What is the most exciting news in gaming this month? Whatever you just said: incorrect. The most exciting news in gaming this month is of course the release of new player ratings for FIFA 15 Ultimate Team and the multitude of fascinating subplots contained within, scarcely any of which will have a measurable impact on playing the game, but all of which somehow feel worth discussing in these football-starved minutes halfway between the respective evening kick-offs of Monday and Tuesday's international qualifiers.
And there was indeed big, albeit largely meaningless news at the end of EA Sports' initial reveal of the top 50 players in FIFA 15 last week, a ceremony envisaged as a way of whipping the FIFA-playing community into its traditional frenzy of anticipation over what are essentially the exact same numbers, and an event which was spread out over five days, as if by a parsimonious aunt caressing the last of the toothpaste out of the tube by rolling it up to resemble a thimble. And that news was that Leo Messi remains the highest-rated player in FIFA 15 despite dropping from an overall rating of 94 to 93.
EA says FIFA ratings are based on performance over the last 365 days and take into account league and cup play. Does that include the World Cup? If I had to guess (and I do because I have not researched this detail), I would conclude that it does, because EA reckons Messi has lost a point of pace somewhere and that seemed particularly evident in Brazil, where he could frequently be witnessed huffing and puffing around the pitches of the Arena de Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, labouring under the weight of his flaccid team-mates and a nation's ultimately doomed hopes and expectations. Either way, that 93 overall still puts him a point ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, who is football's R-Patz to Messi's Taylor Lautner, leading to howls of derision across social media. So that's the big news: no change.
Elsewhere, though, things did change. Manuel Neuer, the World Cup-winning German goalkeeper who wishes he was a midfielder, gets a +4 overall upgrade to take him to 90, at least in the view of the eager beavers who fuss over the stats for EA Sports. And speaking of beavers, Luis Suarez gets a +3 overall upgrade as well as a new headshot, gaze diverted left as he eyes his next meal. Suarez had a noteworthy World Cup, of course, but the undoubted star of the summer was locust-wearing Colombian dreamboat James Rodriguez, who scored a goal so good that Real Madrid paid £63m to bask in its afterglow.
EA noticed that he scored a goal as well, boosting his overall rating by three and his shooting by one, although his stats look suspiciously similar otherwise. You could sort of understand this modesty if he had remained in the French Ligue 1, where he was better than most of the other players and therefore had to be re-released with upgraded "in-form" stats a game-breaking 487 times over the course of the season. A repeat could not be contemplated. But perhaps I am being too harsh: after all, these are gigantic strides for Spain, where even Gareth Bale's Champions League-winning first season meant nothing to EA's boffins, who left him hanging on 87 overall. Still, the player everyone should call "Hammers" Rodriguez has had a good summer. A happy summer. This is also reflected in his new headshot, doing away with that tousled, wistful look he was sporting in last year's card, as though sprinting up and down the touchline of sadness, now grinning like a Galactico on his first day of school. (P.S. Ronaldo wants your lunch money.)
In other headshot developments, the new Chelsea trio of Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Thibaut Courtois have all been freshened up. Costa's previously inscrutable high-contrast swirl of curly hair is gone, replaced by the cold, dead expression of the bully who never got his comeuppance; Fabregas has a crew cut to reflect his new role as Mourinho's midfield general; and then there's Courtois. I have come to suspect that Courtois didn't particularly want to come home to Chelsea after several glorious seasons of title-winning happiness on loan at Atletico Madrid, and his new headshot feels like confirmation of this view. Gone is the smart little hall monitor with the Mona Lisa smile; in his place, grumpy Andrew Garfield.
By the way, EA has also decided that Diego Costa's weak foot is a point stronger than it was last season, further increasing his potency. While most things in FIFA are rated out of 100, weak feet and skill moves are on a five-star scale, and there was movement in the latter also. Thiago Silva's skill moves have been reduced from three to two stars, perhaps to reflect the fact he won't want to try anything fancy now he's playing next to David "7-1 to Germany" Luiz in the heart of Paris Saint-Germain's defence. Over in Italy, Carlos Tevez's skill moves have also been downgraded, from four to three stars, although the most controversial alteration in the top 50 is Zlatan Ibrahimovic's loss of five-star skills, leaving him with four, as though he has somehow forgotten his old tricks. This is incorrect. Zlatan, the Chuck Norris of football, does not forget - he merely chooses not to remember.
The thing I've become transfixed by as I've poured myself into these stupid stats, however, is the changing heights of players. Yes, heights. I could understand if they were all 12 years old, but half of these players are pushing 30. Maybe it makes sense for the goalkeepers? They spend a lot of time at full stretch. Manuel Neuer has grown an inch since last year, for instance. But then Iker Casillas? Perhaps he was yawning a lot on the bench.
It's not just a few of them either. By my reckoning, 27 of the top 50 players in FIFA 15 have changed height. Mostly they've gained or lost an inch, but something very strange is going on at Manchester United, where Robin van Persie has grown two inches in a single season to a career peak of 6'2", while Juan Mata is now three inches taller than he was in FIFA 14 according to EA's descriptions. Falcao has also sprouted an inch to reach 5'10", although United fans will presumably discover his real height is more like 3'10" in his traditional position of lying on the treatment table for six months.
I asked EA Sports to explain this phenomenon of players growing and shrinking in an email, and a spokesperson immediately rang me up to assure me he would pass this request on to the studio in Vancouver. "What is your deadline?" he asked, generously inferring that I was being in some way encouraged to publish this stuff. I haven't heard back yet. I have a certain amount of sympathy for the developers though, because the logistics of getting every footballer in the world to stand up next to that doorframe in the hall while you draw a line above their head every year must be complex to say the least.
Anyway, if you wish to continue investigating the changes to stats in FIFA 15 Ultimate Team, I suggest you start by perusing the top 50 on EA.com, after which you should beat a path over to the excellent Futhead.com, which has a page dedicated to upgrades and downgrades, including a lot of other players whose details have been drip-fed onto the internet in other venues. And if that height stuff I was banging on about turns out to be incorrect, you can also blame Futhead for that, because I used their transcribed FIFA 14 details for my comparisons. (Get under that bus, Futhead.)
One thing that I predict will make a universal difference though is the addition of the Turkish league licence to FIFA 15 after last year's Ultimate Team had to make do with Galatasaray alone. Because as regular players will quickly realise, the introduction of Galatasaray's great rivals Fenerbahce into this year's Ultimate Team stock also sees the return of famously hulking speed machine Emmanuel Emenike. The Nigerian striker is a cult hero in FIFA after YouTubers elevated him to prominence in the even pacier days of a few years ago, and judging by the live webstats Futhead tweeted last night, the community is glad to see him back.
Upon (unnecessarily) deep inspection, then, the story of FIFA 15's player ratings is not whether they have themselves changed, but the changes they reveal in ourselves. They are gaming's Rorschach tests: blots of inky numbers that suggest to me a noticeable reduction in the midfield dynamism of Xavi Hernandez, while others see the collapse of a Spanish footballing dynasty, and others still see nothing of note. (Or perhaps they look up at the preceding 1500 words and remark that my Destiny download progress is only 72 per cent.)
Are the changes to player ratings in FIFA 15 truly remarkable? Do they really mean anything? Perhaps not. Or perhaps, as they fill the pages of fan-sites and minds of football-loving fans, they mean more than the rest of the game put together.