Why momentum is a myth

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Is momentum a myth or is it real? In this post, we have a look at some of the facts and speculations around the presence of a momentum feature in FIFA.

What momentum is

The term momentum is used to describe various concepts. Some are definitely present in FUT, others definitely not:

  • A mechanical / physical phenomenon influencing moving objects. As an example, a sprinting player needs to slow down before he can change direction. Otherwise, he will fall over due to his momentum. This is definitely part of FIFA.
  • When things are going your way, either because you ar better, just lucky or perhaps are riding on a eave of self-confidence. The reasons are disputed, but streaks definitely do happen in all sports and games, where humans are involved.
  • And then finally the theory that EA creates deliberate momentum shifts in the matches in order to maintain the trailing player’s interest in the match or perhaps just to create a competitive match.

Our focal point for this article is the idea that EA creates momentum shifts. And when I refer to this idea in singularis, It’s a simplification. In reality, the momentum theory exists in many, very differet flavors.

Some people believe that EA creates momentum shifts inside matches [1]. Others believe that the momentum shifts happen across several matches in the shape of losing streaks.

“The so called “momentum” (or scripting/handicap) feature changes the abilities of the players on the pitch from game to game in a seemingly random manner, usually giving one of the teams a major advantage, while the other has an increased chance of failed passes or hitting the post.

It was heavily featured in FIFA 13 and FIFA 14, which lead to a lot of discussion and is dreaded by many players, but EA apparently wants to keep it in to make matches more unique and give weaker players a better chance for winning once in a while against stronger opponents.”
Atticae at stackexchange.com)

“Basically, the game reacts to you doing too well by making the AI team invincible gods of destruction, in order to keep you from getting too far ahead (in individual games, or in a league table).”
(– TallWhiteNinja at Gamefaqs.com)

We already discussed losing streaks and relegation streaks in previous articles. In this article, we will narrow the scope to the most wide-spread belief in the momentum-family according to the poll below, namely the perception that the game causes momentum shifts inside a match in order to prevent one player from getting too far behind.

What do you mean by momentum?
What do you mean by momentum?

Why people believe in momentum shifts

The reason why this particular conspiracy theory has become so widespread is probably the fact that FUT matches can turn upside down in the blink of an eye.

Leads of 2, 3 or even 4 goals are by conventional standards safe. In FUT, even 3-goal leads can be difficult to defend. These apparently magic comebacks even happens when you feel in control against a clearly inferior opponent.

When the goals, that turn the match upside down, perhaps seemsuspicious (i.e. like many other FIFA goals), it’s easy to start thinking that someone is conspiring against your plans do dominate the pitch:

“[W]hat I mean is that I will have 60% possession and 10 shots to 1 and be winning 1 nil because the other guy has an IF Neuer in goal saving the other 9, then when it gets to the 80th minute all of a sudden my players can no longer do what they’ve been doing for the past 80 minutes, their passes keep going to oppositions, when they make a tackle they don’t run on with the ball they just stand there and let the opposition take it again, they don’t challenge for headers properly, goal kicks seems weaker, my players on the whole just seem to be fucking idiots really. I will add that this never seems to happen when I’m drawing, even if the other guy is clearly all out attack. It’s only when I’m winning.”
(– RichCovs at Reddit)

Does the game really boost the trailing player?

We obviously can’t observe the alleged momentum mechanism directly, but this is not really needed. In empirical science, it’s very common to test phenomena like momentum through indirect observations.

You perhaps have heard about the parable of the invisible gardener. It is used to illustrate the perceived differences between assertions based on faith and assertions based on evidence.

“Two people return to their long neglected garden and find, among the weeds, that a few of the old plants are surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other, ‘It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these weeds.’ The other disagrees and an argument ensues. They pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. The believer wonders if there is an invisible gardener, so they patrol with bloodhounds but the bloodhounds never give a cry. Yet the believer remains unconvinced, and insists that the gardener is invisible, has no scent and gives no sound. The skeptic doesn’t agree, and asks how a so-called invisible, intangible, elusive gardener differs from an imaginary gardener, or even no gardener at all.”

The point in the parable is that if there are no traces of a gardener working in the garden, then there most likely isn’t a gardener. If there was a gardener, we would see footprints and toolmarks. The absence of such traces indicates that there isn’t a gardener. After all, old plants doing well could have all sorts of other reasons.

