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Why scripting isn’t the only possible explanation

It’s beyond dispute that FIFA can be a deeply frustrating experience. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel as if you are in the driver’s seat. Equalizers being scored in the 90th minute, opponents being able to catch up with a safe lead and losing streaks are just some examples of the long list of pains that FIFA players have to endure. In the community, there has been a long lasting consensus regarding the presence of some kind of foul play labelled under terms such as scripting, handicapping and momentum.

People who believe that the game is rigged generally reject the mere thought that there could be other explanations than foul play to the events mentioned above, some of which are portrayed in a myriad of Youtube videos and written accounts on these topics. Yet, in this article, I’m going to present alternative explanations:

  • Relegation and losing streaks
  • 90th minute goals
  • Too-good-to-be-true come backs

Relegation and losing streaks

The first topic, I’m going to deal with, is actually two different phenomena, which however are linked and perhaps therefore sometimes confused, namely losing streaks and relegation streaks.

Losing streaks are streaks of (more or less) consecutive losses, whereas relegation streaks are streaks of (more or less) consecutive relegations. You may suffer losing streaks without getting relegated and you may get relegated without having been on an actual losing streak. Aside from the fact that results really aren’t going your way over a longer span of matches, losing streaks and relegation streaks are different phenomena, and the explanations, I’m going to present, are hence also different.

In addition to that, I’m aware that people may use the term “streak” even if the losses or relegations in fact aren’t happening in direct succession but perhaps just in close succession. The explanations, I’m going to present below, are however relevant to both the narrow and the wider use of the term “streak”.

Losing streaks and a bit about probability theory

I think that most players have experienced unusual streaks of consecutive defeats or perhaps just an unusual decline in their ability to win matches. When you normally win and lose without noticing any pattern in your results, and then all of a sudden lose five matches in a row or 8 matches within the same season, it’s easy to start thinking that those defeats somehow are connected or have a common reason.

On the other hand, it’s well know that humans are predisposed to see patterns between events which in reality aren’t related. In fact, even phenomena, which are highly unusual, sometimes turn out to be coincidental. Statisticians call it the law of truly large numbers: With a sample size large enough, any outrageous thing is likely to happen. So, what this really tells us is that with millions of FIFA players around, many of them playing thousands of matches per year, some of them are bound to experience something, which we intuitively would deem “too strange to be a coincidence”.

In order to determine whether things are “within the boundaries of coincidence”, statisticians use systematic tests, and it’s actually possible to apply these tests here as well.

During FIFA 14, the web app contained match history data covering a player’s latest 20 matches – today it’s only 10. During FIFA 14, I collected the full match history of FUT online friendly matches from 20 players and noted the occurrence of streaks of various lengths in their match history record. Next, I compared my occurrence data with the natural number of occurrences in a similar sized data set and ran a statistical test. The result was very clear: The number of losing streaks in the sample was within the boundaries of coincidence.

Streak length Natural occurrences
Actual occurrences
3 12.5 15
4 6.234 7
5 3.109 3
6 1.551 3
7 .773 1
8 .386 1
>8 <1  1

 

The table above contains the natural occurrence of streaks of various lengths within a 400 match sample. These calculations serve to demonstrate that coincidence is a possible explanation to some losing streaks which people undoubtedly otherwise tend to associate with scripting. As an example, a player, who has a 50/50 chance of winning and losing every match, should expect losing streaks of 5 matches in length 3.1 times per 400 matches.

Hence, this boils down to that losing streaks are a natural and inevitable consequence of the fact that you have players who can win and lose.

Relegation streaks and why they happen

It’s a slightly different story with relegation streaks, although coincidence still is a contributing factor here.

I know of players, who suffered streaks of even 5 or 6 (more or less) consecutive relegations. The fact that similar relegation streaks are unthinkable in real football makes it easy to start thinking that something sinister is going on. If you however look carefully at the mechanics of FUT’s divisions, it becomes clear that they are quite different from real football divisions in a number of decisive ways. First and foremost, the season results are significantly more random than you might have expected.

