It wasn't at an Outback Steakhouse, a Denny's, or a Bob's Big Burger, but we did have an opportunity recently to have a (virtual) sit-down with WIS's Chief Cook and Bottle Washer (among other positions), seble, for an extensive interview.
BH : Thanks for the opportunity to chat about WIS and GridIron Dynasty. First, let's get the "demographics" questions out of the way. Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from, where'd you go to school, favorite sports teams, etc.?
S : I am originally from a small town in West Virginia. I studied computer science at Dayton and began working with the founder of WhatIfSports (Tarek Kamil) straight out of college in 1999. I have an eclectic group of favorite pro teams: Lakers in NBA, Dolphins in NFL, and Reds in MLB. I'm mainly an Ohio State and WVU fan in college football and hoops.
BH : You were a long-time WIS employee prior to the SportsHub acquisition. What's your background with WIS products?
S : Over the years, I've directly worked on pretty much every game on the site in some capacity, although my focus was mostly on NBA and Hoops Dynasty. I was around prior to the inception of WhatIfSports, when it was really just a fun side project as we worked on other business applications. After FOX bought the site, the team working on WIS slowly dwindled as more people were pulled into FOX projects. I worked heavily on the FOX fantasy games during that period, but was really the one constant on WIS over the years. Most of the other guys eventually moved on to other projects or left the company.
BH : WIS is quite a different product than the rest of the SportsHub offerings, which focus on "real-world" fantasy sports. What was it about WIS that made it an attractive acquisition for SportsHub? Did Sportshub approach Fox, or vice-versa?
S : SportsHub came along at a dangerous time for the future of WIS, and really saved it from extinction. While it's not a perfect fit with SportsHub's other offerings, it's in the same ballpark. The idea was to bring together fantasy-related online games that were underexposed in some way, and bring them into a single network of sites, where someone could seamlessly experience different variations of fantasy/sim games. The transition wasn't without some bumps of course, but it really has been a good thing.
BH : Was Fox really close to shuttering WIS ? Can you elaborate more on that?
S : I wasn't in on all of the discussions surrounding it, but there was a definite possibility of shutting down the site for good. At that point, nearly the entire WIS dev team had been reassigned to other things, so I think FOX just decided it wasn't worth the trouble any more to keep it running. Luckily, they decided to sell instead of just shutting it down.
BH : I remember when Fox purchased WIS - many of us were pretty excited about it at the time, thinking it would mean an influx of new users and resources. It appears it was more of a "be careful what you wish for" kind of thing. What was the feeling inside WIS about the Fox acquisition, initially and as time went by?
S : I think we were all optimistic at the time that FOX purchased the site, but over time we realized that they really didn't know what to do with us. There was some token promotion on foxsports.com, but beyond that it was really like we were not a part of FOX for the first several years. Eventually we began building games and other products for FOX, at which point we really started becoming a FOX engineering group as opposed to WhatIfSports. That transformation happened over the course of years until we got to the point where WIS was operating on a skeleton crew.
BH : After the acquisition by SportsHub, you were basically a "one-man show" for WIS. Have you added staff since that time? How big is the team?
S : I was hired to run WIS by myself as part of the sale, which was super exciting for me. To be away from it for a while was hard, and I was happy to come back. The intention was to staff up to a decent sized team to run WIS over the course of a year or so, but things have changed a bit since that time. SportsHub is essentially a startup company, so budget is always tight. So, at this point I'm still running things by myself.
BH : WIS' Social Media presence has been... lacking. The last Twitter / Facebook posts were in August of 2017. Is Social Media just not something WIS is interested in, or is it more a matter that there's only 24 hours in a day?
S : Social media is tough right now. It is valuable, but in the past relied a lot on our content group to write articles based on various sim ideas. Since I no longer have that, there's really no content to post about. It's also a time issue. So, I really haven't figured out what to do with it yet. I do have some irons in the fire to address the social media deficiency, but I'm not sure when something might happen there.
BH : If there's such a thing as a "typical day", how would that look? What percentage of your time is spent working on support tickets, staying on top the forums, running the "business" side of WIS, and active development / coding?
S : I don't really have a "typical" day, as things can really change depending on what's going on. There are times where I'm able to spend 60-70% of my time on development and the rest on day-to-day operations (support/miscellaneous business tasks). Other times, those percentages are flipped, or even more skewed toward day-to-day operations. Having to support so many games, with varying levels of familiarity, is certainly difficult and time consuming.
BH : Earlier we mentioned the (unfulfilled) hopes that the purchase by FoxSports would lead to an influx of new users, and some were hopeful that customers of SportHub's other products might find their way to WIS games. That doesn't appear to be the case... HBD leagues take months to fill, GD worlds are 15% to 25% populated, and I would guess HD is in a similar boat. I don't mean to sound "doom and gloom" but - what is SportsHub/WIS doing (or planning to do) to reach out to new players and possibly re-connect with people who left the game previously?
