure to try your hand at our fun NFL game: Can you beat the FiveThirtyEight predictions?Big Number21 percentGoing into the NFL Wildcard weekend, New England is the overwhelming favorite to win the Super Bowl, with a 31 percent chance of doing so. Minnesota, Philly, and Pittsburgh have 19, 15 and 14 percent chances of doing so according to out Elo model, so we’d expect about a 79 percent chance one of those teams wins the championship. Now, you may recall none of those teams are playing football this weekend. Among the wild card teams, the ones with the best shots are New Orleans, Kansas City, and Atlanta, with a 5 percent, 4 percent and 4 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl. Still, there’s only a 21 percent chance one of the teams this weekend wins it all. [FiveThirtyEight]Leaks from Slack: cwick:Rare D-I women’s quadruple-double recordedquadruple double!neil:Whoa!10 steals 👀cwick:@neil is it easier to get 10 steals or 10 blocks?neil:Way easier to get the blocks (at least in the NBA)There are only 20 games of double digit steals in Basketball-Reference’s databaseThere are 143 double digit block gamesPredictions NFL All newsletters NBA College Football See more NBA predictions
Embed Code More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed FiveThirtyEight Toronto surprised some sports fans by winning the Eastern Conference over the Milwaukee Bucks — but the FiveThirtyEight NBA predictions model had given the Raptors the edge in that series. As of our taping, our model also had the Raptors as favorites to win the NBA Finals over the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors. By contrast, most analysts — and the Vegas betting markets — are heavily favoring the Warriors. Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight’s editor in chief, sits down with the Hot Takedown team for the pod’s first edition of Model Talk! Why does our model seem to love the Raptors, and how much are injuries affecting the projections?Another championship taking place this week is the Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham. We’ll unpack Tottenham’s statistically improbable path to the final and whether its underdog status might be a good luck charm after all. Then our Rabbit Hole launches into the forgotten world of Starting Lineup figurines.What we’re looking at this week:Obviously, all eyes are on our NBA predictions.In advance of the Champions League final, Simon Gleave of Gracenote walks us through some of the most statistically dramatic twists and turns of the tournament.Nostalgic for those Starting Lineup figurines? Your best answer might be eBay.
How Madden Ratings Are Made The Secret Process That Turns NFL Players Into Digital Gods by Neil Paine graphics by Reuben Fischer-Baum illustration by Mike McQuade Original 75 Comments Hidden Skill Set Poor awareness, decision-making Walt Hickey @WaltHickey Moore’s ratings elicit all sorts of reactions — anger, joy, pride, ridicule. Here, for example, is a sampling of reactions on Twitter to Tom Brady’s ratings over the last few years. madden rating tom brady a 93 further exemplifies why it is the worst of the EA sports games #thatsjustdisrespectful #hesthegreatestever— mackey (@kylemack_) August 28, 2012 Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight. “I’ve heard it speculated that even the Madden team themselves don’t really know what’s going on,” Bailey said. In the next madden game Tom Brady’s rating is going to be 100— Zachary Olds (@ZacharyOlds) February 2, 2015 The quarterback drills brought me back to earth. Asked to throw the ball as far as I could, I threw it pretty consistently between 17 and 20 yards in an often-loose spiral. I then threw the ball toward my colleague Neil Paine, who was trying his hand at receiver, and connected only 40 percent of the time on short, medium and long passes. Watching the drills unfold, Moore said I was throwing the ball too low and would probably end up hitting offensive linemen in the back of the head often. When I had exhausted my arm, I did some receiving drills — or attempted to. I was useless beyond 10 yards but caught each of the three short passes thrown my way. Brad Hilderbrand, a communications specialist for EA, said I could possibly be a great tight end. My pride swelled again. And then it withered the moment my foot touched a football. My range was so pathetic that I couldn’t boot it more than 20 yards, which at least doesn’t preclude me from being one of the league’s great onside kickers. Punting was no better. Any team with me as its punter would go for it on fourth down every time because I couldn’t kick it farther than 11 yards. “Offensive guard is probably your athletic skill set,” Moore said at the end of the day. “But you’re probably going to want to put on 100 pounds. So, that’s going to be hard for you to bulk up there and still maintain the performance that you put on display today.” Leaving Orlando, I reflected on the day and felt one thing above all: extreme pain. My back was seizing up, my right arm went somewhat numb, and a nap had only made me more sore. When I got home in the wee-morning hours, I took enough ibuprofen to dull my senses and decided that I should exercise more often.3 The soreness continued for three more days. I strolled onto the gridiron in Orlando wearing old gym clothes and the cheapest sneakers available, which I had ordered three days prior. I did the three stretches I remembered from my middle school Presidential Physical Fitness Test — touch your toes, lunge side to side, twist your arm out of its socket — and some light jogging. That may have tired me out more than I expected. My 40-yard dash and 10-yard split times were poor — 6.75 seconds and 2.30 seconds, respectively. Those numbers were a problem because they determined my speed and acceleration grades, which are two of the most important ratings in Madden. Player performance is notoriously more difficult to quantify in football than in baseball. Physical Talent Throwing Power Moore lobbied for many of the new rating categories, spurred by the same motivation that drove “Micro League Baseball” to add player ratings in the first place: greater differentiation among players. It says so right on his business card. ^ Including practice-squad members, free agents and other fringe players. ^ The namesake of retired coach and commentator John Madden. ^ Their equipment styles, for instance. ^ Good rightly cautioned me about the imprudence of declaring anything in gaming a definitive “first,” given the variety — and, just as often, the obscurity — of games and platforms in the medium’s history. ^ It’s impossible to say because “Micro League” didn’t actually have the capacity to track statistics from simulated games. ^ Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in another region of the baseball universe, the field of sabermetrics was tracing a parallel path at roughly the same time. Both endeavors were seeking to distill a player’s on-field performance to its numerical core, albeit for somewhat different purposes. ^ Acceleration, agility, hands, strength, speed, endurance, intelligence and discipline. ^ Also developed by EA’s Tiburon studio outside Orlando. ^ EA Sports’ ratings are on a 1 to 99 scale. ^ Not counting the overall rating, which just serves as a composite of a player’s component attributes. ^ There aren’t even college ratings to fall back on anymore; EA Sports put its NCAA Football series on hold in 2013. ^ Typically watched on the NFL’s RedZone channel. ^ In fact, the overall rating generally doesn’t use all — or even most — of the 43 component attributes at its disposal. Many categories effectively receive a weight of zero. ^ After a little digging, I found that the “press” rating measures a very specific skill: the defensive back’s ability to jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage while lining up in tight coverage. ^ In that class-action lawsuit, a group of retired NFL players sued the NFL Players Association — and won — over royalties that the union received from sales of Madden games containing classic teams with unnamed players whose ratings bore a striking resemblance to the talents of those teams’ real-life members. The unnamed players had “the same height, same ethnicity, same uniform number, same position,” Good said. “Although those things are very substantial in identifying a person, it was also that they would perform as you would expect that player to have performed in real life.” ^ As NBA Jam illustrates, there’s no limit to how much a video game can crank up the dial on pure athleticism. ^ Brady and Rodgers boast throwing power ratings of 93 and 95, respectively; Manning sits at 85. ^ Both Wayne and White boast speed ratings beneath the average of 90 for receivers in “Madden NFL 15”. ^ Front Page Sports: Football Pro Sierra Online’s “Front Page Sports: Football Pro,” regarded as the most realistic football simulation of its time, came out in 1993 and had eight ratings. Walker added that he never considered me one of his top rowers. “Even though you pushed yourself at practice, you lacked that same self-discipline away from practice and would often stumble into morning practices having not slept the night before,” he said. That is entirely correct. ^ Craig M. Booth’s excellent NFL height/weight charts inspired the scatter-plots in this article. ^ I have not. ^ Presumably to be used in event of a successful play in-game, so essentially unnecessary. ^ I just made a Manningface. ^ Using the 2014 roster each time. ^ Throw Power 0yds Moore’s employer, Electronic Arts, is the world’s fifth-biggest game publisher by revenue, and Madden is among its most popular titles. The franchise has generated more than $4 billion in revenue since its debut in 1988. Yet for all of EA’s resources, Moore performs his czar duties in surprising solitude. He’s assisted by a former Madden tester who oversees players’ cosmetic details4 and the usual barrage of (ever-civil) feedback on Twitter. But when it comes to the task of managing a database of more than 100,000 player attributes, one of the best-selling sports franchises in gaming history largely leaves matters up to one man. The Walk-On Donny Moore at his cubicle at EA / Photo by Erika Larsen “The possibilities are endless.” Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for lifestyle. Deep Accuracy 0/5 Translating the athletic skills of flesh-and-blood humans into digital form has been a necessary part of sports gaming as long as real-life players have been incorporated into the software. According to Good, that practice dates at least5 as far back as the 1984 release of “Micro League Baseball” for the Commodore 64. “Micro League” was among the first sports simulations with a license to use Major League Baseball players on team rosters, an innovation that helped usher in the modern era of sports gaming. Developers were suddenly presented with a novel problem: having to represent actual players’ likenesses within the technical constraints of the day. One solution? Assigning numerical skill ratings to help differentiate good players from bad. “They were transitioning from primitive video games that were just trying to approximate the basic acts of a sport,” Good told me, pointing to the Atari 2600’s sports titles as examples of early games without rated players. “Basically, all players perform equally,” Good said. “They just wanted [to know]: ‘Do we have three outs and three strikes? You can throw the ball from third to first to put a guy out?’ ” But with the advent of licensed games, the stakes were raised. “You want Kirk Gibson to play differently from Tony Gwynn,” Good said. The method of “Micro League Baseball” was to algorithmically translate a player’s real-world statistical benchmarks — his batting average or home-run total, for instance — into skill ratings that would presumably6 spit similar numbers back out on the other side of the simulation. It was effectively the computerized version of older board games like All-Star Baseball whose colorful spinners reduced the essence of a ballplayer to a series of probabilities, locked in an eternal marriage with chance.7 But player performance is notoriously more difficult to quantify in football than in baseball. On the gridiron, detailed individual statistics are kept for only a handful of positions, and those numbers frequently miss the whole story because of interactions between 11 players on each side of the ball. Game developers quickly realized that football players, in contrast with their cousins in baseball, would need to be graded on a wider variety of skills — and that ratings-makers would have to temper the science with a whole lot of art. Madden Rating Adjusted 64 A Rating-Changing MomentNov. 23, 2014 A 75 overall rating for a rookie receiver is nothing to sneeze at, but that was just the beginning for the New York Giants wideout. Beckham recorded 31 catches in his first six games, raising his rating to an 80 overall by Week 11. And in front a national TV audience the next week, he hauled in 10 balls for 146 yards against the Dallas Cowboys — 43 yards of which came on arguably the greatest catch in NFL history. Beckham’s rating would increase by 10 more points, and he ended the year with huge upgrades in awareness, route-running, catching in traffic — and, of course, spectacular catch. Take, for example, a player’s trucking score, which captures his ability to run over a defender. Mine ended up being 9 out of 100, which makes me highly unlikely to take on Jadeveon Clowney and prevail. But my interaction with Clowney has an element of randomness — that weighted dice roll could lead to luck for me and misfortune for him, which would mean I’d lower my shoulder and it would somehow push him aside. When I walked on the field to try out for the game, I found this idea oddly comforting. On the early December day I visited his cramped cubicle, tucked away in a corner of an office building on the EA Sports campus near Orlando, Moore was putting the last touches on a roster update that would be downloaded later in the week by PlayStation and Xbox owners around the globe. When he was finished, 577 players saw some aspect of their skills re-evaluated on the basis of the previous week’s action. It’s an activity that Moore repeats every week of the season in an attempt to ensure that Madden imitates NFL reality. Reggie Wayne The effects of the ratings on actual gameplay can be arcane for even the most seasoned Madden veterans. Perhaps no one outside of EA Sports has spent more time contemplating Madden’s inner workings than SB Nation’s Jon Bois, the creator of Breaking Madden, a football column that doubles as an absurdist meditation on the game itself. But Bois confessed that he still can’t quite figure out what some of the rating categories actually do for players on the virtual gridiron. “There are definitely more obscure settings,” Bois said. “There’s a slider called ‘press,’ which I have no idea what it means. I set it to zero every time, and I still have no idea what it does, or what ‘press’ even is.”15 Neil Paine @Neil_Paine It’s all laughs for Bois, who excels at turning Madden into surreal comedy. But the cryptic nature of the game’s growing set of player attributes can also have frustrating consequences for serious gamers. “The unfortunate thing for Madden is that a lot of [its] player ratings are opaque,” USgamer senior editor Kat Bailey told me. “There are so many systems going on that you don’t always know which [ratings] affect which [systems].” How Madden helped a schlub like me make it into the NFL Reuben Fischer-Baum @reubenfb Speed Making The First String 2014-15 When “Madden NFL 15” shipped, the third-year linebacker had an overall rating of 64 and was buried on Denver’s bench. But after an injury to Danny Trevathan in August, Marshall joined the Broncos’ starting lineup. After he put together four straight games with a Pro Football Focus grade of +1.0 or better by midseason, Marshall was rated 75 overall with vastly increased awareness, tackling, zone coverage and play recognition ratings. By Week 14, he carried an 81 overall rating, up a league-high 17 from where he’d started the season. Medium Routes 0/2 Short Routes 0/3 Hidden Skill Set Reading defenses,calling audibles Adjusted 75 Footnotes Interactive 40-Yard Dash 0.0 sec Hickey’s best scores for combine drills. Next: Reggie Wayne Mute Video Physical Talent Throwing Power 3 Cone 0.0 sec “Some designers and producers complain that there are too many ratings,” Moore said of his colleagues. “They ask, ‘How can we limit the number of ratings?’ But I would argue you make players more vanilla with fewer numbers.” That’s why Moore wants to continue adding categories even if it makes his job progressively more daunting. “The developers and programmers hate this,” he said, “but it would be great to do more ratings.” He then launched into an only-half-joking suggestion that the game might add a long-snapping rating someday. When Moore sits down to build a player’s ratings for the newest version of Madden, he goes through one of two separate processes, depending on whether the player is a veteran or a rookie. Each type of player offers its own challenges. Veterans have existing ratings from previous games, but the degree to which each of their categories must be changed is uncertain. Rookies, meanwhile, must be created completely from scratch.12 For the past few versions of the game, users can download Moore’s latest roster update every week of the season via Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. That means a player’s ratings fluctuate based on how he plays each time he takes the field. To figure out whose ratings to tweak and by how much, Moore said he combines his observations and notes taken during games13 with subsequent film study, conventional statistics, and — increasingly — advanced metrics from outlets such as Football Outsiders (particularly for schedule strength) and Pro Football Focus. “The big factor during the season is stat-based,” Moore said. “The advanced metric sites like Pro Football Focus, like the Football Outsiders, this guy named Ryan Riddle — [a] former NFL player who actually does a blog that has a lot of great information — those types of things bring out the snap-by-snap look on a player. And that, to me, gives a truer look in terms of a player’s value, rather than the conventional ‘how many receiving yards’ or ‘what was the completion percentage for the quarterback.’ ” Pulling all that data together, however, is when Moore’s instincts take over. Listening to him describe the process of rating a Madden player across all 43 categories, I began to realize that he has unwittingly adopted a sort of ad hoc Bayesian updating process. He said there’s a bit of “What have you done for me lately?” in the ratings but that certain categories are fundamentally more or less prone to short-term adjustments — another Bayesian-sounding notion. “Speed largely stays the same,” Moore said, “although when guys get hurt, I will make a change to [their] speed and agility” — a fact Cam Newton came to know firsthand. “Carry rating can be in flux if a guy fumbles a few times,” Moore continued. “Every position has certain ratings more impacted in-season than others.” Meanwhile, a category like “spectacular catch” can change on the basis of a single play. Moore defended the policy, saying that this particular rating has little to no effect on actual gameplay — but it underscores the ad hoc nature of some of Moore’s changes. Such modifications will take a veteran player through the end of the season. Moore makes additional adjustments over the summer based on age-related factors and other reports coming out of OTAs and training camps. “In the offseason, I look for guys trending up — young guys — or down — older players,” Moore said. As for the rookies, their creation process dominates Moore’s spring schedule. Starting around March, Moore begins sketching out the ratings framework for projected draftees using a series of templates for each position. Working with measurables from the scouting combine and pro days, he establishes a player’s ratings in categories such as speed and strength, which are almost directly tied to the drills performed by prospects in advance of the NFL draft. For instance, a 4.50-second time in the 40-yard dash will usually earn a prospect a speed rating of 89, barring particularly strong scouting comments about his fleetness of foot (or lack thereof). At the same time, Moore dives into the various public pre-draft scouting reports for each player, marking down pluses and minuses when consistent themes emerge and applying those adjustments to the templates in areas where the raw combine measurables are less useful, such as coverage skills or play recognition. Hidden Skill Set Knack for getting open This did not lend itself to a great deal of differentiation between players. The assortment of skills that needed to be collected for each player grew as football games progressed through the 1990s. By the end of the decade, EA Sports’ NCAA Football series9 assigned 14 attributes to every player in the game,10 while Madden began handing out 17. With the advent of fifth-generation consoles, the degree of complexity in simulating football increased dramatically, requiring a wider range of player attributes to feed into the new game engines. “Quarterback decision-making is the most difficult thing to simulate,” Moore said. “We’re trying to simulate strengths and weaknesses as best we can within the game, but how you play the game is still you.” 205 Pounds Weight When I asked Moore what types of players Madden had the most difficulty simulating, two archetypes sprung to his mind. “There’s the Peyton Manning guy — not [Tom] Brady or [Aaron] Rodgers because they have strong arms18 — but the quarterback that’s pure decision-making, accuracy and touch,” Moore said. “And the crafty veteran wide receiver with the ability to find holes in zone [coverage], like Reggie Wayne or Roddy White.”19 As he is wont to do, Moore suggested the latter could be better simulated with even more ratings or traits. “We could rate if a receiver was on the same wavelength with his QB,” he offered. After all, Moore loves to add to Madden’s stable of ratings. His pet example is passing accuracy, which was originally represented by a single rating but is now broken down into three separate classifications by distance. In previous versions of the game, the single rating was applied to the sureness of every throw, which failed to capture a big part of what makes each quarterback unique. In reality, some QBs have better accuracy on short tosses than deep bombs (think Brady), while others are better at judging long throws than short passes (Joe Flacco comes to mind). By splitting pass types into subcategories, Moore thinks he is better able to represent the characteristics that define different quarterbacks. Greater rating detail has also recently enabled Moore to address one of the criticisms that has dogged sports games — and Madden in particular — from time immemorial: that fast players are fundamentally overvalued. (Regarding the tendency for digital speedsters to far surpass the skills of their real-life counterparts, ESPN’s Patrick Hruby once mused that “Oakland Raiders boss Al Davis should have been a game programmer.”) Moore doesn’t shy away from that critique. “When you make a guy fast in a video game, he’s just a little too effective,” he said. Take receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, a former track standout who hasn’t exactly had a great NFL career despite ranking among the league’s fastest players. Heyward-Bey is just the kind of one-dimensional speedster whose avatar traditionally wreaks undue havoc in Madden, but Moore insists the revamped ratings have made it more difficult for those players to trick the game’s engine. Bailey confirmed this development. “It was true for a long time [that] the little speedy guys could just get open, and that was that,” she said. “I don’t think that’s as much of the case anymore.” But while speed can be mitigated, Moore granted that there’s no good way to overcome the problem of simulating a quarterback like Manning, whose most important skills — reading defenses, calling audibles, seeing things on the field that no one else can, and making sound decisions — are instantly negated when a gamer picks up the controller. Comments KICKING/PUNTING Madden Rating No player to participate in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine since 1999 had a 40-yard time as bad as mine.2 The closest was Regis Crawford, a 316-pound offensive guard out of Arizona State who after the 2004 combine went undrafted. Crawford still managed to run the dash 0.70 seconds faster than me. Next up came agility drills — one shuttle run with three cones in an L-shape, another a 20-yard back-and-forth — that would determine how agile I wasn’t. I have the maneuverability of a rudderless aircraft carrier. Moore charitably characterized my style as “a real north and south kind of player.” Then came a lunging jump, in which I posted a consistent 6-foot, 5-inch leap. Moore seemed less appalled than he had all day. “Not bad there,” he said. It was one of the only times I felt anything approaching pride. Footnotes Tecmo Super Bowl Nintendo’s seminal football game was released in 1991 and used no more than seven rating categories for any player. The game wasn’t super realistic. Bo Jackson was an all-time great in the NFL; he was superhuman in Tecmo. by Walt Hickey graphics by Reuben Fischer-Baum photography by Marius Bugge But these days, I don’t have to step on the field to know what happens when I step on the field. We have Madden for that. And shockingly, the people behind Madden were willing to turn me into a guinea pig. All I had to do was give them 36 hours and sit in front of a panopticon of cameras, and they’d turn my corporeal self into a digital one. I booked a flight to Florida. The most pressing issue on my mind: what my Madden ratings would be. The game (the most recent edition is “Madden NFL 15”) rates players on a scale from 0 to 99, basing overall scores on 43 categories, including trucking, deep passing, strength and agility. A guy like me was virgin territory for Donny Moore, the Madden Ratings Czar. How exactly would he quantify the football ability of a person with hardly any? That I was essentially a rookie made Moore’s job even harder. As my colleague Neil Paine explained, rookies require an intense amount of research — game tape, college stats, combine performance — because they have no NFL experience to use for a rating. The only way Moore could draw up my forecast was by watching me play. On the agenda: the 40-yard dash, agility drills, and basic throwing and catching evaluations. After that was all over, I figured I’d be one of Jon Bois’s Breaking Madden creations. For the past few years, in a series for SB Nation, Bois has been tweaking players’ stats to show what happens when those players are made superhuman or all too human. I expected to be in the latter category. But I wanted my avatar to at least get a point on the board, at least complete a couple of passes, and at least lead a team to one victory over several simulations (even if I broke an interception record for good measure). I wanted to show that the average dude could survive the rigors of the NFL. I’ve never exactly been an athlete. The last organized sport I attempted was three semesters of club crew in college. I reached out to my former coach, Nathan Walker, to get an independent assessment of my athletic priors. In an email, Walker said he didn’t imagine I was “the type of kid who defined himself through sports while growing up.” That is an understatement. I went to an elite-football high school but ran the debate team. He said that in my first year of rowing, I was “clumsy and awkward,” and my limbs didn’t quite go where I wanted them to. Nonetheless, he said, I was “a pure joy to watch” because I was passionate about it.1 Essentially, like most Americans, I’m not exactly out of shape, but I’m not exactly in shape either. I’m generally just a shape. Original 64 Maybe the only thing causing me to play poorly was that I wasn’t playing as myself. I challenged Madden’s creative director, Rex Dickson, to a scrimmage. Starting at QB for the Giants: Walt Hickey. Hickey did not have a good day. He threw 7 for 25, threw three interceptions and was sacked three times. The Giants lost 42-7. The only points came thanks to wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who could make any quarterback look good. He scored on a short pass that he turned into a 94-yard touchdown. My only comfort was to imagine the great headline The New York Post would put on its back page the next day: “Hickey Fails to Leave a Mark.” The Virtual NFL February 26, 2015 I was on the 50-yard line, trying to make sense of the long slant route ahead of me. My debut was not going well. I was winded, slightly dehydrated and kicking myself after a day of mediocre runs and failed catches. The next pass was my last chance to impress, and I knew the cameras would be on me. When I heard “hike,” I took off. Eight yards out, I saw the ball above in a spiral. I jumped for it pitifully … and hit the ground. The ball was not in my arms. Before that pass, I knew I wasn’t cut out for the NFL. But when it sailed over my head, something else became clear: I was barely cut out for a video-game facsimile of the league. I