In the same way that a gardener would leave fresh footprints and tool marks, a momentum feature would leave traces if it exists:

  • First, a mechanism, which supposedly makes players sluggish and unresponsive when someone scores a goal, ought to cause changes in player stats after someone obtains a lead.
  • Second, a mechanism supposed to level matches ought to do exactly that and leave clear traces in match result statistics.

Now, let’s search the FIFA garden for footprints and tool marks.

Are stats impacted when someone scores a goal?

The recent #chemgate scandal brought up some new insight on how to test whether a player has certain stat values. Among other things, we learned that it’s possible to check whether a player has minimum 86 dribbling and agility by checking whether he is capable of doing certain skill moves and celebrations.

Momentum allegedly either boosts to the trailing team’s stats or reduces the leading team’s stats. So, if it exists, we would expect to see either of the following two scenarios unfold:

  • Players with 86 dribbling losing the ability to do the step over feint after their team scores (the dribbling stat is reduced below the threshold).
  • Players with 85 dribbling obtaining the ability to do the step over feint after the opposing team scores (the dribbling stat is increased above the threshold).

Redditor Futsmcgee tested the assumptions above. He found no changes in the player’s ability to perform the skill move after a goal. Another Redditor, HeungMinSon, tested the same principles on the agility stat. His conclusion was exactly the same: There were no reductions or boosts after a goal.

Hence, there were absolutely no traces of momentum in any of the two stats examined. That obviously doesn’t rule out that momentum could exist and perhaps just impact other parts of the player’s capability package such as passing, sprinting and shooting. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine that EA would leave dribbling and agility unaffected if they really did intend to affect the outcome of a match.

Are match results made even?

What about the results: Do they reflect a momentum mechanism being present?

If there is a catch-up feature in FIFA, we should see people catching up more often than they otherwise would. In terms of results, we should see more ties and more even results in general.

In reality, this is what FUT seasons looks like in comparison to real football in terms of match evenness:

How even are FUT matches relative to real football matches?

As clearly seen above, FUT matches are not even.

  • Draws are rare in FUT compared to real football – one goal victories not so much: Draws occur 44 % more often in in real football matches than in FUT seasons, while 1-goal victories occur 15 % more often in real football than in FUT.
  • Only around 50 % of FUT seasons matches end as either a draw or a 1-goal victory – the rest are decided by minimum a 2 goal margin. In comparison, nearly two thirds of all matches the five, big European leagues are decided by a 1-goal margin or end as a tie. The average goal-difference in FUT is 1.69 goals per match, whereas the average goal-difference in real football is 1.29 goals per match.
  • When comparing FUT against real football, it needs to be kept in mind that FUT matches only last 12 minutes. Hence, the average winner is able to produce a 1.69 goal lead per match and a lead of .14 goals per minute, whereas the team winning a real match is able to produce a .014 lead per minute. That’s a huge difference. If we allowed FUT matches to run for 90 real minutes, we would see people winning and losing by 11 goals every other match.

To revert to the invisible gardener parable, the observations above correspond to finding out that the old plants in the garden may be somewhat vigorous. Stille, they actually are slightly less vigorous than the plants growing outside the garden. So, our invisible gardener either isn’t doing his job very well. Or – perhaps more likely – he isn’t there!

Some objections and why they aren’t valid

Status is that we have looked for traces of our “gardener” in all the spots we have access to. So far, we haven’t found any traces what so ever.

Despite the fact that momentum believers keep bringing up “old, vigorous plants” in the shape of Youtube videos and accounts of apparently unjust losses, we neither have seen a gardener nor traces of a gardener.

This is not exactly good news for the momentum conspiracy theory.

This is hardly a surprise, though. It has been clear from the start that momentum isn’t a scientific theory – it’s a religious belief. People don’t believe in it because the evidence at hand indicates that it is true. They believe in it because it’s more convenient than accepting the fact that you lose because the opponent is better or perhaps just lucky.

You may of course argue that the mere fact that FUT matches are less even than real matches doesn’t rule out that they could be made more even than they otherwise would have been. Based on the evidence above, we can’t rule out that the exceptionally low draw percentage of currently 18 % in reality would have been, say, 5 %, without momentum. As we however explain here, FUT’s draw ratio fits well with it’s overall goal ratio. There is no unexplainable surplus of draws or even results in general.

Besides, if there really was some kind of systematic leveling of matches going on, I should expect to see perhaps 50 or 60 % of the matches ending as a draw. After all, if EA really thought that draws were good for their business, they probably wouldn’t stop at 18 %, and they probably wouldn’t remove the “end match as a draw” from online friendlies.