Meet the Data Master Behind EA Sports' Popular FIFA Franchise

Meet the Data Master Behind EA Sports’ Popular FIFA Franchise

Michael Mueller-Moehring was standing in the presence of greatness.

His favorite soccer team had been invited to the EA Sports studio, and he was their guide. Surrounded by his soccer idol and other players from the team, the longtime producer explained how the company’s hit video game FIFA is made.

Mueller-Moehring walked the pro players through the game mechanics and revealed their in-game likenesses. All went smoothly—until he flipped to the player ratings.

“I made the mistake of showing them their statistics,” he remembers. “Some found it quite funny. But the guy next to me said, ‘I’m not that slow. You’ll make me faster, right?'”

It wasn’t the first time an upset player wanted to pad his virtual stats, but it was the first time Mueller-Moehring had to deal with feedback from one of the game’s greats—in the same room no less. But to change a player’s stats, not to mention keep those stats up-to-date, is not as simple as it sounds.

But Mueller-Moehring is, indeed, the right person to request this kind of change from—he and his team update EA’s FIFA game twice per week with the most recent player data so that players’ in-game abilities reflect their real-world performance. But despite the sophistication of today’s data tools, they do much of the data mining, analysis and updates manually. It’s a complicated process, thanks in part to the sheer volume of data needed, but it hasn’t slowed the success of FIFA or Mueller-Moehring—and there’s hope that a high-tech upgrade is on the horizon.

From the Pitch to Your Screen

Meet the Data Master Behind EA Sports' Popular FIFA Franchise

EA’s FIFA is built on an arsenal of real-world data. Professional soccer consists of 800 teams (comprised of 18,000 players) across a variety of countries, and each is represented in-game. And the major challenge for Mueller-Moehring isn’t just about volume: Because each team follows different privacy laws and budgets for data-gathering, accurate data—or sometimes any data at all—can be elusive.

Fortunately for Mueller-Moehring, he has a robust team. He leads 25 EA producers and 400 outside data contributors who constantly scour the internet, newspapers and magazines to get the most up-to-date team and player data. This information is collected and collated into 300 different fields and 35 specific attributes (like speed and scoring records) to generate each player’s overall rating.

EA also relies on a community of over 8,000 coaches, scouts and season ticket holders to fact-check the data and alert producers to any issues via an EA website. They look for inconsistencies between the player’s actual performance and their in-game player stats. For example, one player ranked poorly on individual attributes (like shot power) in the FIFA 17 release, which resulted in a low overall game rank. But on the pitch, he is considered integral to the team—in part because of his positioning instincts and leadership. Those intangibles don’t appear in the boxscore, hence the player’s lower rating.

“I believe it’s simply not possible to derive all data from stats,” Mueller-Moehring says, so he and the team adjusted the player’s rank in the game based on those real-world insights.

Meet the Data Master Behind EA Sports' Popular FIFA Franchise

High Stakes Data

Despite this manual approach to data collection and input, FIFA is a juggernaut. By some estimates, the franchise accounts for nearly 40 percent of EA’s revenue. The company reported that its 2017 release was the year’s best-selling console game.

The focus on in-game data is on the rise. While not all of them have had the opportunity to confront Mueller-Moehring directly, reports of professional players’ fascination with their in-game stats abound. Some players have even said they use FIFA to prepare to face new opponents, and in some cases the parallels between an opponents’ in-game playing style and their real-life play can be uncanny—all thanks to robust data Mueller-Moehring’s team works to secure. Others say they use their in-game stats as motivation to improve certain aspects of their play.

Mueller-Moehring envisions a future in which games like FIFA get real-time (or close to real-time) updates based on players’ on-field performance. The rise of better data-gathering technology in other sports arenas promises this day is coming.

EA’s American football franchise, for example, is also designed to mirror the physical playing field—and it takes a much more sophisticated approach thanks to the league’s high-tech tools. Most professional American football teams use RFID chips embedded into player shoulder pads to measure things like speed, acceleration and deceleration—and share that data with EA. EA then uses that information to update games each week during the season.

The challenge, of course, is the scale of such data-gathering: the American football league is only 32 teams, all under the umbrella of one organization—a minor scale compared to soccer’s 700 plus teams worldwide. And until recently, soccer organizations have been known for their resistance to incorporating technology into the game—but this, too, is changing. Officials recently voted to allow video assistant referees (VAR) at this year’s world championship game in Russia—and many top teams are expected to follow suit, if they haven’t already implemented the tech.

While RFID sensors are still a leap from VAR, the move suggests technology is coming to the world’s soccer leagues. Mueller-Moehring says he isn’t about to make any sort of estimate on when that might be, but there’s hope that such detailed data could very well be in FIFA‘s future.

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This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.