On Pokémon and eSports: Resisting Resistance

Introduction

Hi, VGC scene! My name is Kevin “monk” Dong and I’ve been a member of the general eSports community for about 3-4 years, working in multiple capacities throughout this time including Writer, Editor, Player, Coach, Commentator, Translator, Website Admin, Player Manager, and Tournament Organizer. It’s a lot of hats, but I would say it’s fairly typical of an eSports career for someone who started when I did, back when “first generation eSports” were in their infancy. As of now, my role can best be summed up as a Project Manager for Team Liquid, meaning I mostly manage accounts for the prominent eSports team, with a focus on running tournaments and leagues, especially for StarCraft and Hearthstone.

Over the past year or so, I’ve become more and more interested in VGC and I feel I’m in a position to add something of value to the scene. Some of you may know me from my previous blog entry on NB before its unfortunate demise last month titled “On Entry Fees and eSports” in which I talked about how entry fees work in the general eSports scene. Since then, I’ve been searching for a place to air my thoughts and take on hot topics in VGC and I’m glad I’ve finally found a sounding board. Though I will insert my own opinion in this and future articles, I will also do my best to always express the general consensus of the eSports community at large.

The Swiss Format & Tiebreaker Scores

For my first piece, I want to talk about one of the hottest topics I see getting traction on Twitter within the VGC community; the Swiss format. From my understanding, the two main complaints about the Swiss system include:

  • “Resistance” or tiebreaker score is not an accurate representation of how well players did at the event.
  • All players who finish X-2 or X-3 should advance, not just the top 8, 16, or 32.

StarCraft

Before I dissect these issues, let’s talk about the presence of Swiss in eSports, at least the eSports that I’m most familiar with. In StarCraft, Swiss has never been used in a major event. The standard tournament format for StarCraft has always been either group stages into a bracket stage or a double elimination bracket stage. Swiss has, however, been recently adopted by all grassroots events in NA in the past year with top cut being determined by resistance or tiebreaker score. Since the inception of this format, the feedback has been mostly positive by all tournament attendees. When I asked Joe “NSGJoe” LoGuidice, the TO of Cheesedelphia, the most prominent tournament that uses this system, whether anyone has ever complained about tiebreaker scores, his reply was “literally no one did”. I also asked Nick “Pokebunny” Taber, a prominent NA player and attendee of the tournament, about his experience with the format and he resonated Joe’s response:

“The two biggest problems:

  • The logistical annoyance of having to wait for every match to complete before starting the next round so a single long match holds things up a lot. Also, it’s not good for a broadcast, because everyone is playing at once.
  • Tiebreakers are pretty much an inevitability and I think it does tend to be very fair. In my experience, the tiebreakers have always made sense, but it often doesn’t feel fair to see someone go through with the same record. In a big event, that might be more heavily scrutinised.”

Hearthstone

Moving on to Hearthstone, the game with the most similarities to VGC and also the game that employs Swiss the most. When I talk with anyone in the eSports community about VGC, there are always comparisons drawn to Hearthstone. Not only do both have large aspects of RNG involved, they are both relatively short games with low setup required: the perfect games for Swiss. The 2016 format for the official tournament circuit of Hearthstone (called the Hearthstone Championship Tour) was Double Elimination. This is mostly due to logistical reasons as the official circuit involves players playing concurrently each other at ~10 different venues across the continent. Players would often complain about this format, but for the most part, they would accept it as a necessary evil given the circumstances. (Can you imagine the outrage if VGC LAN events were hosted in a double elimination format?)

The most prominent Hearthstone tournaments that currently employ the Swiss format are those run by Dreamhack. Dreamhack currently uses tiebreaker scores that feed into a top 16 bracket. It was also recently announced that HCT circuit for 2017 will be run with a Swiss format using tiebreaker scores to feed into the top 8. I asked Keaton “Chakki” Gill; the winner of Dreamhack Austin 2016 on his thoughts on the manner:

“We talked about it a bit in a Skype chat. Most people don’t seem to really care, but people gonna be mad salty when they 5-2 and miss. For prelims, I think you basically go in thinking you need to 6-1 to make it. If you 5-2 and get in, you’re lucky. It’s still slightly better than it used to be. I think Blizzard could make a better number of rounds for a better cut though.”

I also talked to the lead Tournament Organizer of the Dreamhack Hearthstone tournaments that featured Swiss, Robert “SuedeDH” Suede. Robert will also be the head TO of the Pokémon VGC event at Dreamhack Leipzig.

