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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)

One other alternate solution is how many major Bridge tournaments are run. Once the top 16 who make the knockout (single elim) round are decided, the top 8 are, in order, allowed to choose their first round opponent from the bottom 8 qualifiers. Their second round opponent is still determined, I believe, but their first round opponent is at their choice. So if the top seed didn't want to face the sixteenth seed, say, they could choose the 15th, or whomever they felt was easiest or fit into their theory of who gives them the best chance to win.

It doesn't technically eliminate the Chinese strategy - of trying to be on opposite sides of the bracket - but it does reward you for a higher seed. The eighth seed, for example, is almost inevitably going to face the hardest team in the bottom 8 (and then the 1 seed!). So you have a strong incentive to be higher on the order. The only problem is if you have a couple of teams who are near shoe ins for a medal - say, Michael Phelps in 2008 - in which case perhaps you assume you can win no matter who you face, but in that case your sport doesn't have sufficient competitive balance, and the organizers need to either fix that, or just give up on having a tournament and crown the top team winner :)

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Verenti: king makers and lame ducks are self-evidently bad in competition, I mean seriously. Perhaps you can get others with more time to explain such an obvious thing. It also seems self evident that a tournament containing fake matches is much worse than one not containing them. Your whole post is kind of this nonsense unintelligible thing to me. I'm sure others will pick it a part for me and give you a general wtf.

Christopher: what a mysterious post. Yeah the disgrace is making a system that cause smart play to make a mockery of the sport. So the disgrace is with the rulesmaker.

xero: the random seeing would just need to happen one or zero times, not every round. Like pools -> random seeding once -> single elim would have solved this particular problem (and left other problems that have to do with round robin pools). Pools that are double elimination -> top 2 advance -> to the main bracket that's also double elimination (losses DON'T reset) wouldn't need any random seeding after the tournament started. The Evolution fighting game tournament has several different systems, including that one. In that one, there's actually never a reason to lose on purpose other than really, really external things like being paid off or something. But a loss pretty much always hurts you in double elimination and there are no lame ducks ever.

Jeff, your idea to let winners pick their opponents in a bracket is interesting. Ultimately I don't like that idea, but not for the reasons your sports forum doesn't, lol. I think it gives too much power to the winners actually. Already being ahead in the bracket is kind of enough power already. And also, I think as much of the "game" as possible should occur during...well...gameplay as opposed to during crufty parts of the tournament structure. That's kind of what you meant by people wanting it to be simple without pre-match procedures like drafting of opponents. So it was interesting to think about, but really just randomizing the bracket the bracket (with seeding preserved) at the time of a cut to a top 8 or top 16 or whatever seems like enough.

August 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Verenti: You're misunderstanding Sirlin's argument here. If someone is participating in an event where kingmaker and lame duck situations are encouraged by the rules of the tournament, then yes, it is strategically wise to exploit those things whenever possible (well, the kingmaker thing, not so much. But the point is that the players should *not* be blamed for taking advantage of either of these situations. We're all in agreement here).

The whole point of this article is that the rules should be changed so that these weird situations never arise in the first place. You seem to dispute that too, though, for some reason. Are you suggesting that it is *good* for tournament rules to encourage situations where a player/team with zero chance of winning the tournament can continue to affect its outcome for political (or otherwise unrelated to the competition at hand) reasons? And are you suggesting that it is *good* for tournament rules to encourage situations where one or both players/teams have no reason to participate (but are forced to anyway)? Why?

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristoph

I like the analysis, but if you allow and enforce a right to forfeit - what happens if BOTH teams in a given match want to lose for the same reasons? I think one of these Olympic matches falls into that category, where both teams effectively wanted to lose. In that case how do you handle it in the context of forfeiture? First to forfeit? I think that's why a prior commenter said perhaps the winner could elect to count the match as either a win or loss, their choice.

But it still seems an imperfect solution.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCurious

"If you don't, you aren't playing to win, and you are kind of a bad competitor"

It all goes wrong in this statement. If you're a good competitor - you are always playing to win, no matter if it's a team that's all but out of the tournament, whether YOUR team is already out of the tournament, or if it's just determining seedings. If you don't think you can beat each and every other team in the tournament you have no business winning it. If you're depending on upsets, you have no business winning it. If these badminton teams didn't think they could beat the so-called top ranked team that had already been upset (hint hint, maybe they aren't as good as you thought) then you have no business thinking you could win the gold medal.

