That was a hell of an event! The third iteration of Fright Night was a grand success and I am excitedly planning the next one already. Before I get ahead of myself however there are a lot of useful bits of knowledge that I think need to be imparted on the community. Strap-in because this is likely to get long. Although there may be a reward at the end of it if you stay all the way through.
I’ve been playing competitive events for a variety of different games for nearly 30 years. I’ve participated and run a plethora of different formats, structures, and styles however in no way am I all knowing. There are things that despite my experience I may miss, or prioritize incorrectly. Going back and reassessing after completion is important to continue improving. It is the same logic that I apply to playing Phobies and other aspects of my life. Methodical retrospection is crucial to getting better.
Before we get started keep in mind I am a part of the content affiliate program so I do get compensation from the Smoking Gun Interactive team. Hence why you always see #sponsored
- First Steps
- Why Tournaments?
- Baby’s First Tournament
- Time Zones, How Do They Work?
- No One Reads Signs
- The Danger of Technology
- Who comes out ahead?
- Super Secret
The first step to doing so is taking stock of where we are. Fright Night was a five round swiss tournament with a cut to top eight. This is the first event where prizes were on the line. I am a #sponsored member of the content affiliate program for Phobies and the team was gracious and generous enough to provide prize support:
- 1st – Three Dreadful packs & Phobies hoodie
- 2nd – Two Dreadful packs & Phobies hoodie
- 3rd/4th – One Horrific pack
This is a fairly substantial bounty up for grabs, including physical Phobies swag. In addition to the swiss format, we also utilized the “tournament mode” introduced in a recent patch. That means that everyone was using level 1 Phobies across the board and all games were played with arena rules rather than async. What does this all mean? Well we need to know where things started to understand the context of what happened.
Adding further context, there were players from 10 unique countries competing all over the world. Phobies truly is a global community and it was amazing to get this sort of response. There will be more elaboration on this piece later, as you can likely imagine it certainly factored in.
I love tournaments, but should anyone else? I’ll explain but, several months ago Richard Garfield made the case for hosting tournaments instead of the currently more common ladder system. Who is Richard Garfield? Well he created a few games, you may have heard of Magic: the Gathering for example. Like it or not, it’s kind of a big deal. Way back, I was in the midst of writing my own article on this identical subject and then the creator of the ccg genre beat me to the punch. If you want to check out his take you can see the article at the link below:
The tl;dr is basically this: there are several advantages of tournaments over ladder systems. Among the myriad of reasons, they provide a carrot, a reason to get invested in the game in another way. Tournaments provide more excitement and within a more contained experience. There are psychological factors that play in as well which stimulate different reactions to different factors. Additionally they don’t provide the same negative reinforcement that ladders tend to do. By having this isolated event it prevents people from falling into a rut and tunnel visioning on an mmr point here and there.
Above and beyond all that, the excitement of competition instead of the drudging grind of the ladder is a big enough draw to almost make everything a different game. This is an experience that not everyone is going to enjoy, or are even able to due to real life constraints. I can absolutely understand that and I can sympathize with those that were unable to participate.
There are more reasons outlined in the article and others that I could articulate as well but without dragging this out: tournaments are a marketing tool for 1st parties. They allow hype to be built and engagement to be secured in a way that a ladder just simply cannot offer. A ladder is a treadmill, typically rewarding those who, while at the very least are good players (possibly even the best) generally play more games than anyone else. Even a 50.0000001% win rate will get you to the top of the ladder if you can churn enough games. Conversely tournaments favor whoever plays the best during that event. Even the underdog can come from behind and take down the prize, no matter how unlikely.
Baby’s First Tournament
As you’d expect, not every one is a tournament veteran. This presents a unique set of challenges. Things that are almost second nature to me are not just completely foreign by potentially confounding to many players. This section is in no way intended to be insulting, so please keep that in mind.
Realistically the swiss format is complex. Especially if you were to compare it to a simple single elimination bracket. In the latter you play and if you lose your day is over. Why make things more difficult? A few reasons come to mind, and they are in service of providing a better play experience for the competitors. Swiss means no one is ever eliminated from the event.
The format actually goes back as far as 1895 for chess tournaments and has been successfully implemented in card games nearly 100 years later (again Magic shows up). What’s the advantage? Some are administrative, but as mentioned the focus is on the players. In Fright Night’s case there were five rounds so that meant you are “guaranteed” to play five opponents. The quotes are because there can by byes due to an odd number of players. Each round you are paired with someone of a similar record which means that similar to a ladder, the better you perform, the tougher the competition. These inherently whittles down the field until we have a definitive top eight (T8). There’s math that goes into the number of rounds that you can look up if you care (hint: check out pascal’s triangle).