was in Orlando with a crew of people who work on Madden, EA Sports’ premier football simulation, because I, like many obnoxious New York Giants fans, once had a fleeting moment of hubris. Sometime during QB Eli Manning’s 97 interceptions over the past five years, I thought: “Christ, even I could throw a better pass than that.” I cannot throw a better pass than that. Yet there was a sort of perverse appeal to the damage I’d bring to the Giants if I were swapped with Manning. What would happen if a schlub like me played in a league as unforgiving as the NFL? Listen to Walt Hickey and Neil Paine discuss their reporting and how they broke Madden. Clockwise, from top left: Hickey poses in front of the cameras; the computer builds a 3D model of Hickey’s face based on his photos; skin tone and facial detail are added; Hickey’s final rendering Case StudyOdell Beckham Jr.Rookie Player Broad Jump 0’0″ Position WR Position QB 6’1″ Height Bailey offered an illustration from franchise mode, in which a gamer uses a finite supply of experience points to boost players’ skills. “It can be unclear which ratings you want to increase,” she said. Spending experience points on awareness, for instance, will almost always increase a player’s overall rating — but for defensive players and even quarterbacks, that boost won’t cause them to play better when they’re being controlled in-game. Meanwhile, wide receivers can actually see tangible in-game benefits from a higher awareness score. Confused yet? “I’ve heard it speculated that even the Madden team themselves don’t really know what’s going on,” Bailey said. “Because they’ve got years upon years of systems and code just layered on top of one another, where it’s not always entirely clear how they’re interacting. “It’s kind of a crazy system.” Whatever the virtues and drawbacks of Madden’s player ratings, though, they’re just a starting point. The game must still be played. Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight. “You’re going to be setting new ground in how low we go with the ratings,” Moore told me on my second day in Florida. But I still had a chance to succeed. In Madden, everything’s a weighted dice roll — one player slamming into another isn’t an athletic act, it’s a probabilistic one. Even bad players like me could get lucky now and then. Next: Michael Vick Mute Video Case StudyBrandon MarshallVeteran Player Gamebreakers There are certain player archetypes that have always been difficult for Madden to accurately simulate. The classic example is Michael Vick from “Madden NFL 2004“; Vick’s speed was overvalued in the game. But less egregious examples occur whenever a gamer takes control of a player whose real-life counterpart possesses immense physical gifts but lacks awareness. The converse is also true; players whose defining skill is football IQ — Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne, for example — are inept in the hands of an inept gamer. Watch the gamebreakers 24 Years Age Early player ratings were simplistic. The legendary “Tecmo Super Bowl,” released in late 1991, kept 14 ratings categories in total. But only a few affected in-game performance for any given position. Meanwhile, the initial version of Sierra Online’s “Front Page Sports: Football Pro,” regarded among the most sophisticated football simulations of the mid-1990s, tracked just eight rating categories for each player,8 with the same traits taking on radically different meanings depending on the player’s position. (For instance, a quarterback’s strength rating might refer to powerful throws, while the same category for a lineman would control his ability to block.) Two months later, Moore and company asked me to return to Florida for the big reveal: what I’d look like as a real (fake), live (artificial) NFL (Madden) player. When I was first in Florida, EA mapped my face for an avatar by putting me in front of 12 high-definition cameras, each poised at a slightly different angle. It looked like what Jeremy Bentham would have made if he had gone into photography after he was tired of designing prisons. I posed seven ways — one mugshot, left and right profile shots, a natural smile,4 one with my mouth slightly open,5 one with a wrinkled forehead and eight chins, and one screaming. When I saw the photos in December, they looked like I had just walked out of an anti-methamphetamine advertisement. The photos came with polarized flashes that stripped my face of any shadow. Zooming in on the high-def shots made it look like I had slept in hot grease. Will Gibson, the technician who took the photos, said they made me look sort of like Ray Romano. But this, he said, was the point. “Put Brad Pitt in front of this,” he said, “and he’d look like Steve Buscemi.” For example, one of the most important categories when computing a quarterback’s overall rating is awareness, which is based on experience and attempts to quantify factors like decision-making and depth of playbook knowledge. Awareness clearly affects how computer-controlled quarterbacks play the game; the lower the rating, the more likely a CPU opponent is to throw into coverage or miss open receivers. But despite its heavy weighting in the overall rating formula, a quarterback’s awareness score makes no difference when a human is controlling him. When you, the gamer, are in charge, it’s up to you to be “aware” for the avatar you’re controlling. Bois described the same conundrum using a basketball analogy. “I’ve found that the video-game version of J.R. Smith is incredible,” he said. “He’s just way better than he is in real life, and I think the reason is because you get to make the decisions and not him. He’s an amazing player, but once you distill him to his physical self, he’s just unstoppable half the time.” So at what point does an unaware Peyton Manning — or an aware Smith — cease to be a true representation of the original? It’s an interesting philosophical issue and one connected to the delicate balancing act of favoring skilled gamers while having virtual players mirror the strengths and weaknesses of their real-life counterparts. “It’s a fine line,” Dickson said. “You want to make sure that somebody with great stick skills can still win and be successful but at the same time not transcend a really crappy team and all of a sudden they can beat anyone.” When that equilibrium is disturbed, the game can sometimes even be criticized as too realistic. In 2013, testers from Houston complained to Dickson after playing as the Texans’ undrafted rookie quarterback Case Keenum. “They all said, ‘[With] these computer physics, I can’t have fun with this guy: Every pass is inaccurate,’ ” Dickson said. “We’re watching film on [Keenum], and it’s like, ‘Well, he’s a third-stringer. Every pass is inaccurate. This is real life.’ ” “They said to us, ‘Well, if I’m good and making good decisions, I should be able to make good reads and get the pass there,’ ” Dickson continued. “But all of a sudden then you’re making guys like Geno Smith look like Peyton Manning, and your stick skills are now superseding the simulation. We’ve actually had that in the game before, and it didn’t go over well. People reject that. “You shouldn’t be able, just because you’re really good at Madden, to make Geno Smith all of a sudden awesome. Geno Smith, even if he makes a good read, is still an inaccurate passer. That’s just the way it works in the NFL, and that’s modeled in our simulation.” Polygon’s Good used a baseball example to illustrate this tug of war between enjoyment and realism: “How do you make failing seven out of 10 times fun?” It’s a challenge that doesn’t seem to be completely solvable using player ratings, no matter how much faith Moore places in them. Then again, I doubt it will stop him from trying. “In a perfect world, in ‘Madden 2037,’ we might have [ratings] split into 10 or 15 different awareness-type categories,” Moore said, still rattling off items from his wish list. “Like awareness around the end zone, awareness in the fourth quarter … Finally, after all the component categories are set for both rookies and veterans, the numbers are used to generate the fabled Overall Rating. When I asked Moore about this, I expected him to decline to comment, citing a proprietary formula shrouded in secrecy. Instead, he cheerfully called up a spreadsheet containing the values that go into computing a player’s overall grade (and later e-mailed it to us). And somewhat anticlimactically, the overall rating is simply a weighted average of a player’s ratings across the 43 skill categories tracked by Madden, with different categories taking on more weight depending on the position.14 For example, the most heavily weighted categories for quarterbacks in “Madden NFL 15” are awareness and throwing power (each contributes about one-fifth of a quarterback’s overall rating), accuracy by zone (short and medium accuracy are both slightly more valuable than deep accuracy), and play-action passing. Together, those categories make up 89 percent of the overall grade for QBs, with the rest of the weight given to throwing on the run, agility, speed and acceleration. Short Accuracy 0/5 Just lost ALL respect for the madden ratings creators! They got russell wilson the same rating as Tom Brady! GTFOH!!!!!