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Is There an NBA Live Curse?

Posted by Neil Paine on November 24, 2008

Over the years, much has been written about the so-called "Madden Curse," a powerful jinx that afflicts those football players worthy (and unfortunate) enough to appear on the box of EA Sports' Madden NFL video game. It seems that simply by virtue of being Madden's pitchman, a player will either suffer a debilitating injury or a sudden, precipitous decline in production -- or both. Pretty spooky, right?

Well, my question is this: in light of the injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Tony Parker in recent seasons, does the curse extend to other EA Sports video games -- say, for instance, the NBA Live series? Or are those simply isolated incidents in the history of Live and its cover stars? Conversely, is there something particular about the Madden game (or, more broadly, the sport of football in general) that affects its cover athletes more frequently than those of EA's other series? Well, I can't speak to the NHL, FIFA, or MVP Baseball series, but I can look at all of Live's past spokesmen and assess whether or not there is a similar pattern of players suffering injuries and/or declines when they are chosen to appear on the game's cover.

The metric of choice, of course, is Win Shares. When possible, we're going to examine each player's performance before his "cover season," during it, and in subsequent seasons. Then we'll look at the averages by WS/3000 minutes (WS/3K) to see if being Live's cover boy has a significant effect on a player's productivity. To the data...

+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
James Worthy    1989    LAL     2960    9.70    9.83    Y-2
James Worthy    1990    LAL     2960   10.38   10.52    Y-1
James Worthy    1991    LAL     3008    8.62    8.59    Y        Lakers vs Celtics
James Worthy    1992    LAL     2108    2.95    4.20    Y+1
James Worthy    1993    LAL     2359    2.95    3.75    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Scottie Pippen  1990    CHI     3148    5.63    5.36    Y-2
Scottie Pippen  1991    CHI     3014   10.97   10.92    Y-1
Scottie Pippen  1992    CHI     3164   12.37   11.73    Y        Bulls vs Lakers
Scottie Pippen  1993    CHI     3123    8.22    7.89    Y+1
Scottie Pippen  1994    CHI     2759    10.80   11.74   Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Scottie Pippen  1991    CHI     3014    10.97   10.92   Y-2
Scottie Pippen  1992    CHI     3164    12.37   11.73   Y-1
Scottie Pippen  1993    CHI     3123    8.22    7.89    Y        Bulls vs Blazers
Scottie Pippen  1994    CHI     2759    10.80   11.74   Y+1
Scottie Pippen  1995    CHI     3014    11.68   11.62   Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Patrick Ewing   1992    NYK     3150    12.51   11.92   Y-2
Patrick Ewing   1993    NYK     3003    10.37   10.36   Y-1
Patrick Ewing   1994    NYK     2972    12.75   12.87   Y        NBA Showdown '94
Patrick Ewing   1995    NYK     2920    9.38    9.64    Y+1      (GEN)
Patrick Ewing   1996    NYK     2783    6.69    7.21    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Scottie Pippen  1992    CHI     3164    12.37   11.73   Y-2
Scottie Pippen  1993    CHI     3123    8.22    7.89    Y-1
Scottie Pippen  1994    CHI     2759    10.80   11.74   Y        NBA Showdown '94
Scottie Pippen  1995    CHI     3014    11.68   11.62   Y+1      (SNES)
Scottie Pippen  1996    CHI     2825    12.19   12.95   Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Robert Horry    1993    HOU     2330    3.54    4.56    Y-2
Robert Horry    1994    HOU     2370    5.90    7.47    Y-1
Robert Horry    1995    HOU     2074    4.23    6.12    Y        NBA Live 95
Robert Horry    1996    HOU     2634    4.96    5.65    Y+1
Robert Horry    1997    LAL     676     2.18    9.69    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
John Starks     1993    NYK     2477    7.30    8.84    Y-2
John Starks     1994    NYK     2057    5.64    8.22    Y-1
John Starks     1995    NYK     2725    6.06    6.67    Y        NBA Live 95
John Starks     1996    NYK     2491    5.66    6.82    Y+1
John Starks     1997    NYK     2042    5.80    8.52    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Shaq O'Neal     1994    ORL     3224    16.93   15.75   Y-2
Shaq O'Neal     1995    ORL     2923    14.36   14.74   Y-1
Shaq O'Neal     1996    ORL     1946    6.94    10.70   Y        NBA Live 96
Shaq O'Neal     1997    LAL     1941    8.04    12.43   Y+1
Shaq O'Neal     1998    LAL     2175    10.54   14.54   Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Mitch Richmond  1995    SAC     3172    7.90    7.48    Y-2
Mitch Richmond  1996    SAC     2946    9.43    9.60    Y-1
