Get updates via e-mail:

« Puzzle Strike is Coming | Main | John Cleese on Creativity »

Playing to Win in Badminton

There's a recent controversy about players losing intentionally in Olympic badminton. A lot of people involved seem concerned that it's embarrassing for the sport. It its. It's embarrassing that some officals and spokesmen of the sport have so little understanding of Playing to Win that they think the players are at fault.

Playing Fake Matches

I have run many fighting game tournaments, and I have witnessed fake matches. I completely agree that fake matches make a mockery of the tournament. This is so important that one of the MOST IMPORTANT considerations when designing a set of tournament rules is to minimize the chances of fake matches occurring.

Forfeiting a match and playing a fake match are similar (in both cases, one side is losing on purpose), but not exactly the same. Forfeiting should be a natural right of any player in any tournament. A player should be able to forfeit for any reason or no reason, and this must be make explicitly clear in the rules. Further, it should be explicit that if a player (or team) wants to forfeit, then they should NOT play a fake match. Playing a fake match is about the worst possible thing for a competition because of the impact on spectators. If the rules make it clear that simply forfeiting is far preferable to playing a fake match and that forfeiting comes with no penalty, then the rules will have stomped out 90% to 100% of fake matches right from the start. It's just a lot more effort to play a fake match and there'd be no benefit over forfeiting.

That's not the whole solution though, not even close. That's just the failsafe you need in case there is any incentive to lose on purpose in the first place. It should be self-evident that if a tournament system ever gives players an incentive to lose, then it's a problematic tournament sytem.

Losing on Purpose

Let's look at some cases where you'd want to lose on purpose. First a few that don't have to do with the Olympic Badminton case, then the one that does. (If you only care about that, skip to the "Back to Our Story" section below.)

Let's start with two terms from game design: lame-duck and kingmaker. In a game with more than two players (or more than two teams), a "kingmaker" is someone who can, through his or her in-game actions, decide which OTHER player will win the game. The kingmaker is so far behind that he can't win, but he could deal a card (or whatever) to Alice or to Bob, which would determine the winner. This is considered really bad because you'd hope Alice or Bob would win off their own skills, not from some 3rd party's vote. "Lame-duck" (a term I use because I don't know what else to call it in game design) is the portion of a game where a certain player cannot possibly win anymore but somehow they are still stuck playing the game. Lame duck players are ripe to be kingmakers. When you don't have skin in the game anymore, so to speak, your potential to screw things up for others is pretty high. (Note that this is NOT what's going on the badminton case right now.)

Swiss. The kind of Swiss that at some point cuts to  single elimination (for a more exciting finish) is full of lame ducks and kingmakers. In this format, you need a certain win/loss record to make that cut, but you can keep playing against more opponents even if you have a win/loss record that is *guaranteed* to NOT make the cut (lame duck). It's entirely possible that you will face someone who still has skin in the game: if they win they will make the cut to the top 8; if they lose, they won't. And you can decide that by forfeiting or not, with no effect on yourself, because you are definitely going to lose the tournament either way. Magic: the Gathering uses this format. You'd expect it would lead to shady situations because of all the lame duck / kingmaker stuff. And it does.

Round Robin. In this format every player (or team) plays every other player (or team). It has the very same problem as Swiss: lame ducks and kingmakers. You can be in lame duck situation yet determine the fate of your opponents. This is just ripe for their being under-the-table payoffs. Round Robin also has problems with the order that matches happen to occur in. If you have to play all your matches right at the start, you don't have the benefit of knowing the results of all the other (future) matches, so you don't know if you can get away with losing on purpose. But if your matches happen to be scheduled for later in the tournament, you do know the results of so many other matches that you can now do shady things. So all players don't even have equal access to the shady tactics, as it depends on the luck of scheduling.

Back to Our Story

And now we come to the actual problem with the Olympic badminton situation. There are "pools" of round robin play where the top 2 finishers from a pool advance to a single elimination bracket. Further, the system of seeding in the single elimination bracket is known ahead of time. This creates the situation where you could playing pool matches but *guaranteed* to make top 2 by your record. If you win, you will qualify and play team X. If you lose, you will also qualify, but you will play team Y. If you think you have an easier chance of beating team Y, you absolutely should lose on purpose. If you don't, you aren't playing to win, and you are kind of a bad competitor. You also happen to be playing in a tournament with absurdly bad rules.

I hope it's clear by now that tournament systems absolutely can have incentives to lose. And if you are holding such a high profile tournament as *the Olympics*, then I hope you'd deeply understand all this and design a system that minimizes or removes all incentives to lose, and adds in the failsafe of encouraged forfeit rather than fake matches if there was some overlooked edge case. It's LAUGHABLE to put even the tiniest amount of blame on the competitors who are playing to win here, when the tournament rules so clearly, so obviously, and so predictably have major problems. That is, you wouldn't need to even hold a tournament to detect this problem. You could just read the rules, see the clear and major flaws in them, then you'd want to direct your blame at the rules writers and correct the system.