— ☆G.O.A.T☆ (@YoungPrevo) July 22, 2014 Receiving “Quarterback decision-making is the most difficult thing to simulate,” Moore said. Position QB Michael Vick Deep Routes 0/2 Actual participation was out of the question. This is no longer George Plimpton’s NFL. The size of an NFL player has ballooned — players are taller and larger than ever before. Between 1974 and 1999, rookie offensive linemen got 24 percent heavier. I’m not getting near the turf of an actual football field. Plus, my insurance isn’t that great. Madden has generated more than $4 billion in revenue over its 26-year lifetime. Yet for all EA’s resources, Moore performs his czar duties in surprising solitude. Continue Reading Mute Video Walter Hickey Monroe, N.Y. Moore’s job has morphed from a behind-the-scenes technician to a sort of celebrity — and villain — in gaming circles. And in an increasingly data-heavy sports landscape, it’s a role that sits squarely in two intersections of growing importance — between scouting and analytics, simulation and reality. Because in both Madden and the post-“Moneyball” sports world, humans become a collection of data points and then are turned back into a digital approximation of themselves. It was against this backdrop that Moore began his professional affiliation with EA. In 1998, he was still a student at the University of Central Florida, pursuing a degree in political science, when in November when he noticed advertisements for an “NCAA Football 99” tournament at the student union. Moore and his roommates were devotees of the game — he recalls elaborate house rules requiring that a witness be present every time a game was played in the friends’ shared Dynasty Mode savefile. On a whim, he skipped class, entered the contest using Florida State as his team, and won first prize. Moore’s detailed knowledge of the game’s minutiae impressed NCAA Football developers on hand for the tournament. On the spot, they offered him a part-time job testing the coming edition of the game, a break he would later parlay into a full-time gig as an EA Sports football tester. Playing and testing the games, Moore got a firsthand look at the give-and-take between gameplay and player ratings. He recalls the time a long-forgotten defensive tackle for the University of Kentucky inadvertently became a superstar after a typo assigned him a speed rating11 of 85 — blazing for a lineman — and when the Oakland Raiders, long known for their real-life fixation on speed, became unstoppable because the Madden game engine translated the overall velocity of the Raiders’ roster into far better virtual performances than the team was capable of in reality. Moore would eventually be promoted to a designer and associate producer along his path to Ratings Czar, but the relationship between Moore’s testing background and his current job is clear. “The [ratings] are probably the single biggest factor in gameplay,” Moore said. And the ratings have far more moving parts now than when Moore began working at EA. Each player in the game is graded in 43 categories — many of which were added when Madden transitioned from the sixth generation of consoles to the seventh. There are also nearly 20 new player-tendency tags, known as “traits,” that control specific player behaviors. PASSING When I first met my avatar, it was like staring into a mirror set up across the uncanny valley. My facial features were nearly exact, down to the barely noticeable scar on my chin. But I looked disoriented — even more disoriented than I was on the day of the shoot. My neck lolled; my eyes were glazed over; my blinking was algorithmic. My avatar played just as strangely as it looked. We’re used to playing Madden with athletes who have remarkable skill sets; they move quickly, consistently and responsively. I did not. It was like driving in the snow: You know how the car is supposed to move, but it just doesn’t behave as expected. This is what happens when your Madden score is 12. A 12 out of 100 is bad. Very bad. The lowest-rated player in “Madden NFL 15” is Jacksonville Jaguars long snapper Carson Tinker, who’s a 41. Peyton Manning Extra Points 0/4 Walt Hickey 17 Throw Power 15 Throw On Run 14 Strength 03 Deep Accuracy 00 Consistency 12 Overall Long 0 yds Despite the praise during practice — that I had more of an offensive-guard skill set, that I could be a tight end, that I was “a real north and south kind of player” — when it comes down to it, I’m clumsy and awkward, my limbs don’t quite go where I want them to go, and at best, it’s just fun to watch me. Generally speaking, I don’t think a regular person could compete with the pros. Most people are somewhat good at something. But greatness — regularly scheduled weekly articulations of greatness — is something that just can’t be turned on. And yet I won some games as quarterback. In the 15 seasons that EA simulated with me as QB for the Giants,6 the team never had a winning season but did win an average of 2.9 games each year. Head coach Tom Coughlin was also fired every season. So, win some, lose some. Moore also simulated me as a receiver, kicker and punter, each of which also dragged the Giants down. The team had an average of 3.3 wins with me as a receiver, 3.5 wins with me at kicker, and 3.8 wins with me at punter. Somehow, I made 95 percent of extra-point attempts, and my average punt was 27 yards. Skeptical, I emailed Moore to see whether the game might be flawed. “It might be one of those things in our simulation where it might not simulate the Extra-Point kicks based off of ratings enough,” he said. Even my achievements may have happened in error. UPDATE (July 24, 7:15 p.m.): In July 2015, Moore announced his retirement as Madden’s Ratings Czar, leaving EA Sports to join the daily fantasy sports company FanDuel. Madden NFL 16, which will be released in August, will be the final game in the series to contain ratings curated by Moore. CORRECTION (Feb. 25, 1:23 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized Tecmo Super Bowl’s rating system. The game kept 14 rating categories in total, not per player. Moore looked relieved during the scrimmage. My abysmal performance was proof that Madden really is a simulation of the NFL: A player who somehow lucks into the league without any skills really doesn’t have a chance. He’d have to rely on his teammates to compensate. Thankfully, Madden doesn’t allow for locker-room coups. I will never on my best day be as good as Manning on his worst day. And yet, Madden was way too kind. The Giants should have been so, so much worse with me at the helm. My avatar couldn’t have been rated much lower. I was far closer to a zero rating than I was to the lowest legitimate athlete in the game (Tinker, the long snapper). Despite that, my avatar still managed to lead a team to a little less than three wins a year on average? That doesn’t make sense. The Giants went 6-10 last season. There’s no way Eli Manning is only three wins above Walt Hickey. All we need to do to demonstrate this is to look at the team that performed exactly as I expect mine would: the 2008 Detroit Lions. Although that team was among the worst of all time and failed to win a game, it was made up of talented players who were each still vastly better athletes than I am. Indeed, that year, the overall ratings for four Lions quarterbacks — Daunte Culpepper (80), Jon Kitna (84), Dan Orlovsky (73) and Drew Stanton (77) — vastly exceeded my rating. Factor in my shocking kicking performance (maybe I could make 95 percent of extra-point attempts on, say, the moon or some other low-gravity satellite), and I think that even my low stats fail to encapsulate just how bad (or rather how normal) I am. Madden’s simulation is geared to work within a realm of athleticism where I do not reside. To articulate my actual performance on the field, I’d probably need a negative rating. If you hang around the Madden studio enough, you’ll hear a curious phrase tossed around, a relic from games of a decidedly different genre and medium: “Dice rolls.” Although Madden takes pains to immerse gamers in the fantasy that they are controlling real NFL players, every interaction between two players in the game is also dictated by underlying probabilities, weighted by the various ratings of the respective players. As Rex Dickson, Madden’s creative director, said: “The way the game works on a high level is that when two players run into each other and are about to do an interaction — let’s say it’s a ball-carrier and a linebacker — it’s going to take several ratings and throw them into a formula and do a dice roll. “The dice roll is how we get the randomness. So it’s basically his break-tackle chance against your tackle chance and then a dice roll on top of that. The ratings mismatch is your modifier on the dice roll. If he’s 10 points higher than you for his tackle rating, the dice roll is going to be favored in his favor to get the tackle versus the flip where it’d favor the break-tackle.” After hours of hearing this kind of talk during our visit to EA’s studios, my colleague Walt Hickey had a realization: This is basically Dungeons & Dragons for sports fans. If an obsessive following is a requirement for that comparison, consider Madden certified. The annual unveiling of Madden’s player ratings is an event unto itself. Beyond just Newton, many NFL players grouse to Moore about their numbers. (Kerry Rhodes, while playing safety for the New York Jets, made a YouTube video titled “WTF Madden!” demonstrating pretty conclusively that his throwing power rating was too low.) There are also sites where amateurs, apparently dissatisfied with Moore’s handiwork, aim to create their own competing sets of ratings. And the ratings have even been deemed to constitute “likeness” in lawsuits such as Parrish, et. al v. NFLPA.16 Bois told me that he thought the game does about as well as it can when it comes to converting real players’ abilities into a series of numbers. “If we were going to be entirely realistic, you’d probably have to have 1,500 different skill sliders” per player, he joked. “But this is a decent way to distill it into a thing that the layman can play around with and use.” Bailey agreed. “It’s an inexact science,” she said, “but for the most part [Moore] gets it right.” Yet for all of Madden’s quest for realism, there are certain aspects of football that the game still, and may always, have trouble simulating. On one level, sports video games give regular Joes and Jills the opportunity to perform athletic feats that most could only dream about in real life — blazing runs, high-flying dunks, cannon-armed throws — and games have gotten pretty good at simulating these aspects of what it means to be a professional athlete.17 But sports video games will always struggle to accurately replicate the cerebral side of sports; that’s why it’s more difficult to simulate being Ricky Rubio than LeBron James. I asked Moore whether there were any sports that regular people could jump into and be at least a little competitive. “Poker, if you consider that a sport,” he said. Mohegan Sun has a poker tournament at the end of the month. How hard can that be? Physical Talent Agility The Virtual NFL February 25, 2015 Hunched over a keyboard, surrounded by computer monitors, Donny Moore, 37, controls the fate of the National Football League. Its players throw as hard as Moore wants. They run as fast as he says they should. And the stars of America’s most popular sport aren’t always delighted by his judgments. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, for instance, was upset. “I want to talk about my speed,” Moore remembers Newton saying as he clambered into Moore’s cubicle last April. Despite leading all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards in 2013, Newton ranked as only the ninth-fastest QB in the league, according to Moore — hence Newton’s unhappiness. But as Moore wheeled around from his den of screens, he was confronted by not only Newton, but also an enormous boot on Newton’s foot, the result of recent ankle surgery. “Yeah,” Moore said as Newton hobbled toward him, “let’s talk about your speed.” Eventually, Newton was pleading with Moore to not make him slower. Such is the power afforded Moore, a hyperactive Floridian who works as the official Ratings Czar1 for EA Sports’ Madden NFL video-game franchise. In that role, Moore is tasked with assigning more than 40 numerical grades to each of the NFL’s roughly 2,600 players,2 evaluating them in categories ranging from passing accuracy to tackling ability. Moore’s process has largely been a black box, and yet it shapes how more than 5 million gamers simulate pro football — particularly because there’s no official alternative to his numbers. A decade after signing a controversial exclusivity deal with the league and the players union, Madden3 is still the only licensed NFL game in town. 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. “It’s important to these guys that they be rated 99 in speed; it’s important to somebody that he have the best arm in the game,” Owen S. Good, a writer for the video-game news site Polygon, told me. The allure of the Madden rating might also speak to the relative lack of meaningful statistics in football itself. It would be strange for a baseball player to complain about his ratings in MLB: The Show, for instance, because a realistic baseball simulator (by necessity) has ratings grounded in actual statistics. But in a sport where objective measurements are often inadequate, subjective numbers — like those generated by Moore — take on greater currency. All these factors put more pressure on Moore to produce ratings of ever-increasing accuracy even as they highlight the fundamental paradox limiting Madden’s realism: It’s nearly impossible to accurately simulate some players as long as a gamer must assume control of the athlete’s brain.
Saturday248.45136.402,825 There are eight cities hosting March Madness games this weekend, but none with ticket sales hotter than Louisville, Ky.; Omaha, Neb.; and Seattle. That’s what happens when NCAA tournament games are basically home games.The demand for tickets there shows how valuable ostensible home games are to ticket sellers, if not to fairness lovers. Kentucky, Kansas and Gonzaga — the first or second highest-ranked teams facing off in the hot-ticket cities — all play their home games less than 300 miles from their tournament host cities. Omaha gets a double dip of local teams, with No. 7 Wichita State playing there as well.To get the list, I used data provided by two online ticket marketplaces, ScoreBig and SeatGeek. Connor Gregoire, a SeatGeek spokesman, sent data based on sales made via the site’s ticket search engine. Alison Burnham, vice president of pricing and analytics for ScoreBig, sent data for tickets available on her site and elsewhere on the secondary market.I compared average prices for top-tier seats, and, separately, for the cheap seats. Also, some sessions are more attractive than others — people would rather go to a weekend session than one during the week, probably both because of the convenience and because weekend sessions tend to feature tighter games. In addition, weeknights beat weekdays, and Fridays beat Thursdays, perhaps because it’s easier to travel without taking two days off work. Since 2011, Friday afternoon sessions have averaged 19 percent higher prices for the best seats, 30 percent higher prices for the cheaper seats and 26 percent more sales on SeatGeek. Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions. Thursday afternoon$131.95$67.802,175 Friday afternoon156.7588.052,740 Thursday evening163.0087.552,235 SESSIONLOWER SEATSUPPER SEATSTICKETS SOLD Sunday233.70130.752,760 So I compared apples to apples: How did Thursday afternoon sessions, for instance, compare to average prices for that session this year?After controlling for variables unrelated to which teams were playing, Louisville was clearly the hottest ticket among the four cities holding Thursday/Saturday sessions. Omaha and Seattle were the Friday/Sunday winners.1Venues sell four types of tickets: For each of the two round-of-64 sessions, for the single round-of-32 session, and for all three sessions combined. In each host city, I looked at ticket demand for each of the four ticket types in three ways: prices of more-expensive seats, prices of cheap seats and volume of ticket sales. That’s 12 points of comparison in all. Louisville and Omaha were above average in 11 of the 12 categories for their sessions. Seattle was above average in every ticket-price category, though below average in three of the four ticket-sale-volume categories. The ScoreBig data, used as a reality check, was similar, with Pittsburgh also making a strong showing.From a last-minute ticket-buyer’s perspective, the main question might be, how much is the least I can pay to get in? To answer that question, SeatGeek sent along daily figures for the ticket at the fifth percentile of listing prices for each session. Even these seats, some of the cheapest available, have stayed expensive for the round-of-64 sessions that feature quasi-home teams in Louisville, Omaha and Seattle. But for other sessions, prices have fallen. For instance, on Wednesday, tickets to the Thursday afternoon session in Louisville — the one that featured four teams not named Kentucky — could be had for just $14. Friday evening186.25107.952,375
OSU junior forward Nichelle Prince (7)during a game against Butler in the opening round of the NCAA tournament on Nov. 14 at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. OSU won 2-1. Credit: Courtesy of OSUThe Ohio State women’s soccer team (13-6-3) is headed to the Sweet 16 after defeating the Virginia Tech Hokies (15-4-2) on Friday afternoon 1-0 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Freshman midfielder Arden Holden netted her first career goal with 11 minutes remaining to keep the Buckeyes’ postseason run afloat. With the win, the Scarlet and Gray are headed to their third Sweet 16 in the past six seasons. The beginning of the game was slow, as the first 15 minutes did not present many opportunities to score for either side. In the 20th minute, OSU finally got to a solid opportunity in the final third when senior midfielder/forward Michela Paradiso tried to curl one in from 20 yards out on the left wing but it sailed over the crossbar. Two minutes later, the Buckeyes had another opportunity to score when junior forward Lindsay Agnew sent a strong ball to junior forward Nichelle Prince, but a Virginia Tech defender cleared it away. The Hokies, who entered the game as the 14th-overall seed, were able to generate a scoring opportunity in the 43rd minute when sophomore forward Alani Johnson sent one on the frame, but OSU redshirt junior goalkeeper Jillian McVicker made a lunging save to preserve the scoreless match. The teams headed into the locker rooms at halftime tied 0-0. The Hokies led the Buckeyes 6-1 in shots, 1-0 on goal. OSU came back in the second half with plenty of opportunities to score early on, but the Buckeyes simply could not find the back of the net. In the 79th minute, the Buckeyes put the one and only goal on the board. Prince split two Virginia Tech defenders before playing the ball out to Holden who finished off the keeper. Holden has appeared in 21 of the Buckeyes’ 22 games this season, but her game-winning goal marked the first time in her young career she has scored. The final 11 minutes of play contained some opportunities for the Hokies to level the match, including a solid look off a free kick in the 87th minute, but they could not get past McVicker, meaning OSU was able to hold on for the 1-0 win. For the game, Virginia Tech held a sizable lead in shots, 20-5, including 4-2 on goal. McVicker made four saves to earn her second clean sheet of the season for OSU. The Buckeyes are set to play conference foe Penn State in the Sweet 16 after the Nittany Lions dominated Boston University in the second round, winning 6-0. In the lone meeting between the two teams during the regular season, Penn State topped OSU 2-1 on Oct. 24. With an opportunity to advance to the quarterfinals on the line, the rematch is set to take place on Sunday in State College, Pennsylvania. Kickoff is penciled in for 1 p.m.
