Are promotion / relegation matches more difficult?

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A recurring complaint within the realm of FUT seasons is that decisive matches either are more difficult or easier than the other matches in a season. We decided to investigate it.

A quick scan of some of the biggest threads on scripting and handicapping yielded quite a few different perceptions on whether the difficulty changes in decisive matches or not:

“From my personal experience I feel that handicapping happens more often when you reach the end of your FUT season when relegation/promotion need to be decided. First few matches of the season always looked much more fair to me.”
(– Post on UTUK)

“Why when you approach the threshold for a Hold/Promotion/Title (And yes I KNOW that I am only one of MANY to experience this “phenomenon”), does the difficulty of the matches to get those last points appear to increase so steeply?”
(– Post on FUTHEAD)

“The end result is that it’s much harder to do well when you initially enter a new division through promotion for example – it seems to match you with better players and you get some pretty bad luck. Likewise when relegated, the initial games seem far easier in the previous division than they were 2 seasons back.”
(– Post on Reddit)

“…there are obvious times when your team plays like dufus’s e.g straight after promotion”
(– Post on UTUK)

“…if I needed to clinch a promotion I would likely get aided.”
(– Post on UTUK)

We decided to run a strawpoll on Reddit to see which perceptions are most common. As it turned out, the majority of the respondents didn’t think there was any difference in difficulty. As for the rest, there were different opinions about the difficulty of decisive matches:

 

Is the difficulty of promotion, relegation and title matches different?

Yes, they are always easier0%
Yes, they are typically easier3%
No, there is no difference53%
Yes, they are typically harder33%
Yes, they are always harder11%

 

The primary take away from the straw poll is that there isn’t a consensus with regards to whether decisive matches are more difficult than others. This first and foremost illustrates, what we have mentioned previously, namely that people’s opinions doesn’t measure anything but people’s opinions: You cannot measure the relative difficulty of decisive matches by asking for people’s opinions about it.

Having said that, it definitely is possible that decisive matches occasionally are more difficult than the previous matches. As we however will demonstrate in the following section, there may be a subtle and yet completely harmless reason for that.

In small tournaments, all matches are decisive

In the first quote cited in the introduction, the quoted player expresses the perception that relegation, promotion and titles are decided during the final, few matches of a season like in real football:  “…handicapping happens more often when you reach the end of your FUT season when relegation/promotion need to be decided. First few matches of the season always looked much more fair to me”.

There is however something fundamentally wrong with this understanding.

First and foremost, relegation, promotion and title aren’t necessarily decided in the final rounds like in real football. A FUT season lasts 10 matches maximum. During a season, you play minimum one “threshold match”. This situation will occur if you lose all your matches up until the point where you have no chance of making it past the lowest threshold and hence won’t get to play the remaining matches. Depending on what division you are in, you may encounter decisive matches as early as in match #3 (promotion from division 10).

Second, decisive matches are way more frequent than in real life. In FUT seasons, most people end up playing way more than three decisive matches per season, because they don’t make it past every threshold in the first attempt, and hence get another go in the next match.

To illustrate how this works in practice, we created a random example of a division 5 season. The player needs 10 points to stay, 16 to get promoted and 19 to win the title. In the example, he ends up playing 6 decisive matches before winning the title in the last match:

Match # Result Points Threshold match?
1 W 3 No
2 W 6 No
3 W 9 No
4 L 9 Yes, stay
5 L 9 Yes, stay
6 W 12 Yes, stay
7 W 15 No
8 L 15 Yes, Title
9 W 18 Yes, Promotion
10 W 21 Yes, Title

 

What should be clearly visible above is that (1) decisive matches in reality occur throughout the season, and (2) unless you are really effective, most seasons will contain multiple “threshold matches”. The table below shows the maximum number of threshold matches per season in each division:

Division Maximum threshold matches
10 8
9 9
8 8
7 8
6 7
5 7
4 7
3 7
2 7
1 6

 

We can actually tell a few things about the number of threshold matches, most players encounter. Based on the actual performance records (win ratios) of more than 1,000 players, we assess that the vast majority of players will play threshold matches in way more than 50 % of their matches. Most players win between 30 and 50 % of their matches, meaning that they will find themselves in a situation, where their total point earnings in a season will land close to some of the thresholds.

Concluding comments

As demonstrated by the strawpoll, there is no consensus as to whether the game systematically alters the difficulty, and this lack of consensus in itself indicates why people’s “observations” regarding such changes in difficulty are highly unreliable.

Threshold matches are far more frequent than most of us would expect. That obviously doesn’t make them more difficult, but regardless of that, it is an indisputable fact that the difficulty varies heavily from match to match despite that the game uses ELO matchmaking. When some matches are difficult, and perhaps 50 % of your matches are threshold matches, then there is a large probability that some of your threshold matches will be difficult too. Hence, people definitely may experience that many threshold matches are difficult, which in turn may mislead them to believe that all threshold matches are more difficult than other matches, even though this is purely coincidental.

Another thing to note is that decisive matches happen throughout the season, and most decisive matches occur in situations where the player has additional chances to make it past a threshold if he doesn’t make it in his next attempt. Hence, when we talk about decisive matches, we most of the time are talking about groups of 3 or 4 matches, where each of those matches potentially may decide whether you make it past the next threshold.

When someone claims that the decisive match was considerably more difficult than the previous matches, he obviously forgot one of the following two things:

(1) That he either had additional attempts remaining after that match, meaning that it wasn’t that decisive after all.

(2) Or that he, prior to that match, missed a number of opportunities, which is the reason why that last match has become decisive. And, since he missed them, the final match obviously wasn’t the only difficult match during that season.