A Video Game Must Draw The Line Between Immortal And Unbeatable

Archie Griffin is the only player to win two Heisman Trophies. The last guy to win a Heisman and finish as high as second for the award in another year was Herschel Walker, 30 years ago. I wouldn't know where to begin in rating either player for an appearance in a video game. For what they accomplished, and what they mean to their sport, hell, I'd probably write a 99 in every box under their names.

"That's why we don't display the ratings," said Mike Weisbecker, the math-whiz assistant designer tasked with evaluating 16 all-time greats in NCAA Football 13's new "Heisman Challenge."

"We wanted people to appreciate the Heisman mode's players," Weisbecker said. "We didn't want them to get into an argument over things like, 'Well, why is this guy rated a 95 instead of a 96?'"

Rating a sport's legends is nothing new to video games. Sporting News Baseball by Epyx was doing it as far back as 1988. NBA 2K11 and 2K12 brought us more than two dozen teams from antiquity, and that game's designers had to work from reputation and anecdotal accounts to build out its roster of greats, too.

If you complete the "Heisman Challenge" with a player, you'll unlock him for use in the game's four-year "Road to Glory" career mode, where player attributes are exposed. But then, you're getting Eddie George or Desmond Howard as freshmen. Their Heisman-year ratings in NCAA 13 are a complete mystery.

NCAA Football 13's decision to hide the attributes of its greatest-named performers underlines how the act of rating an all-time great also creates a bar-argument distraction for the rest of the game.

Once again, this is something peculiar to the sports genre. Fighting game afficionados argue character attributes as passionately, if not more. But it's usually for purposes of overall balance. Fighting games, ideally, are won by user skill. Anyway, you're still talking about fictitious characters who don't have a real-world comparison.

In sports, with figures as objective as batting average and as subjective as, well, a basketball player's listed height in college, the arguments and complaining tend to work toward the other extreme. If Walker or Griffin aren't a 99 overall in NCAA 13, there will be a ton of players — many of them fans more of the team than the player — demanding an answer why.

Better, reasoned Weisbecker, to just let gamers feel what it's like to play as either man, than to try to justify an arbitrary grade of his talent.

"We wanted guys to feel like they were more than just a high-rated player," Weisbecker said. "So a lot of the ratings process was in just trying to get the feel of the gameplay right."

Barry Sanders has world-class elusiveness and agility as a running back for Oklahoma State, for example. Jim Plunkett displays a cannon arm at Stanford. Charlie Ward may not have the best throwing power for Florida State, but his accuracy, his scrambling ability, and the means to throw on the run all are there. Is it really necessary to know which of these players' signature strengths are 99 and which of their weaknesses are 78? EA Sports thinks not.

In tuning all-time greats to make them play according to broad, thematic expactations, Weisbecker had an advantage over his counterpart at Madden NFL, which this year also brings a team full of retired all-time greats into its new "Connected Careers" mode for players to take control. You will see their ratings in the game, too.

Every year Donny Moore — the Madden "ratings czar" counterpart to NCAA's "Doctor Mike" — must appraise professionals whose careers are grounded in increasingly detailed playing records — to the point that this year's NFL rookies can be reasonably graded according to the sprint times or bench presses or vertical leaps recorded during a draft combine evaluation.

But a player like Dick "Night Train" Lane, a Detroit Lions cornerback who last appeared in an NFL game in 1965, doesn't offer that spread of data. Lane wasn't drafted, and his alma mater was a junior college. "For guys like Lane, there's almost no film to go off of," Moore said, "and zero combine-type metrics, to determine how fast the guy was, or how high he jumped."

"We relied on scouting reports, and articles written back in the day," Moore said. Even a player like Deion Sanders, who did appear in video games during his career, Moore had to rate him practically from scratch to capture his true strength and playing style. "People like Deion had weaknesses; we gave him a very low tackle rating," Moore said. And indeed, Sanders was not a cornerback known for his hitting. "I think he has a 40 tackle rating [the lowest given] on the nose.

"We didn't want to give these guys all 99s and call it a day," Moore said.

But it brings into play another variable — the size of football players in the past as compared to now. While Lane's size — 6-1, 190 — is not outside the norm for a cornerback (a little smallish for a safety), it is small for a modern tight end — the position he was originally assigned. Lane evolved into the league's hardest-hitting corner, destroying Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice in a hit that gave Lane his "Night Train" nickname.

Moore said that legendary players' physiques and equipment do not factor into their ratings in Madden NFL 13 — we're essentially seeing them rated relative to their contemporaries. A guy like Mean Joe Greene, at 6-4 and 275, is actually undersized as a modern interior defensive lineman. "He'd be put out as a defensive end in today's NFL," Moore said. "But we gave him 97 strength, because that defined his game. We tried not to get too much into how he'd go up against a guy like [Baltimore defensive end] Haloti Ngata. We wanted to be a little more kind to the legends."

But legends didn't get any boost where one wasn't warranted. The Dallas Cowboys' fabled Triplets of quarterback Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith are not the greatest at their positions, in this game or any other. Irvin is comparatively slower than other receivers (though his Catch in Traffic rating "is like 99," Moore said.) Aikman doesn't have the arm strength of a John Elway or the accuracy of a Joe Montana, and Smith doesn't have a lot of mass. Working together, all three bring out the best in one another, though.

Likewise, in college, Weisbecker dinged Charlie Ward's arm strength, as much as it pained the Florida State alumnus to do so. In the end, Ward's shortcomings were as integral to creating his "feel" in the game as ankle-breaking jukes were to creating Barry Sanders.

"A lot of it was trying to find the guy's place where they were in their day and time," Weisbecker said. "Herschel Walker was one of the most dominating running backs in his time. Even today, he looks like he'd be pretty awesome.

"I never saw Herschel Walker play, but I started by asking myself, what was it like for him in his time?" Weisbecker said. "Well, he was fast and powerful. And that's how we wanted him to feel in the game. Fast. And powerful."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.


Be the first to comment on this story!

Trending Stories Right Now