Friday, August 2, 2013

Collusion, Underperforming, and Pot-splitting

I think I've written on this subject before, but it helps to rethink viewpoints every so often to see if anything has changed in my head.  So I'm just going to describe the situation and see where that leads me.

Recent events in the FGC have led to this proclamation that there's going to be zero tolerance for people colluding or underperforming.

Two basic arguments come into this.

First is the camp that believes splitting the money, sandbagging, playing alternate characters or trying strange strategies is entirely the player's prerogative.  They enter for themselves and reach the finals under their own ability and power.  Who is supposed to tell you what to do with your money, or whether you need to put all your effort in?  What if it's you and your twin brother in the grand finals?  What if you have a goofy counterpick that could work, but doesn't?  Why bother policing this stuff if you really can't?

The second camp believes (you guessed it) that if you want to sandbag, save it for your locals.  At large tournaments it kills hype, demonstrates a lack of integrity, and is a disservice to sponsors and spectators that make the event possible.

Here are the problems as I see them.


First off, it can be tough to decide whether or not a player is intentionally underperforming, or just choking under pressure.  You can tell if the player is a poor actor, but all that means (from a logical standpoint) is that it encourages better actors rather than less underperformance.

On the other hand, being accused of rigging matches, sandbagging, or intentionally playing badly when you actually try your hardest to win would be quite unfortunate.  And to flip it again, if you're renowned for having trouble dealing with pressure, you would have free passes to cheat, because you'd have a clear scapegoat.  Plausible deniability is everything.

Players may use the excuse "I wasn't trying" when they play poorly and lose; it would be interesting to see people say "no, actually, I'm just garbage" if they get accused of colluding and want to hide it.

How do you police it?  At Evo2013, Justin Wong's matches in MVC3 were unbelievably close and hype, and involved different players dropping important combos and conversions.  It was so intense and so back-and-forth that I would have thought they were doing it on purpose, if I didn't think it'd be impossible to orchestrate.

Sometimes it's easy to spot underperformance, however.  The reason for this post is because of a recent occurrence with two Marvel players using random teams in the grand finals of a major event.  All the players who gather to watch high-level players duke it out were denied, and the sponsors that want to be represented well by their players were not.  Spectators tuning into the stream did not get to see high level play.  A lot of people ended up disappointed.  And if we want to see e-sports take off in all arenas, this is clearly not acceptable.


This isn't actually the problem.  People don't really care where the money goes.  It's impossible to police this aspect anyhow, because one player can just Paypal the money to the other later.  You can't police it, and it does not, strictly speaking, affect the thing that everybody cares about, which is how the game looks.  Not immediately.

Here is the real issue behind splitting.  The primary motivation for most players is the desire to be the best.  If you know where you stand, and you compete in tourney after tourney with the same results, it's easy to stop caring as much.  You'd be more inclined to sandbag and screw around.  Once your primary motivator disappears, the actions that result from it disappear as well.

So what happens if you play for a career, where the primary motivator is money?  Splitting the prize money destroys your motivator to play well, because the cash is guaranteed.  So without your motivator, all you have left is pride, but again, it can be hard to maintain that pride and drive if you're accustomed to sitting in the finals to begin with.  What do you care?  You've proven yourself already, otherwise you wouldn't have sponsors.  You wouldn't constantly be in the finals where splitting and rigging tends to be the issue.

The thing is, nobody really cares about how much the players are making.  They want to see amazing matches.  Splitting is only an issue when it actually affects the player's motivations; I've offered splits to friends, then played my heart out because I wanted first place.  So splitting shouldn't be an issue, right up until money becomes the primary factor for competition.  Because then if you play it safe and split, your main reason to try has vanished.

Forfeits / Collusion

Then there's the issue of throwing and forfeiting matches so somebody else can go on.  I'm not sure how many people care about this.  I don't know how much I care about it.

You may have cases where two buddies, sponsored by the same company, are up against each other in semi-finals.  We'll call them Dude and Fella.  Fella tends to beat Dude, but the matches waiting for Fella in the next few matches are horrible for him, and he's extremely likely to lose.  Because Fella and Dude are friends, Fella thinks Dude should just go on because he's got better odds.  Fella forfeits.

Both of these guys are sponsored players.  Both of them are--ordinarily--highly competitive.  But they're friends, practice partners, they have group camaraderie, and it's a victory for both if either does well.  Should they play it out?  Is there an issue if they forfeit?  Many people would say, "you know what?  Whatever.  They're practically teammates, they have the same sponsor, if one wants the other to progress, that's their choice."  And that's kind of fine, really.

Let's say that happens during a round-robin though.  Where Dude is easily first, and Fella's on the cusp.  Dude forfeits to his buddy so that Fella can have a better record and make it out.  That's clearly not okay.  That's gaming of the results outside of... well, the game.  But if they make the matches look good, then how do you police it?

