This Saturday was about as throwing-things livid I've been over a sports contest in a decade. The last time I was this angry was in 2003, when Jorge Posada doubled off of Pedro Martinez to tie the seventh game of the American League Championship Series. I kicked a rubbish bin across the newsroom of the Rocky Mountain News and cursed Grady Little and his mother. Brian Crecente asked the supervising editor to reprimand me.
This time, N.C. State, my alma mater, lost by a single point in its conference tournament in a game heavily influenced by terrible officiating. Stoking the anger is the fact we — yes, I'll use "we", as I actually went to the school — lost to our most despised rival, North Carolina. And there is a wide belief among State fans that the ACC officiating is at least reputation-based in how calls are made. Others among us think it is as straight-up rigged as Serie A.
Some of our more analytical alumni (we have a mathematics college, you know) examined the officiating patterns and found North Carolina very much favored in fouls called for and against it in league games — and Duke with a stunning advantage in fouls called despite the fact a third of its shot attempts are three-pointers, which rarely draw a foul. Naturally, my thoughts turned to video games, and whether simulation sports titles would represent any kind of a control in the analysis.
This was a short-lived thought exercise because as any fan knows, video games don't. Not in terms of officiating.
The simulations I run in Biff Tannen's Sports Almanac, and Madden's remarkably successful prediction over the past eight Super Bowls, all leave out one important factor: How the game is called.
In football, Sunday staples such as pass interference and holding are rare. And any sports gamer knows that you often go an entire game in basketball — the most subjectively officiated team sport in the world — without either team reaching the bonus (shooting free throws, instead of a non-shooting foul stopping play and awarding possession to the other team if necessary.) Travelling, whether called or uncalled, is simply impossible to simulate, but it is a factor in every college and professional contest.
I ran two simulations in real-time within College Hoops 2K8, as its community still provides updated and edited rosters for the current season (EA Sports deactivated online support for NCAA Basketball 10, meaning others' rosters are now impossible to obtain.) In the first, a total of three fouls were called, all of them shooting fouls. UNC mopped the floor with us and won by 12.
In the second, I adjusted the officiating sliders to maximum to call every possible fould the game recognises. State had 7 team fouls to North Carolina's one but, in fairness, most of these were intentional at the end of the game. UNC was not even in the bonus when it had the ball with 14 seconds left. State comically fouled UNC four times, intentionally, never put the guy on the line, and lost. And it's funny to me that officiating driven up to its strictest setting favoured the Wolfpack, where a more casual affair resulted in a Carolina blowout.
This again speaks to the differing, even ironic expectations sports fans have of their real world contests, and the ones on their consoles.
In real life, we expect a perfect and objectively officiated game. In video games, we want to see the refs call ticky-tack bullshit and outright bias the affair in the favour of an elite team. That communicates simulation quality and for sure it would be praised. I've written about this before, and yes, I still play video game baseball with a variable strike zone, and I still get mad when someone whacks strike five for a go-ahead double.
Officiating, goes the old saw, is best when it is noticed least, and video games reflect this. Constantly calling fouls or taking the ball out of your hands by calling travelling not only slows down the game, it is simply unenjoyable.
But in both real life sports and their video game counterparts, we know that it is the on-field acts that summon the most excitement, while the officiating and the managerial decisions only deliver the worst outrage. This is a video game. It is supposed to be fun, it's supposed to deliver enjoyment, not heartache, not reprimands and trash cans kicked across the room.