Game of Thrones' Battle of Winterfell statistical analysis: Who was the MVP?

We analyzed TV's biggest, darkest battle frame-by-frame and crunched the numbers: Who comes out on top? Caution: spoilers ahead!

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
11 min read
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The Battle of Winterfell was extremely dark, bloody, cold and full of dead guys with really poor dental hygiene. Some of our favorite Game of Thrones characters died, some rose from the dead to terrorize the living and others barely scraped through with a last-minute assist from friends.

We've recapped all the big moments of the episodescoured every detail you may have missed and now we've tracked through, frame-by-grimy-dark-frame, to count up all the kills and deaths we could. How many wights were dispatched by major characters? How much time did they spend in battle? Who killed who, and who was the most efficient warrior? There were some clear victors -- likely to become the subject of sing-alongs in Westeros for years to come -- and there were some unexpected losers.

What follows is our Battle of Winterfell box score, a breakdown of TV and film's longest (and darkest) battle in history as if it was a major sporting event with a suite of analysts and data guys.

[Note: I am just one humble man slowly scrolling through 77 minutes of prestige television so there's bound to be some sort of error here. Please correct me!]

First, some rules and a big ol' warning.

Rules of engagement

  • No dragons.
  • Indirect kills don't count.

The hardest, fastest rule we stuck to when putting this together was the idea the dragons would be excluded. Drogon and Rhaegal were, undoubtedly, the MVPs when they battled outside Winterfell's gates, mowing down wights (and wight giants) with ease. We did not attribute any of their kills to Dany or Jon, their riders, because the dragons are the equivalent of a video game hack. It's cheating.

That also means there are no indirect kills taken into consideration. If they were, that would put slow-walker Melisandre right up there with the best warriors on the battlefield because her fire trench move was a game-changer, preventing the castle from being overrun even sooner. Then on the other side of the moral fence is the Night King and his indirect kills via sending wights to the slaughter or Vicerion blue-flaming things to smithereens. A no-go zone.

We were pretty liberal with a confirmed wight kill. As long as someone stabbed a wight on screen, we chalked it up as a zombie death. There were limited times when you could see a wight recoil and seemingly hold its ground, but we like to think of the wounded as the damned and so a kill was awarded anyway.

We also aren't going to come at this from the bad guy's side, except for looking at two major villains: the Night King and the giant wight that broke into Winterfell.

Finally, we counted how many seconds each character was involved in battle -- but only while they were on-screen. On top of this, characters like Theon and Bran, in the Godswood of Winterfell, were not engaged in battle the entire time. Their inclusion in the battle was only once the Godswood was invaded. That allowed us to pull out how efficient each warrior was by looking at their kills per minute (KPM) based on how involved they were in the conflict.

When deciding who we wanted to take into the big game, the kills were the most important deciding factor. Our major inspiration here is the NBA , so we broke it down into the starting five, our bench players, who we'd trade out and awarded one brave soul the Battle of Winterfell MVP.

The starting lineup

Picking your starting five for the Battle of Winterfell is a difficult task, if only because there are so many warriors who have proved themselves in battle before. You have warrior badasses like Lyanna Mormont up against Samwell Tarly, a man who is probably a better reader than fighter. You have the recently knighted Ser Brienne against a man who can light his sword on fire by whispering to it, Beric Dondarrion.

And you have Jaime Lannister, a man who's seen a lot of time on the battlefield, up against someone like Arya Stark who, though a trained assassin, has zero minutes in big games.

There's no bigger game than the one where you fight death itself. How would that lack of experience show?

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Total amount of kills (on-screen) at the Battle of Winterfell.  

Jackson Ryan/CNET

Having tallied the stats, Arya is a clear winner of the battle and possibly the most brutal warrior in all the realm. She leads the pack with 22 kills, the majority of those coming in a scene atop the battlements, where she uses the dual-blades that Gendry forged to dispatch wight after wight. Of course, Arya's size and speed are an advantage here, but she's also trained with some of the realm's best fighters: the Faceless Men, the Waif, Brienne and the Hound.

Arya lands the equivalent of an NBA Finals game seven buzzer beater from half court when she dispatches the Night King while being choked to death. This is a round five, championship-belt-on-the-line KO. She comes through in the biggest moment of all -- and with the most kills in the episode -- so she's an absolute lock in the starting five.

Joining Arya is Theon frickin' Greyjoy, a man who practically single-handedly kept the wights from picking Bran up from his wheelchair and carrying him out to the Big Blue Bad. At a crucial juncture in the battle, when almost everything was lost, Theon showed he had real balls, taking out 20 wights in the Godswood. He also, stupidly, charged at the Night King with his pike and missed embarrassingly but for his courage, he lands in the starters.

