Contenders S1 was the tournament that everyone in the West was waiting to see before the beginning of the Overwatch League, because it would give us an idea of the overall level in the West, would tell us which teams are at the top and how big of a gap there is between the Top 4 teams. Despite a few bumps along the road during the regular season, the overall tournament format was pretty well structured and everyone was getting excited about the playoffs. But then Blizzard decided, without letting the public know, to change the match format for the playoffs, effectively the map pool, that somehow created a rift between what happened in the regular season and what could potentially happen in the playoffs.
First of all, let me state that Blizzard had informed the teams beforehand and they had time to prepare for the changes (although TviQ in a tweet of his stated that he would like a bit more time admittedly), therefore they didn’t really rig the tournament or anything like that. I want to make this clear, so that people don’t see my opinion as an accusation of some sort.
What I want to discuss is the reasoning behind these changes that boils down to making the competition have a bit more variety map-wise and not show constantly the same maps, because people get bored. This reasoning makes absolute sense to anyone who all that cares about is the entertainment value of a competition, since it’s 100% true that repetition is tiring and watching teams go against each other on the same maps two or three times can be considered boring for a game with fairly big map variety. However, this argument neglects a great deal of what competition is actually about: given certain conditions, which is the best team of the ones participating?
The above is the fundamental question that every competition tries to answer and for that to happen, a certain environment must be preserved. Otherwise, if everything in the equation is made into a variable at any given time, it is exponentially harder to weight the different elements and find if a team’s success was attributed mostly to their skill or out-of-the-game factors. The snowball effect in some tournament formats is pretty insane. All it takes is a small change to make sure that a team will struggle more than they are supposed to, given their past performance. A good example for that is Bazooka Puppiez, who were “unlucky” enough to have to play Oasis 6 out of 7 times within a system that has Control map randomized. But in that case it was acceptable, because randomization does not ensure variety. It ensures objectivity. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the outcome would have been any different, but it probably was a bummer for the team to see that they were dealt the same card 6/7 times.
In the playoffs case, by limiting the Control options to only Oasis and Ilios (the tiebreaker map for the regular season), while keeping the first map randomized could very well be the reason the match between Misfits and Clou9 ended 3-2 in favor of Misfits and not 3-1 or 3-0. If Ilios was picked first and Misfits dominated as they did, they would already have closed the match out with a 3-1 score by the end of the 4th map, or even 3-0, if Cloud9 were to lose their Hybrid pick. A lot of things in these matches depend on which Control map is first and how good the teams are on it, when the skill level is not worlds apart. More than that, however, the problem begins when the changes in the format make the past performance of the teams within the same tournament irrelevant. In the case of 123, a really strong team on Hanamura, with the best record in Europe (4 wins – 1 loss), that strong performance mattered not at all, since Hanamura was no longer an option. Apart from the roster change they were forced to make due to unexpected circumstances, they also had to adapt to a very different map pool.
For me, that I like to analyze all these aspects of a team’s performance and find out their relative strength based on the data we have collected from previous matches, this format was the very first chance we had to test such hypothesis and predictions and find out how much we should weight some factors like the overall map strategy, the opening compositions and others. It was just great that everyone was to face all others in a round robin group before playoffs. But even for others, who engage in the predictions game as a means to showcase their skills and how good they are at measuring teams’ strengths intuitively, they visualize how the format will play out and they take some things for granted; one of them being the map pool. Afterwards, they make their predictions and try to engage in discussions with others within the community trying to figure out if they made the best guess or someone thinks the matches could unfold differently.
Making predictions and talking about them is a massive driving force behind competitions and it increases the audience’s engagement and investment to a tournament, leading to increased viewership, as well. People finding out that things have changed without prior notice and these changes can upset their predictions, storylines and everything they had been invested in, is definitely not the best feeling in the world. All of a sudden a lot of the things they valued highly just lose their meaning and the immersion is broken. Personally, I can’t find a good enough reason to change the map pool only for the playoffs betting on the fact that the tournament will suddenly attract more viewers and that all they are interested in is just watching two teams playing on a variety of maps or on maps they like more than others. But maybe it’s only me that feels like this…
Photos with the Contenders emblem in the bottom right corner are courtesy of Robert Paul. Follow him on twitter here. Featured image is courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.