At Evolution 2017, I got 513th place out of 2622 players in Street Fighter, and 641st place out of 1278 players in Tekken. But these placings don’t really mean much because I shared 513th place with 256 other people, and 641st place with 320 people. I technically did as well as 2D fighting game god Mago and pro gamer Tanukana, but for them these were huge upsets. But obviously these results don’t mean that I’m as good as they are, or that they’re as bad as I am.
Not even close. But this begs the question: Why do these results not distinguish a scrub like me from pros like them? One reason is that Mago’s ability and mine were evaluated in four matches that weekend in quick best of three sets.
We’ll never know how well Mago would have done against the other 2618 players, and to find out we’d have to do a round-robin tournament, meaning everyone plays everyone, something no sane person would ever organize. But maybe you’re not sane, in which case you would take the number of entrants divided by two, and multiply that by the number of entrants minus one. This is how many matches there would be. To maximize the number of concurrent matches to speed up the tournament, you would need 1311 gaming setups, and even then, assuming a match takes an average of ten minutes, it would still take up to 437 hours to declare the winners. Now with this method, we would certainly have rankings that would more accurately reflect the skill level of all the players, but not without pissing a lot of people off. The spectators will be bored because each match would be low stakes, the players will be exhausted from playing thousands of games, and the tournament organisers would probably all go broke from booking a giant convention hall for over a month.
This is why open tournaments prefer a knockout system, also known as an elimination tournament. – “It’s a game between life and death.” The basic concept of elimination is simple: Players are put into brackets where they play a match, and the loser gets eliminated while the winners advance, until one person is left standing. But it gets complicated. To illustrate, let’s imagine there was a Street Fighter tournament with two pro players: NuckleDu and Tokido, and two amateurs: Guy and my cat Pablo.
The brackets are as follows, and the tournament finishes with no upsets. This match with the pros could have gone either way, but the rest was guaranteed. Tokido getting first place seems accurate, but Guy placing higher than NuckleDu seems really wrong. And to add insult to injury, NuckleDu tied for third place with Pablo. Of course, there are a few problems with this tournament, other than the fact that there was a cat in it. One problem was that it was single elimination, meaning you’re eliminated from the tournament after only one loss.
It doesn’t matter that you flew all the way from St. Louis to Japan, or that your first opponent just so happened to be that one guy you can never beat. You lose once and you’re out. This is really unforgiving for the players, but, like in the Coliseum, having a win-or-die format is pretty exciting for the spectators.
– “…SBO Super Battle Opera.” – “That’s one game, right?” – “One game, single elim, that’s their Evo.” – “Real talk, I have never been more entertained in my life.” Single elimination is also nice for tournament organizers because half the players are eliminated after each round, saving a lot of time.
But since this isn’t ancient Rome and we actually care about the sanity of the players, most tournaments use the double elimination format. In double elimination all the players get a second chance, and there are now two brackets, one called the winner’s bracket where everyone who has not lost a match stays in, and a loser’s bracket, which is where you go after you lose a match in the winner’s bracket. The sole survivor of each bracket meets in the grand finals for a final showdown to determine who the champion is. But while you get a second chance in the loser’s bracket, it’s a terrible place to be for three reasons. One is that you will always be one match away from complete elimination, which can be really stressful. Two, you have to win more matches than people still in the winner’s bracket to become champion.
For example, if you lost your first match in Tekken 7 at Evo this year, you would have had to win 21 matches in a row to become champion. In contrast, if you never lost, you would have only had to play 12 matches to win. This means if you’re going to lose a match, you want it to happen later in the tournament so you don’t spend as much time in the loser’s bracket. The third reason it sucks to be in the loser’s bracket is if you manage to make it to the grand finals, you have to face the winner of the winner’s bracket. This is bad for you because the winner of the winner’s bracket only needs to win one set against you to become champion, while you must win twice.
– “Tokido with that loser’s bracket, he’s gotta claw his way through this set.” – “If he wins three games, Punk will be dropped into loser’s bracket and we have a fresh start, another race of three.” – “So he’s got a very, very, very long way to go.”
This is why the grand finals usually indicate who’s in winner’s and who’s in loser’s with the W or L next to the names. With double elimination, you have a much better representation of skill in the rankings, and you’ll also have definitive third and fourth places without fighting a consolation match like they do in single elimination tournaments, such as in the final stage of the World Cup. However, after fourth place you have two people tied for fifth place, two tied for seventh, four tied for ninth and so on.