FUT’s unusual tournaments

First, please notice that a FUT season lasts 10 matches (maximum!). Unlike real football league seasons, a FUT season isn’t a round-robin tournament, where you get to play all opponents in your current division. Instead, you get to play ten matches against random (though ELO-matched) opponents. The inevitable consequence is that your end result will depend on whether you coincidentally get matched up against players from the lower or the higher end of the range of potential opponents. And when I use the phrase range of potential opponents rather than current division, the reason of course is that FUT seasons uses ELO matchmaking rather than divisional matchmaking, meaning that you may get matched up against opponents who reside multiple divisions above or below your current division.

It only takes a small drop of bad luck to turn success into failure

Second, promotion and relegation isn’t decided by your final position in a league table but by your ability to go above certain point thresholds, and hence in reality your ability to to win a certain percentage of your matches.

The table below shows the two most important point thresholds in this context, namely the relegation and promotion thresholds.

What you should notice is that the thresholds separating promotion and relegation are very close to each other and quite similar across divisions. It requires 12 points (i.e. 4 wins in 10 attempts) to stay in division 2, but if your win rate drops by just one (1!) match per season, you will get relegated from every division between 2 and 6. Going from 4 to 3 wins per season is not only possible but also highly likely to happen sooner or later, provided that you belong to those 80 % of the FIFA players, who normally win between 33 and 48 % of their matches. Doing so 3, 4 or 5 seasons in a row is indeed also doable and highly likely to happen to some of those millions of FIFA players.

Division Relegation threshold  Promotion threshold
10 >= 9 points
9 <=5 points >=10 points
8 <=7 >=12 points
7 <=7 >=14 points
6 <=9 >=16 points
5 <=9 >=16 points
4 <=9 >=16 points
3 <=11 >=18 points
2 <=11 >=18 points
1 <=13

The considerations above demonstrate that relegation streaks are an inevitable product of FIFA’s game design, and perhaps more specifically the duration of it’s seasons. If you make seasons 10 matches short and use “random” matchmaking, relegation streaks are inevitable.

90th minute goals

All FIFA players know those painfully annoying goals in the dying minutes of the match, which turn a well deserved win into a draw or a draw into a defeat. When something as frustrating as this happens as frequently as it definitely does, it’s easy to start thinking that they are put in on purpose to change the outcome of the match. As I however will illustrate below, there is another and far more likely explanation.

Longer minutes, more goals

The term “90th minute” does not actually refer to one minute. In fact, “the 90th minute” refers to the part of the match where the clock is stopped at 90:00 aka stoppage time or injury time. Stoppage time usually lasts way more than one minute in FIFA. It’s not uncommon to see 5 minutes or more added to the second half. When considering that these 5 minutes were added because of stoppages during the 45 minutes played during the second half, we end up having 1/9 of the effective playing time of the 2nd half taking place during “the 90 minute”.

All other things equal, we should expect 1/9 of the goals to be scored during the 1/9 of the playing time that constitute stoppage time. All other things are however not quite equal. In real football, the scoring frequency increases towards the end of the match. Although FUT is different in many ways, some of the factors which lead to more goals in the dying minutes of a real match, are present here as well. This includes nerves and hence more mistakes, tactical changes and of course fatigue.

Many goals in general, many goals in stoppage time

Simple math is however not the only contributor to goals being scored in “the 90th minute”. Another key factor is FUT’s overall goal frequency. While an average football match in one of the five European top leagues contains approximately 2.7 goals, a FUT seasons match contains around to 3.8 goals depending of what edition of the game you are looking at. Needless to say, a general increase in the goal frequency will lead to a general increase in the frequency of goals scored in stoppage time as well.

Estimates show that the factors listed above on their own should lead to stoppage time goals in approximately every other match. Hence, I find it fair to conclude that the vast majority of the 90th minute goals happen due to the simple fact that the 90th minute isn’t one minute and that FIFA’s overall goal frequency is very high compared to real football. Whether you then chose to believe that there is a residual of 90th minute goals, which are being scripted in on purpose, is up to you.

When you are up 3-0 and the opponent makes a magic comeback

It probably hasn’t skipped anyone’s mind that maintaining a lead may be quite difficult in FUT. Even leads, which by real life standards would be considered rock solid, may vanish like dew in front of a tropical sun as the opponent suddenly pulls a magic comeback out of his sleeve. When these comebacks happen, it’s easy to start thinking that EA are helping the other guy in order to keep the match tight. But again, there is another explanation, and the hard evidence does not suggest that matches are made even in any way.

