The Four Goals in Tournament Design

As I see it, the goals we have to keep in mind when designing tournaments call into four main categories: fairness, efficiency, participation, and spectator appeal. One of the keys to designing tournaments is to keep in mind how these different values interact, and in knowing which values are paramount in any particular context.

(This framework is used in other posts, where I refer to it as the “FEPS” framework, where “spectator appeal” is condensed to “spectacle” so that it doesn’t have to become “FEPSA”.)

Fairness is the subject of yesterday’s post. To recap briefly, fairness is not a unitary consideration, but a combination of three, sometimes conflicting ideas:

Respect settled expectations (fairness A);

Give everyone an equal chance (fairness B); and

Reward superior performance (fairness C).

Efficiency is achieved when the other goals of a tournament are met while consuming few resources. What this means in any particular context depends heavily on what resources are in short supply.

Consider the difference between a chess tournament and a bobsled tournament. In a chess tournament, the limiting factor is likely to be the number of rounds. It takes a long time to play a serious game of chess, and any individual player can only play so many of them. Other limitations are less pressing. Chess sets are cheap. If you have a reasonably large hall, you can have everyone playing at once. So the crucial limitation on the chess tournament is not the number of games that are played, but rather the number of rounds of play. A tournament might schedule as many as four rounds in a day, but that’s an exhausting pace of play, and many players would prefer to play three, two, or even just one match in a day. But as far as the number of entries and the absolute number of games played, well, below the elite level, it’s usually the more the merrier – come one and come all.

In contrast, a bobsled tournament is constrained by the fact that there are only 17 first-class bobsled tracks in the entire world, and each one can only accommodate one sled at any given time. An individual run takes only a couple of minutes, but they all have to take place on the same track. So the fixed limitation is the number of runs that can reasonably be made in the time available, and that means that the number of entries has to be strictly controlled.

Other events might have limitations that allow more than one game at a time, but do not allow everyone to play at the same time. Perhaps there are only four available softball fields, or six competent fencing referees. And critical resources may change in the course of a tournament. At Wimbledon, for example, there are 19 championship grade tennis courts. That is not enough for everyone to play at the same time, but generally enough that court availability is not a limiting factor. But if it starts to rain, suddenly there’s only one playable court at Wimbledon. Unplayed matches will stack up, and minor events may need to be curtailed.

Participation and Spectator Appeal are two aspects of what is, perhaps, the most essential reason that we run tournaments in the first place. But they often need to be considered separately because the values they represent come into conflict.

Participation is the value that the folks who enter your tournament get from playing. People enter tournaments because they enjoy playing tennis, or backgammon, or whatever, and perhaps because they particularly enjoy playing under tournament conditions. They want a chance to play a lot, and against a wide variety of opponents. It’s one of your jobs as tournament director to make sure they get a substantial chance to do so.

Where participation is a main goal, it’s likely that the preferred tournament is the round robin. Everyone gets to play against everyone else. But perhaps you don’t have the time (or some other resource) to run a full round robin. Then a good choice is the Swiss system. A Swiss system tournaments is, essentially, like an elimination tournament in which no one gets eliminated, so that everyone continues to play as many rounds as the available resources permit.

Participation is the core value of play in school physical education classes. We teach kids to play games because the play is good for them – it trains their bodies, challenges their minds, and builds social skills. We want them to play, and to enjoy playing, and one of the ways to do this is to organize the play into some sort of tournament.

Spectator appeal is the value that other people get from watching games. It’s important, of course, only when there will be spectators – most of the world’s small tournaments have very few spectators, and little reason to try to cater to them. But the most prominent tournaments are those that are run by professional sport leagues, and these leagues have depend on the willingness of spectators to buy tickets, or to watch on television. 

Professional sports (and such quasi-professional competition as NCAA football and basketball) are money-making enterprises. Then may be other things as well – civic institutions, or cultural traditions. But they need to make money, and for that reason they need revenue from ticket sales and media contracts. If there is no revenue, there will be no competition.

To some extent, the goal of providing spectator appeal tracks well with the goal of participation – there have to be a lot of games played if there are to be a lot of games to watch. But in other respects, the goals are in conflict. Spectator appeal is enhanced by the loser-goes-home aspect of the elimination tournament because it makes every game crucially important.

And catering to the desires of spectators often conflicts with the interest of the participants. Games might be scheduled at odd and inconvenient times so as to get the best exposure on television. And games might be played in weather conditions so adverse that the players themselves don’t enjoy the game – it’s not so much a game as a show, and the show must go on.

Indulging the desires of the spectator can and does require compromises to all of the other values of tournament design. Fairness, for example, may be preserved only to the extent that spectators lose interest in competitions that are manifestly unfair. And a review of the practices of many professional sports leagues shows that spectators have a pretty high tolerance for unfair practices.

12 thoughts on “The Four Goals in Tournament Design”

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