Let's say it happens in Winner's Finals, because Fella knows he will probably beat the guy coming into Loser's Finals, and Dude won't.  So Fella forfeits (or very carefully lets Dude win) and leaves Dude in Grand Finals, so that he can beat the other guy in Loser's Finals, and they can split first and second together.

So now they're possibly screwing over the guy coming into Loser's Finals, as well as depriving spectators and attendees of a good show.  Or maybe not; they might just make the matches look good, so nobody can legitimately accuse them.  As the player motivations get complicated, so do the scenarios.  And again, when it comes to being judged by your motivations, plausible deniability is everything.

Sometimes better players play poorly, and the underdog plays amazing and there is an upset.  And sometimes they collude and happen to make it look good.


The thing is, most of this wouldn't be much of an issue if there weren't money involved.  It is similar to the issue that artists face when their art turns into work; they become beholden to external factors which compete with and replace the old ones.

But we want games to be big.  People love the olympics because we get to see the pinnacle of achievement in various areas; the same is true of video games.  If you love a game, it becomes a joy just to watch it played well.  If you want to see people reach those peaks, they will need to spend a lot of time training; that training may have to become their job.  They must be supported by governments, patrons, sponsors, or extremely patient parents.  And those people are willing to invest because of the spectators.  They are the ones targeted by advertising, merchandise, tickets, passes.

Normally we want to say, particularly in solo games, that it's all about the player.  But when their living is provided by other people so they can play the game they--presumably--love, that ceases to be the case.  You would fully expect to fire a chef that comes in and burns all the food because he doesn't feel like cooking well that day.  Or if he only felt like cooking steak that night, so he didn't particularly care whether you ordered chicken or salad, because you were getting steak.  So if a player does the same thing, where they show up and don't deliver the goods, then don't we do the same thing?

We've listed some of the difficulties and issues above.  The problem isn't the fact that players are splitting money, because it's their money and they can do whatever they want with it.  We really can't stop them, if they're determined to do it.  The real issue is that, as games get bigger, the players owe their opportunity to play on these stages to the spectators, viewers, and sponsors.  When those people are cheated out of legitimately exciting matches, then that is quite clearly a disservice.  In short, in an environment where the players are being compensated for providing a service, depriving people of that service is clearly grounds for punishment.

There's one primary gripe I can see with this verdict, which is this: what happens when a player (or team) has a style that the viewers hate?  And they happen to be a dominant player?  If we can justify monitoring behavior on the ground of entertainment, why not punish (or actively discourage) players that use campy, keep-away styles?  Those aren't attractive or hype-worthy for many people.  Even though, many times, good keep-away and turtling tends to take a lot of skill (depending on the game), people don't appreciate that as much.  Faster paced games tend to be the bigger draw.  So why not police playstyles to make them fast and entertaining?

I'm kind of playing devil's advocate with that one, and already have a counter-argument to that.  First off, if the game constantly lends itself to turtle-play and it's not interesting, then it's probably better to just switch to a different game.  If you have to actively police and discourage players from playing your game optimally, then you might just want to switch.

Second is that those lamer playstyles, in a counterintuitive way, actually increase hype.  Sad as it is to say, they create villains and stories and camps and factions within communities.  People become genuinely excited to see champions dethroned, and also derive a (sometimes perverse) pleasure from watching the more boring play-style be contested.  Though I fundamentally disagree with villainizing a player for the style they use--and I may be biased on that score--the fact is people want, more than anything, to see variety.

They want uncertainty and development.  They want the stories to change constantly.  They want close matches and they want clutch plays.  They don't want a single player to win every time, they don't want things to be stale.  It's the genuine edge-of-the-seat moments that spectators crave, especially when it's the titans clashing.  Which is funny, because I feel like that's what competitors enjoy the most too.


Starting with the ban on collusion and underperformance is alright.  I feel like it doesn't quite hit all the right notes, but it's where we have to start.

One of its downsides is that, like an antibiotic creating stronger bacteria, it will cure the problem sometimes, but then just make the cheaters better.  For what it's worth, if the spectators can't tell the difference, then nobody really loses.  But that's a depressing direction to take.  You should know my attitude on that, considering this entire blog is about the joys of genuine competition.  I don't think external factors like money need to diminish one's competitive drive, but they have a tendency to do so.

One of the ways we can help eliminate this problem is by offering things you can't split as rewards for winning.  Championship items and titles can't be shared except by actual teammates in a team game.  You will never truly be able to police people's intentions, but if the system offers things they can only earn through hard competition, they'll be more incentivized in that direction.  And, ideally, everybody gets to enjoy the product.


  1. Love it as always. I just always laugh a bit thinking that any mention of twins (cough first full paragraph cough) may be a hidden shoutout to me and Kyle... but I may just be self centered hahaha.


  2. Very good points.
    And I like your 'solution' at the end.