S: So far, we haven't really promoted WIS to the rest
of the SportsHub network. That's mostly my decision, because I'd really like
to make the older games more presentable with an updated mobile-friendly UI. I
think a potential new user coming in and seeing a UI that's 10-15 years old is
going to be turned off immediately. HBD and HD are easier sells right now, so
it may make sense to target those games specifically for promotion before the
others. GD looks ok on desktop, but is not mobile-friendly.
We did recently send out an email to GD users who have quit playing since the integration last summer, presumably due to the yatzr tool no longer working. I know a handful of coaches have returned from that mailing, but it wasn't quite as successful as I'd hoped. We also have some standard automated promos that go out to people that have seemingly stopped coming, but there may be potential for more there. Again though, there are only so many hours in a day, so I can't do everything I'd like to be doing.
BH : In terms of general numbers of users, can you rank how popular the various WIS products are?
S : The most popular games are HD, GD, HBD, and SimLeague Baseball. The other SimLeagues would fall in a lower tier of popularity at this point in time.
BH : How different are the user bases for the different products?
S : I can't really say that each game community is that much different. I think everyone just wants the games to be as strong as possible. I would say SimLeague players tend to be less open to change as compared to Dynasty players.
BH : As we mentioned before, you were a long-time WIS employee – how different has it been “running the place” as opposed to being “just” an employee before?
S : The main difference in what I'm responsible for now as compared to before the SportsHub deal is just all the miscellaneous things that must be done to keep things running. In particular having to do customer support for everything instead of just handling higher level tickets for a couple of games has been tough. In the past, we always had 1-2 people devoted almost entirely to customer support. It's also been a challenge getting up to speed on the intricacies of the games that I'm less familiar with. On the flip side, having more control over the direction of the site has been a major positive for me. I always had a pretty strong voice in decision making across the site, but now it's pretty much full control.
BH : What have been some of your biggest surprises since taking over at WIS? Biggest disappointments?
S : There haven't been a lot of surprises, since I've been around the company for so long. The biggest thing is what I already mentioned in the previous question - all the little things necessary to keep things running day-to-day. I don't have any major disappointments, but I wish I had more resources at my disposal to create positive change at a faster pace. There is so much potential for improvement that it can be frustrating to have to put things on the back-burner due to time constraints.
BH : Given that there are resource restraints, what are your immediate and longer-term goals for updating / tweaking / overhauling the various products?
S : The plan for this year is to focus as much energy as possible on game updates. I've already started with small updates to GD and HD. I am currently working on some updates to SimLeague Hockey as well. It's important for me to spread my time around to as many games as possible to get across the point that we haven't abandoned any of the games.
Longer term, I want to start modernizing the site UI to some degree. Outside of HBD and HD, the games are hard to play on mobile devices. I'm sure UI changes will upset some people, but it's a necessary step to start injecting some fresh blood into the community.
I also need to work on streamlining the customer support process, and at some point, be in a position to offload some of that burden to the SportsHub CS team. That will be important to free up more of my time for game updates.
BH : Let's turn to some GD-specific questions. Other than making the game more mobile-friendly (and with the understanding of current resource restraints), what's on the roadmap for future GD updates?
S : I would like to circle back with you on integrating your GD reports concept into the game itself. I think that's a terrific resource, and would really expand the game. Along with that, I'd like to integrate the player role formulas in a few other places, similar to HD. Obviously, the Total rating is pretty useless when evaluating players, so allowing each coach to specify what they'd like as an overall rating would be a nice improvement.
Beyond that, I think the job process is in dire need of an overhaul. While I'm sure there would be major pushback on it, I still believe a recruiting overhaul would benefit the game as well. It seems like there are some issues in the engine as well, where results can get pretty far away from reality.
BH : Recently you made some changes to the Recruiting UI that have been, for the most part, received quite positively. It was nice to see the game get any attention at all, after years of neglect. One of the changes that generated a bit of consternation was showing a player's potential on rosters, using a scale of Very Low to Very High. Although people love having that value easily accessible to them, the scale didn't sync up with what we had assigned to the "potential message" that we got from AC/HC scouts. Were there more nuances in the scout messages than we gave credit? Or is just a matter of "x message indicated a Potential rating between y and z, but y and z fall into different ranges on the 'new' scale"? Or perhaps both?
S : The old recruiting messages regarding potential were slotted into 4 categories, divided evenly on the 100 point scale that represents the potential value. What I found is that the actual values aren't distributed evenly on that scale, so I decided to map the new categories closer to the true distribution. Also, I decided to expand to 5 categories to match the HD structure for potential. The end result is that what you see now is a more accurate description of the player's potential.