There are only incentives to lose if you're not a true competitor.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThanatos

Random seeding would not have fixed this - it actually would have made it worse.

The concern was that the Chinese A team would meet the B team in the semi-final, which would have allowed the Chinese to get, at best, gold and bronze. (That's what kicked this all off - the other tanking occurred because the Chinese started tanking.) I assume that your random seeding would pit teams that finished first in their group against teams that finished second in a random different group (first versus second since obviously you can't have teams that finished first in their group eliminating each other in the first round, and a different group since you don't want a quarterfinal to just repeat a group match that may have just been played).

Now think about it. Previously they were concerned that they would only get gold and bronze if the Chinese A team won their group. But your random seeding could have thrown them together in the quarter-final, meaning that the Chinese would at maximum have gotten one medal.

To do the math, assuming that the Chinese teams win all their games in the elimination round (unless against each other, of course)...

Chinese A team wins their group, Chinese B team comes in second in another group (Olympic spirit):
3/9 chance China wins gold only, 2/9 chance China wins gold and bronze, 4/9 chance China wins gold and silver

Chinese A and B teams both come in second (tanking):
3/9 chance China wins gold and bronze, 6/9 chance China wins gold and silver

Clear advantage to tanking.

The real problem here is not that people were "improving their draw" by tanking, the problem was that the Chinese A team were not doing what was best for their team, they were doing what was best for the other team. Indeed, the Chinese A team would have worsened their draw by losing. The solution here is actually simple, and it's in fact exactly what FIFA did after the Austrians and West Germans did something extremely similar in the 1982 World Cup group stages, deliberately playing to a 1-0 victory for West Germany to allow them both to move through to the elimination round. You simply play the final matches in the groups at the same time. If the Chinese A team doesn't know whether the Chinese B team has lost, they have zero reason to tank.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid S

Thanatos: that post is entirely nonsense. Why do I even approve posts like that? You quoted something where I said a competitor should do whatever is most effective to win the tournament, then appeared to disagree with that in an incoherent way.

Davd S: Random seeding really does solve a problem. The non-random version is actually completely crazy. The situation at hand is that you are guaranteed entry into a single elimination tournament (you will definitely get top 2 in the pools) AND you have complete knowledge about who is where in that bracket. So you are just choosing which of 2 spots you'd like to be in that bracket by winning or losing. There is no penalty for losing at all, really. Normally losing would put you in a loser's bracket or eliminate you or hurt your record or something. But not here. Win/lose is just if you want to appear here or there in the bracket. It's infeasible and unworkable.

You need to NOT have perfect information about the bracket you'll be in if a tournament has this situation where you lose and there's no penalty. If you didn't know who you'd face, then you'd want to try to win that match because on average, you'll have an easier time if you're seeded to play against losers than to play against winners. The entire problem here is if you throw out "on average" and replace it with specific knowledge of the exact opponent you will face. Don't need any averages there and it becomes actually fairly *likely* that you'll want to lose. With random seeding (preserving advantage for the set of winners), you would almost never want to lose on purpose.

Curious: in most cases (not all) it's easy to handle double forfeit. In single elimination, they are both eliminated. In double elimination, if each already has a loss, they are both eliminated. In double elimination if neither yet has a loss...sure now you need a rule, but who cares anyway because there is no actual strategic reason to do this in double elimination. In Swiss, both get a loss. In round robin, both get a loss. In this weirdo thing where losing is good like in Olympic badminton...ok now you really really need a rule for it. But this just goes to show how fucked up it is in the first place. No reasonable tournament would even NEED a carefully thought out rule for double forfeit, because it's usually just straight up bad to forfeit in the first place.

August 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Back to Dave Hogg's point, I think the moment mass market audience and advertisement is part of the equation, the fairness of the competition is gonna take a hit. I don't know of a major sport that uses double elimination while I think we can all agree that it is a superior system to determine the best performer at an event.

Also, as I was watching the video of an incriminated game: Check the video at the bottom of the article I couldn't help but think that the players weren't playing to their full potential here.

Yes, they were thinking one step ahead, trying to get in their desired position in the bracket by loosing, but they were infringing on a rule that would get them disqualified. It was part of the competition rules, and the referee warned them verbally, but they kept going at it, producing a very bad show for the audience, and finally got DQed.

A better play here would have been to play to loose that match while pretending to be trying to win ...