Goals are scored all. the. time

A number of FUT community sites survey the goal frequency in FUT seasons via the web app’s game data section. As mentioned earlier, my latest sample shows a match average for FUT 16 Seasons of 3.8 goals per match, and furthermore, you should notice that that’s 3.8 goals per 12 effective real time minutes. When compared to real life, 3.8 goals per 12 minutes is a huge goal frequency. The season average of the five big, European leagues, is ~2.7 in 90 effective minutes meaning that FUT matches contain 1.4 more goals per match but more than 10 times more goals per real minute than real football matches.

FUT’s extreme goal frequency tells us something quite fundamental about the relationship between attack and defense in FUT: You can think of an attack as a battle between a guy trying to score and a guy trying to prevent it. The probability that the guy trying to score is successful is about 10 times bigger in FUT than in real football. When it’s 10 times easier to score goal, it’s inevitably also 10 times easier to score 2, 3 or 4 goals.  This is hardly a surprise though, because most people who play FUT, will recognize that the amount of easy, stupid goals being scored is enormous. Attack vs defense isn’t a fair battle.

The opponent is not a bad player either

FUT’s very high and hence also entertaining goal frequency is however not the only factor to consider.

I have mentioned a couple of times that FUT seasons uses ELO matchmaking. FUT does match you up with the specific intent of creating an equal match. The chart below shows the relationship between a player’s skill level (aka rating) and his average opponent’s skill levels. It is clearly visible that the better you are, the better opponents you get.

This means that in most of your matches, there is a considerable chance that your opponent has a track record similar to yours. In other words, chances are that the guy, you just scored 2-3 easy goals against, didn’t concede all those goals because he was crap, but rather because goals just happen randomly in this game. Even more worrying, chances also are that he possesses the necessary skills to score the same amount of random, easy, stupid goals against you that you just scored against him. After all, if you can score 3 goals in 6 minutes, then chances unfortunately are that a skilled opponent with similar skills can do it too. Easy come, easy go.

These considerations do not only help to explain why “impossible” come backs occur, but also why some players have experienced winning and losing by considerable margins when playing against the same friend. FUT goal margins just doesn’t express the same level of superiority as corresponding, real life goal margins.

Another thing to note here is that when the overall goal ratio per match is increases by a factor 1.4, then there obviously will be an increased chance that even matches end 3-3 rather than 2-2. For the same reason, a 5-0 victory in FUT doesn’t necessarily imply that you out-skilled your opponent and should be able to win every time you play him.

Average opponent ranking of 218 players

Average opponent ranking of 218 players

FUT matches are not level

To further support the explanation that those magic come backs happen due to FUT’s very high goal frequency combined with it’s matchmaking approach rather than because there is some kind of leveling taking place, I would like to show you some statistics regarding goal differences. The statistics below  were collected from ~2000 FUT seasons matches.

Match goal margin FUT 16 @ 12 mins Top 5 leagues @ 90 mins
0 (draw) 18% 26%
1 34% 39%
2 20% 22%
3 20% 8%
4 5% 3%
>=5 3% 2%

What you should notice is that FUT matches are decided by a significantly larger margin than real football matches. Hence, it definitely not only becomes easier to score when you are trailing. Perhaps even more notable, it should be considered that the people winning FUT matches only have 12 minutes to build their margin in.

Some final comments

What to me is interesting about the thoughts presented above is that they present explanation to why some of the events often associated with scripting and handicapping, not only could happen for natural reasons, but in fact are bound to happen for natural reason!

  • Losing streaks and relegations streaks will happen unless you do something to prevent it. No evidence suggests that they happen more frequently than they should.
  • Stoppage time goals will occur in approximately every other match, unless you actively prevent it. No evidence suggests that they happen more frequently than they should.
  • Come backs may happen due to the simple fact that it is very easy to score. No evidence suggests that they happen more frequently than they should.

Whether you still prefer to believe that EA also forces these things to happen artificially through scripting, handicapping or momentum is up to you.

About crlarsen

An avid FIFA player since 1999. Independent blogger at futfacts.com.