Fact check: Are high rated squads handicapped?


It’s a fact that you sometimes lose despite having a far better squad than the opponent. But does it happen, because EA handicaps the better team, or because having the better squad won’t prevent you from losing against a better player? Here is what the evidence says.

It’s without questioning a popular belief in the FIFA community that EA handicaps high rated squads:

“In Fifa Ultimate Team, what it does is give a boost to the team with lower rating and decrease the quality of the team with the higher rating, trying to make things ‘more fair’.”

“What i mean with your squads overall rating having an impact is simple, a 77 rated team will play better and have smarter movement then a 85 rated team when these two clash.”

“Players who believe in this handicap say sometimes when they play with their full gold teams against teams of silver and bronze players, their players respond ineffectively, e.g. their passing becomes terrible, they cannot finish chances and they feel sluggish.”

It is not exactly clear how and when the alleged handicap kicks in. Some players believe that stats are leveled, meaning that all stats perform the same, while others seem to believe that stats are reversed, meaning that the better squad – on paper – will perform worse than the inferior squad.

Would squad handicapping make sense?

As a rationalist, my first thought about the claims I just presented, is that they don’t make sense for obvious reasons:

  • First of all, let’s assume that EA wanted to make matches even. Handicapping high rated squads would be a clumsy, ineffective and even counter productive way to make that happen due to the obvious fact that there is no guarantee that the better player also has the higher rated squad.
  • Second, let’s not forget that EA make a fair share of cash by selling FIFA points, and that people buy those FIFA points because they hope to get a lucky pull in the big pack lottery. Now, what would happen to that business, if that “lucky” pull turn out to have a negative impact on your performance?
  • Third, it makes no sense to allow people to build squads with different ratings in the first place, and them level everything up afterwards.
  • Fourth, EA already has a solution in place for making matches even: It’s called ELO matchmaking, and it ensures that players aren’t matched against far better or far worse opponents in the first place.

So, what those people quoted above apparently believe, is that EA –

  • – is trying to solve a problem, which they already have a solution in place for,
  • – using a method, which isn’t going to work, and,
  • – which is potentially harmful to their business.

Let’s be completely honest here: This is a stupid idea! No evidence supports it, and as I will show you further down, there is irrefutable evidence contradicting it.

The hard facts

Take a look at the chart below, which I created for this article. It shows the relationship between a player’s stats and his performance. Each blue dot is a striker. The sample contains all low-price strikers on EA’s FIFA 15 official top scorer lists, meaning that we are looking at players, who were used by virtually everyone and hence also comparable populations of players. On the Y-axis, I have added the sum of the player’s shooting, pace, dribbling and physicality stats. On the X-axis is the player’s average number of goals per match collected from all instances up for sale when the sample was made.

Stats versus performance
Stats versus performance

The chart confirms that everything is working as intended: Players with higher stats perform consistently better. At the upper right corner, we have Diego Costa and Carlos Tevez, whereas Huntelaar and Negredo take the lower left corner.

When I talk about higher stats in this context, I only consider relevant stats. As most players probably have realized, the OVR ratings doesn’t always reflect the player’s actual capability. Players like (79 Ibarbo) appear to overperform, whereas a player like 84 Huntelaar underperforms compared to his OVR rating. The reason why the OVR sometimes is a bit misleading is that it’s calculated using the player’s actual in game stats which are multiplied by a set of weight factors. Those weight factors are set by EA, and do not necessarily reflect the actual importance of each stat. In this article, I calculated the actual, relative importance of the various stats for strikers – for FIFA 15. As most seasoned players will know, the relative importance of stats like pace and strength have changed over the years.

Hence, when I conclude that better stats equals better performance, I only refer to relevant stats, and not necessarily the OVR rating.

Another important thing to point out is that although the performance data used above only includes goal scoring, and hence only relates directly to offensive players, the conclusion effectively implies that higher rated squads all other things equal perform better: Using 88-rated Aguero instead of 81-rated Hernandez will increase the squad’s overall rating – and – make the team perform better.

