Ever since Barry Sanders was selected to be on the cover of Madden 14, I have come to an unsurprising yet scary realization: Madden, and EA Sports, have an incredibly powerful influence on how young people view the NFL. Thinking about my Madden playing years, I can tell you which year was my favorite (Madden 04,08), least favorite (Madden 05), and who the most exciting players were to use in each edition of the game. I’m sure I am not alone. A simple Google search will tell you all about which are the best teams in Madden history, how playing with the 2004 Atlanta Falcons was unfair because of Michael Vick‘s 94 speed and 97 throwing power, and so on. What these articles don’t tell you, though, is how accurate Madden’s predictions and rating systems really are. Sure, player and team ratings are somewhat based upon the previous year’s statistics. However, EA Sports tries to predict the success of teams and players so that the consumer can have an experience as similar to real life as possible. After some basic analysis, it is clear that Madden can’t see any deeper into the hazy crystal ball that is the NFL than anyone else.
We’ll start in 2011, to keep it recent. Based upon which teams had the highest rating in Madden 12 before the season in each division, Madden inaccurately guessed the winners of six out of the eight divisions, correctly choosing the New England Patriots to win the AFC East and the Green Bay Packers to win the NFC North. Most egregiously, it had the Saint Louis Rams with the highest rating in the NFC West (the team finished 2-14), beating out the San Francisco 49ers (who ended the year with a 13-3 record). To top it off, none of the top-two ranked players at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, or tight end made the NFL All-Pro Team, one filled with big names such as Aaron Rodgers, Maurice Jones-Drew and Calvin Johnson.
Last year, the numbers improved in some ways and remained incorrect in others. Madden predicted six out of eight correct division winners, yet top-seeded playoff teams Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons were ranked 12 and 13, respectively. The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens were ranked 5th before the season started. Despite this precision, out of all the starting Pro Bowl quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks, wide receivers and tight ends, Adrian Peterson and Andre Johnson were the only actual starters projected to start based on Madden’s rankings.
What does all of this mean? In theory, not much because the game is constantly updated as the season progresses. However, it does teach all NFL fans that even EA Sports, the company that spends hours upon hours deciding the most arbitrary numbers like Eli Manning‘s “Zone Coverage” and “Man Coverage” abilities, (Manning is 11 points better at zone, for all of those who were wondering), isn’t particularly great at predicting who will play well in a given season. Keep this in mind as the new game’s release date approaches, and don’t be swayed by the player and team ratings — especially if Eli’s man coverage skills finally catch up to his zone expertise.