BH : So the "Sky's the Limit" player has a "Potential" rating value of 75-100, but maybe 1-3% (guessing) of players would fall in this range? And in the new scale, approximately 20% of the players are going to be in "Very High" category -- but that range of values might be (just throwing out random numbers as examples) 61-100 where "High" might be 52-60?
S : I don't want to get into all the details around potential, but you're on the right track with that interpretation. Potential falls on something of a bell curve, so there are a lot more in the middle than on the extremes. Because of that distribution, the Very High and Very Low categories are less than 20% of the pool.
BH : In terms of explaining the game mechanics (or 'how things work') WIS games have been very much in the "keep trying until you figure it out" vein, which leads to a steep learning curve and a "wisdom of the crowd" that is based on anecdotal evidence and conjecture. This leads me to several questions.
First, previous efforts to streamline the game have been met with shouts of "YOU'RE DUMBING DOWN THE GAME!" As a developer, how do you balance the needs of making the game more accessible to new users, while allowing experience to remain as an "edge" for the existing user base?
S : GD is a very complicated game to learn, and can certainly overwhelm a new coach. Some of the past efforts to improve gameplay have been good and bad, but my ideal solution is to allow someone to manage a team with just a handful of clicks if they desire, while also allowing hardcore coaches to dig deeper into the details. For example, a casual user may just want to say "I'm running a spread passing offense", whereas a hardcore coach may want to specify tendencies for each down and distance. It's really just a matter of packaging the same settings in different ways to appeal to different personalities.
BH : The Help section of GridIron Dynasty is pretty good about explaining basic concepts of the game, but it doesn't really tell you "how" to be successful. Users have created help threads in the forums (such as "GD's Guide to the Game") but that's the "wisdom of the crowd" I referred to earlier. How accurate is this information? Anything that's just blatantly wrong? (Some of it is outdated, of course.)
S : I can't vouch for the accuracy of information in the forums, but I understand the dilemma. To me, any game is really built that way, where you're given instruction on the basic mechanics of how to play it, but the challenge is learning the intricacies of it, and being able to use that information to be successful. In our games, there are generally multiple ways to win, and that's by design. If there is one overriding strategy to success, then it usually means the game is out of balance.
BH : Back in 2010, after the 2.0 engine release, I did an interview with Joe Conte where he laid out the "mechanics" of how a pass play develops in the simulation engine. First, are those mechanics different in the current (3.1) engine, and if so, could we get a revised breakdown? And second, how about a breakdown for a running play?
S : To my knowledge, the 3.0/3.1 engine was completely re-written from scratch, so I would take anything related to the older engine with a grain of salt. I'd love to provide more information on the engine, but to this point I haven't had time to do a deeper dive into it. At a high level, it's broken down more into "decision events", where each play has multiple events within it. For example, the first decision after a running play snap may be determining the quality of blocking on the play. The next decision may be whether the RB can find a hole. Then, whether he gets past the line of scrimmage or goes down. So, it's essentially a decision tree, where the outcome of each event determines the direction of future events in that play. I believe the old engine was more simplified, where plays were evaluated on a more macro level for outcomes. [Editor’s Note: A follow up discovered that the ‘macro level’ was in fact referring to the 1.0 Engine. Still, the point of the engine being re-written for 3.0 is a valid one. Joe Conte’s breakdown of the passing play is probably still accurate from a PROCESS perspective, but the details may have changed.]
BH : With regards to the game-simulation engine, does it track the location of every player on the field at every point in the play, and make a "decision" on what each player is going to do in the next play "segment"? Or is it more along the lines of Run to the Left, check the left OL/DL/LB/DB ?
S : I think the engine tracks each player in a given area of the field, like a grid system. Then, when the play enters an area the players in that area have the main influence on the outcome. It sounds like what's in your head is pretty close to how it works.
BH : I touched on this earlier... none of the GD Worlds are heavily populated, with Wilkinson topping out at just over 25% full, while Camp and Hayes both have less than 100 users. Have you given serious consideration to consolidating game worlds? I know it was done in HBD several years ago, but the response there was... less than enthusiastic.
S: I haven't seriously considered consolidating GD worlds to this point. Merging isn't really feasible in GD the way it's done for HBD. More likely, it would be closing a world or two and facilitating those coaches to start over in another world. It's not something I want to do, but it may become necessary at some point.
BH : Understanding that any major changes to the code are going to be “long-term” projects, I’d still like to address some thoughts on some possible changes. Periodically, there are requests to shorten the recruiting season, or the job change period, or the new coach hiring period... would these be difficult to implement programmatically? (Although given the turmoil that erupts any time a world's start day of the week gets shifted, cutting anything less than seven full days - which probably isn't feasible - would likely cause more grief than it would be worth.)
