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Madden's 'Ratings Czar' takes his talents to fantasy sports

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Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Name any quality of anyone who has played in the National Football League over the past 16 years, and Donny Moore put a number to it.

Reuben Droughns' ball carrying? Lofa Tatupu's hit power? Johnnie Lee Higgins' "spectacular catch"? Moore, as the "ratings czar" for EA Sports' Madden NFL series, not only quantified it, he'd find some piece of data, or some anecdotal reference at least, to justify the decision.

This did not endear him to many players, or to their fans.

"Go check my Twitter feed right now," Moore laughed on Tuesday, right after EA Sports released the ratings for the top 10 running backs in the upcoming game. "Everyone's complaining about this guy's speed rating, why've you got Melvin Gordon faster than DeMarco Murray and Le'Veon Bell. I don't think people got the message on Twitter."

The message is that Donny Moore is no longer Madden's Ratings Czar. He passed that scepter (to whom, no one will say, probably for good reason) three weeks ago, and then joined FanDuel, the online fantasy sports site known for its one-day games. Its Orlando, Florida, office is also home to several other EA Sports alumni.

"I loved that my job was being an authority at something," Moore said. "And with that comes the criticism, everybody wants their players to be rated higher, the players themselves want to be rated higher. I was lucky enough to immerse myself in NFL player data and become an expert there. It was good."

Moore, 37, was one of the longest-tenured veterans of EA Sports' American football operations until he departed. The database he built predates the Houston Texans' arrival in 2002. Other than John Madden himself, few have been as public a face of EA Sports' NFL franchise, including executives, marketers or cover athletes. Moore had been around longer than nearly all of them.

He ran a 96-team fantasy football league at EA Sports.

This summer, though, he figured after 16 years he needed to move into a broader role, helping to build more of a game than just how the players within it are scored.

"That's what's exciting to me," said Moore, 37, "it's not ‘Oh, Donny, you're going to be here, working on this.' Because I've been doing that for a long time, right? I like the idea I get to be more directly linked to the product instead of playing catch-up."

Madden and FanDuel are as different as Moore's roles with them. Madden NFL is a $60 console video game allowing football fans to live out their fantasies of owning, coaching or playing for one of the league's teams. FanDuel is a fantasy sports site, geared toward short-term outcomes and, this is important, it pays people real money. FanDuel's website is littered with testimonials of players taking home huge paychecks.

Moore still considers himself well-suited for the new role.

"I was, literally, the fantasy guy at [EA] Tiburon," Moore said. "I think we were running a 96-man fantasy league with relegation and promotion at three different levels at one point. I love fantasy [sports] and I love everything about that.

"Madden, it always seemed like I was playing catch-up; what happened in week two, I'll get all the changes in, and always playing from behind. FanDuel it seems like we're on the cutting edge. We're about what's on Sunday."

His business card actually said 'Ratings Czar'

Though pro football is a huge part of FanDuel's offerings, Moore wasn't brought in to do the same thing for them that he did for Madden. He's not assigning the price, for example, of drafting Doug Baldwin or Blake Bortles to a one-day fantasy team. His business card, which once literally said Ratings Czar, now simply says "designer."

But if Moore caught hell online or in forums for the numbers he gave to thousands of NFL players, he was nonetheless loved by his friends for his willingness to rate anything in real life. The gag wasn't necessarily in pulling some arbitrary number out of thin air, it was hearing the justifications behind it.

That cold, steely eye still is there. Point-blank, I asked Moore to rate the parking amenities at the FanDuel offices in Orlando.

"I would have to say ... 73," Moore said, dinging the facility for not being covered. "It's Florida, so if it's raining, you're gonna get wet."

His boss, Mike Taramykin, was once the executive producer on the Tiger Woods PGA Tour golf series at EA Tiburon. "We do miss the covered parking here," he said.

Taramykin said he wanted Moore on his team but didn't have a specific role in mind. When he heard Moore was looking to make a change, he brought him aboard, in large part because some key figures in FanDuel's Florida office come from EA Sports' Tiburon studio.

Mike DeVault, the lead designer on three landmark editions of the Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise, is there. Ian Cummings, the Madden NFL creative director until 2011, also works for FanDuel. Jeff Luhr, who spent his entire career working on the NCAA Football series until it was canceled in 2013, works for FanDuel from his home in Nebraska.

FanDuel just announced its price list for NFL players in its season-long fantasy football contest, which features a $5 million prize pool, $1 million to the winner. Fantasy owners have a capped amount of virtual cash they can spend on any one player, so the news is a rather big deal for those playing FanDuel games. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the most expensive player, requiring $9,700 out of the $60,000 salary cap allotted to players.

If that's too rich for you, well, Moore had nothing to do with it. He's still finding and rating the restrooms at his new office.

FanDuel's restrooms: 'Nice, solid 85.'

"I've found a few on different floors, I'd say 85," he said. "Nice, solid 85. To be honest it's the lack of foot traffic in the bathrooms. I don't have to wear my headphones, know what I mean?"

Taramykin feels like he's made things tough on Moore at the outset, bringing him in with no real mandate other than to observe and absorb as much as he can in his new workplace. He acknowledges that's a really hard change for someone who has spent all of his adult life in a single, results-driven gig.

But Moore is looking forward to weekends where he doesn't have to frantically update ratings for more than 2,000 players in time for Madden gamers to use them before Monday Night Football kicks off. "It was a huge crunch, and I'm thrilled I don't have to go through that again," Moore said.

The weekly updates were a grind, but they also saved him, in a way. In the old days, when rosters couldn't be updated through Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network, if Moore blew a call on a particular player he'd be stuck with the infamy for a full season. Michael Vick in Madden NFL 2004 was probably the last of the super-powered sports stars whose abilities overwhelmed the rest of the game. Moore had a hand in creating him.

michael vick madden 2004

The worst players were the ones who didn't deserve their inflated numbers and still didn't do anything with them. Tyrone Calico of the Tennessee Titans and Darrius Heyward-Bey of the Oakland Raiders were two notable busts whom Moore admits he overrated.

As far as underrated players, the ability to make weekly updates wiped out those mistakes almost instantly. "When Victor Cruz showed up for the Giants, well, he's no longer a 65, now we can make him a 75," Moore said.

But there is a clock on the wall counting down to kickoff of the 2015 NFL season. "51 days, 8 hours, 32 minutes, 14 seconds," Moore said on Tuesday. The NFL is unquestionably the bread and butter of all fantasy sports, which includes FanDuel. Right now, Moore's just trying to fit in.

He rates himself a 35 or 37 in water-cooler conversation. "I'll jump in but I'm not going to be the conversation starter. I talk fast and come across too serious."

If the coffee pot runs out, don't look to Moore for a reload. "I'm 0-rated in coffee. Never done it," he says. "There's a nice coffee-making machine here, but I'm more of a soda guy."

His ability to hide from his boss has also suffered a massive hit in the new, smaller workplace floor plan. "At EA? I was roughly 90-something." Tiburon has something like four different levels, restrooms and conference rooms on each floor, and a gift shop in the lobby.

"Here I'd probably say 52," Moore said "But to be honest, I don't even have time to hide. I want to learn a lot, and there's a lot to learn. I'm nowhere near a coasting zone."

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.