The State of Knowledge

I recently spent some time considering whether I might perform a public service by substantially revising the Wikipedia article on double-elimination tournaments.

It’s pretty dreadful. It’s shallow, and misleading. The one example bracket contained in the article has bad drops. There’s no mention at all of the possibility of shifting brackets to save rounds and (usually) improve fairness. It’s assumed, apparently on the basis of a fairness (A) argument, that there must be a recharge round.

But I decided not to touch the article, even in the comments section. As bad as it is, it probably does represent a consensus of opinion. I couldn’t make it much better without violating Wikipedia’s rules against original research. Wikipedia would not count tourneygeek as a “reliable source”.

The article itself has a banner noting that the article “needs additional citations for verification”. And I suppose that it does, in a way. But I doubt that there are many suitable citations to be found.

The running of tournaments is not a frequent subject in any academic discipline. I’ve run across articles here and there by academics of one stripe or another. Predictably, perhaps, the NCAA basketball tournament seems to attract the most attention. But there are very few scholarly articles that discuss the structure of tournaments, and none, that I am aware of, has the benefit of much supporting literature. Tournament design seems to be a fun one-off topic for scholars who spend most of their time worrying about something else.

To the extent that there is any literature on tournament design, it tends to be embedded in the literature of a particular game or sport. For example, the rulebooks of the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association both describe, in some detail, the way one is supposed to conduct a tennis tournament. As discussed elsewhere, I think that the powers that be in tennis do this better than those in most other sports, at least with respect to seeding practice. But the tennis literature doesn’t seem to discuss the alternatives that are used almost everywhere else. And on the rare occasions that someone outside the tennis world mentions that seeding in tennis is done differently, it’s generally tossed off as an aberration.

Most of the people who fancy that they know how to run tournaments seem to know only one “right” way to do it. Regardless of other virtues or defects, this one right way becomes the cornerstone of fairness (A) expectations. That’s what’s represented by the wikipedia article – the one right way most organizers think to run such tournaments. Sure enough, if they find their way to printyourbrackets.com, their prejudices will be confirmed.

I suppose that I, too, thought that there was one right way to address tournament design problems when I started writing tourneygeek. In fact, the only thing I knew, going in, better than most other people was how allocate the drops in a loser’s bracket. I was going to set people straight on that, and perhaps I’d find other pockets of ignorance that I could help extinguish also.

But a funny thing happened. When I started to explain why something or other was wrong, I had to convince myself, first, that I had the right answer. And, more often than not, I found that there was no one definitive answer, or that if there was one, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.

For example, I remember being rather annoyed when I became aware of the distinctive way that tennis is seeded. It meant that I wasn’t going to be able to simulate tennis tournaments without major changes to my simulator. I made those changes, but rather grudgingly – it seemed like an awful lot of work just to be able to show what fools the tennis people are. It turns out that I (and most of the rest of the world) was the fool.

I’m toying with the idea of trying to distill some of the things I’ve learned into a form that might be more easily grasped.

If there were such a thing as the International Archives of Tourneygeekery (IATg), it would, no doubt, include periodic review articles. A good review article would sort through the unruly mass of individual items, mentioning only the ideas that are worth knowing.

If all goes well, before long there will be a review article for the IATg.

3 thoughts on “The State of Knowledge”

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