MAITLAND, Fla. — Andre Weingarten sticks his head through the space between the whiteboard and the edge of Dustin Smith’s end-of-row cubicle. They watch one of three computer screens on Smith’s desk. A YouTube video of Kyler Murray, the former Oklahoma quarterback who would become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft six weeks later, is playing on one of them.
Together they watch. For hours. Daily. Prospect by prospect they go, the bespectacled 34-year-old Smith and the bearded 23-year-old Weingarten — making the decisions for how digital players will rate in this year’s Madden video game.
Ten years ago, Smith was a game-tester for Electronic Arts, searching for bugs in the game and ways to make the player likenesses more accurate. Weingarten was a teenage fan who eventually went to school to learn, among other things, scouting. Now, they make some of the game’s most-discussed decisions at their two desks on the sixth floor of a building in a nondescript office park 30 miles northeast of Disney World.
Here, virtual NFL players come to life for millions of gamers around the globe. On this Monday, they are taking an initial look at Murray.
“What I’m looking for here is velocity, release and arm strength,” Smith said, watching Murray make throws in a game. “Look, he’s looking at the same read. One. Two. Three. Looking at the same read.”
“That’s really the biggest issue I have with Murray,” Weingarten said. “He’s not exactly known for running a complex offense.”
During the season, they receive help from a set of employees known as Madden ratings adjustors — many of whom have playing backgrounds in college or the NFL — to deal with the breakneck speed of week-to-week ratings changes. For initial game ratings of rookies and veterans, Smith and Weingarten work through a year’s worth of tweaking, poking, studying, analyzing, debating, searching for any morsel of information and staring at computer and television screens as they determine the individual and overall ratings of 2,900 players by the first week of June.
In this moment, they are trying to gauge Murray’s throwing power — one of 53 public ratings they’ll create for him — eventually landing at an 89 rating that will tie for 19th with Seattle Seahawks veteran Russell Wilson and fellow rookie Dwayne Haskins. Smith and Weingarten want the quarterbacks you play with in the game to feel more like how the quarterback plays in real life. Fifty-three quarterbacks had a throw power of 90 or better last season. This year, there are 18.
It’s part of a bigger ratings spacing — the brainchild of Smith and Weingarten — to create more realism. Last year, 1,590 players were rated 70 or above overall at release. This year, 1,177 will have that initial rating.
“It’s harder to explain to people on top of all that, because everybody is always tied into what the rating always meant, and this year we’re doing a big stretch,” Smith said. “Maybe not as big as I want it to be, but it’s a stretch noticeably, where, like before your worst of your worst was maybe a 59.
“There may be now a 51. Overall.”
Murray is in no danger of being that low. His talent, what he did versus college competition, scouting reports breaking down his strengths and weaknesses, and where he would rank against other quarterbacks mean he’ll be one of the better-rated rookie quarterbacks when Madden ’20 is released Aug. 2. Smith and Weingarten had a feeling in mid-March, when they opened up their process to ESPN for two days, that Murray might end up as the Arizona Cardinals‘ No. 1 overall pick.
Smith’s desk looks like it belongs in Texas — eight Dallas Cowboys helmets and four Cowboys jerseys surrounding him. It’s an odd fit for a man who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, a one-time defensive back at Raytown (Missouri) High School who used to hear flyovers at Arrowhead Stadium from his house. After graduation, he worked as a valet at the Argosy Casino in Riverdale, Missouri, playing Madden in his free time and logging on to the Operation Sports message board in 2008 and 2009. He would point out mistakes and make suggestions on what the game was missing, particularly with player likeness and gear.
It is knowledge Smith acquired as a kid thanks to a photographic memory of his football trading cards. The detail caught the attention of then-Madden designer Ian Cummings, who reached out and invited Smith to Florida to participate in a community forum in 2009.
While there, Smith asked how he could work at EA. Representatives told him he could start as a game tester — known as a “QA” — in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Wanting to get into game development, he took the gig, searching for bugs in games for three years before taking a yearlong hiatus, staying in Baton Rouge and parking cars at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
He returned to game testing in 2014 for one more year before interviewing for a job at the home office in Florida. Rex Dickson, then Madden’s creative director, hired Smith to work on gear, uniforms, likeness and authenticity in January 2015 as a contractor — essentially creating the same things that he was criticizing on a message board seven years earlier.
Once hired, he worked with then-ratings czar Donny Moore. Smith learned the massive Madden database — a spreadsheet with thousands of ratings — and how to create ratings. Moore left for FanDuel later that year, and Dickson offered Smith the job.
Moore walked Smith through everything before he left, including how to create undrafted rookie free agents. Smith was overwhelmed. He worked in anonymity outside EA’s offices in 2016 while gaining comfort with the system and the ratings.
“Did I feel I could do it? Yes,” Smith said. “I knew there would be a ton of pressure. I had seen what people had said to Donny for years, and it wasn’t going to be a simple task to try and jump into that role.”
By 2017, Smith had a better feel; he understood the pressure in his 50-hour workweeks and realized that outside criticism comes from everywhere. Smith said that Odell Beckham Jr. blocked him on Twitter because he was upset with a rating. He was a one-man operation until last year, when EA hired Weingarten on a one-year contract, in part, to help Smith.
A native of New York’s Long Island who transferred from Hofstra to United States Sports Academy in Daphne, Alabama, Weingarten added a mathematical component from a scouting background, differing from Smith’s experience as a work-your-way-up Madden employee. They clicked fast. Now a full-time employee, Weingarten spends roughly 70% of his time working on rosters with Smith.
Having Weingarten allowed more film study to work through the eight to 10 rookies they evaluate and rate per day. They can have a whole position group of veteran players — who only require small adjustments — done in a day. With every player, they rate first and rank after.
They devised formulas to take some of the guesswork out of ratings. Five categories are pulled almost straight from combine numbers: Strength, jumping, speed, acceleration and agility. The other ratings — including two private ratings, one for celebration and another they declined to name — are determined from the research Smith and Weingarten do throughout the year and scouting reports they receive. They declined to name their scouting reports or give much information on their specific formulas for proprietary reasons. Draft guides are key. So too are specific Twitter accounts — including those of Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) for athletic ratings and Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) for catchable ball and accuracy breakdowns.
The formulas are not the end-all for ratings. Game speed and position also are taken into account. It’s one of the ways — along with ratings spacing — they are trying to add more reality to a game that attempts to thrive on it, similar to FIFA and NBA2K. Moore began working on formulas before he left. The ones Smith and Weingarten use now, including the strength formula Weingarten created, were refined in the past year.
It also is where a player like Murray becomes more challenging — because they have no numbers to work off of since he didn’t work out at the combine.
Smith drops Murray into the massive spreadsheet. Listed as a free agent, he’ll be judged against every other quarterback in the league.
In order to build a rookie, they use a duplicate of another player, usually a lower-tiered one, who has the same height and weight. It’s a time saver that will later be customized, although they use Drew Brees as Murray’s duplicate because there are so few quarterbacks with his build. They search Google images to find photos of a player with arm sleeves, wrist tape, a different hairstyle for as much authenticity as possible.
Using a duplicate as a base gives them more time to focus on ratings. This year, they had 401 rookies built with basic information by Feb. 2. Last year, they only had 170 bodies by April 2.
Rookie quarterbacks take the longest to rate. There are eight position-specific ratings and physical metrics — and rushing ratings for dual threats such as Murray. Most of those aren’t math-based markers, either.
“Nobody is going to sit there and tell you, ‘Oh, he’s good at breaking sacks,’ unless it’s something really common he does,” Smith said. “You have to go find information like that.”
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