Still, this format can be confusing to the uninitiated and it also leads to a long day. This is a major factor and a significant chunk of the feedback I have received thus far in my player survey. At 70 minute rounds and five rounds before you even consider T8, that’s a massive time investment. Tournaments are like that inherently. Regardless of format you can expect any event that goes above 8 people to likely take a significant amount of time. This immediately precludes some people from competing no matter how good they are or how badly they want to play. Real life comes first right? I am exploring other options to try and alleviate this but I wanted to run down some alternatives and talk about them:
- Run the event over a longer period (weeks) where each round is 2-3 days – This was actually the format for Fright Night #1 and #2. Back then we only had async and couldn’t limit the phobie levels. realistically this was a nightmare to organize. If you think telling people to show up at a specific time on a specific day was bad, then how about trying to get people to coordinate work schedules when they are 12 hours apart! Inevitably someone is playing at 4 in the morning and they won’t know until a day or two before hand. At least with Fright Night scheduled in advance (more on that later) you knew going in how your day was going to look and when (also a later discussion point). I do not believe this is a good format for a tournament, but decent for a league. Elongating the event runs the risk of less players being able to participate rather than more.
- Split T8 to another day – Comparatively this is a reasonable request. Not without issues though. Let’s say that the event starts at 11AM Eastern (-4GMT currently) that means for parts of the world the event starts at 10PM (22:00) or other unreasonable times. It’s how time works. With T8 on the following day we are now asking people to absolutely crush their entire weekend sleep schedule in order to compete, assuming they perform well of course. If we have T8 on another weekend entirely you run the risk of competitors being unable to have that availability across a period of weeks. Realistically there are pitfalls either way.
- Time Limits – As mentioned rounds were 70 minutes. Any game that was in progress when time was called is a draw. I don’t have an issue with draws inherently, they can even happen naturally in a game of Phobies. The issue is just getting players to play at a reasonable pace in order to complete the round in a “natural” way. It is somewhat exacerbated by the map ban system which seems to be popular among players. Time can of course be truncated by choosing single game matches but that’s a different point. Even at 70 minute rounds you are cutting it close to having a ton of draws. This also isn’t inherently bad as many competitive games such as the Pokemon TCG have dealt with this issue for years. That being said it is unsatisfying and the goal is to provide a fun engaging experience for the players.
- Best 2-of-3 – Most people probably recognize that the more games you play the more likely you are to reach the “correct” outcome, e.g. the better player won the match. Key point is better player playing that match. Now there are diminishing returns. We don’t need to have Joe-Schmoe-just-picked-up-the-game play a best of 99 series against aTrend (grats champion!). Additionally there are clearly logistical concerns. However, best of three allows for a few different advantages – First it is more popular and seems more fun to most but not all players. Next it affords a map pick/ban system so players with weaker collections but keen sharp minds can try to leverage maps to their advantage. Third it minimizes the “well I didn’t know they had” factor. Going this route only reinforces the time issue though. Imagine if I didn’t allow for draws and someone had to play three 50 minutes games in round one? Not impossible if you both play cautiously depending on the maps chosen. In the swiss format this holds up the entire event as we cannot start the next round until all matches are completed.
- Swiss plus two – The first time I was introduced to this was with the VS tcg. VS 1.0 that is. Long story short you still use swiss but it is single game matches and you play 2 extra rounds. To make this more concrete: With five rounds of 70 minutes, and assuming no delays (lol) you are at 5.83 hours before considering T8. Whereas with swiss + two you play 7 rounds at say 35 minutes a round and you end up with 4.083 hours. A significant difference. I am personally not a fan of this structure but it isn’t without precedent.
- Brackets – Clearly single elimination will result in the quickest event. That isn’t necessarily the goal. Most people shy away from this sort of thing and I cannot blame them. Imagine you are in the part of the world where you need to clear the hours of 10PM and 4AM to play. Then you get knocked out at 1AM. Just go to bed right? Well that assumes you didn’t rearrange your sleep schedule to accommodate or other real life factors. Single-elimination is fine for the top cut in order to determine a winner. I find it unreasonable for the event proper. Double-elimination has other organizational issues. Remember how I was that running the async events were challenging? Double-elimination will have similar problems. Without set start/end times people will effectively wander off and you likely end up handing out more default losses than you would otherwise. It also does not really scale very well and has a similar player elimination problem. The logistical gains haven’t been something I’ve seen realized. However, the ease of understanding for players may outweigh everything. Brackets are typically easier for people to grok. They do require advance seeding to really make them fair and that’s another point against them. Swiss effectively self corrects. I’m not a fan of this setup, but we will see.
- Flights – Why not combine multiple options? Whether swiss or brackets if you break the events into smaller ones so that they are max 8 players that inherently caps the maximum time investment. It would take some juggling, but it is also possible to ensure that players can only player in one wave per day and then run say 3 or 4 waves over the course of the day. It doesn’t really make my life any easier, and possibly makes it more difficult but the goal is player experience right? This addresses the time zone issue and gives people a more bite-size digestible environment. It does introduce some weird complications. What if a bunch of strong players sign-up for flight 2? Is everyone else going to shy away from it and try to get into the others? Are players satisfied with only playing a handful of matches? Is investing several hours worth a significantly reduced prize? I’m not sure yet.
