Momentum exists – but not in the shape of a hidden feature used to flip matches upside down. What I’m talking about here is the completely natural phenomenon which occurs when someone seems to have the upper hand and in turn perform increasingly well. What’s more, this effect appears to be strong in FUT compared to real football.
Psychological momentum at a glance
Think about Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona. PSG won the first leg 4-0, but Barcelona made the magic comeback with the 6-1 win at home.
We can rule out that those results were a product of a fundamental capability gap between the two teams. In fact, Barca and PSG used largely the same line ups in both legs. So, what caused these large victories?
On both occasions, you had the impression that one goal lead to another. This phenomenon is known as psychological momentum. The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science defines psychological momentum as “the positive or negative change in cognition, affect, physiology, and behavior caused by an event or series of events that affects either the perceptions of the competitors or, perhaps, the quality of performance and the outcome of the competition”.
Aside from well-known examples like PSG – Barcelona, there is a considerable amount of evidence confirming that psychological momentum exists. As an example, take a look at the chart below which portrays the results of a study on how the ability to score goals relates to the present score line. Apart from a few outliers, the data confirms that a team is more likely to score when it is in the lead than if it was trailing.
It probably isn’t a surprise that psychological momentum is a thing in football, hockey, chess, FUT and just about every other competitive game you can imagine. But what perhaps is a surprise is that psychological momentum seems to have a larger impact on results in FUT than in real football.
How to measure the effects of psychological momentum
We got our hands on a huge dataset containing results from more than 283,000 real life matches played between 1888 and 2015 from the English, Spanish, German, French and Italian leagues. On average, the matches contained 2.85 goals and were decided by a margin of 1.42 goals.
Using the average goal ratio of 2.85, we created a reference data set consisting of 10,000 matches. The data set was made by distributing 28,500 goals randomly across the 20,000 teams involved in our 10,000 matches. This implies that we treat goal scoring as a stochastic process, meaning that a team’s ability to score is considered independent of the present scoreline in the match. By doing this, we are able to assess what the goal difference would look like in a scenario where the leading team neither becomes more or less likely to score.
Interestingly, the average goal margin in our reference data set turns out to be a mere 1.30 goals as opposed to the 1.42 goals in the actual sample. The interesting part is the 9 % difference between those two numbers. Although we can’t be certain that all of it is the product of psychological momentum, the numbers confirm that teams become increasingly likely to score when they lead.
The method applied above not only allows us to test the influence of psychological momentum in FUT but also to test one of the most common conspiracy theories about FUT: Namely that the game has a build in match leveling mechanism.
Testing match leveling
Logic dictates that if FIFA has a match leveling mechanism, the leading team will become less likely to score, i.e. the exact opposite of what we see in real football as per above. If real football had a match leveling mechanism, we would expect the actual goal margin to be lower than the reference value of 1.30. If the actual goal margin is above that value, the leading team is more likely to score. If it’s below that value, the trailing team is more likely to score.
With that reasoning, we repeated our experiment on FUT. This time, we used our sample of 3,200 FUT 16 seasons matches. In the sample, the average match contained 3.69 goals and was decided by an average goal margin of 1.69 goals.
We found that our reference data set had a goal margin of just 1.48 goals on average, which is considerably lower than the actual goal margin. In other words, leading makes your team considerably more likely to score – in FUT. Also worth noticing is that the effect of leading is stronger in FUT than in real life. The actual goal difference for FUT was 14 % higher than the reference value, whereas the corresponding difference for real football was 9 %.
Is match leveling a myth?
The results above supports some of our previous research: FUT matches aren’t made even. We simply can’t find any evidence to confirm that assertion no matter where we look.
Does this rule out that match leveling exists? Not quite.
It’s a fact that our FUT sample is polluted because we can’t filter out matches where people were awarded a 3-0 win due to the opponent disconnecting or matches where the opponent didn’t play or scored own goals. It is definitely possible that the measured average goal margin would be lower if people weren’t able to disconnect, stop playing and so on. On the other hand, disconnects are rare in FUT seasons, and most disconnects happen when people are losing anyway.
In addition, it needs to be considered that the actual goal difference (1.69) is considerably higher than the reference value of 1.48. In order for us to conclude that match leveling is likely to exist, the actual goal difference would need to be below 1.48. It is highly unlikely that a few disconnects and dropped controllers would reduce the average goal margin from 1.69 all the way down below 1.48.
Is psychological momentum stronger in FUT?
As previously mentioned, our results indicate that psychological momentum is stronger in FUT. In spite of these results, we consider it too early to conclude that FUT players are spineless worms compared to real footballers.
As already mentioned, the goal margins may be slightly exaggerated due to disconnects and the likes.
Besides, it needs to be considered that although FUT seasons isn’t a cup structure with knock-out matches, it comes closer than you may realize: Given the brevity of a season, chances are that minimum one of the players is trying to get promoted, avoid relegation etc. in up to 3/4 of all FUT seasons matches. This creates an environment where you will see people applying extreme tactical measures more often than in real life football. Because of that, it may be reasonable to act with a bit more desperation in FUT than you would need in a real football league. This will inevitably increase the likelihood of 3-2 becoming 4-2 rather than 3-3 in comparison to real life division matches.