It's doubly laughable to actually disqualify the players involved—how about disqualifying the judges? They don't seem capable of making competent decisions about tournament practices. Those who conspired to disqualify players for playing optimally inside a bad rules system are doing the sport a real disservice. Hearing about fake matches in badminton should make our opinion go down, but hearing about the sport's inability to see glaring problems in its own tournament structure should make our opinion go down an extra ten notches.

It's an embarrassing time for Olympic badminton. But not because some players lost on purpose—because someone created horrificly bad tournament rules and then tried to blame the competitors for playing to win.

Reader Comments (203)

Here's a rather amusing example of playing to win resulting in silliness in a Starcraft 2 tournament:

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterw

My friend and I have been debating about the best solution to avoid this kind of thing in the future. What kind of structure do you think would work better to eliminate luck and keep this kind of metagaming from happening?

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan

They violated the Players’ Code of Conduct, Section 4.5 for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match.” Note that it doesn't say win the tournament, in which case what they did would be "fair". That rule does seem like a band-aid for a fundamentally broken tournament system though.

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichel

Awesome post David. I haven't been following the Olympics because there's no really easy way for me to watch the events, but the news that comes out of them is always so fascinating. It's really sad and shameful that these competitors who have worked so hard should be disqualified by doing what's in their best interest. I think the reality at work here is that the judges don't want forfeit games because they want to have fans in the seats, and once they've got fans in the seats they certainly don't want fake matches. I just don't see how any game a competitor is hoping that they might lose is anything other than a fake match. They'd better have some gold medals made up for Olympic acting for 2016 if this is the way it's going to be.

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristian

What exactly are fake matches in Fighting games? May you describe them in detail?

I also don't see how people can forfeit in a tournament setting unless they outright walk away or pause the match...
Wouldn't it be better to just trudge through it instead of giving up?

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLEB

Another example why David should be put in charge! =)

That being said, the olympic motto is: "Participation is more important than winning". This pretty much means that olympic competitors shouldn't compete to win, but purely for the sake of competing in the participatory sense.

The underwriting is that those competitions aren't really about figuring out who is the best among competitors, but instead to produce entertainment for the viewers. The most common example is the usage of single elimination brackets which make tournament way easier to understand for mass audiences but produce a way less accurate representation of the skill of the different competitors.

You analysis is great and perfectly valid, the only problem is that the olympic committee isn't reading "Playing to Win", but instead "Designing games that people watch". It is true that it's sad, as it doesn't really deliver on "higher faster stronger" ...

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Mandryka

Michel, yes I'm aware of that. Whenever a "spirit of the game" clause is enforced, it's a failure of the rules. I might go so far as to say it *always* shows wrongdoing on the part of the tournament organizers. It's a kind of pathetic bandaid with squishy, ill-defined boundaries that would, in this case, tell players to do the opposite of what would give them the best chance of winning.

Dan, if they want pools to have top 2 that continue to a single elimination bracket, then the exact seeding must not be knowable ahead of time. (To avoid cheating from the judges, the exact rules for determining the single elim bracket could be written down ahead of time for that particular event, and held by a trusted 3rd party to verify that they were followed, and not made-up on the spot to favor someone.) That would have solved this particular problem, though even then, round-robin pools have other problems that I mentioned with lame ducks and kingmakers. Double elimination pools would solve those problems because there are *never* lame duck players in a double elimination bracket. Anyone still in the bracket can win. Also it reliably determines top 2, which is what's desired here.

August 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

LEB: a fake match in a fighting game, or any other game, is one where the competitors aren't playing for real. They are just flopping around doing whatever because one or both of them decided ahead of time that the winner either doesn't matter, or that one of them wants to lose, or that they have agreed ahead of time that a particular one of them will lose. In any case, not a real competition. And, no it's not ok and should never ever be encouraged by tournament rules. As I stated in my post, any time anyone would WANT to do this, instead they should forfeit. Forfeit means to voluntarily take a loss, but without the embarrassing mockery of the sport by fake-playing it publicly.

Alex it's entirely possible to treat the Olympics like you said and STILL have exactly the same contempt I do. Whether or not the Olympics is about participation or winning--in either case--it would be better served by solid tournament rules. There isn't really a trade-off. It's just a question of if you want sloppy rules are good ones. With good ones, you can encourage people to compete for participation reasons, or for winning. And let's be honest: those athletes are there to win and they devote their lives to it. I'd sure be pissed if I devoted my life to something and then some sloppy people mucked up the rules for it. I'd be equally pissed if I was there just to participate and the rules made my whole sport look bad. Either way: tournament rules need to be better designed than this for such a high profile even that so many people pour their whole lives into.

August 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Having rules that promote excellence AND provide great entertainment might be possible, and I hope it is, but as the most popular sport on the planet, soccer shows that the path of least resistance lies elsewhere =)

I guess the problem when you want to reach a wide audience is always that you tend to go for the lowest common denominator.

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Mandryka

More proof that you should hire David Sirlin to run all your tournament events. :)

What's really upsetting about this whole thing is that everybody will totally blame the athletes for this when they should be turning their ire towards the organizers for creating such a moronic system. I mean, round robin has the lame duck and kingmaker problems, yes, but the seeding system being known before hand? Ye gods, you don't have to be a Street Fighter expert to see the problem with that!

