Wouldn’t you know that the most exciting Super Bowl in NFL history was the victim of a spoiler.
The New England Patriot’s last-minute win over the Seattle Seahawks provided a Hollywood ending, complete with spills (Jermaine Kearse’s circus catch), thrills (Malcolm Butler’s endzone interception) and chills (the requisite Gatorade bath for Patriot coaches).
The only problem: Electronic Arts’ “Madden 15” game called the outcome nearly a week before Super Bowl XLIX was played. The machine, it turns out, nailed it – right down to the final score.
“It just reminds us that the game is actually smarter than we are,” said Julie Foster, EA’s communication director. “It’s just a proof point that it’s the data that just drives the accuracy. We’re impressed by it ourselves, actually.”
The game’s predicting prowess is another example of the impressive results that can come of combining the best of humans with the best of machines. I’ve written a lot about that sometimes delicate balance lately, but I continue to run into example after example.
Now, a few things about the Madden example: It’s not like EA has turned to machine learning and human intelligence to eliminate a cancer or land a scientific device on Mars with unmatched precision. They were literally playing a game, after all. And no one is claiming that the Silicon Valley gaming company has come up with a reliable and repeatable way to flawlessly predict the outcome of the Super Bowl or any game.
But the EA folks clearly accomplished something that couldn’t have been done 25 years ago and it makes you wonder what we’ll be able to do 25 — or even five — years from now.
The feat wouldn’t have been possible, of course, without the help of humans. Sure, the humans on the football field. But also the programmer humans at EA who track what the football humans do and design algorithms to turn their real-world performances into a digital game.
“We have 300 plays per team, over 60 attributes per player that we update — and those are updated manually by humans here,” Foster said, “but it’s completely based on performance throughout the season.”
For the Super Bowl simulation, Foster said, the EA team goes to work immediately after the NFC and AFC championship games.
“We make sure that the rosters are updated accurately, that injuries are taken into account,” she said. “We run it with the very latest data that we have. Then we let the computer simulate it. No one is physically playing the game.”
And they play the game once.
So, how did the machine do?
The machine said Brady would throw for 335 yards. He threw for 328. It said Edelman would make eight catches for 106 yards. He had nine catches for 109 yards. It said Brady would be named MVP. Duh. He was.
And so, did anyone at Electronic Arts notice Sunday, as the commercials played on and Katy Perry performed and Super Bowl XLIX moved through the second half, that the real game was an awful lot like the pretend “Madden 15” game?
“I can tell you that tons of text messages started to fly in the fourth quarter between all of us, saying we might have a chance of nailing this thing,” Foster said of texts among her co-workers.
And yes, Foster was excited for her work team, but not so excited for her favorite football team. Yeah, the Seattle Seahawks.
“Now, being a Seahawks fan, the response I had was, ‘It’s not over fellas,’” she said of her own texts.
And then, of course, it was over. New England’s undrafted rookie, Malcolm Butler, intercepted Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s goal-line pass with seconds remaining in the game.
“As soon as the interception happened, it was like phones lit up all over, saying yeah, we nailed it,” Foster recalled. “If I had to have a silver lining as a Seahawks fan, that’s about as good as it gets.”
Really? As good as it gets?
“It’s not,” Foster corrected herself, “better than the win.”
The truth is, reality bites — even when it’s imitating art.
Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s Storyteller. Contact him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.