Why handicapping is a conspiracy theory

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Handicapping, scripting and momentum are sometimes called conspiracy theories. In this article, I will explain why this claim has some justification.

Handicapping, scripting and momentum are often called conspiracy theories:

“Fine you want the reddit conspiracy theory? They want to manipulate the game to make people want to spend more money on packs because profits! How that would actually work is a mystery. But we know they do it because they are greedy bastards.”
(– LandShark22x on reddit.com)

The aim of this post is first of all to illustrate that LandShark22x and others do have a very valid point when arguing that there is a striking number of similarities between ‘scripting, handicapping and momentum’ and other, common conspiracy theories. Second, I’m going to point out why ‘scripting, handicapping and momentum’ suffers from some of the same weaknesses that has contributed to giving the term ‘conspiracy theory’ a derogatory connotation.

Not all conspiracy theories are wrong

According to authors Uscinski and Parent, a conspiracy theory is defined by four characteristics: “(1) a group (2) acting in secret (3) to alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility (4) at the expense of the common good.”

No matter which of the broad range of manipulation theories, we pick, all four conditions are met: The recurring theme in all match manipulation theories is, that we have a group (EA), which is acting in secret (they are denying it) to gain utility (increase profits) at the expense of the common good (by making you and me lose).

However, the definition above also fits with most true conspiracy theories. A recent and relevant example is the now confirmed theory, that a group of FIFA executives secretly accepted bribes in exchange for TV rights and World Cup licenses at the expense of countries and TV networks who just wanted to go by the book.

What distinguished true from false conspiracy theories at the point in time where they stil are theories?

It is actually possible to tell whether a specific conspiracy belongs in the group of ‘possibly true’ or ‘almost certainly false’ theories. Empirically speaking, most false conspiracy theories share a number of traits, which usually aren’t present in real theories.

How to identify a false conspiracy theory

Author Paul Raven has drafted the following list of 10 characteristics, which occur in most false conspiracy theories. The more that a theory manifests these characteristics, the less probable that the theory is grounded in reality.

As I will demonstrate below, scripting / handicapping / momentum share most of the traits on Paul Raven’s list.

1. Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections—or to randomness—the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.

In my presentation of the evidence presented in favor of the existence of a manipulation scheme within FIFA, I have pointed out numerous examples of this clustering illusion, i.e. the tendency to see causal connections between ‘dots’ that in reality aren’t connected.

The issue of seeing false causal connections is valid for almost all the alleged evidence I have analyzed in my previous posts on this blog. A straightforward example is the match intensity table which is believed (by some people) to determine the momentum in matches, despite that no factual information supports this allegation.

Another recurring trait among all the alleged pieces of evidence is that there are other causal theories, which to the neutral observer ought to appear far more likely. In the case of the match intensity table, a more likely explanation is, that it controls crowd behavior as explained in my post on the subject.

2. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.

EA’s developers would maybe not need the ability to melt titanium with their eyes to pull this trick off, but we are pretty close to sci-fi in a number of areas.

Handicapping believers usually mention two possible rationales behind handicapping: Rationale #1 is that handicapping makes certain players lose in order to increase their pack purchase inclination. I lost, and because of that I will improve my team. Rationale #2 is that the purpose is to make casual or new players become addicted to the game by gifting them with a few, easy wins. A staying customer is a paying customer.

An obvious issue with both rationales is that you can’t have more than one winner and one loser in a match. If a winner generally is more likely to buy packs than a loser (or vice versa), fixing the result won’t increase pack sales, but rather move the incentive around. For a more detailed analysis, please take a look at my article on EA’s possible motives.

We basically don’t know whether there is a link between results and pack purchasing behavior, but presuming there is, EA wil need the ability to predict how a specific human players reacts in a specific situation in order to match two people who basically react opposite of each other.

To me, this sounds like a really advanced form of mind reading.  Not even Google is able to do something – in comparison – trivial like displaying search results just by predicting your psychological state in this exact minute, and EA is not exactly Google.

In addition to that, let us consider what it would take to actually intervene in a match. Scripting is the idea that certain events are scripted into the game in order to obtain a certain match result. To do that, you would need the ability to build a ‘script’, which adapts to the interactions of the involved players.

Imagine that the game wants player 1 to win, but player 1 makes one grave mistake after another, or perhaps never even takes a shot, because he doesn’t feel that he is within range. How could the CPU possibly help a player in that situation? It goes without saying, that this becomes increasingly harder to pull of, the larger the gap between the players involved. After all, the involved players do control the vast majority of the events on the pitch.

