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.