OSU junior left fielder Ronnie Dawson lays down a bunt during a game against Morehead State at Bill Davis Stadium on April 13. OSU won 7-3. Credit: Muyao Shen | Assistant Photo EditorFresh off its first Big Ten series victory of the 2016 season over Rutgers last weekend, the Ohio State baseball team (23-12-1, 4-5-0) is set to host the Cincinnati Bearcats (18-19) on Tuesday in a midweek meeting between in-state foes. The two teams faced each other a season ago, when OSU claimed a 6-0 victory behind a strong outing from then-redshirt freshman Adam Niemeyer. OSU coach Greg Beals will try to duplicate that performance by again sending a rookie pitcher to the mound, this time being Ryan Feltner in a controlled start against a to-be-determined Bearcat. The Scarlet and Gray, who are 14-2 at home this season, will be hoping to continue their dominance over visiting opponents with another win against the Bearcats. Scouting the BearcatsDespite losing three of its last five games, Cincinnati enters Tuesday’s game leading the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats, however, are visiting with momentum behind them, as they won two of three games against conference foe Tulane over the weekend. Games outside of the Queen City have not been friendly for the Bearcats. In road or neutral contests, they have a combined travel record of 4-15. Cincinnati, statistically, is one of the worst hitting teams in all of Division I. Its team average of .239 ranks 267th of 295 teams. But the Bearcats have been able to produce some big runs courtesy of the long ball. Cincinnati has blasted 25 homers this season, good enough for third in the AAC. The Bearcats are led at the plate by the performance of redshirt sophomore infielder Connor McVey. The Mason, Ohio, native has been clawing away at the baseball with a .301 average, including a team-leading 10 doubles and 21 stolen bases. Cincinnati also has exceptional team speed along the base paths, having swiped 63 of 82 attempted bases to lead its conference. Buckeye bombsThe Buckeyes, in large part, have been powered by two things: controlled pitching and striking the long ball. OSU has already hit a Big Ten-leading 38 home runs, including a team-leading nine from newly converted first baseman Jacob Bosiokovic. The move of Bosiokovic, a redshirt junior, from the outfield has allowed for more versatility in the OSU lineup defensively and is aimed at increasing the production at the plate for the bottom of the lineup. With the lineup switch, senior second baseman L Grant Davis moves into a utility role, senior infielder Troy Kuhn takes over at second, and sophomore Tre’ Gantt takes over for Bosiokovic in right field. In total, OSU has four players with six or more homers, including junior center fielder Troy Montgomery and senior third baseman Nick Sergakis, who both have seven. In four games last week, the pair each tallied two homers, providing OSU with a much-needed spark to an offense that has been cooling down over recent weeks. Exceeding expectations Coming into this season, OSU’s pitching staff had several question marks surrounding the roles in the bullpen. Now, just past the halfway mark of the season, it would be safe to say the Buckeyes’ bullpen has performed well, outside of a disastrous two-blown-save series against Maryland. Redshirt sophomore closer Yianni Pavlopoulos is in a three-way tie for the lead in the Big Ten with eight saves, while relievers Daulton Mosbarger, Seth Kinker and Michael Horejsei all have ERAs south of 2.50. Perhaps most impressively, the Buckeye pitching staff leads the Big Ten with 296 punch-outs. On Tuesday, OSU will have to lean on its bullpen again, as Feltner will be on the hill on short rest after pitching the last three innings during Friday’s 7-4 loss to Rutgers. The game against Cincinnati is set to begin at 6:35 p.m.
OSU freshman defensive specialist Camry Halm (14) dives for a ball during a game against Northwestern University on Sept. 28 at St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio. OSU won 3-0. Credit: Ross Tamburro | Lantern PhotographerIt’s been 297 days since the Ohio State women’s volleyball team last saw the floor at St. John Arena. Tonight marked the first home game for the Buckeyes and another win, improving to 11-4 on the season. No. 19 OSU swept Big Ten foe Northwestern in three sets during the Buckeyes’ home opener at St. John Arena, on Wednesday. A different combination of Buckeye players worked together in the match due to sophomore outside hitter Audra Appold sitting out with an illness. The change in lineup, however, wasn’t enough to derail OSU. A kill by senior middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe scored the first point of the first set, and from there, the momentum continued for the OSU squad. The Buckeyes jumped out to an early lead and were able to battle off several Northwestern rallies. Junior outside hitter Luisa Schirmer finished the final ball to win the set, 25-21. OSU kept the points coming in the second set, leading by double digits for the latter half. The Buckeyes dominated play, holding the Wildcats to only twelve points. Northwestern may have been down 0-2 in the match, but it showed in the third set, they weren’t giving up easily. The Wildcats led OSU from the beginning, as the Buckeyes would try to inch their way out of the hole for almost the entire set. With the Wildcats leading 20-16, it looked like match play might be pushed into a fourth set. OSU coach Geoff Carlston took the opportunity for a timeout to refocus his team. Immediately after, Schirmer put down a kill, followed by two more OSU points to cut the deficit to one. From there, it would be a point-for-point battle to the finish. When the dust cleared, it was OSU who would celebrate with a 28-26 set and match win. The Buckeyes held the Wildcats to an .085 attacking efficiency. OSU also dominated Northwestern’s blocking game, more than doubling their total team blocks, 7.5 to 3.0. It was freshman Madison Smeathers who would lead the team in hitting percentage with .500. Sandbothe and Schirmer also contributed 13 kills each. The countdown is on for senior libero Valeria León, who racked up another 22 digs against the Wildcats. With 1,497 total career digs, she is within fingertip-length of the record, currently held by Stacey Gordon with 1,572. Carlston said he was proud of the way his team responded to the pressure from Northwestern, especially in the final points of the match. “Northwestern did some things to stress us out,” he said. “I thought we did a nice job, especially in that third set, to lock in and play really well like what we needed to, to win in three.”Some Buckeye players expressed their happiness to finally be able to play in the gym they call home, even if it’s only for a moment. For Sandbothe, the match was her last “first” home game. “It was definitely bittersweet,” Sandbothe said. “The fans came out and seeing all the little girls and just having this opportunity to be on our home court, representing Ohio State is an amazing opportunity.” On the other end of the spectrum, tonight was freshman outside hitter Brooke Bailey’s first time playing in front of a home crowd as a Buckeye. “We’ve been away a lot in preseason and our first Big 10 games were away, so it was really exciting to be home,” Bailey said. The team will need the momentum from tonight’s win into their battle later in the week against defending national champions, No. 1, undefeated, Nebraska. The team mentioned what they will be thinking about over the next few days in preparation for the match. For veteran Sandbothe, the devil is in the details.“Just weighing the serve and pass game is going to be really important for us,” Sandbothe said. “I think we match up offensively and physically with every team, so just focusing on the little things.” Bailey said for the team, it’s about staying high and positive from tonight’s much-needed victory.