Rounding out our five are Jorah (19 kills), Tormund (17) and Ser Brienne of Tarth (16). Worth mentioning here that all three of these characters were on screen for a much shorter amount of time in battle than both Theon and Arya. All three had a far better kills per minute (KPM), with Tormund leading the way. The man who suckled at the teat of a giant was in battle, on screen, for less than 60 seconds, but he managed 17 kills in that time.

On the bench

When you look for someone to come off the bench you want a spark -- someone who'll inspire the team to push forward while the major stars give it a rest. You're also looking for someone who isn't too "me, me, me" and wants to take all the glory for themselves. A team player, if you will.

No one provided more spark than Lyanna Mormont, slayer of giants.

Although the little Bear Queen's entire body crumpled in the wight giant's palm like Anderson Silva's leg at UFC 168, she was able to get away a valiant knife to the eye and disintegrate the mammoth walker as her final act of defiance. Only truly in battle for 58 seconds, her one kill is worth 20 kills -- can you imagine the damage that giant wight would have done just roaming through the inner keep? She was bravery personified from the moment we met her until her brutal, hobbling end, and that makes her first off the bench.

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The total time each character in Game of Thrones was on-screen during the Battle of Winterfell from the moment the Dothraki horde enter the dark to the final blade in the Night King's belly.

Jackson Ryan/CNET

Two of the more inexperienced fighters (and lovers!), Podrick (9 kills, KPM 12) and Gendry (9 kills, KPM 13.8) didn't get a lot of screen time, but every time the battle came to them, they delivered with great efficiency. You can really see the duo teaming up to exchange stories about the war, their ladies and the fact that it's really easy to confuse the two of them in the darkest TV battle ever filmed.

You've got to hand it to Jaime Lannister, defending Ser Brienne with a late-game assist, a great KPM of 7.02 and 11 kills. Fighting side-by-side with the love of his life, Jaime powered through the Battle of Winterfell, kept Brienne from a widely suspected death and, when the wights really pushed deep into Winterfell, proved he's still got it -- all with one hand. A lock for our fourth bench spot.

The last bench spot is a tough one, but we're going with the Hound. Though his aversion to fire and his hatred of practically everything that exists can really swing the tide of a battle, his respect for Arya means he's coming off the bench with some real heat. Helping him along is his 12 kills, but the Hound was one of our least efficient fighters (KPM 2.2), spending a good chunk of the battle skulking through the castle or fighting a different war altogether -- the one against his own demons.

Trade 'em

Some warriors just don't fit into a championship-winning team and, for them, it's worth investigating some trades -- who would have helped that wasn't there at the Battle of Winterfell?

Fire sword or no, Beric's output is limited. Is he playing scared because there's no Thoros of Myr to revive him? Probably not. Beric gets a lot of time to shine on screen (3 minutes, 40 seconds) but much of that is spent in the bowels of the Castle, trying to defend and protect Arya. His KPM is low as a result (1.17), and look, this might be harsh on our guy Beric, but we'd love to have seen what Yohn Royce could've done in battle.

Kills per minute for characters during the Battle of Winterfell
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Kills per minute for characters during the Battle of Winterfell

Dividing the kills/time on screen, we get kills per minute (KPM). How efficiently was each character's time used? Tormund was the clear victor, practically only appearing when he was slaying wights.  

Jackson Ryan/CNET

Samwell Tarly, even with four valiant kills, would be the team water boy. Did you see him just sitting down to cry at the end? What are you doing, Sam?! There's still time left on the clock and you're cradling yourself. Get in the game. We'd rather see Hot Pie throw pastries than this.

Ghost, we're not sure where you went or what you achieved on the frontlines, but we would trade you for Nymeria and her pack in a heartbeat.

Bran just spent the whole game on his galaxy-brain-iPhone watching reruns of Lost's disappointing finale, so the sooner we trade him out, the better. There's another war yet to come, and now that Bran is practically the most powerful magician in the world, what is he good for? Absolutely nothing. Trade him for a single chicken and feed it to the Hound.

A short note on wight numbers


These are the types of frames we were working with here.


The wights do a lot of damage in this episode. There's a handful of instances where they score direct kills on the living (but no major characters) and their numbers are truly baffling. During the first encounter when they charge the Unsullied in a tidal wave, there appear to be around 12 wights across four Unsullied. Extrapolating, let's just say there are three wights for each Unsullied, which seems like a pretty conservative estimate. 

From several early scenes, we can see the entire Unsullied squadron. There are 10-by-10 squadrons and two squadrons behind each trebuchet, so 200 men per trebuchet. There are 11 trebuchets across the front line, which can be seen when Dany and Jon overlook the battle, so 2,200 men at the battle's edge. We also see that the Unsullied squadrons are four deep. So 2,200 × 5 = 11,000. 

