Feature Article
NCAA Basketball 09 Producer Blog #3

Operation Sports NCAA Basketball 09 Producer Blog
Joe Stallings
Associate Producer

ESPN, Blue Ribbon and Team Ratings

Trying to rank and rate college basketball teams in August for the upcoming season is a daunting task. Even as late as September, there is still fluctuation in players and coaching staffs. Teams are still finalizing schedules. Walk-ons are competing for roster spots. Projected “Top 25” lists are still all over the map.

To get as much accurate and concise data we could on teams and players, we worked even closer with our partner ESPN this year, and also developed a new relationship with Blue Ribbon, publishers of college basketball premier information and scouting resource, the Blue Ribbon™ College Basketball Yearbook.

In this article, I would like to share some of the new things we added to NCAA® Basketball 09 with the help of ESPN and Blue Ribbon.

ESPN Team Prestige

Last summer, ESPN published a series of articles under the title “The Prestige,” which aimed to rank the best and most prestigious programs in the modern era of college basketball. ESPN created Prestige Rankings, and a numerical method of ranking the best Division I men's college basketball programs from 1984 through 2008 (the 1984-85 season was chosen for a variety of reasons, most notably because it was the first year the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, and so major conference teams no longer had to win their conference tournament to make the NCAA Tournament). You can view the original ESPN story at http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/news/story?id=3493766.

After teams 51-300 were listed, ESPN revealed the top 50 teams over five days, with the top 10 teams announced on Friday, July 25th. There was much chatter among the NCAA Basketball 09 team here in Vancouver – which includes alums from North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Michigan State, to name just a few - over this series of articles. And although we may have had minor quibbles about the rankings of some teams, we were very impressed by the thoroughness of the research. All of the ratings were based on pure, raw data. ESPN’s research considered things such as national titles won and 30-plus win seasons, but in addition to that, included more esoteric data like the number of All-Americans a team produced, or the number of first-round tournament losses to teams seeded 12-16.

We thought that integrating this research into our game would further enhance the authenticity that our fans demand from all EA Sports games. We reached out to the team at ESPN that assembled this research – specifically, Harold Shelton, Nick Loucks and Chris Fallica of ESPN Research - to discuss how we could work this valuable data into our game.

While the original study ranked the teams sequentially from 1-300 (and to see who was number one, you'll have to go read the article!), we wanted to display prestige on a 1 to 5 star basis in the game. Additionally, there were a number of Division I teams who didn't qualify for the original study since the point of origin was the 1984-85 season (for instance, one of the new teams in NCAA Basketball 09, North Dakota State, is just now starting its first year of Division I play). As evidence of the solid relationship we have with ESPN, Harold, Nick and Chris constructed data and rankings for those teams that fell outside the study so that we would have a complete list.

We also had to determine the 'dividing lines' between each star grade. Simply taking our list of 300+ teams and sub-dividing them all into five equal groups didn't produce the results we were looking for. After many spirited debates, and with the help of our QA Project Lead at EA Tiburon (Florida) Eric Griswold, we divided the teams up in a manner which we feel makes sense.

The ESPN Team Prestige rating, which is seen throughout the game on many screens, isn’t just a static rating but is a “living” rating that impacts the game in many ways. Right off the bat, in Play Now and online games, prestige affects attendance and the enthusiasm of the fans in the arena.

In Dynasty Mode, we explore the concept of prestige more deeply. Prestige affects a great number of things in Dynasty Mode, chief among them:

- A school's ability to appeal to the nation’s top recruits
- Invitations to pre-season tournaments, including the NIT Season Tip-Off and EA Sports™ Maui Invitational Tournament, as well as our new tournaments, the Anaheim Classic, the Puerto Tip-Off and the Old Spice Classic
- Scheduling, and how other teams respond to game invitations
- A coach’s job security, and what jobs are offered in the future

Additionally, in Dynasty Mode, the prestige rating can change over multiple seasons, depending on a team’s success (or failure).

If you want to quickly peruse any individual team’s ESPN Team Prestige rating, check out our new School Overview interface in the front end. This interface includes ESPN Team Prestige, Conference and National Titles history, Arena information, and some other cool stuff.

Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook

Another initiative that helps us create that authentic basketball experience in NCAA Basketball 09 is our new partnership with Blue Ribbon, producers of 'the Bible' of college basketball, the Blue Ribbon™ College Basketball Yearbook, a tome valued equally by fans, coaches, NBA scouts, print media and television commentators.

The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook has been in print since the early 1980s, when a young West Virginian, recognizing the need for a comprehensive college basketball preseason publication, began working on the fledging yearbook from the basement of his parents' home, selling his first books from the trunk of his car. That young man, Chris Wallace - perhaps better-known these days as the General Manager of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies – ultimately made Blue Ribbon a household name. In 1991, Wallace was named one of the most influential members of the college basketball media by Sports Illustrated.

In 1994, Wallace handed the reigns over to writers Joe Lunardi and Chris Dortch. Lunardi, now with ESPN, is well-known to most college basketball fans as the inventor of the term "bracketology" - which he first coined as a Blue Ribbon editor, by the way - and as the host of ESPN's immensely popular "Bracketology with Joe Lunardi" feature.

Chris Dortch is the current managing editor of Blue Ribbon, and was my primary contact for integrating the Blue Ribbon data and building features around it. In addition to his duties as managing editor, Chris is also the author of four books, and has served as a college basketball correspondent for both Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.

So, how does the yearbook enhance the game? First and foremost, the yearbook served as the principal foundation for our 2008-2009 ratings and rankings of all the teams in NCAA Basketball 09 . We also used the yearbook data to cross-check our rosters by, for instance, looking at a team’s Blue Ribbon ‘Backcourt’ rating and then comparing that letter grade with the player ratings (that we prepare internally) of the projected starters at the guard positions.

The Blue Ribbon information was immensely helpful in helping us accurately project team strengths and weaknesses for the upcoming season. But rather than keep the data “under the hood,” both our production team and the folks at Blue Ribbon wanted to share this treasure trove of basketball information with the fans. And so, every copy of NCAA Basketball 09 contains a condensed version of the 08-09 yearbook (viewable within our game), complete with summaries for every Division I team, and letter grades for each team's Backcourt, Frontcourt, Bench/Depth and "Intangibles." The information is provided in an easy-to-navigate interface along with every team's logo and school crest. As an added bonus - and exclusive to NCAA Basketball 09 - Blue Ribbon also reached into its archives to provide the same analysis for all 64 of the classic teams that appear in our game this year.

Chris and his writers don’t rely on statistical models and predictive analyses – they are on the ground, all over the country, calling coaches, watching games, watching film, compiling notes and using their twenty-plus years in the scouting business to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of teams, players and coaches.

And so, I really feel like our fans are getting the best of both worlds this year with regards to our work with ESPN and Blue Ribbon. ESPN gave us a fantastic way to evaluate teams historically based on a strong statistical model and a wealth of historical data. At the same time, Blue Ribbon gave us insight into the future – specifically the 2008-09 season – in a qualitative fashion that combines years of experience in the field with a “grass-roots” approach to scouting.

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