S: Haha, I was just going to mention the day of the week thing. It's amazing how much people get bent out of shape about that. The funniest part is that it exists that way as a total unintended coincidence. I do think recruiting could be trimmed by a day or two. I'm not sure beyond that.
BH : When the 3.0 release was in beta, norbert had a test world running, where one of the features was the ability to simulate a game against any opponent, using your game plans for your team, and the base/generic game plans for the opponent. Although the purpose was to help debug the game engine, it allowed users to somewhat "scout" their opponents and helped in creating a game plan for them. Is there a realistic possibility that could be integrated into the current release of the game?
S : I don't expect the scrimmage feature to ever make a comeback, at least in that form. I totally understand why coaches love it, but it can give someone a real advantage who has the time to keep trying slightly different tactics against a particular team. What might make sense is more of a practice scrimmage feature, where you could simulate various sets against your own team, or something like that.
BH : Any thoughts on overhauling the "Elites" system?
S : In HD, I dealt with the elite situation by overhauling recruiting to give lower level schools a fighting chance in recruiting. I think that's worked to some degree, although not quite as well as I'd hoped. I think it could make sense to get rid of the concept of baseline prestige, and let schools rise and fall more naturally based on results. The only downside to that would be a landscape that may not resemble reality at all, which could potentially turn some people off. Maybe a compromise could be made, where there is still some small advantage for traditionally strong programs, but reduced so that any school could potentially build to that level eventually.
BH : Can we get the in-season recruiting message to reveal potential? And could the AC scout at least a DECENT player?
S : Yeah, those in-season scouting messages seem pretty useless to me in most cases. I'm not sure what to do about them, but it may make sense to just kill them.
BH : What is your opinion on possibly re-introducing injuries to the game (perhaps tied to an increase in roster size & number of red-shirts allowed)?
S : I definitely think injuries should be part of the game, especially the "bumps and bruises" type that would reduce effectiveness without necessarily knocking guys off the field. I think fatigue needs to be looked at as well. I see some pretty unrealistic usage in some cases.
BH: Any other areas where you think the game could use some improvement?
S : One other topic that I've been thinking about
recently is recruit generation. I think that revamping that, to create
different player types, could really be an interesting change. Right now,
it seems like players at a given position are pretty interchangeable in skill
set. I'd love for it to be more variable in skills, where you have a QB
who is a great runner, but just a so-so passer. Or you have a WR who
doesn't have a ton of speed, but has great instincts and hands, perfectly
suited to the slot. Maybe a true power runner, who has great strength but
isn't that fast. I don't see a lot of that right now. For example,
a RB who is strong is also usually fast and elusive. Fast WRs generally
also have good hands. Just an idea that could re-energize the game a bit
without a major development effort.
BH : Let's switch to some "fun" questions to close things out. Somehow, you end up stranded on a desert island, with a tablet and a solar charger. What music do you have loaded on your device?
S : Probably some newer folky stuff like Mumford and Sons or Lumineers, and some older stuff like Springsteen and Bob Dylan. And some Pearl Jam for when I want something harder.
BH : You only had time to load one movie on your tablet - what movie would that be?
S : Shawshank Redemption
BH : Fortunately, you have an e-book reader app on your tablet, and you'd downloaded a book (or books) that you've wanted to read but never had time to get to. Assuming that book isn't "How to escape from a desert island" -- what's the title / author?
S : A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
BH : After you are rescued from the island, you are given tickets to one sporting event of your choice - what are you going to see?
S : College Hoops Championship
BH : Finally we'll close with the traditional "Dubs' Triples" -- Superman, Sherlock Holmes, or Jack Bauer?
S : Sherlock Holmes
BH : Star Wars, Star Trek, or Dancing With The Stars?
S : Star Wars
BH : Less Filling, Tastes Great, or "As long as it contains alcohol"?
S : Tastes Great
BH : In-n-Out, Whataburger, or Shake Shack? (Unlike the other questions, this one has only one correct answer.)
S : I’ve never had any of them, so – abstain.
BH: BZZZZZT! Incorrect. The answer is ALWAYS Whataburger.
BH : Most Often Requested GD Item - Variable Elites, D1-A playoffs, Conference Re-Alignment ?
S : Definitely Conference Re-Alignment
BH : Ginger, Mary Ann, or .. uh... the Professor (not that there's anything wrong with that)? Not the best triples question LOL.
S : Mary Ann
BH : Any last thoughts (besides Click on Ads at
S: I'd like to thank everyone who has stuck around through all of the bumps over the past year, and the lack of updates prior to that. I know there are still major issues with the game, and I plan to attack those whenever I'm able. I hope that the great GD community will continue to be patient, and give me the time to make things better.