Why relegation streaks occur

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I previously looked into why losing streaks occur in FIFA. In this article, I’m going to deal with a related topic – relegation streaks. Although often confused, relegation streaks and losing streaks are different phenomena with different causes.

Introduction

A relegation streak is a series of relegations happening in close or direct succession. The fact that relegation streaks occur in FUT has lead some people to believe that the game is rigged, and some have speculated that relegation streaks happen because EA wants us to spend more money:

“Been playing Fut since the start, started season 15 with a regular gold team and won every division up to second division, then i hit the handicap wall and just as quick went back down to division 5.”
(– da_fut_king on FUTHEAD)

“Well, since I started to use this squad I was relegated from division 2 to division 6 in a heart beat. I just can’t win.”
(– lelofarias on FUTHEAD)

“I too have previously reached Div 3 and then was relentlessly dogged back to Div 6 with most of the games being in the handicapped manner I described. (…) What do you when you are faced with this? (…) You think there’s a problem with your team and improve it by buying coins/packs to get better players.”
(– Paul on Ultimateteam.co.uk)

Being relegated from division 2 to division 6 corresponds to dropping from the FL Championship and into Northern Premier League Premier Division in the course of a few seasons. The closest we get to a similar streak of relegations in real life is a couple of examples of clubs being relegated in three consecutive seasons (Luton 2006-10 and Wolverhampton 1983-86) due to financial or legal issues, which of course have no parallel in FUT.

The lack of parallel to real life football makes it somewhat understandable that people start believing that something fishy is going on in FIFA, when they suddenly get relegated four times in five seasons.

However, the actual reason why relegation streaks occur, most likely isn’t momentum or handicapping. In the following sections, we explain how FUT’s divisional system in itself will cause relegation streaks to happen.

Short seasons, random outcomes

As most players probably have noticed, FUT’s divisions don’t work like real life football divisions. A couple of the differences are essential to understanding relegation streaks and why they occur.

The first difference I would like to direct your attention to is the length of FUT’s seasons. Basically, it takes 10 matches to decide your fate, whereas it takes 564 matches (46 regular matches per team + 12 playoffs) to decide who gets promoted and relegated from the FL Championship.

The problem with a season length of 10 matches is that it leaves a lot of room for coincidence. An average player, which most of us are, is able able to win approximately in 400 of 1000 attempts. However, that doesn’t guarantee that he will win 4 in a streak of 10 matches as well. Sometimes, he will win 6 in 10. Sometimes, it will be 2 in 10. A 40 % win ratio means that the chance of your next opponent being someone you can beat is 40 %. That leaves another 60 % chance of your next opponent being someone that you won’t beat.

On paper, winning 20 % instead of 60 % may seem like a huge performance drop, but in absolute numbers, 4 additional losses in 10 matches is bound to happen sooner or later.

Another crucial difference lies in the mechanism deciding promotion. In a real football league, the top teams are promoted. In FUT, your fate is decided via point thresholds.

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

 

What you should notice is that the difference between triumph and disaster is very small. In most divisions, 7 points separate success from failure. Just to add some perspective, Leicester (#1) and Arsenal (#2) ended 10 points apart in the 201615/16 season – during the course of 38 matches.

Hence, short seasons and tight point thresholds combined with the to-be-expected stability of most players is bound to lead to frequent promotions and relegations. No matter whether EA wants it or not, relegations will happen a lot due to the design features listed above.

How much is a lot?

Relegations will happen a lot, but how often is that exactly?

To answer this question, we created a simulation. We let 1,000 virtual players play 20 seasons each, i.e. 200.000 matches in total.

Our virtual players have exactly the same skills and hence also chance of winning, drawing or losing their next match. We set the W/D/L probabilities to 42 %, 16 % and 42 %, meaning that our virtual players perform like a real life average player. At the end of each virtual season, we determine whether the player got promoted or relegated, using the actual FUT seasons point thresholds as seen above.

What happened?

First of all, nearly all our virtual players experienced multiple relegations during those 20 seasons. 90 % of our virtual players were relegated 3 times or more, and 41 % were relegated 5 times or more. The average number of relegations per player was 4.2 per 20 seasons when we let our players start out in divison 5. In real football, it is very unusual to experience multiple relegations during 20 seasons, unless the club has financial problems. Most teams won’t even get relegated once during 20 seasons.

Second, a noteworthy thing: Our 1,000 virtual players started out in the same division but as seen in the table below, they ended up being spread randomly across multiple divisions. This is interesting when considering that they were given the exact same probabilities of winning and losing a match. I thing this goes to show that we shouldn’t worry too much about whether we are in division 5 or 7 for the time being.

Division after 20 seasons % Players
Season length = 10
1 1 %
2 7 %
3 44 %
4 33 %
5 12 %
6 4 %
7 <1 %
8 0 %
9 0 %
10 0 %

 

I would like to stress that the results generated by our simulation doesn’t depend on our exact choice of w/d/l probabilities. Even if we run the simulation with players with lower or higher win / loss rations, we still see the players being spread across multiple divisions. Hence, the results the simulation generated are relevant to the vast majority of the population of FIFA players: We all should expect to see frequent relegations.

