'Best job in the world': The life of a Madden NFL ratings adjuster

Anthony White, one of EA Sports' Madden ratings adjusters, talks before a game with Giants rookie Saquon Barkley. Courtesy EA SPORTS/BioWare

He'll go to games now -- not as a fan or the son of a legendary Hall of Famer, but for work. And often, Barry J. Sanders goes unrecognized by people other than the players he used to compete with or against at Oklahoma State and Stanford.

That is, unless he's wearing his jacket -- one denoting his side gig at EA Sports in addition to his full-time job working in marketing with the video game company and the NFL. On those Sundays, he'll hear it from everywhere, mostly because of what his mandated dark jacket with white lettering says: "EA SPORTS MADDEN NFL RATINGS PERFORMANCE ADJUSTOR."

They might not know him for his football lineage, but his weekend job is a conversation starter.

"If I have the jacket on, it's all about the ratings," Sanders said. "They don't care who I am. I haven't gotten anybody to recognize me, at least not fans, no. I haven't had any fans recognize me yet."

The former running back is one of a handful EA Sports employees working with Madden tapped to be ratings adjusters. It's an unpaid second job (travel and other expenses are paid) that might seem ceremonial in nature, but it's not. When an adjuster goes out to a game, it's with a purpose -- to see a certain player or position group or to understand further why a team is playing a certain way.

Then the adjuster reports back to Dustin Smith, the lead ratings adjuster, and those notes will be used to influence ratings shifts the following week.

"There is actually an impact," Smith said. "There's definitely some ceremony to it. We have fun with it. If they come back with any good notes and it was something I didn't see, we definitely take advantage of it and make changes."

An added bonus is it gives the 24-year-old Sanders a chance to reconnect with old friends and former teammates -- he saw Jacksonville running back T.J. Yeldon earlier this season for the first time since they played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl together in high school.

Most of his old friends appreciate what Sanders is doing now, his way to stay connected to the game even though his playing days are over. It's beyond players and coaches, too. The ratings adjuster program has become a small sensation: social media photos are popping up whenever adjusters are spotted. Fans and players interact with them, which is part of the point of going to games.

The evolution has been fast. In Kansas City, a high schooler approached Sanders, not because of who he is or who his dad is, but because of the jacket. He had questions -- about how Sanders landed his job at EA.

"I ended up giving the kid life advice," Sanders said. "And it was really serious. In that moment, I was like, 'People are really paying attention to what we're doing.'"

The fledgling program started because of a need for help. Smith continually heard from players about ratings -- some form of "my overall rating is too low"; "my speed is off"; "I'm not aware enough in the game" -- and sought a way to fix it.

He knew the value of in-person evaluations over relying strictly on the hours of film he and others watch each week to keep ratings current. It would also give some of the Madden team a chance to discuss with individual players aspects of their game and ratings.

Smith enlisted some people he knew within EA's Madden division -- former players or those who have worked with Madden for years -- to find candidates for his first adjusters. Smith runs every candidate through a "qualification test" (former players are exempt) to make sure potential adjusters will provide data that can improve the ratings accuracy. They must have an idea of how ratings work and how what they are seeing on the field correlates to ratings in the game. For example, an adjuster needs to know what a 94 speed looks like versus a 90 speed and have a knowledge base of football beyond the basics. Smith said he hasn't had to reject anyone yet.

Adjusters work with NFL teams to get on the field before games, either with media or all-access passes. They take detailed notes and then return to headquarters in Maitland, Florida, with suggestions for the Monday and Tuesday meetings following film sessions. Smith tries to pair an adjuster with a game for a specific purpose. Sanders often gets sent out to watch running backs. Clint Oldenburg, a former Washington offensive lineman who is Madden's lead gameplay designer and an adjuster, focuses on line play. Anthony White, a gameplay designer who is the creation lead of Madden's playbooks, targets multiple positions and also how players fit within schemes.

It all started, sort of, because of chatter and typical complaints from players on social media.

Smith said Leonard Fournette, who declined to comment to ESPN for this story other than to say he didn't remember his conversations with the adjusters, was the first player they went to see this year because he was upset about his rating.

"We've kind of wanted to do something around players and ratings at games and stuff like that," Smith said. "But then the Fournette thing gave us a good opportunity to go up there during training camp this year and do, kind of, put a forward-facing event like, 'Hey, we're listening. We'll hear everything you have to say. You can show off, too, everything you think should be higher.'