The worse you do, the less meaningful your rank becomes, as I mentioned earlier. This is why you don’t want to have two top-level players like NuckleDu and Tokido play each other for their first match. Having top players knock each other out early on in the tournament makes their placings meaningless, and this is why we need good seeding. – “Oh, this could be it!”
– “Beat the leg, plant the seed!” Seeding is the art of deciding who plays who for their first match, which also determines who they’ll play later. This cannot be done randomly, because the same situation with NuckleDu and Tokido facing each other for their first match could happen, so a living, breathing human person has to do it. So who the hell is responsible for the terrible seeding in these brackets? It was none other than the tournament organizer, Evil Bill. Guy knew that he couldn’t get famous in eSports with this terrible execution and hammy acting, so he bribed Evil Bill to give him an easy bracket, and was able to get second place.
Not only does Evil Bill take bribes from scrubs, he also gives way easier brackets to his friends, or players he thinks could maximize viewership. Having this much control over the tournament’s outcome is why it’s important to have trustworthy organizers with a commitment to upholding the integrity of the competition. So assuming that we have a legit TO, how does one fairly seed the brackets? Well, unlike in fighting sports you can’t make classes based on body weight, so the TO has to assign a theoretical weight to each player based on their skill level. This is really hard because there’s very little information about most of the entrants.
Open tournaments allow anyone with a wad of cash to enter, so you get a lot of obscure players. The best thing you can do to assess their skill is to ask the people who’d have the best chance of knowing, which is simply the trusted members of that game’s community. After the TO does their best to establish the skill level of the players, they then have to create pools, which are kind of like a bunch of mini tournaments to filter out the weaker players. The goal is to evenly distribute the best players because usually only two players will make it out, one in winner’s bracket and one in loser’s.
Having too many all-stars in one pool is a way to guarantee that many of them will be eliminated early on. Some tournaments have been allowing three or even four players to make it out of pools to provide more encouragement and lower the chances of double jeopardy, which is when you lose to the same player twice. Also on seeding, it’s courteous to make sure no two people from the same region get matched up because it would suck to travel halfway around the world just to lose to your local training partner in your first game.
But sometimes your carefully crafted seeding can be ruined if people register late, meaning you have to redo the brackets all over again. At NorCal Regionals 2016 they didn’t feel like doing this, so last-minute registrants were all just placed in one giant pool regardless of their skill level, forming what was known as the death pool. While every other pool only had 23 or 24 players, the death pool had 52 players. Only Marn and Mago survived.
On the flipside, some people can get lucky in their pools. – “Luckyyyyy… Chloe dai yo!” When top seed and Melee god Armada dropped out of Dreamhack Austin in 2017 due to controller issues, the TO didn’t reseed the brackets because the tournament had already begun when they found out. As a result, the players in that pool had a much easier bracket. Many of these issues are a result of having to deal with hundreds of players. So why not just do invitationals like ELEAGUE?
with only 32 select players playing, they’re able to use the round-robin format in groups, while only the top eight play in a double elimination bracket. For the top 24 players, all the matches are best of five games instead of best of three. Each player is evaluated more thoroughly, and seeding becomes much simpler. The players don’t need to worry about losing to randoms, the spectators always get to watch all-star players all the time, and tournament organisers only have to deal with 32 players. So then, why go through the headache of dealing with hundreds if not thousands of players at an open tournament?
Because open tournaments are awesome. This is how you can realize the romantic notion of an unknown player from Compton entering a stacked competition one weekend and becoming champion. There’s also a certain prestige associated with being the best of a thousand players that can’t be replicated by simply offering large amounts of prize money.
– “No, the money is a lot, more than Evo, but the prestige of winning Evo is so much bigger than this.” This isn’t to say there is no role for more eSports-oriented leagues, just that much of the culture surrounding competitive fighting gaming relies on an open format. By allowing anyone to enter, it necessarily becomes an inclusive activity, which aligns with its arcade routes that ignored socio-economic differences by allowing anyone with a quarter to participate. This is how an American pro wrestler can get matched up with the Korean Tekken grandmaster in a high-stakes tournament.
– “This is my first time in the tournament.” – “Uh, yeah…” – “Yeah, so I-” – “So go, go easy on me.” While getting 641st place isn’t very meaningful, the experience definitely is. – “Thank you, thank you.” – “That’s all I needed, that’s all I wanted! We’re out!”
Let me know in the comments if you prefer invitationals or open tournaments. This was Gerald from Core-A gaming. Thanks for watching!