How this links to relegation streaks

The fact that FUT seasons generates 4.2 relegations per 20 seasons is an important fact when trying to explain why people sometimes get relegated from division 2 to division 6 during the course of a few seasons.

First of all, we have seen that players get promoted and relegated more frequently but also more randomly. The average virtual player was relegated or promoted 10.2 times per 20 seasons, meaning that his divisional status changed more than every other season. We also learned that players, who were equally skilled, would be spread across as many as seven different divisions. When relegations and promotions happen that frequently, and when your divisional status to such a large extent depends on random factors, some relegations will happen in direct succession and hence become a streak.

To illustrate this point, we let our 1,000 virtual players play 20 seasons starting out in division 2 and counted the number of relegation streaks. After 20 seasons, 53 % of the players had experienced streaks of two consecutive relegations, 15 % experienced streaks of three consecutive relegations while almost 3 % experienced streaks of 4 or 5 consecutive relegations.

However, not all the accounts of relegation streaks are limited to actual, consecutive relegations, and by that we mean relegations in direct succession. Obviously, the number of relegation streaks becomes even bigger if we include the situations where multiple relegations happen in close succession. To illustrate this, we counted the total number of relegations over 10 seasons. 27 % of our virtual players were relegated 4 times or more during 10 seasons.

What these simulations tell us is that a significant number of players with “average” skills, i.e. like the most of us, should expect extensive relegation and promotion streaks to happen due to the combination of brief seasons and some very tight promotion and relegation criteria.

Second, many stories about relegations tell about someone getting relegated from division 2 and multiple divisions down. How come? In the previous section, we presented the actual point thresholds used to determine your fate in every division. What you should notice is that in all divisions between 2 and 6, you need 10 or 12 points to stay. That’s two (2) points in difference between division 2 and 6. Consequentially, you need to be able to maintain a win ratio of 4 in 10 to stay in any division between division 2 and 6. In other words, it only takes one (1) additional defeat per season to get relegated from any division between 2 and 6, and the fact is that sometimes, you just lose that extra match due to that the opponent simply was better or luckier or whatever.

You may of course object that it ought to become increasingly easy to maintain the necessary win ratio each time you drop a division. However, FUT’s matchmaking doesn’t work the same way as in  a real league system. In FUT, you don’t necessarily get matched against opponents from your current or a neighboring division. As the game uses ELO matchmaking, you always get matched against opponents with similar performance records, meaning that there isn’t a direct link between current division and level of difficulty. Hence, the only factor that makes division 2 more difficult than division 5 is the higher point thresholds.

Third, promotions happen just as randomly as relegations. Just as well as you may get relegated due to a minor fluctuation in matchmaking luck, you obviously may get promoted for the exact same reason. As a consequence, the fact that you reside in division 2 right now may largely come down to coincidence, meaning that you may get relegated as soon as your luck goes back to normal.

As a matter of fact, most players with average skills have a large chance of making it to division 1 or 2, provided they keep trying, but of course, staying is the difficult part. Below, we let our 1.000 virtual players complete various numbers of seasons and noted their best completed division during their career.

After 70 seasons (~700 matches), virtually all our virtual players had reached division 2 minimum once, and the vast majority had made it to division 1 after 40 seasons (~400 matches). However, that obviously didn’t imply that all of them still resided there after 20 seasons. As mentioned earlier, only 1 % of these players were in division 1 after 20 seasons, and only 7 % were in division 2.

The morale of this story is that while luck may take you all the way to division 1, it may unfortunately also take you back to division 7.

Percentage of players who make it to division 1 and 2
Percentage of players who make it to division 1 and 2

What would happen if EA increased the length of a season?

The main culprit in our astory is that the length of a season allows coincidence to cause a lot of annoyances, and inevitably also losing streaks. So, what would happen if EA increased the length of seasons and adjusted the point thresholds accordingly? To find out, we ran our simulation with a season length of 40 matches instead.

As seen in the table below, the outcome is significantly different. After 20 seasons, 95 % of the virtual players are spread across four divisions, and 72 % are found in either division 3 or 4.

Division after 20 seasons % Players
Season length = 40
1 <1 %
2 8 %
3 43 %
4 29 %
5 14 %
6 5 %
7 < 1 %
8 0
9 0
10 0

 

Another notable result is that consecutive relegations nearly cease to happen. We didn’t record any examples of consecutive relegations during 20 x 1.000 seasons. This obviously doesn’t rule out that there could be instances of 3 relegations in 5 seasons, but this will of course become less frequent as well.

An obvious downside is that you will need to become a better player and will have to play more matches to make it into the upper divisions. After 40 seasons, only 12 % of our average players have had a glimpse of division 1, and only 49 % have seen division 2. Most will reside around division 3-5.

Concluding remarks

We have seen above that relegation streaks will occur due to the season length combined with a promotion / relegation system based on predefined point thresholds. EA does not need to build a handicap system to ensure that people experience these streaks, in case they have an interest in making this happen.

Did they make seasons this brief on purpose? Well, of course yes. The obvious advantage of brief seasons is that it creates a lot of action. As explained in this article, nearly half of the seasons played during a season, will be decisive. This of course makes the game more entertaining, which in essence helps selling more copies of the game.

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