I don’t think you need to know anything about software development to understand that this would be difficult to pull off. Of course, the intervention would need to be within reasonable limits. UFO’s stealing the ball or the ref sending off 5 players would break the secrecy right away.

3. The conspiracy is complex, and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.

This is unquestionnably the case. EA would need a number of things, which are quite unlikely:

  • They would need something similar to mind reading capabilities.
  • They would need to know for sure that they are able to influence the player’s pack purchasing inclination by pushing the right buttons at the right time.
  • They would need the ability to build scripts, which effectively can change the outcome of a match.
  • Finally, the guy who got this idea would have to convince his management that this extremely complicated software development project would be worthwhile when compared to spend the same money on regular marketing activities like releasing special cards, having happy hours and so on.

I’m familiar with, how large corporations make investment decisiona, and I definitely wouldn’t want to present the business case above to a board of directors in any company I’m aware of.

4. Similarly, the conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.

According to EA, some 100 people are occupied with developing and supporting FIFA. Most companies have an annual staff turnaround around 10-15 %. Since FUT 09 was produced back in 2007/08, we could assume that around 100 employees have left EA sports. Not one of them have broken the secrecy. Even if they signed an NDA, they could still leak the information anonymously, but not even the omes that were layed off have revealed a single word.

What is even more strange is that EA didn’t even advertise the positive aspects of handicapping, which would be easy to defend, as it essentially would make matches more fair, if it was done openly. There is nothing fishy about a well designed handicap system, unless you decide not to tell anyone about it.

It would be both extremely difficult and extremely irrational to keep handicapping a secret, and yet, people who believe in it, are absolutely convinced that this is what happened.

5. The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.

World domination would be a bit far fetched in this case. EA would probably settle for less. EA’s grand ambition is to get it’s greasy hands on all your money while delivering a shit product to you. While this may sound innocent compared to world domination, it still has a scent of controlling you and hence your wallet to it.

6. The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.

This is indeed the case for all variants of the match manipulation theory. Both scripting, handicapping, momentum and all variants thereof are build around events, which indisputably did take place, and in some cases appear strange even to the neutral spectator. Some examples could be extremely unlucky defeats, matches being decided by a single, late goal and players falling over the legs of the teammate. All this does of course happen occasionally.

But the fact that these things happen, does however not in itself tell anything about why they happen. The mere fact that someone died does not prove that it was murder, and in the same way, there mere fact that someone lost against a weaker opponent, doesn’t prove that the match was manipulated. Even things which happen over and over, again and again, may be unintended. After all, most software bugs are reproducible.

7. The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.

An obvious example og assigning sinister meanings to innocuous events is the huge amount of Youtube videos supposedly showing examples of scripting. The recurring theme in these videos is that they are portrayed as evidence despite the fact that the only thing they show is events, which could the product of bugs and inconveniences in the game logic. Again, the mere fact that somebody died, does not prove that it was murder.

8. The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.

The comminglement between facts and speculations is a recurring issue in the majority of the posts and comments written in support of either scripting, momentum or handicapping. Claims like ‘scripting is a blatantly clear fact’ are quite common, despite the blatantly clear lack of evidence. Another example of this comminglement between fact and speculations is the frequent references to the beliefs of the majority, or for that matter references to what some of the big Youtubers believe. Belief is not fact, and it never will be.

9. The theorist is indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups, which suggests an inability to nuance differences between true and false conspiracies.

I do not know anything about what people, who believe in the match manipulation conspiracy, think in other aspects of life, and because of that, I cannot conclude anything about characteristic #9. However, the above may well be true.

10. The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.

A recurring issue in just about every handicap post I ever read is that the author never considers alternative explanations, although they may be completely obvious. As an example, people who like to support their beliefs with Youtube videos, usually downright reject the thought that the events portrayed in these videos could be coincidental or perhaps just bugs and inconveniences.

Another very common element is a logical fallacy known as cherry picking. This is where you only pick up the information which supports your own beliefs, and are willing to ignore even significant, contradicting evidence. A brilliant example is the GDC paper, which in fact states explicitly that FIFA emotions isn’t about altering the outcome of matches, and yet people keep referring to it as if it indeed is about manipulating matches.

Conspiracy theory? Definitely

Handicapping, scripting and momentum suffer from many of the same intellectual mishaps as conspiracy theories like ‘911 was an inside job’, ‘Barack Obama faked his birth certificate’ and so on. Hence, this is indeed a conspiracy theory, and it is definitely the kind of conspiracy theory which is highly unlikely to turn out true some day.