“We’re just going to try to bring our energy from tonight into the weekend, and just keep going after it and staying aggressive,” she said. OSU will face the Cornhuskers on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Replacing Chris “Beanie” WellsOne question in everyone’s mind going into this season was how the Buckeyes were going to make up for losing one of the strongest running backs in college football, “Beanie” Wells. But, in their season opener against Navy, two backs paired up for quite the punch against the midshipmen defense. Dan Herron and Brandon Saine combined for 125 rushing yards. Herron had 17 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown. Saine averaged 5.9 yards on nine carries with a 14-yard carry in the second quarter while backup quarterback Joe Bauserman struggled to make a drive. Just two plays later, Saine connected with Bauserman for 13 yards and then carried the ball two more yards for a first down. “It felt really good you know,” Saine said. “I felt like I did what I needed to do out there. I might not have been able to score a touchdown or anything, but I feel like I contributed.” Defense struggles early, but finishes strongEarly on in the game, it looked as if the Buckeye defense was struggling to control the unique Navy offense. On their first possession, Navy had a seven-minute drive that consisted of 15 plays mostly on the ground for 80 yards and a 16-yard touchdown run by quarterback Ricky Dobbs. “We knew coming into this game that they were going to be a lot faster and we felt we needed to execute that first series so we were a little disappointed coming off the field after that first series knowing we had to step it up,” said Kurt Coleman, senior safety and OSU captain. But, it was the defense that eventually saved the day, stopping a two-point conversion with minutes left in the game, when Brian Rolle intercepted a pass from Dobbs and ran it back gaining two points for the Buckeyes. Captains excel and lead in openerThe three defensive captains combined for 13 tackles in the opener against Navy. Coleman forced a fumble in the fourth quarter when Navy was on second down with seven yards to go. Fellow captain, senior defensive lineman Doug Worthington was able to recover that fumble and the two set the offense up for a touchdown drive to put the Buckeyes up 29-14. Duron Carter makes a dazzling debut True freshman wide receiver Duron Carter, son of OSU alum Cris Carter, made his debut as a Buckeye yesterday. Carter played most of the game after sophomore DeVier Posey left with a minor ankle injury. Carter ranked third in the receiving stats for Ohio State with three receptions for 21 yards. “Little Carter was great. He caught a lot of balls and he looked awesome out there as well as a lot of other guys,” Worthington said of the young player. “I’m proud of a lot of guys stepping up, they looked great.” Carter said that he felt really comfortable on the big stage in front of a record of 105,092 fans on opening day. “It feels great. A lot of freshman receivers have started out their career great and hopefully I can be the next one and just step up during the on-coming weeks,” Carter said. Ohio State still having trouble closing in the red zone The Navy defense forced the Buckeyes to settle for a field goal on three separate occasions in the first, second and fourth quarters. And there probably should have been a fourth when instead of kicking, Tressel decided to go for it on fourth-and-one on the 15-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Despite Aaron Pettrey’s success, making good on a 23-yard, 25-yard and 52-yard field goal, it makes one wonder why they couldn’t push the ball into the end zone on four different occasions. “Those are the ones we had trouble with a year ago, the ones that started between the eight and the 10, so do you leave a little disappointed?” coach Jim Tressel asked himself. “Yeah, because you want to score touchdowns.” Ohio State didn’t exactly deliver what everyone had hoped they would in the season opener against Navy, in which they pulled off a shaky 31-27 victory over the Midshipmen. With a lot of young and inexperienced players stepping into the starting roles this season, it was uncertain who would make an impact, and how they would make an impact. With yesterday’s game against Navy under their belts, the Buckeyes cleared the fog a little as to who will be making headlines this season.
Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan said he gets the sense that this season, his team is doing big things. “Despite the fact that we’ve got so many young people on the team, I think there’s great leadership and a great sense of this group leaving a legacy here,” Ryan said. Having started seven freshmen for most of the year, the No. 6 Buckeyes’ resume suggests the team has gone above and beyond the expectations of many. After storming out of the gate at 7-0, the Buckeyes dropped back-to-back road contests against Nebraska and then Minnesota. About two weeks later, the Buckeyes toppled then-No. 2 Iowa, 21-9, in their first win against the Hawkeyes since 1966. Some even called it their biggest dual win in school history. Just nine days after the Iowa match, defending national champion, Penn State, hammered OSU, 34-9, in State College, Pa. OSU then responded with wins against then-No. 12 Michigan and Michigan State to close the Big Ten regular season. While the mission of winning a Big Ten regular season championship was unsuccessful for OSU (11-3, 5-3 Big Ten), Ryan said there’s still a lot of wrestling left. “Men in this sport that have left a legacy shine in March,” he said. “And we’re still three weeks away from March.” What Ryan is referring to are the Big Ten and NCAA Championships, which begin in early March and last through much of the month. Before that, the Buckeyes’ attention is solely focused on this weekend when they will travel to Stillwater, Okla., for the Stillwater Regional of the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals. OSU, which drew the No. 3 seed in the region, is set to wrestle No. 6 seed Boise State on Feb. 12. “I think the big thing that Boise State presents for us is that they have a couple of really good individuals,” he said. Perhaps most importantly against Boise State, Ryan stressed how critical it was for 165-pound freshman Derek Garcia to wrestle his best heading into the postseason in order to hopefully qualify for the NCAA Tournament which is selective in what wrestlers it takes. “Every single match for Derek Garcia’s critical to make sure we bring ten (wrestlers) to the national tournament. Because I do believe he can do something there,” he said. OSU is at full strength with all of their starters rested and ready to go. At least, Ryan said, as much as they can be in mid-February of the season. The winner of OSU’s dual against Boise State wrestles No. 2 seed Nebraska, who handed the Buckeyes their first loss back on Jan. 6. One-hundred-eighty-four-pound redshirt junior C.J. Magrum said that while there will be no looking past Boise State, he’s excited at the prospect of a rematch. “We’re kind of upset we didn’t get the second seed (in the Stillwater region) but at the same time, we’ll never wrestle Nebraska as worse we did the first time we wrestled them,” he said. OSU lost, 18-16, as a result of bonus points in the first match up. “Lightning’s not going to strike twice,” Magrum said. “We’re pretty confident going into the match that we should take care of them.” One-hundred-thirty-three-pound redshirt freshman Logan Stieber agreed. “Last time we didn’t wrestle well, and they kind of kicked our butts,” he said. Ryan said he understands the challenge at hand. “We’re going to see two teams that, based on their season, you might say, should beat us,” he said. But that doesn’t stop him from liking the matchups each team presents. He still gets the sense this is a team that’s doing big things, he said. “This group wants to win it,” Ryan said. “We’ll see how bad they want to win it on Sunday.”
Junior quarterback Braxton Miller (5) carries the ball during the Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. OSU lost, 34-24. Credit: Shelby Lum / Photo editorOhio State junior quarterback Braxton Miller said he is going to wait until after the Buckeyes play in the Orange Bowl against Clemson to decide whether or not he will leave early for the NFL Draft.“I’m just focusing on getting better myself as an individual and getting the team ready and making sure I’m in the film room taking care of my business,” Miller said Wednesday.However, OSU’s signal caller feels he is prepared to play at the next level.“Oh, yeah. Of course, yeah. Definitely. Just like (when) I came from high school. (The) coaches (are) going to get you mentally ready for everything that you need to get ready for,” Miller said. “It’s another step in life.”OSU coach Urban Meyer said he will wait until after the season is complete before talking with players who could leave early about their future. He would not go into detail about what kind of advice he would give his star quarterback when that time comes though.“That’s between me and Braxton,” Meyer said Monday.Miller, who was named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year for the second straight season Dec. 3, threw for 1,860 yards and 22 touchdowns with just five interceptions despite missing more than two games when he went down with a sprained MCL in his left knee against San Diego State Sept. 7. He also ran for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013.No. 7 OSU (12-1, 8-1) is set to play No. 12 Clemson (10-2, 7-1) in the Discover Orange Bowl Jan. 3. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.