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Online playoffs are bad for gaming.

in glhf

A recent discussion over on gaming’s most well known, corporate-owned cesspool spun off the announcement of some high-stakes matches for the euro TF2 scene and morphed into a commentary on the playoff-less league model they were using for this particular competition. Most of the comments seemed to fall into a predictable ‘the NFL has playoffs and the NFL is great so this sucks’ kind of rhythm. Didn’t reflect very well on us yanks. The poor chap that meandered over to the forums to publicize the matches didn’t really do a particularly good job of defending what is clearly a superior method of conducting an online league, so I write to clear this up, once and for all.

The problem:

The typical fashion of online league play established way back by CAL and has been left untouched ever since – the 2 month regular season with the 1+ month playoff – is absolutely detrimental to everyone’s experience, save for maybe two teams each season. Look, at this point we all understand that the number one goal of any gaming outfit at this stage in the game is simply to generate participation. If we aren’t keeping old hats around while bringing more people into league play, that spells negative growth.

The best way to keep people and teams interested is to provide platforms which offer them a constant stream of opportunities to play meaningful matches on or close to their skill level.If a platform fails to serve this most fundamental need, you see teams dropping and players becoming disinterested. You can take this reason alone as ample incentive to do away with any sort of online playoff system in which upwards of half your league members are sitting out for weeks at a time. Curious why the gaming scene is in such a constant state of flux? You only need to look at what a typical team’s schedule looks like across a few seasons:

  1. Season starts with two or three forfeit wins since teams sign up without having their shit together
  2. Get pubstomped a few times, post a few good wins
  3. maybe make playoffs, but definately get knocked out in the first round
  4. sit out for 6 weeks until the next season starts
  5. Rinse and repeat

How the hell does any team manage to find stability with that sort of bullshit quarter after quarter? The answer is, most don’t. Furthermore, why would anyone PAY some leagues to be subjected to such a schedule, shelling out for subscriptions and entrance fees over the course of 12 weeks in which you might actually play in 6 or 7 of them? And the caliber of teams that are sitting out for weeks at a time fall into a pretty wide spectrum due to having divisional playoffs; in a three division league you have some pretty good teams sitting out, some ok teams sitting out, and a whole lot of not very good teams at all sitting out for periods long enough to kill a good number of them off. This is why, if the playoffs aren’t going to be held on LAN shortly after the end of the season, there’s absolutely no reason to use this model for an online league.

Remember, constant participation is key to sustainable growth, and making the majority of teams wait for weeks while a few teams do a playoff for a metric fuckton of e-glory isn’t helping anything.

It takes more than just doing away with the braces to remedy this situation; it does take considerable effort on the part of a league administrator to bring the tension of a playoff into a playoffless model, but if done right will provide a more enjoyable experience for everyone and more continuity from season to season.

Fixing it:

1. Division size: keep it small to heat up the competition across the board, and keep everyone scheduled in meaningful matches for longer stretches of time.

Divisional size is an important thing to consider, and must be linked directly to season length. ETF2L had 10 teams in their top division this past season, which I think is pretty much the ceiling for a top division, or any subdivision or conference within lower tiers.

Optimally, I’d extend the season to ten weeks and take six teams in the top division. Playing twice weekly, teams would see each other four times over the course of the season, lessening the impact of getting that bum draw against the team that simply owns everyone on gpit (for example). Further, I’d limit the maplist for the top division to four maps, so you’d end up playing every other team on every map on the list - the absolutely level schedule. (If that doesn’t fly though, which it probably won’t for most folks, at least use map concede…more on that later.) Lower tiers should be comprised of ten-team conferences, when possible; this allows for a pool of nine opponents for each team, lending itself to 18 matches over nine weeks, with one week left over for reschedule overflow. If I were to apply this principle to the current state of high-level TF2, sporting around 50 teams, I would fill out the tiers as follows:

  • Premiere: one division - six teams. Two teams relegated at end of season.
  • Invite: one division of ten teams OR two divisions of six teams. Two teams promoted, four teams relegated at end of season.
  • Open: four divisions - room for ten teams each. One team promoted from each division at end of season.

Teams would only play opponents within their division. This is critically important to turning the dial up on the level of competition across the board. Rivalries only form when teams repeatedly play each other with mixed results. If such situations are never deliberately created through good scheduling and league structure, rivalries simply don’t get a chance to come to a boil. These tensions between teams get magnified when a team has a clearly defined list of teams that they’ll need to prepare to play against over the following 10 weeks. The shorter that list of opponents is, the more important it becomes to not just prepare tactics that you can execute well, but to prepare tactics that you know will work against a specific opponent. Breaking an open league pool 40 teams deep into smaller divisions also gives those teams a taste of what it means not only to hone their individual skills but also to do their homework on their opponents.