What feedback (either positive or negative) do you get about the Swiss format that is used in Hearthstone tournaments hosted by Dreamhack?

Back in 2015, we hosted two Grand Prix swiss events at DreamHack Summer and Winter. Initially, we set out with having tiebreaker matches for any potential match score ties for advancement to the single elimination stage of the tournament (top 16). The process can be very simple or very complicated depending on how many players are involved in such a tiebreaker process and can easily add on a few extra hours to an already packed tournament schedule. When managing the project on-site, it became clear that a simpler cut with added tiebreakers was the better solution, both from an administrative and viewing standpoint.

Do you think the Hearthstone players playing in your tournaments would prefer having tiebreaker matches or tiebreaker scores determine top cut? Why do you think this is?

The Hearthstone scene as a whole is full of players with different backgrounds in other competitive CCG/TCGs where tiebreakers have been used for a long time, it makes sense for them to think of them as status quo. If the format is explained in a clear and simplified way, then most players will see that the advantages it brings to the table.

Have you ever had a player come up to you and complain about tiebreaker scores being unfair?

It’s only natural for a player who did not “make it” to be upset and they complain about not making the cut, but they rarely point the finger directly at tiebreakers. It’s not complaining about the tiebreakers being unfair, it’s about them being unlucky with the tiebreakers they ended up with. In a world where you have 11 tournaments in a dozen that run double elimination brackets, I think most players are just happy to play a format that does not auto-eliminate you after one or two unfortunate results. Swiss deals with that in an exceptional way. “

Though it’s only a few opinions, I believe these opinions are fairly representative of the Hearthstone community. The vast majority of the scene accepts Swiss with tiebreaker scores as a fair format. And there has never been anything close to outrage in the Hearthstone community regarding the Swiss format or tiebreaker scores.

The main takeaway from all of this is that Swiss with tiebreaker scores is widely accepted in the general eSports community as it is in more mainstream competitions such as Chess or Bridge. When I first heard about the outcry in the VGC community, I was immensely surprised that:

  1. This was even a debate.
  2. One side had seemingly universal support.
  3. That side goes against what the general eSports community would support.

The Differences Between Games

To try to reconcile the differences between the communities, I’ll try to look at the differences between these communities and their respective games.

Starting with StarCraft, I acknowledge that StarCraft is a much different game than Pokémon VGC, especially because StarCraft is an extremely skill-intensive game mostly without RNG aspects. The general thought process with StarCraft players is that if you have to rely on tiebreaker scores to make top cut, you probably had no chance to win the event anyway and relied on luck to get to the top cut. Because you finished a low seed, you’ll probably face a top seed player and get immediately eliminated. Though Swiss isn’t really used in most Esports due to time constraints, logistical constraints, and broadcast delays, I believe this to be the opinion that would be held in all other Esports if the topic were brought up.

Hearthstone is a bit trickier. It’s a much different beast than StarCraft, but at the same time, a much more similar beast to VGC. I personally believe Hearthstone has more RNG than VGC. As a general ballpark, the best-of-the-best pros typically have about a 60% win rate over the average pro. Since Hearthstone is typically played in a bo5 format, this translates to approximately a 70% win rate in tournament matches.  I can’t speak to the winrates of players in VGC, but I can imagine that the top players manage over 60% per game. So why is it that even though Hearthstone has similar RNG to VGC, players from the two communities have such differing opinions?

First, Hearthstone is a much more developed scene. There are more tournaments. Players are sponsored by teams with travel budgets. And the playerbase in general tends to be a bit older, with adults who can more easily afford to pay for their own way to events. Each event is not as meaningful for these players, because, in their minds, there will always be a next one. Thus, losing a top cut spot due to tiebreaker scores is not as big of a blow for them as it would be for VGC players.

Another aspect to look at in Hearthstone is that throughout the years, Hearthstone players have also developed a culture of embracing RNG and getting screwed over by it. Though Hearthstone isn’t necessary more RNG-based than other card games, because it is a digital card game, there are cards and effects that often make it seem so. (Look up “Yogg-Saron, Hope’s End”, or watch this for the best demonstration) Everyone has lost to dumb RNG in Hearthstone and after a certain point, you have to laugh in order not to cry. For this reason, I believe the general Hearthstone community sees tiebreaker scores as a bit random, but certainly more fair and structured than most truly random effects that exist in Hearthstone. They generally have the more optimistic view that “If you 5-2 and get in, you’re lucky.” as opposed to “If you finish 5-2, you deserve to be top cut”.