Mitch Richmond  1997    SAC     3125    10.91   10.48   Y        NBA Live 97
Mitch Richmond  1998    SAC     2569    8.07    9.42    Y+1
Mitch Richmond  1999    WAS     1912    3.30    5.18    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Tim Hardaway    1996    MIA     1047    3.34    9.57    Y-2
Tim Hardaway    1997    MIA     3136    12.64   12.09   Y-1
Tim Hardaway    1998    MIA     3031    11.40   11.28   Y        NBA Live 98
Tim Hardaway    1999    MIA     1772    5.12    8.67    Y+1
Tim Hardaway    2000    MIA     1672    4.12    7.38    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Antoine Walker  1997    BOS     2970    1.80    1.82    Y-2
Antoine Walker  1998    BOS     3268    4.90    4.50    Y-1
Antoine Walker  1999    BOS     1549    2.64    5.11    Y        NBA Live 99
Antoine Walker  2000    BOS     3003    5.09    5.09    Y+1
Antoine Walker  2001    BOS     3396    6.65    5.87    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Tim Duncan      1998    SAS     3204    12.53   11.73   Y-2
Tim Duncan      1999    SAS     1963    8.70    13.30   Y-1
Tim Duncan      2000    SAS     2875    12.70   13.26   Y        NBA Live 2000
Tim Duncan      2001    SAS     3174    12.99   12.28   Y+1
Tim Duncan      2002    SAS     3329    17.68   15.93   Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Kevin Garnett   1999    MIN     1780    5.53    9.33    Y-2
Kevin Garnett   2000    MIN     3243    11.47   10.61   Y-1
Kevin Garnett   2001    MIN     3202    11.84   11.09   Y        NBA Live 2001
Kevin Garnett   2002    MIN     3175    12.78   12.07   Y+1
Kevin Garnett   2003    MIN     3322    15.76   14.23   Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Steve Francis   2000    HOU     2776    6.49    7.01    Y-2
Steve Francis   2001    HOU     3194    12.10   11.36   Y-1
Steve Francis   2002    HOU     2343    4.30    5.50    Y        NBA Live 2002
Steve Francis   2003    HOU     3318    10.82   9.78    Y+1
Steve Francis   2004    HOU     3194    6.92    6.50    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Jason Kidd      2001    PHO     3065    9.76    9.55    Y-2
Jason Kidd      2002    NJN     3056    9.03    8.87    Y-1
Jason Kidd      2003    NJN     2989    11.42   11.46   Y        NBA Live 2003
Jason Kidd      2004    NJN     2450    7.12    8.72    Y+1
Jason Kidd      2005    NJN     2435    7.10    8.75    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Vince Carter    2002    TOR     2385    6.82    8.58    Y-2
Vince Carter    2003    TOR     1471    4.12    8.40    Y-1
Vince Carter    2004    TOR     2785    5.75    6.20    Y        NBA Live 2004
Vince Carter    2005    2TM     2828    9.23    9.79    Y+1
Vince Carter    2006    NJN     2906    9.19    9.49    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Carmelo Anthony 2003    --      0       0.00    0.00    Y-2
Carmelo Anthony 2004    DEN     2995    6.32    6.33    Y-1
Carmelo Anthony 2005    DEN     2608    5.05    5.81    Y        NBA Live 2005
Carmelo Anthony 2006    DEN     2941    9.70    9.90    Y+1
Carmelo Anthony 2007    DEN     2486    7.69    9.27    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Dwyane Wade     2004    MIA     2126    4.45    6.28    Y-2
Dwyane Wade     2005    MIA     2974    10.94   11.04   Y-1
Dwyane Wade     2006    MIA     2892    14.55   15.10   Y        NBA Live 06
Dwyane Wade     2007    MIA     1931    8.61    13.37   Y+1
Dwyane Wade     2008    MIA     1954    3.24    4.98    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Tracy McGrady   2005    HOU     3182    11.67   11.00   Y-2
Tracy McGrady   2006    HOU     1745    3.96    6.80    Y-1
Tracy McGrady   2007    HOU     2539    8.50    10.04   Y        NBA Live 07
Tracy McGrady   2008    HOU     2440    5.72    7.03    Y+1
Tracy McGrady   2009    HOU     2718    8.20    9.05    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Gilbert Arenas  2006    WAS     3384    13.89   12.31   Y-2
Gilbert Arenas  2007    WAS     2942    11.09   11.31   Y-1
Gilbert Arenas  2008    WAS     425     0.60    4.22    Y        NBA Live 08
Gilbert Arenas  2009    WAS     0       0.00    0.00    Y+1
Gilbert Arenas  2010    --      0       0.00    0.00    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
 Player         Year    Tm      Min      WS     WS/3K  Live Yr   Live Version
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+
Tony Parker     2007    SAS     2499    9.41    11.30   Y-2
Tony Parker     2008    SAS     2312    6.74    8.75    Y-1
Tony Parker     2009    SAS     1128    5.47    14.55   Y        NBA Live 09
Tony Parker     2010    --      0       0.00    0.00    Y+1
Tony Parker     2011    --      0       0.00    0.00    Y+2
+--------------+-----+------+--------+-------+-------+--------+------------------+

