Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Author note: You might have noticed I'm late again.  This is largely thanks to a combination of power shortages and a faulty router that hasn't been letting me have consistent access to the net.  We're going to be getting a replacement soon though!

On to today's post.


People love tournaments.  They generate a lot of excitement, they bring us together for big events, and they (hopefully) showcase high level play for everyone to enjoy watching.  But what are they for?

Well, it honestly sounds like I just answered my own question.  Tournaments can also push people to learn and improve and then improve the community's overall skill by developing the way the game is played.  The tournament is also designed, somewhat, to figure out who the best players are.

But there are many factors involved in that.  You can have an amazingly deep understanding of your game, creative strategies, a phenomenally high skill ceiling, and be absolutely garbage at performing under pressure.  You may arguably be the best at the game, but you aren't the best at tournaments, which is a whole different kettle of fish.  So even if you can absolutely demolish competition when nothing is on the line, you can't do it when the pressure is on.  Likewise, you may be just slightly above average, but not even have a concept of choking.  You get extremely far on your not-so-bad basics while other people give away things for free in the tournament environment, and you place well beyond what your game-sense might merit.

Some people, however, equate tournament ability with game ability.  I do not.  What you know about a game, what your body is capable of performing at its peak, these things aren't strictly related to performing under pressure.  If we want to use a game-purity argument, tournaments aren't an inherent part of the game.  They're externally imposed by us.  Including them as a measure of your skill at the game is silly.

But, and this is its own extremely important point:  Performing well in high-pressure situations is an unbelievably important life skill that translates to everything you do.  Measuring and improving it is arguably more useful to everybody involved than figuring out who the best player is.  So even if it's not tantamount to describing your skill as a player, it's so useful--and impressive to spectators--that dismissing it would be pretty ridiculous too.

So really, the purpose of a tournament is nothing more and nothing less than figuring out who the best *tournament* player is.  And there are still issues with that.

1) Performance varies from game to game.  Depending on how demanding the game is, and how much individual mistakes can cost you, this might make reaching the number one spot as much a matter of luck as anything else.  Obviously you need to be skilled.  This is why games tend to be played in sets, or only end after a pretty large number of points has been accumulated; having singular mistakes decide entire games and tournament outcomes isn't attractive for purposes of hype.

Sometimes a game does come down to a wire, and one mistake or brilliant play decides it all.  But those situations don't exist without the mistakes and brilliant plays that happened before them.  They're also often very entertaining (or heart-breaking, depending on who you cheer for).

2) Some games have very heavy systems of counters involved.  There are, for instance, fighting games with extremely difficult--if not impossible--matchups for certain characters, so you might only have a shot at winning if you don't play against your counter.  Magic: The Gathering is pretty susceptible to using decks where you completely shut down or avoid the point of the other person's whole strategy.  Barring a tragically awful draw, you are basically guaranteed to win in some deck matchups.  So after a certain point, it's possible your entire bracket success will depend on luck.

3) Even if the counters aren't built into the game itself, sometimes players counter each other.  Certain styles and skills will get you more mileage against one player than another.  Somebody may have deeply-rooted traumas because you schooled them at the first event they showed up to, so they've got a mental roadblock when it comes to playing you.  So again, bracketing can come down to luck, and that can (and often does) determine who makes it to the finals.

4) Upsets happen.  See #1.  No matter how carefully you seed your bracket, there are just times when a player decides he's going to be the best in the world for a few hours and goes on an absolute rampage.  And sometimes amazing players decide that brains are overrated, leaving theirs at the door for awhile so they can go zero and two, taking last and propelling lower level players ahead for free.

But you know what?  That stuff is mostly fine.  If we knew who was going to win every match of the event beforehand, we wouldn't bother holding events.  Apart from eliminating games with extreme systems of counters, and trying to play games where you have some margin for error and comeback potential, the above stuff is just part of reality.

The thing is, tournaments don't really settle anything.  There could always be more matches, more extensions, more chances for one guy to prove himself.  One person getting food poisoning the day before his event could give him an early trip out, and a rerun of the whole thing might lead to drastically different results.  It's pointless to speculate, and it's pointless to take any given event too seriously.  What matters more are trends across numerous events that tell you how people are progressing, who they are weak against, and use that information to understand the game and its community better.

Thanks for reading.


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  3. This article talks about tournaments as a sort of cultural phenomenon. But really tournaments are an extension of many other types of competitive interactions. Sure they may be the biggest version, but I don't think that makes them different in kind to the type of interactions you see on a much smaller scale. You right though. Tournament are their own complex beast to understand. It's not so straightforward as a measure of skill vs no skill.

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