Finally, the Pokémon VGC scene is a lot smaller than the Hearthstone community. With a smaller group, it’s more likely that the group is swayed by a vocal few who have soapboxes to stand on (Twitter and YouTube followings). This leads to much more groupthink, especially when you’re not hearing opposing views from outside the group, the VGC community. The reason I bring this up is that as with the Entry Fee topic I wrote about last year, there doesn’t seem to be much of a healthy debate on the topic, with one side completely dominating the discussion and no one within the community even playing devil’s advocate. Unlike other eSports, there is no active Reddit for VGC nor are there any active sites that are hubs for VGC discussion. There is also very little cross-pollination between Pokémon VGC and other eSports so very rarely does the community hear feedback from outside the VGC biosphere.

Final Thoughts

Before I end off, I think it’s important for everyone in the community to truly understand Swiss and resistance. Many of the arguments I see on social media are quite shallow, though I’m completely willing to attribute that to factors such as character limits on Twitter. For those of you arguing to completely get rid of tiebreakers, here’s a simple thought experiment to try. What if instead of forcing tiebreaker matches between all X-2 or X-3 players, we add an additional round of Swiss, improving the accuracy of tiebreaker scores and reducing the number of players who are “bubbled out”? Is it possible to improve the system without scraping it all together? I’ll leave this one to you guys.

Hopefully, I’ve done a decent job of informing the VGC community about views regarding Swiss in the general eSports scene. As with my Entry Fee blog, I encourage this community to engage in more open discussion on this topic. What are some things I might have missed in my analysis? What makes the VGC community different from other eSports communities that accounts for this wide difference in opinion? I’m excited to hear your thoughts.

On a final note regarding this topic, you may have noticed that I tried to avoid using the term “resistance” whenever I could throughout the article, instead replacing it with “tiebreaker score”. This is because no one in Esports I talked to has ever heard of this term and a quick Google search leads me to almost exclusively Pokémon sites. So I ask the community: where on earth did the term “resistance” come from?

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16 comments

  1. The post has really usefull hindsight but there’s still this that bugs me.

    Why do people accept everything instead of fighting for their rights? On the other games players just accepting that cutting at x-2 is being lucky, why do people have to accept that? Like, if 2 people did exactly the same thing, why does X have to have benefits over Y? This only shows poor mindset to me on this kind of stuff. This is just basically adding more RNG factors to a RNG loaded game. This is not healthy, at all. I only play this game because it’s my favorite game, because with this structure I would NOT even touch it outside of casualities due to it being like this.

    I like equality in everything. If 2 players do the same they should have the same chance and that is not putting that shot in a russian roulette. And past tournaments with the x-2 cut show exactly that time constraints here are non-existent if things are well done. Like, in Liverpool regionals we had top32 (it would be top24 iirc and for some reason they couldn’t make x-2….?) and we finished the whole top cut in Sunday morning.

  2. Really great article! It’s nice to hear from someone who is knowledgeable about the larger eSports community. I actually just missed out on a Top Cut at a Premier Challenge with a 2-1 record. I’m disappointed of course, but it’s still nice to know that I was that close!

  3. Well I agreed to the article. Before doing Mons, I played and viewed card games like Yugioh. Doing and attending some events (small-scaled and local only though), no one has ever seriously complaining about tie-breakers. If anyone doubts the tie-breaker, I’ll just explain how the score works. Maybe some complaints come because they don’t really understand how the tie-breaker score works? Also in smaller scene attendees love playing more instead of just playing once (or twice) and got KO-ed. Well, that’s my POV as a people working in smaller scene though.

    An unanswered question is how to make a Swiss event stream-friendly? Well that’s outside this main topic but it was mentioned above so maybe this could be the next issue.

    Anyway great articles as usual and looking forward for more. Cheers.

  4. One thing that resonated with me and that I can agree on is that the average age of VGC players is younger than that of most established eSports communities. I think this plays heavily into the Twitter rants, complaints of tiebreakers, and other issues you’ve discussed in your articles. Unfortunately because of this factor I don’t see the growth of VGC into a legitimate eSports ever happening.

  5. Opponent’s Win% is dumb because you can’t pick nor control your opponents. Two common ways of messing up one’s tiebreaker:

    1.) People that you beat early or knock out of the tournament directly proceed to drop or continue playing without motivation to do well and thus get a negative record, detrimental to your tiebreaker.
    2.) You get paired with someone extremely good in the first round and lose that match just by millimeters, no shame in that. But what then happens: you get paired with all the cannon fodder from the first point for the next few rounds. If it’s a small tournament, you can already be eliminated just because of that, and if it’s a big one, you are forced to win out.
    3.) Matchups matter. You can send twins with the same team and thoughts to the same event. Twin A gets a perfect run and wins the tournament thanks to a seemingly amazing metagame call, twin B gets paired with all the weird stuff unaccounted for, loses early, and bubbles out of cut or Championship Points.