If higher rated squads actually were handicapped, the Agueros in our sample above wouldn’t outperform the Chicaritos on average. It’s simply not possible.

What about informs and the chem glitch?

We obviously need to touch the so-called chem glitch, which came up during FIFA 16. When the chem glitch was discovered, it was – wrongly – presented as evidence supporting the idea of handicapping of informs an other special cards. The sample analyzed in the previous section doesn’t include informs. I did however do a similar analysis, where I compared inform cards against their non-inform counterparts, and found no measurable performance difference.

Hence, the empirical facts doesn’t support the assertion that informs are inferior to non-informs, but perhaps even more interesting, they aren’t (measurably) superior either. This could come down to the chem glitch or perhaps the simple fact that a few extra stat points is very unlikely to produce a significant effect. It’s not a secret that I generally consider informs a waste of coins, chem glitch or not.

Why do better squads lose sometimes?

The previous sections leave us with the fact that EA hasn’t got an incentive to handicap better squads, and that the evidence contains no traces of any handicapping taking place. So, how come that people – me included – sometimes get beaten by some cheap silver squad when using the best team I possess?

  • First and foremost, the empirical evidence presented above tells that although better players will increase performance, the performance increase will be very small. Replacing the FIFA 15 version of Javier Hernandez with Benzema appears like a huge upgrade on paper. In reality, replacing Chicharito (.8 goals per match) with Benzema (.89 goals per match) would lead to approximately 1 extra goal per 10 matches. If you expected Benzema to take you out of division 5 and right into division 1, you most certainly would get disappointed.
  • Second, we need to keep in mind that although real-life Messi is a brilliant dribbler, a creative genius and a deadly finisher, he won’t have any of those traits in FIFA, unless the guy controlling him possesses the ability to bring these skills into action. It may be Messi’s feet, but it’s your brain controlling them. FIFA players are like tools. If you don’t know how to use them, they sure as hell won’t build you a new house. Although stats matter, skill matters moreand many FIFA players tend to forget that.

Hence, the most likely reason why you sometimes lose despite having the better squad is that the opponent is a better or perhaps just luckier player than you.

11 thoughts on “Fact check: Are high rated squads handicapped?

  • 2015-06-11 at 16:44

    Thanks for digging into the topic, but I’m afraid you’ve made some false analyses. The population of interest wouldn’t be the aggregated goals of the major top scorers, because you would have to assume that most of the time these players aren’t coming up against silver/low rated squads, most of the time they are playing equivalent rated teams. To test for a handicap effect you would need to look at the goals scored by these players when facing silver/low rated squads and compare it to goals scored against the rest of the population. Although I’m pretty sure that data isn’t available to you.

    For what its worth: I analyze study plans with statistical modeling for a living, so I’m not totally out of left field. I also think that handicapping was real in previous FIFA versions (13 and 14 in particular) but I don’t notice the effect in FIFA 15.

    • 2015-06-11 at 19:24

      Thanks for commenting.

      No that data isn’t available, but this does not imply that the data above isn’t valid evidence.

      As stated elsewhere on the site, evidence comes in different strengths. This is not direct proof, but it is definitely valid evidence in the sense that it doesn’t fint with the theory that squad handicapping exists.

      What these statistics tells us is that there is a direct relationship between stats and performance. It even reveals exactly how this relationship is, meaning that it is possible to work out the importance of pace over shooting etc.

      How come this doesn’t fit with the squad handicapping theory?

      If squads with different stats were leveled, 80-rated squads would perform exactly as well as 89-rated squads. If this was the case, we wouldn’t see Aguero (who has excellent stats for a striker) outperform Negredo (who has mediocre stats).

      Obviously, this isn’t definitive proof that the alleged leveling doesn’t take place when silver is matched up against gold. On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining why EA would want to level the playing field when matching bronze with gold but not when matching 80-rated gold with 87-rated gold.

    • 2017-11-25 at 13:45

      Nah he is just doing his job. He is a well known EA shill.

      • 2017-11-25 at 15:47

        Let’s assume that I really am an EA shill. Where are the arguments making me wrong, then?

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