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDorkmaster Flek

Flek: Yeah in this case it seems the known seeding combined with a situation where you're guaranteed top 2 combined with the bracket being single elimination (essentially your loss is reset there) all come together to make really screwy incentives.

I once saw a comedian say that when he was a kid, he thought doctors were these smart infallible people. If a doctor said something, it had to be right, they are DOCTORS and it's their job to know how to help. Then he said he went to college and his roommate was pre-med and went on to become a doctor. He said he had many images in his mind of his roommate drunk and acting like an idiot and having to be told to put his pants back on, lol. So it was a kind of fall from innocence where you realize doctors are just people and can be as wrong or screwy as anyone else. And now we know that about Olympic tournament organizers.

August 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I had no idea badminton was run this way, thanks for the post, Dave.

If Olympic organizing was an Olympic event, badminton would come in dead last.

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

I think the problem here is compounded by the fact that you aren't just playing to win at the Olympics, but also for 2nd and 3rd place. So meeting a top seed in a quarter final rather than a semi final reduces your medal chances. I believe this is why China started this whole thing off - They didn't want one of their teams having to eliminate the other before the semi finals thereby reducing their odds of a medal. So the forfeiture system in this case is still bad, as while it helps avoid fake matches, it doesn't help make the tournament more fair.

As an aside, in systems thinking theory, it is often shown that the more rules you put in place, the more incentive their is for people to 'game the system'. Most rules have unintended consequences at the system level.

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Yeah well, having given it more thought the initial point is completely right. The tournament structure was completely messed up with known bracket seeding and such ... Then you have news headlines saying "Badminton players kicked out of Games for trying to lose" when all they were doing was trying to win given the information they had ... Yes, the rules also said that you can't loose your matches on purpose, but if it also limits your chances in the next tournament phase because that will field you against a stronger opponent then you are also playing sub-optimally.

Okay now I'm reverting to competitive thinking. Getting schizophrenic ...

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Mandryka

What if the rules allowed the winner of the match to decide if it counted as a win or a loss for them?

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMober

Mober, nice idea but I think it doesn't actually work. I think the right to forfeit is a basic right that any tournament must respect. It's kind of infeasible to try to prevent forfeiture at any time for any reason. And if we allow forfeiting, then it kind of conflicts with the concept of winning and being allowed to call that a loss. If your opponents suspected this was about to happen, they should forfeit on the spot. Or before the match even takes place. And in either case, you still have the problem of why anyone wants to forfeit in the first place.

It's better to remove the incentive to forfeit to begin with I think. In this case, could be done through randomized brackets. (Or semi-random. Or not random at all, but the exact algorithm not known to the players ahead of time, etc.)

August 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Great writeup. The situation reminds me of the scandal in Japanese Sumo described in the book Freakonomics.

Basically, a tournament is held every year to decide ranking for the wrestlers. In the tournament studied in the book, there seemed to be evidence of match fixing. Each wrestler has 15 matches, and if a wrestler wins at least 8 of the matches, he advances in rank. A particular circumstance that arose multiple times was in a final match between different pairs of wrestlers. Wrestler A had already won enough matches to ensure his ranking up, so a win wasn't very important, but if Wrestler B was a 7-7 record wrestler, winning was a must in order to rank up. Through the data analysis, they discovered that of the 2 wrestlers, who otherwise were evenly matched in early-round matches from previous tournaments, if one was in a 7-7 situation, and the other was not, the 7-7 wrestler would win 75% of the time instead of 50%.

As you said, the situation is just ripe for payoffs.

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSean Sanders

Yeah I thought about mentioning the Sumo thing from Freakonomics. It's another case where lame ducks can kingmake and be paid off to do so. Apparently people deny it's happening, when it obviously is happening. So there you have the denial problem in addition to the problem of blaming players rather than the system that allows lame ducks to kingmake. It's almost like these tournament systems aren't being figured out by game designers.

August 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Well with Mober's idea, a team could still forfeit and not play the game at all, but then the other team would have the right to decide whether the outcome was counted as a win or a loss; if the team really did want to ensure an actual counted loss, they'd have to play out and win the match and then declare a loss, making the spectators happy (since they get to see an actual game).

Obviously having a tournament that incentives getting wins all the time is the ideal, but Mober presumably wants a modified 'forfeit' idea that incentivises teams having to play out, and try to win, matches most of the time (whether the match gets counted as a loss or a win at the end), thus turning fake games into real ones and minimising the number of dropped games (which can still happen, if it doesn't matter at all to a team whether they win or lose).

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAim Here

Well ok, maybe that could work. It's just pretty weird. You also have to consider the case of both teams forfeiting. In a non-crazy tournament where winning is good, you could count both of them as losers. In this weirdo badly designed tournament where losing is good, allowing both the loss might actually be a bad thing to do. Now you'd need to randomly determine a winner (secretly a loser) or something. Might be more straightforward to fix the underlying problem than to draw even more attention to the problem with a conspicuous rule about winning but "getting the privilege of counting that as a loss," ha.

August 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin
Comment in the forums
You can post about this article at