    Another thing I don’t like about Swiss, which is only indirectly related to the tiebreaker, is the expected win ratio to advance. In the single-elimination stage, we’re looking at a clear 66% that needs to be achieved, but in the Swiss stage it’s above 80% to be unaffected by the problems discussed. No one can consistently do that, not even World Champions. And looking at the top-player win ratios that were actually mentioned in this very article, I’m really not sure what’s keeping Pokémon from implementing an approach where 66% win moves on to the next stage from all stages. (Isn’t too hot of an idea if you exercise the long traditional Swiss system through to the end — but one could very well break it up in blocks of 3 rounds and eliminate those who fail to meet the 66% every time.)

    • Oh yeah, pretty blown up single-elimination stages also aren’t really the greatest of ideas, you know. Undefeated in 2016 German Nationals Swiss, eliminated in lousy top 32, reporting in. But anyway…I’m still mostly fine with that, because I know that I’ll never go undefeated again but would still like a chance to make a deep run.

  6. I’m (mostly) glad that you keep taking the time to write about topics like this for VGC and hope you continue to do so. Possibility of an extra round and X-1 being the goal(often the only record deserving cut) are the big takeaways from this.
    The article is doing one big thing wrong. It’s ridiculously condescending towards the VGC community in less than subtle ways. I get it, we’re /not/ as developed a scene as just about anyone else, that’s worth acknowledging. But if you can’t figure out a way to write articles that don’t treat the VGC community like a bunch of children, don’t expect to be helpful growing the game.

    • This was not my intention and I apologize if I come across that way. This is the first time I’ve heard of such feedback, but I’ll look out for it in the future.

    • While I agree it is condescending, it is probably a big reason why the VGC community feels so entitled to complain about things that a more “mature” community wouldn’t complain about. It’s quite common for millennials to complain and get what they want because that’s how they’ve been raised. Nowadays they look towards social media to make a big stink about things to try to get what they want.

      And I’m not sure why you’re so offended by the tone, there are literally children playing in the competitions too.

  7. U.S nationals and worlds were both X-2 cut in 2016 and everyone was extremely happy with how those tournaments were run. The question here is only “Why aren’t regionals done this way too?”

  8. Realistically all elimination formats are terrible for a game like Pokemon with heavy RNG and significant matchup effects. Swiss significantly mitigates those issues, it’s straightforward, it’s easy to explain. Running all the matches simultaneously and having to wait for the slowest to end is definitely a downside, but elimination sucks badly enough that it’s fine.

    And there’s gonna be a tiebreaker. Running more rounds of Swiss helps eliminate the need, and is a better use of time than running tiebreaker matches, but ultimately you need some mechanism to decide between two people who ran the same score, and the quality of their opposition as measured by the tournament you just had is the best metric you’ve got. Run enough rounds and someone comes out the top as unbeaten, you could declare them the winner if you want. 😛

    I’ve been heavily involved in videogames at a local anime/videogame convention with ~10,000 attendance since 2009, including pokemon tournaments. Tournaments have been between 60-odd to 80-odd people, much more amateur crowd than at the sort of events you guys are talking about. We used to run elimination, it was terrible. We tried Swiss one year (with a quality-of-opposition metric); and it was pretty good. We decided to use a different method next year, though, because people didn’t understand it wasn’t an elimination tournament and tended to leave after losing a single game, and because having to wait for all the matches was painful.

    Instead, we decided to run a rating system. All the players get given a unique ID at the start of the event, and we track a Glicko2 rating and ratings deviation for them. Then they go around playing whoever they want. After a match, both players come up to the tournament desk and report the results; we enter them into a program, it updates their ratings and RD for the match, they go off and play other people. We just ran for three hours, let people play as much as they wanted, grabbed the top four by (rating – RD) at the end and threw them on stage for a set of single-elim finals, because it wasn’t an incredibly serious tournament and we wanted a stage presence.

    Works really well. The kids that enter get to play pokemon with other kids as much as they want and not feel terrible about it, without compromising the mechanics for selecting winners, everybody gets it pretty easily, we could just set up a monitor showing everybody’s ratings and current record and people really liked watching how the tournament was progressing and finding themselves on the list, etc..