A conservative estimate of wights invading would then put the total (on the front lines and not including those that attack the flanks) at 11,000 × 3 = 33,000, provided the wight density remains the same as far back as the Unsullied. Seeing as they get overrun, we're OK making that assumption, and are willing to commit to the idea that at least a hundred thousand wights invaded Winterfell on the Long Night.

Good odds of victory, then.

Mother of Defeat

We need to talk about Daenerys Targaryen. The Mother of Dragons put in an all-time worst performance at the Battle of Winterfell and almost got herself killed in the process. If not for the valiant efforts of Jorah Mormont, Dany would be gone and Cersei would be knocking back another wine with a Cheshire Cat smile.

Dany's reeling in this episode because she's only just found out that Jon is actually her nephew. Sad trombone. She's playing distracted. She's got other things to deal with, like the accidental incest. Unlike Michael Jordan's infamous "flu game," Dany can't kick what's eating her up inside. She's the Anti-Michael.


Grim times abound for Dany.

Helen Sloan/HBO

First, she screws up lighting the trench because she gets blinded by an ice cloud and doesn't think to… just descend a little? Her next error is letting Drogon sunbathe on the battlefield so long the wights can crawl all over him like he's a pie at a picnic, taking nasty bites out of his dragon skin. Dany almost kills Drogon because she's staring at Jon running off into the castle? Dany. Lift.

And her most idiotic move, akin to J.R. Smith in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals, is trying to burn the Night King alive. Anyone think to tell her that, hey, he doesn't burn? If it was that easy, Dany, we would've flown North and had a crack without risking the entire population of Winterfell.

Her dual assist as Jorah was getting overwhelmed doesn't do anything to sway our opinion, though it is valiant. She makes a single kill in melee combat but spends a lot of time on Drogon, putting her personal KPM at 0.15, the lowest of all. She wanted to fight, she just made a lot of bad decisions.

She's a huge asset to the team, but this was her worst on-ground performance in the most important battle in the history of man.

The Battle of Winterfell MVP


Arya Stark: One-time MVP.

Helen Sloan/HBO

Look, there's an obvious case to be made for Arya Stark who, despite having the fourth worst efficiency of the long night, was still the most effective killer and one of the key keys to victory.

So we are going to make it.

Arya Stark's lunge at the Night King is a poster-dunk for the high fantasy crowd.

It's a fifth round KO by Showtime Kick.

It's a triple-overtime heave from half court in the championship game.

Everything that Game of Thrones had been building toward, everything the Battle of Winterfell had been building toward, was made possible by this one moment. Who else but Arya could be the MVP?

There, perhaps, is also a case to be made for Melisandre -- who showed up at the last possible moment to provide some form of hope, courtesy of the mysterious Lord of Light. Recalling her prophecy to Arya sparks the lady of Winterfell into action when all seems lost. That was Melisandre's doing, but the nous, the smarts, the cleverness, the foresight to use the sneaky dropped-dagger trick puts Arya on top.

Tormund, you say? Look, we can't argue with that logic. The man with the best KPM and the giant's milk forever in his belly is also a worthy MVP candidate and arguably contender for MVP of the season.

He'll have to settle for Most Improved. Melisandre can have our Coach of the Year award.

After the war

A few postwar liner notes:

  • The dragons killed thousands of wights -- including a giant wight that got torched by Drogon about halfway through the battle. At several points, we went frame-by-frame counting the wights that were in direct line of fire. It was a task for someone with more mental fortitude (or maybe machine learning skills) than us. Let's just say: It was a bad day for the undead.
  • The wights claimed Edd, Beric, Jorah and 99 percent of the Dothraki horde. Four main character kills is pretty good.
  • Edd was in the episode for 16 seconds before being struck down by a wight. Gendry lasted longer, we hope.
  • The Dothraki horde had a better showing, and were present for almost two minutes. They have zero confirmed kills, but surely they had some small victories outside Winterfell?
  • Alys Karstark was in the meeting in the last episode and seen early in this one next to Theon. She wasn't seen again. Is she dead?
  • Can we confirm if Shireen 2.0 died? We think we can, but we've been cautious here. The crypts weren't safe, sure, but our heroes had strong plot armor, didn't they?
  • The crypts were not safe as many predicted but I feel short-changed. I wanted to see Headless Eddard.
  • Davos did an incredible job of avoiding any type of conflict whatsoever but also giving wonderful, stern looks to many people. If looks could kill, he'd have been MVP.
  • We did not see Yohn Royce anywhere. Where was he supposed to be?
  • I have been informed Grey Worm is two words. I was wrong.

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Originally posted April 30.
Updated May 1, 10:50 p.m. PT