Friday, August 10, 2012

Badminton in the Olympics

My first article that's not about gaming still has a theme that is very important to a wide gaming audience: competition. The Olympics are a competition, just as many multiplayer games are a competition.

Olympic Badminton isn't a competition, apparently. It's a sham. Whoever the organizers are for that tournament should be embarrassed for themselves and for their sport.

To recap what happened: The tournament was designed in such a way that it was not only possible, but likely that a team would find itself in a situation where losing was more advantageous than winning. Four separate teams found themselves in that position (essentially, losing this match would grant them an easier opponent in the next round), they all attempted to lose on purpose, and they were all disqualified from the tournament. The blame in this case lays entirely on the tournament organizers, and not at all on the players.

Real competition, at its core, is about winning. There is a very real division between casual competition and real competition, where something is at stake. Let's take a fighting video game as an example of what that line is.

If I invite a friend over and we're playing Soul Calibur together, we are in a casual competition. We each want to win while we're playing, but having fun is more important overall in this setting than winning. If I find an attack or sequence of attacks that my friend can't block no matter what he tries, I could easily win every match by just continually executing the same actions. That's not fun for either of us. I wouldn't continue to do such a thing. For the sake of having fun, I would use different moves even though they are not optimal or pick a different character that is more evenly matched.

On the other hand, a real competition would be something like a tournament setting. If my friend and I enter the same Soul Calibur tournament, and wind up matched against each other, I would be stupid to not pick that character and use that move over and over for an easy match win. It's not poor sportsmanship. It's not being an asshole. I am doing everything in my power, within the rules, to win the tournament. If I do anything less than that, I don't deserve to win.

Professional game designer David Sirlin has written an entire book on this concept, and it's a great read. I highly recommend it.

In the fighting game tournament example above, if I were disqualified outside the written rules of the tournament for playing in a specific way, the blame would lay entirely on the organizers of the tournament for not understanding how to run a tournament, not on me as a player.

The rules of badminton in this case are important to know. The outcome, whether it be beneficial or detrimental, of any action in a tournament should be defined in the rules before the tournament beings. Let's look at the relevant rules for badminton in the Olympics.
A player shall not:
16.6.1 deliberately cause delay in, or suspension of, play;
16.6.2 deliberately modify or damage the shuttle in order to change its speed or its flight;
16.6.3 behave in an offensive manner; or
16.6.4 be guilty of misconduct not otherwise covered by the Laws of Badminton. 
Administration of breach
The umpire shall administer any breach of Law 16.4.1, 16.5.2 or 16.6 by: issuing a warning to the offending side; faulting the offending side, if previously warned. Two such faults by a side shall be considered to be a persistent offence; or in cases of flagrant offence, persistent offences or breach of Law 16.2 the umpire shall fault the offending side and report the offending side immediately to the Referee, who shall have the power to disqualify the offending side from the match.
Relevant sections are in bold. Rule 16.6.4 is a travesty. "be guilty of misconduct" is about as vague as it gets, and has no place in any kind of official documentation. What is misconduct to one person may be completely acceptable to another. Let's say attempting to lose intentionally is somehow caught under this hood, however, and move on to The rule states that they will be disqualified from the match. Not the tournament, but the match. That is exactly what the team intended to have happen. The team is using the rules of the tournament to its advantage.

That is exactly what you're supposed to do in a tournament setting. Do everything in your power, within the rules of the tournament, to win the tournament. If losing a match aids you in winning the tournament, it would be stupid not to do it.

Some people claim that there is some kind of ethical standard to the Olympics. The players shouldn't merely be playing to win the tournament, but to win each individual match to prove their dominance. They should be an unrelenting force that sweeps through the competition without fatigue or remorse, obliterating all in their path. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement, but the general idea is that everyone should be giving it their all throughout the entire competition. You shouldn't let up for even a moment in your quest for gold.

Why don't you tell that to the runners? In most running events, there are multiple heats where the top few competitors will advance to the next round. For example, in the sprinting competition, there are groups of 8 competitors. Within each group, the 3 fastest times will advance to the next round. It is completely normal for someone who is about to finish in second place during a preliminary heat to ease up and take second place without a struggle. He stops giving it his all and accepts his advancement to the next round. He doesn't expend extra energy attempting to finish first in a preliminary heat.

Should he be disqualified from the Olympics?

I am saddened by the reaction to this badminton ordeal. The scorn that is rampant for these players is an atrocity against the spirit of competition.

Do I think playing to lose is good for the sport of badminton, or any sport in general? No, of course I don't. When people are playing to lose, it's going to destroy credibility in the sport that they are playing and the tournament they're in. But do I blame the players for doing it? Not at all. I feel sorry that the players had to resort to such a tactic. The tournament should never have been constructed in a way that rewards losing.

In a tournament, losing should always be bad. Any tournament organizer should strive to use a format that penalizes losing in every single case. Doing anything else is just asking for trouble.

If I were in the position of these Olympic badminton players, I would have done exactly the same thing, even knowing I would get unfairly disqualified. It shines a light on the tournament that was sorely needed. Hopefully the Badminton tournament in 2016 will be structured competently.

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