Should Vegas oddsmakers start taking their cues from EA Sports simulations?
I’m a Montreal Canadiens fan, so when my Habs beat the big bad Boston Bruins in the second round of the playoffs this year, I gave my salutary nod to the pundits who had said, almost across the board, that the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hockey hell. But this year it wasn’t just NBC and talk radio that received the gift of my smug, it was also the good people at Electronic Arts. Take a look at their official predictions below.
All Schadenfreude aside, the official EA Sports NHL playoff predictions got the bracket completely pear-shaped. A Boston-San Jose final is completely impossible at this point since the Los Angeles Kings (now Stanley Cup-bound themselves) upset the Sharks in the first round. Meanwhile, the Bruins were...well, you know.
But on the other hand EA did correctly call that the New York Rangers would pull a surprise upset of Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. Unfortunately, out of the final four teams remaining by the beginning of the Conference Finals, New York is the only one they would accurately foresee. Even then, they had the Rangers bowing out against the Bruins.
The interesting thing is that their predictions jived pretty well with those of the oddsmakers, in Vegas or otherwise. The teams over at Vegas Insider and Odds Shark were equally inept at predicting who would make the Stanley Cup, placing both Montreal and Chicago as the favorites at the beginning of their respective Conference Finals match-ups. According to Bleacher Report, the sites pegged Montreal and Chicago's odds at -130 and -145, respectively. If you dig deeper into Vegas Insider, you can find the "Picks" section, which gives you the option of paying $39.95 per handicapper to see what teams these vaunted gurus are selecting to win a given match-up. But when the site is about as skilled at predicting the future as your PlayStation 4, can anyone really make the argument that it's worth consulting these so-called "experts"?
The postseason—in hockey or any other sport—wouldn’t be the postseason without an upset throwing everybody’s numbers for a loop; it’s the rule, not the exception. Neither EA nor Vegas can ever account for heart, bad officiating, or strange bounces. But what EA can do—and do exceptionally better every year—is quantify abilities, simulate playing styles, and account for timely performances from athletes who famously deliver timely performances.
Complex has already spilled ink on just how close digital sports are getting to the real thing, but now that companies like EA are able to simulate more and more variables into their game, it’s going to be interesting to see just how much competition is left to chance. The EA method is obviously far from perfect, but are their results much worse than any other predictors out there? Just take a look around: before the Conference Finals ESPN's sportswriters and analysts picked the Canadiens and the Blackhawks by respective margins of 9-3 and 8-4. At Sports Illustrated, four out of their six writers selected the Boston Bruins to make the Finals. Only one writer at SI believed the Rangers could make it all the way. As it stands, my PS4 would be doing a lot better in my hockey pool than I am, and that goes for most people too.
Hockey isn't particularly exceptional in this regard either. Since EA officially started selecting Super Bowl winners in ‘04, the Madden franchise has an 8-3 record predicting the Super Bowl winner. They predicted Denver would win last season, but nobody except God could foresee that Peyton would lay such a monumental egg, so you have to cut them a little slack.
Regardless, these results are compelling. They beg the question: should we be placing our faith in gambling gurus or our consoles? In the interest of exploring this issue, Complex wanted to take a closer look at Vegas' predictions for the first three rounds of the NHL playoffs, and run our own modified test to see how they match up in the Stanley Cup Finals. Using NHL 14, we’re going to line up a pregame match-up for every game from now until Lord Stanley’s chalice is awarded, and tally up how often EA gets it right, accounting for injuries, substitutions and suspensions where appropriate. When it's all said and done, we'll put the EA oracle up against the experts, analysts, and writers across the country and see who gets closer to the bulls-eye. It's a trial by fire, but if it works out like we think it’ll work out, we're going to have NHL 15 pick our Pro-Line tickets next season.