essays and pithy thoughts

The American allergy to the draw

in notepad

This is something I’ve been trying to track down for some time now: why my countrymen, and indeed those around global esports in general, are so adverse to a contest ending drawn. I suppose this piece is both intended to be a discussion of this phenomenon, as well as a request for help in figuring out if there’s any academic examinations of it, things I might have missed.

The most coherent treatment of this I could find was written back in 2004, but directly compares soccer to basketball and claims that their core similarity – trying to get a round thing through a metal goal – is the chief impediment to soccer gaining popularity in the states. Yea…and this guy is a published author, too.

Day of Defeat

I ran up against this phenomenon directly back a few years ago when I was pretty heavily involved with the Day of Defeat scene, back before TF2 had arrived.

For those unfamiliar, the scoring system used was a bit unorthodox, and it was my primary gripe with the game. Maps were designed around a number of control points; push all of them in your favor and that would be considered a goal or a ‘full cap’, and a new round would start fresh. Every few seconds, the engine would take account of the current state of the control points, and award points to both sides; intermediary points were typically worth one point and a ‘center’ point, if there was one, was worth three. Full caps were considered to be worth 50 points.

What this essentially means is that time of possession was factored directly into the math that determined the winner. Figuring out who was ahead at any given time required a multiplication step followed by three-digit addition, instead of a quick comparison of two obvious figures. Simply put: it was an awful mess.

The justification that was bandied about by the people that swore by this system was that it encouraged fast play, that it forced teams to push. That was nonsense; the crudest of thought experiments could quickly arrive at scenarios where it would be more advantageous to NOT actually cap out and score a goal, where it would be better to instead sit on all the points but one and run up the score that way.

This system made it possible to score fewer goals than your opponent and still win. It apparently made sense; mostly because it made the chances of ending up with a drawn contest very remote.

This mode of play was still preferred even after I left the scene, after putting together an eight week cup that played under rules where straight-up most goals win, and ‘ticks’ (as the time of possession points were called) don’t factor in. Those that participated in that cup agreed that the matches played there were some of the best they had experienced; since the full cap was the only way to advance the score, there were no incentives to sit back and rack up ticks; it was full-on from start to finish, and introduced the dynamic seen in soccer where a team ahead by 2 or 3 begin taking more defensive stances, where their opponents had little to lose by playing a bit more on the edge.

And yes, there were a few draws. But, as I said, it didn’t catch on. The old way was still, somehow, better.

The real reason? Sheer laziness, community inertia, and an acute allergy to draws. Draws were possible when just going by straight caps, and that was a fundamentally blasphemous thing to consider. The untested notion that a low-scoring game could be quite exciting to play and watch would be left widely untested.


Team esports in general have fallen along this pattern. Leagues draft rulesets with carefully constructed, and usually convoluted, overtime scenarios and procedures to make sure a draw could never, ever happen.

Team Fortress plays first to 5, instead of most goals in an allotted timeframe. While this makes more sense than tossing time of possession into the mix, it’s still kinda awkward. Why not play two halves at 20 minutes and let the results stand? Oh, and there’s never, ever a draw.

Counter-strike plays first to 16 now and has for a while, and that’s up from 13 (I think) in the earlier days. Again, no room at all for draws. We’ll play six-round overtime periods until one of you tossers drop a round on T side, and we’ll stay here as long as it takes.

Call of Duty has always been played on a similar structure.

In every case, draws are an abhorrence to be avoided at all costs of time, effort, and bandwidth.

Shades of grey

Not having the resources and time available to…say…a doctoral candidate, I can only take a stab at the root cause of this.

Stubbornness? Ignorance?

Is there any validity to needing every contest to produce precisely one winner and one loser?

I was having a conversation with my colleague @tehpennycook about this and we came to what I felt was a satisfactory conclusion: it comes down to cultural maturity, and how willing a populace is to admit that not everything is black and white.

The primary gripe I saw over twitter about the recent Women’s World Cup being decided by a penalty shootout, from my Yankee brethren, seemed to be focused on the fact that the entire tournament was being decided by penalty kicks.

Let’s add hypocrisy to the pile, then.

How many of the same people had previously offered the old tired argument that soccer ‘isn’t a real sport’ because a contest could end in a 0:0 draw?

American society is obsessed with winners and losers, equally both. It’s bled over into our politics, where taking the global economy hostage seems to be a perfectly acceptable means of attempting to score a cheap, hollow, meaningless political win.

As I see it, 15:15 at the end of a CS match says something very interesting of the match it described. A TF2 match ending drawn at three goals would be a perfectly suitable end to a great match.

The difference between society at large and the microcosm of the gaming community is that said microcosm can actually do something about the situation. In the ritual mashup that happens every time a new title hits the gaming scene, where rulesets are drawn up and presented to the community, some things are taken literally for granted: the season will be eight weeks, there will always be a playoff, the bottom half of every division will get no money, and there will never be a draw. Simply challenging these notions head-on could make a world of difference in the enjoyment and enrichment of participants, but it doesn’t get done.

As it is, there’s no room for the notion that two combatants could go into a ring and see both come out standing at the end; that two great teams could slog away for over an hour and not produce a winner. That place, to this writer, is a sad one indeed.