It should be noted that technically, the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also a member of the Live cover lineage, having appeared on the box for the PC version of Lakers vs. Celtics in 1989 -- but he retired before the 1990 season, so it's pointless to include him in this study. Another note: for current players, we've taken their '09 stats so far and pro-rated them to 82 team games.

Anyway, the simplest way to look for a curse is to compare performance in the year before the cover season (Y-1) to the cover season itself (Y). We'll do this using both aggregate Win Shares and average WS/3K:

Year    #Plyrs  WS      WS/3K*
Y-1     21      189.7   9.75
Y       21      175.1   9.54
*=Average of individual WS/3K, unweighted by min

There's certainly a pattern of decline in one's "cover season", though it's hardly earth-shattering; 9 of the 21 players in the sample had more WS when they were on Live's cover, and 10 of them improved their WS/3K rate in year Y.

What happens if we add the year after the cover season to the study? Since 2009-10 hasn't happened yet, we'll have to throw 09 cover man Tony Parker out of the dataset, leaving us with 20 players in the sample:

Year    #Plyrs  WS      WS/3K
Y-1     20      182.91  9.80
Y       20      169.65  9.29
Y+1     20      156.95  8.81

We can definitely see a multi-year drop-off from one's pre-Live form: on average, a player loses a full Win Share per 3000 minutes from the season directly before his cover appearance to the season directly after. However, I've found that true "Madden Curse" devotees will dispute the relevance of Y+1, as they believe the only season that's actually cursed is the one during which the player appears on the game box. Your interpretation of the curse's more arcane rules may differ, though.

Anyway, what happens if we extend the study to include seasons 2 years before and after the Live appearance?

Year    #Plyrs  WS      WS/3K
Y-2     18      149.24  8.96
Y-1     18      165.50  9.91
Y       18      164.00  9.77
Y+1     18      147.25  9.24
Y+2     18      144.99  9.30

So, more evidence of a curse, or what? Well, in the aggregate, players did give back all of their pre-Live Win Shares in the 2 seasons following their cover season... but on a per-minute basis they were still more productive 2 years after the appearance than they were 2 years before. That, and the fact that these fractional differences in WS/3K are negligible at best, means we can probably evoke what Doug wrote in his original "Madden Curse" post:

And then there is regression to the mean. In order to get on the cover of Madden, you have to turn in one of the best performances of the year. In almost all cases, that requires a bit of luck. The next year, you’re still good, but there is no reason to expect the luck to be there. The league’s best performers in any category will always decline, as a group... Curses happen.

In other words, things seek their own equilibrium, and if a player had an abnormally good and/or lucky season one year (even lucky in the sense of avoiding injuries), he will likely see some of that production and durability disappear during the next season, even if he does everything the same (trains the same, takes the same vitamins, goes through the same bizarre series of rituals a la Kevin Garnett, etc.) as the previous year.

The official verdict, then? There is no such thing as an "NBA Live Curse". Or, failing that, there's at least less evidence of its existence than there is of the Madden Curse, Chunky Soup Curse, or the SI Cover Jinx -- and all of those hexes have been debunked as the dual products of the regressive fallacy and some very overactive, superstitious imaginations. Gilbert Arenas and Tony Parker may disagree, but the same goes for any supposed curse attached to EA Sports' flagship basketball franchise as well. Regression to the mean is real and it's inevitable, but we shouldn't mistake it for some kind of supernatural phenomenon.

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3 Responses to “Is There an NBA Live Curse?”

  1. Peter G Says:

    Regression to the mean. Player does really well one year, is picked for the cover, then performance goes goes back to the mean.

  2. Ryan M Says:

    Couldn't it just be that these players are peaking at the times that they're getting put on the covers?

    Consider these players' numbers during Y-4 and Y+4...

  3. Jared Ras Says:

    I don't like that "regression toward the mean" bit in the end. I mean, it's an argument perhaps for the Madden curse debate, but it doesn't apply here. In actuality, there is very little correlation between cover years and stat decline. That should have been the final point to drive home, not leaking into the Madden curse.