The bottom line here is that smaller divisions will automatically create a playoff-like atmosphere at all ability levels simply due to the small size. If the prize at the end is promotion into a higher division, and every match counts towards that, it makes our current regular season play look pretty low-key.

2. Map Concede: use this process for map selection, instead of scheduling them per matchup, for all divisions larger than 6 teams.

To further remove scheduling as something that could make or break a season, maps should not be scheduled to each matchup by the administrator, but should be determined on a per-match basis by the teams through a map ban/concede process from a 5 or 7 map pool. Did you balk at the ‘map concede’ concept? There’s statistical evidence that it provides a more level playing field, by allowing teams to remove their opponent’s known best maps from the equation:

With “Map Concede”, it is detrimental to focus on one map as this opens the opportunity for your opponent to concede the map, either by luck or by knowing the player’s preferences. This encourages players to not only spread their own practice across different maps and playing styles, but also enhances the meta-game by encouraging players to seek out opponent’s strategies and weaknesses to use in the map concede process.

This would all but eliminate the situation where your team gets that bum draw, playing the team that wrecks face on gpit…on gpit. Using a map concede process would encourage the practice of scouting out your opponents, finding out what their strongest maps are, and taking them out of the equation. The repercussions of this would stretch all the way into the nightly scrim grind, where it would not be at all unheard of that you could get a scrim on any map at any time. This is because teams could actually be called on to play any map at any time, and would be constantly working to improve on their weakest maps; scrimming would turn into maintaining skill across the entire competitive map library, not simply collecting hours on a single map per week.

3. Tension-oriented scheduling: create a playoff atmosphere all season through intelligent schedule progressions.

The final piece of the puzzle for making the playoff-less league a success is all in the scheduling. If an administrator can’t line up teams in a division in a reasonable hierarchy of skill or predicted finish within a division, then they have no business touching the schedule for that division. The schedule for a division should begin and end with the predicted top two teams playing each other, and not seeing each other anyplace in between. This is to try and avoid a situation where the perceived #1 seed clinched the title with a bunch of matches left to play, and maximizes the tension out the gate and coming into the finish. The interior of the season should be scheduled with deference to the perceived highest seeds in the the division, with emphasis on giving these teams as many opportunities as possible early in the season to post wins; this is to try and curb the tendency of teams that sit in the bottom of higher divisions to implode after a few losses early in the season.

A six team ‘premiere division’ matrix following these principles could look like this:

Matrix

The top seeded team starts and finishes playing the strongest opponents in the division, meets the weakest team in the middle of the sesaon, and then ramps up into the finish. The bottom seeded team starts with as weak a schedule as possible to give them as much potential for a running start as can be allowed. The middle seeds have a relatively controlled burn across the duration, allowing them sufficient room to build momentum against the top seeds and stage an upset if they have it in them.

A ten team division could be scheduled like this:

Matrix

The key is to start and end the season playing opponents projected to be right around your ability level, with the middle of the season seeing the largest skill offsets. This matrix could probably use some refinement, but it’s at the very least a good starting point. If you’re in charge of scheduling, your work is done!

The result:

You have a singular season that’s slightly longer than current regular seasons, in which everyone participates from beginning to end. There’s no point where you tell over half the league membership to fuck off for several weeks. You can also build in time for lower divisions to get in all of their play while turning up the heat on the upper divisions to get 20 matches done and dusted in 10 weeks. You also have a season which is shorter in duration than the 8 week + 4 week playoff + 2 week break, meaning that you can fit more seasons within a year than you can with the current scheme. Even if you take a two week respite between seasons, you can still fit four seasons within a calendar year and take the entire holiday season off without worries of match cancellations etc during December. More teams will stick together between seasons due to the promise of rapid promotion for doing well; or at the very least you don’t have to wait two months after a losing stint to get on with next season.

With capable administrators, this format is a tool for creating a product that is better from everyone’s perspective: the league, the teams, the players, the content producers, and the spectators.

Is it practical?

In a word, yes. ESEA for instance could adopt this format in their next season for any game, and still do their LAN-based tournament finals for top divisions as they have done the past few seasons. Really, I see no reason why such a scheme couldn’t be adopted immediately to make their open entry tiers far more palatable for the teams playing there, even if playoffs still exist for the topmost division for each game. There’s also no reason why a new season couldn’t start before the LAN playoffs are wrapped up from the prior; it would already be known what teams would be relegated from the top division, and who would be moving up. This scheme, however, would be particularly useful for leagues outside ESEA where the level of play is more on the casual end, as the emphasis is on constant participation and minimizing attrition between seasons.