After all, acting is a part of many very popular sports (video) ... But it is true that people that designed the rules of that Badminton tournament probably don't understand the consequences of the rules they put in place.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Mandryka

Alex: the "rule" they were violating has no place in a set of tournament rules. At all. And that's the point. Invoking that rule is like saying "Our tournament rules are a sham. In case we just don't like you, we have an escape clause." The very use of that rule is embarrassing to the sport, far moreso than players making smart decisions about gaming the bracket. The real escape clause they need is the one that makes is expressly ok to forfeit rather than play a fake match. (Then step 2 is removing the incentive to WANT to lose in a tournament.)

I also have to question the either/or attitude that you can either have sensical rules or make money. I think you can make plenty of money within the space of sensible rules. If anything, the lack of people booing your sport might help you make more. It would be quite a thing to claim that the entire set of possible fair rules doesn't contain a single ruleset that is an acceptable way to make money. I assume you aren't making that incredibly strong claim. And if you aren't, then the course of action would be finding a good ruleset, not defending an embarrassingly bad one.

August 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

god i was hearing about this on NPR the other day and i wanted to yell at their faces.

what a shitty federation that creates conflicts of interest (winning a match vs winning the gold) and severely penalizing players who were doing what they are asked of them from the start?

both the badminton federation and the olympics look like bunch of stupid fools for doing what they did.

olympics so far have been full of systematic failures of proper rules and enforcements - did you hear about the korean fencer playing in semi-finals? she was winning, and the time ran out. however the timer malfunctioned, gave more time to the opponent, and the opponent won the game after the match was supposed to be over.

so what they did was let the winner stand, and make the loser play 3rd place match after making them stick around the stage in full gear for an hour.

bunch of retards i say.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLB

LB: they do indeed look like fools. It would be one thing if this were an isolated mistake that they worked to correct. But instead they are blaming competitors rather than fixing the clearly bad system. It's hard to take such an organization seriously. Their actions (creating a system where losing can be good but is taboo to take advantage of that) are undermining the very spirit of competition and they don't even know it.

August 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Any time forfeiting a match would be a net benefit is a bad situation. IMO the goal of any sport/game tournament should be to produce the best possible play in every match. Gaming the tournament structure itself should not be rewarded.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

Thanatos, If you define winning as 'winning every match' then use single elimination to determine the medals. If you use a different format, you can't come back later and change the meaning of a win.

There are so many worthwhile problems to solve in the world, why are people trying to reinvent the wheel?

The answer is advertising and ticket sales, not that sales itself is bad, but the relationship between salesmen and competitors is becoming inverted. Instead of salesmen selling the competition, they are manipulating the competition to create more 'sellable matches', and creating artificial competitions that look like real competition, but are overly complicated and easily exploitable.

Do you think that the bans were about competition? About winning? Or about saving face and not having to admit they changed the format KNOWING this could happen. This is about a bet, a bet the organizers made that they could use a substandard format, get more spectators, and that the players would just play along. They bet, they lost, and the IOC and society is bailing them out

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFmjaggy

Random seeding solves a completely different problem from what happened here. Random seeding solves the problem where a team deliberately loses to play against a particular team, but that's NOT what happened here. What happened was a team accepting a worse elimination opponent to benefit another team.

This is quite simple and concrete. If they had stopped the tournament before China A played and instituted random seeding, China A would still tank the game, as I showed. As such, random seeding did not fix the problem. You are welcome to claim "you will almost never want to lose on purpose" all you want - they would want to lose on purpose in this exact setting.

On the other hand, if they had stopped the tournament before the final games were played and played them all at the same time, China A would not have tanked the game.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid S


"Tris, of course forfeiting should be allowed. The alternative is absurd: forfeiting isn't allowed (or is punished beyond simply losing)."

Is surely nonsense. The idea that any team in any tournament can forfeit without further punishment is what's absurd. Would anyone think it was okay if they went to a Starcraft tournament and the players forfeited in an arranged order right up to the final, so no matches were actually played?

Would anyone who paid to go watch the Superbowl or the FA cup final be happy if I'd managed to get a coaching job, and said "We are forfeiting, because this is the cumulation of my elaborate plan to prove that Sirlin was wrong on the internet a few years ago" Would that be okay?