"It kind of turned into an overnight sensation."

Smith said Fournette put together a compelling case for changing some of his initial ratings in the game -- explaining his speed and agility compared to teammates and other players around the league. He mentioned his strength and displayed confidence in his abilities and that he should have been an overall 90.

The confidence mattered. It was in fun, but the truth also came out.

"In the end, he really hit us with the, 'I'm just upset that I'm at 87 because my friends just keep calling me Mr. 87,'" Smith said. "Like, in the end, it was a really funny end to the conversation."

For about half the season, the adjusters worked in anonymity. Then came the photo, tweeted out by media members in Washington, D.C.

Oldenburg's face wasn't entirely visible -- just his back with the dark jacket and "EA SPORTS MADDEN NFL RATINGS PERFORMANCE ADJUSTOR" written in white -- as he stood on the sidelines at FedEx Field.

The photo -- and the program -- promptly blew up.

Oldenburg, 35, had no idea. He left the game, went back to his hotel to grab his bags and headed to Dulles Airport. On the hourlong ride to Dulles, the photo went viral.

"I didn't do anything at first, except tell Dustin back at the office and say, 'Look what's happening,'" Oldenburg said. "Outside of that, I was unsure because you couldn't see my face and I wasn't sure if we were supposed to show our face or let anyone know that was us.

"I just laughed at it, smiled and went home."

Interview requests flowed in. Brad Hilderbrand, one of EA's public relations managers, booked Oldenburg on the Dan Le Batard Show. The interview gave the program even more attention. Oldenburg and others could then let it be known.

They were Madden adjusters, the pilot members of a program they hope expands to where they attend as many games as possible in order to make ratings for the game as realistic as possible.

"The amount of people who said, 'How do I get this job? What a great job. You get paid to go to football games,'" Oldenburg said. "It was like, 'Holy crap, this thing is taking on a whole new life.'"

The interactions with players can be interesting.

When Smith went to Tampa Bay, he said Lavonte David had no complaints. Just shook Smith's hand and walked away. Then Ryan Fitzpatrick walked up and said something Smith had never heard before: His rating was too high.

"And then just walked off," Smith said. "That was, by far, the weirdest one I've ever gotten. It's one of my favorite stories."

Fitzpatrick didn't remember the interaction, but admitted if he did that, he was potentially referring to his speed, saying "they probably got me too high." Smith said he didn't lower his rating. Fitzpatrick opened the season with three straight 400-yard games, temporarily validating Smith's initial projection.

Then-Bucs safety Keith Tandy also approached Smith, bothered by his low awareness rating. Tandy started bartering, saying his acceleration should be lower. Smith listened to his argument, and made the adjustment.

"That's really rare, to have a player be honest and up front about something like that," Smith said. "But it was almost like a bargaining chip, right? He's like, 'Look, you can take away some of that because if you give me some love here, I think that's fair.'"

In-person interactions are new. In the past, most happened through social media. Lions defensive tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison said he lobbied for some of his ratings to get an upgrade in past years after fans pointed them out. As a kid, he dreamed of being in Madden and used to create himself in the game.

"Now being on there and being one of the better players on there, it's something exciting," Harrison said.

He hasn't followed his rating this year because he hasn't played the video game as much. Why? One of the best run-stoppers in the NFL is a guy who likes to run.

"It was harder to run the ball and I'm a big run-the-ball guy at the beginning," Harrison said. "It was just discouraging, so I just strayed away from it."

It goes beyond players. Anthony White talked with San Francisco owner Jed York for his thoughts on his franchise before the Giants-49ers Monday Night Football game. That was his realization that the program had become larger than he initially thought it would be.

"I didn't think anybody was paying attention to me at all," White said. "So it was definitely one of those deals that it's kind of cool in a way, but it is fascinating to see how much interest this has garnered, which is great, you know.

"Any time that our game is in the forefront of people's minds, that's good for the business, if you will."

It's a business with a future. Madden is a pop-culture marker around the league. The release date is a big deal. Players kvetch about their ratings. And now, the game sends people out to work on adjusting them by the week to make sure they are as realistic as possible.

So much so, even the people doing the ratings are getting more questions and attention.

"The vast majority was, 'How do I get that job?'" Oldenburg said. "'That's the best job in the world.'"

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Jenna Laine, Mike DiRocco and Adam Teicher contributed to this report.