A conversation with Madden 15 player ratings czar Donny Moore
With Madden 15 set to be released in August, we had the opportunity to speak with someone who every longtime fan of the game has questioned without actually knowing. Meet Donny Moore, the man at EA responsible having the final say when it comes to determining player ratings in Madden. How much do his decisions matter? Well, based on the reaction video below, a lot:
With player ratings set to be released shortly, I asked Donny about his process for rating players, the most difficult rookie in this class to peg and the general flack he's gotten over the years for doing his job.
How did you end up with a job like this?
I’ve been at EA since 1999, so I’ve been here an awful long time. I had no plans to get into video game or anything like that. I went to UCF and was a political science major – I think I had dreams of being a lawyer at one point. I got involved with EA as a game tester and I’ve always had a knack for player data. I helped with the player data way back on NCAA 2001.
Really good game.
Yeah that was a great game! That was the Shaun Alexander cover, I believe.
From there, I got onto the Madden team and at some point -- probably around 2001 or 2002 games -- we basically took all the data in-house. I’ve been on Madden exclusively since Madden 10.
Can you describe your process for rating an incoming rookie?
When we’re creating the new rookie class for each game, it all starts as the college football season is sort of ending. At that point we’ve had our eye on most of the top players for quite awhile. Once the NFL Combine starts rolling in, I can really start attaching measurable and hard numbers to the players and I start creating them.
For example, a guy like (former UCF QB) Blake Bortles, we’ll be looking at his height, his weight and his tendencies. What kind of quarterback is he? He’s a guy who does a little bit of everything. He’s got a good arm and he’s mobile, so he’s sort of like an Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers type of guy. We use those guys as our templates and then I have about 10 or 15 different scouting publications that I’ll use as resources. I try to accumulate as many opinions on all of these players as possible. Then I have a notebook where I have a big plus and a big minus, which I use to determine what are the players strengths and weaknesses.
Blake Bortles has a nice arm, he can make all the throws. He doesn’t have a laser necessarily, but he’s got a good arm. Good short accuracy and he’s good at play action. On the negative side, his deep accuracy wasn’t so good based on our reports and his awareness is slightly lower because he’s a junior and there’s a learning curve when learning an NFL playbook.
Long story short, I create Blake Bortles, fill in all of his numbers and other details relating to his appearance. From there we’ll see where he gets drafted and that will maybe nudge a guy up or down a little bit if his draft position is way different from where we had him in January and February.
Also doesn’t hurt if he went to UCF?
(laughs) Well, yeah he’s a UCF guy, but I always feel like there’s extra eye balls on any player I might have an affiliation with. I’m a Bucs fan, so a lot of guys on Twitter give me a lot of trouble anytime I do anything favorable for the Bucs. They think it’s the result of me being a homer, when in reality it’s closer to, hey, even the Bucs have good players sometimes.
I’m sure you get a lot of flack from the public, but have you ever had a player who was particularly upset about their rating and tried to reach out to you?
Yeah, there are quite a few examples of that happening.
Edgerrin James, when he was was in the league, he wasn’t really concerned necessarily about getting one of his ratings moved up but before each game came out – and this was before we did online updates – he wanted to make sure that he was the highest rated pass blocker of all of the University of Miami running backs in the league. There was like six or seven of them at the time. And he got my phone number and he always wanted to know what his pass blocking rating was in relation to the other ‘U’ guys.
That’s one example, but also long snappers are usually not pleased with their ratings in the game, and that’s really because we don’t have a long snapping rating. A lot of times these guys are under-sized and they don’t block, so they’re usually not very happy with their ratings.
I get it from all different angles. Some guys are mad at me because they’re don’t have their picture in the game. Sometimes the cut-off date for when we put the player portraits in the game is pretty early so we can’t get all these new guys in there. Some players flip out over that.
And one other dude was mad at me because we didn’t have his college in the game.
Who was the most difficult incoming rookie for you to rate in Madden 15?
(Former Florida State and current Carolina Panthers wide receiver) Kelvin Benjamin is one guy who comes to mind who was a little difficult to rate. Based on all of our reports and all of his measurables, I think we had him in the high 60s at first. When I create someone, I run something called the "overall formula" which takes into account the data I've accumulated and produces a (player rating) number, and from there I’ll make some fine-tuned adjustments.
Benjamin was tough because he didn’t run a really fast 40-time, he was a red-shirt sophomore coming out of college and he runs really raw routes. And all those things combined – low awareness, low routes, not real fast – to hurt his overall rating in Madden.
At the same time we saw that he was drafted in the first round, we were well aware of his big play ability in college, but some things don’t translate as well into a video game. Size isn’t something that’s overly factored into our formula. But in the real world, that’s a big reason why Kelvin Benjamin was drafted in the first round.
Is there any player throughout the series that stands out as one that was very difficult to rate?
All-time one that stands out is Michael Vick.
He’s not necessarily hard to rate per se, but what he is able to do in the video game relative to how successful he is in the real world doesn’t really line up. And a lot of that is because he’s got these insane, once-in-a-lifetime measurables. He’s a world-class sprinter playing quarterback and he’s got one of the biggest arms in the game.
Granted, over time some of his skills have started to deteriorate a little bit as he’s aged, but he was always hard to rate. I used to have executive producers always tell me ‘Dude, you gotta do something to Vick. Either lower his injury rating, or lower his carry rating – something to not allow people to just hike the ball and run around the corner with him.'
Was that a lesson you learned specifically from Madden 2004, a game in which he was considered to be one of the most dominant video game characters ever created?
I created him that year and, trust me, it was a big debate. At the time I don’t think we had any quarterback even approaching 90 speed. I think the fastest quarterback we’d have would be in the upper 80s. And Michael Vick came in and I think we gave him a 95 speed rating, and he had that for several years. But we saw that based on the film, he was doing something that nobody else was doing, so we really wanted to capture that from the video game perspective.
Can you name one player in particular that you received a lot of flack about from the general public?
I guess one example that stands out was a few years ago, Chris Johnson had a 99 speed rating, 99 acceleration rating and I think he was 95 elusiveness. And Reggie Bush was super high in elusiveness. As a result of that, the online running game was almost unstoppable. The gameplay producers actually made me dial the ratings down via one of the online roster updates. They were just too effective in the game.
That’s what we’re trying to not have happen. I want to make it to where what we put out in terms of numbers is 90% agreeable among all people who have smart opinions about football.
Is there one player in particular that you rated very lowly and regretted doing so in retrospect?
Well shoot, I regret that I rated JaMarcus Russell so highly. I regret when we had Tom Brady so low to start with. But at the same time, everybody missed it.
In particular, it’s really difficult to rate guys coming off of injuries. How much we dock their rating is a really tough judgment call. Obviously when a guy tears his knee in December, we don’t want him to have the same rating when the game comes out in August. That’s a serious knee injury and you want to reflect it, but the question is how much.
People look at Aaron Rodgers and might ask “How is he rated so high in Madden this year? He didn’t finish in the top 5 in passing!” We don’t look at it like that. We don’t just look at who had the most passing touchdowns last season and then rank the quarterbacks in the new game accordingly. We’re factoring in almost anything and everything in terms of opinions, data and advanced metrics.