Remember, you are advocating anyone being allowed to forfeit in any tournament for any reason, and to face no consequences beyond losing. I think that's fundamentally incompatible with the idea of sport as live spectacle.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTris

Let's be clear that the tournament design isn't some crazy thing cooked up by the BWF, but is instead a fairly standard design commonly used throughout the Olympics and other sporting tournaments.

Say the U.S. men's basketball team had gotten upset by France in the opening game (just as the China B-team was upset by the Danish pair in badminton). Assume that given the remaining schedules for the U.S., France, Russia, and Spain, the only other game anyone expects any of those teams to lose is that somebody has to lose the Russia-Spain game. Absent the possibility of disqualification, Spain now would have every incentive to shoot at its own basket in that game (and Russia to shoot at its own basket, as well).

That's because France, by virtue of winning against the U.S., becomes the #1 seed from the A pool while the U.S. is the #2 seed. The B pool's #1 seed will run into the U.S. in the semifinals, assuming both win their quarterfinal matches, while the B #2 won't face the U.S. until the finals. (This is even more stark for the B #3 and #4, which face the U.S. in the quarters or finals, respectively).

Part of the issue with the tournament design is in what it takes into account in deciding "reward". Team X beats Team Y; therefore, the design thinks, playing against Team Y first is a "reward" compared to playing Team X. But if everyone believes the X over Y result was a fluke and Y is actually the stronger team, then the design incentivizes coming in second in the opposite pool and playing the "winner" X.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShigeru

FMJaggy, very well-put.

Tris: nice snarky language. You're getting lost with forest for the trees, or something, though you're probably most interested in being antagonistic. The actual real point is that forfeiting needs to be preferable to playing a fake match because a fake match is far worse. Second, you can't force someone to play, and if you try when they don't want to, you're back to the original problem: fake matches. If you want to stop an entire tournament from not happening due to extreme collusion, "you can't forfeit" is a bad solution to that problem, a non-solution actually. So you'd be back to where I said: solving it a different way while still allowing forfeits because it's crazy to tell people they can't play when they don't want to. This isn't about forfeits anyway, it's about a system where winning is actually preferable to losing with a footnote of "and if you would play a fake match, then please don't: forfeit instead." That footnote hopefully happens sometime close to 0% of the time. It happens more, the solution isn't disallow forfeits (infeasible, crazy, and stupid). Instead it's to continue to allow them and address whatever the actual problem is.

August 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Shigeru: If this known-terrible method of running tournaments is, as you say, not just a badminton thing but common among many Olympic and other sporting events...the only conclusion I can see is that it's really embarrassing bad a situation for many Olympic and other sporting events. If there's an incentive to lose a match, as there is here, it's kind of a fraudulent system overall. That it's "standard" is even more damning to all involved, not less damning. Though maybe that's your point.

August 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Tris> The forfeit rule is a failsafe designed for those cases in badly designed tournaments where the game to be played is *already* going to be a mockery of sport as a spectacle, such as the badminton games we're talking about. Forcing players to play out such a farce, and putting them in a terrible, Kafkaesque double-bind to boot, is surely worse than not playing the games at all.

Your rather extreme examples have the common problem that there's NO tournament system on earth that can resolve them. If the Korean Starcraft leagues decide, in a burst of mass chivalry, that Tossgirl is to win the next OSL, and will fix the matches to that end, then the lack of a forfeit rule certainly isn't going to stop them. Starcraft is already a very easy game to surreptitiously lose, especially if you're up against a top-tier Korean professional. If Alex Ferguson and Manchester United decide they're going to lose every premier league match from now until the end of time, just to spite some newspaper pundit who said otherwise, then he's not going to have much trouble throwing the relevant matches.

It has to be taken more or less on trust that people who participate in sports are attempting to win the tournaments they play in, because otherwise sport just would not work in the first place. Of course, sportsmen are occasionally shown to have arranged matches for out-of-game reasons (like betting on themselves to lose, for instance) and in those cases, if caught, they're rightly punished. Forfeiting a match for such a reason would not only be equally punishable, but would be a blatant red flag that something was up, unless of course there was some justification for it (such as it being an optimal move in a bad tournament, or to prevent injury or conserver energy in immaterial matches). If you saw Alex Ferguson forfeiting his way through an entire season, then it's pretty safe to assume that he's trying to not win, and you can set your investigators on his blatant matchfixing ass right away!

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAim Here

Aim Here: Yes, exactly.

August 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin
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