    There are some meaningfulness issues in that beating Serious McSeriousPlayer right at the start of the tournament isn’t worth nearly as much as beating them towards the end of the tournament, so you’re best of beating some kids early on when the kids are probably overrated and then playing serious players later when they aren’t chronically underrated. Not sure of a good way of fixing that other than carrying ratings over from year to year.

  9. So two recent topics I talked about with my friends were “Pokémon as an e-sport” and “what happened to Monk”, because I’ve not seen you casting a Hearthstone tournament in forever. It is actually hard to describe how happy I was to find out today that you were actually writing articles about VGC. I wish the VGC community listens to you as we can learn a lot from your experiences in other e-Sports. And I wish you keep up doing this! Thanks man!
    Also, it’s actually incredible how hardly I agree with pretty much everything I’ve read in your articles. Some arguments are exactly the same I used to talk to friends recently. Maybe because I too like to compare VGC to Hearthstone, but I pretty much 100% agree with what you wrote about barriers, the importance of viewership, centralized information and what you wrote here about swiss and tiebreakers. The VGC community sure has a lot to learn from other e-Sports communities.

    • Haha, I’m actually still and always have been in the Hearthstone community, just not in a front-facing manner. I’m now the guy behind many events that you see on stream instead of the person commentating the action. Thanks for the kind words, Sudrakon!

  10. Woo boy. Tackling this issue…
    I started looking into VGC after I had left competitive Magic The Gathering (I was never enough of a grinder to do much) and this always confused me. MTG primarily does Swiss.

    Time Constraints are a real thing once attendance numbers go up. We don’t have to worry about it too much right now, but why not future proof what we are doing

  11. Hi! I’ve read some of your articles and while I agreed with the entry fees one, I disagree in a couple of points with this one.

    First of all, let me put you in context. I have a background in chess and I was used to swiss format years before it was a thing in VGC. I even won my first trips to compete at larger chess tournaments here in Spain. I’ve been playing VGC since 2008 when there wasn’t any tournaments in Europe and I’ve been through the pain of lottery to play at nats and bo1 single elimination reaching top 4 in multiple Nationals and losing in first round in a couple. In the very first bo3 event I played in, 2012 worlds, I managed to get top 3 and the at the next tournament, 2013 UK nats, I got second, so yeah, I’m a huge fan of swiss even if it has its downsides like endless tournaments and hard to coordinate the streamings and show all the sponsored/good player matches that would make it more appealing to organizations.

    When they announced swiss format it was amazing, much better than single elimination for sure, because back in the day, you had 3 Nationals per year without smaller tournaments, and usually you couldn’t afford to go to more than 2 because they were announced with pretty short notice and they were so close between each other. Then you go and lose in first round by some unlucky plays or one little mistake and your season was done.

    So, as you can imagine I’m blessed about tpci adopted swiss and bo3, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved. That’s the point I want to raise.

    But before going into detail, I’d like to mention that the eSports or games you are comparing VGC to, are not fair. In chess I never cared about resistance, tiebreakers or Bucholz like it was called, mainly because It is a 100% skill based game, so if someone placed before you, he or she was clearly more deserving because he/she had reached the same amount of points as you did but with a harder schedule.

    Then there is Heartstone and other card games. Well, card games are known to be more RNG influenced, so you enter them knowing that. Plus, tournaments of traditional card games like Magic are an amazing opportunity to play the game irl, so the people tend to drop less. The problem with Pokémon is that you have a story mode and a motto that makes you believe that you are the best, then, the RNG is present but is less likely to occur than in card games. For instance, you don’t have to draw your team to play, or the moves you will execute. That’s why RNG is usually less tolerated by the players, so it’s normal to disagree with tiebreakers as well. I don’t think how the people complain in Twitter is the right way, but that’s another matter.

    So, going back to my main point, I think that we, as VGC players, tend to be more critic towards RNG that card players, and that’s good, because the format can be improved more. It’s great already but having X-2 would make it even better because you have a clear objective and you don’t get screwed by people dropping “to don’t waste their time” because they can go back to home and keep playing with their 1800+ accounts.

    To sum up, VGC community may not be developed, but in this subject, I think that’s not a problem. The only way it affects this is in the manners and impropper ways to discuss it/complain about that, but that doesn’t make the point less valid. We need to grow up as a community, yes, can be the format improved, yes, are we comparable with bigger eSports, hell yes, but that can’t be an stopping force, if they don’t fight for improving their circuits or they don’t care because they are wealthy it’s ok for them but they are not a good example to follow in this case.

    Oh, and Thanks for taking the time to write these articles. It’s much appreciated.

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