- Group stages – Although I believe soccer does this, my experience for this setup is with Starcraft 2. Basically players are sorted into 4 person groups. You play a miniature bracket where two players advance from each group. Those players are then seeded into a larger bracket or swiss event and play things out from there. This halves the player quantity somewhat quickly thereby requiring less rounds. Similar to plain brackets this causes variable time investments for players as they could get knocked out early, not necessarily desirable. Secondly, just like brackets it kind of needs seeing. We could utilize ladder ranking and just cut off sign-ups a couple days ahead of time so I can snapshot where people stand but something about that setup rubs me the wrong way. Regardless the time savings may be worth it.
- Best of Two – This is a really weird idea that isn’t truly fleshed out. Basically players with play two games, truncating the round time to account for this. Most of you are probably thinking “what happens if they are 1-1?” well the tie breaker could be something as simple as “who won in the shortest number of turns?” This emphasizes more aggressive play which may be a virtue in and of itself as that should help shorten round times. However, I think encouraging this introduces some ripples which may not be so desirable. One of which is just pushing players into play patterns that may be uncomfortable. That’s bad enough, but going beyond it, what if one player chooses a small map and the other a large map? Are the large map enjoyers just inherently at a disadvantage? Realistically that isn’t an inherent problem. Many games just accept or actively up lift certain play patterns but using highest life total, sudden death, or other rules that favor an aggressive stance. This may lead to everyone always choosing small maps but from a structural standpoint maybe that is OK.
There are other salient points but this gives people a peek behind the curtain of the considerations. Adding 5 minutes to each round could result in an extra 25 minutes added to the day. Minor delays, including player ignorance of certain rules/procedures, can really through a wrench in the works.
As an aside I believe there is a place for bracket events as part of the official client. In all honesty, I don’t think I’d ever play ladder again if there was for example an eight player single-elimination queue available. That’s how much I love tournaments. This isn’t unprecedented either. The Pokemon TCG online client has ported such a thing for many years now. Of course the various online Magic offerigs have a plethora of tournament options, and Mythgard has an incredibly robust tournament client which outstrips the others.
Time Zones, How Do They Work?
This could have possibly been including in the section above but I felt the need to call it out. I also would get to include the funny meme as easily. I felt this justified its own section as a result. Try to picture me laughing as I convey all this to you.
Remember I said that Phobies is a global game? That can carry some challenges with it. In this specific case it was simply scheduling. Yes the information was available in advance, but that doesn’t change that someone has to play at a bizarre hour of the day. Sleep schedules are A Thing. The ask is not insignificant and although I live and breath tournaments in every game I play, I totally understand trepidation.
In addition just simply coordinating things can be a challenge. A number of competitors reached out to me inquiring about when the event would be starting and how things would go as this was clearly a major time investment. There isn’t much to add here other than simply – without more regionalized tournaments there will always be difficulty in scheduling. It somewhat circles back to the above section with changing the structure. Should events be capped even lower so that the tournaments are shorter? Possibly.
No One Reads Signs
Similar to the section above, this was an expected problem. In my playing career, hell in my life this has been an ever present issue. It seems to be a human trait that transcends boundaries. People just do not read instructions.
The complexity of the event, in conjunction with people potentially participating at weird hours, and it being a new experience to many lead to some minor delays over the course of the tournament. While I felt the floor rules were clear, they could be improved.
Unfortunately the documents are going to be dry, that’s inherent to the subject matter. I’m not writing a novel with this stuff. Well, I mean you could compare it to that due to length, but you get the point. Until players are comfortable with the process there are going to be questions and that’s a good thing! Asking questions is always welcomed and of course getting them aired as soon as possible is preferred. That way any potential issues can be clarified and addressed before they actually impact anything. It doesn’t matter if it is confusion about the round structure, how the map ban system works, how long the round timer is, time zones, or anything else. I’m happy to work with each participant so they are comfortable. It will lead to a better experience for everyone involved.
What’s the answer? Realistically it is the same as the above section: more experience. Both for the players and the organizers AKA me. Although I generally expected all the issues that came up it was the overall idea, not specific instances. There’s no way to predict everything, really just the broad strokes. That means I’ll have to refine things as time moves on. For example a players meeting before the event just to give a high-level overview before things actually kick off is likely to be added going forward. Of course rewrites of the rules could be in order as well.
As players become more comfortable with the lay of the land this will flow more smoothly. I’ve been right at the beginning for lots of tournaments scenes and these growing pains are not abnormal. It’s just part of the process as the scene matures.
The Danger of Technology
Although I could run the tournament with pen and paper it’s a lot bigger of a headache than it should be. Enter start.gg. In theory this should be a simple digital sign-up it gives players a ton of information and lets me organize things in a much simpler fashion. In practice nearly every single participant (myself included) reported problems.
The problems ranged from inability to sign-up, difficulty navigating the site/menus, mobile just is trash. Lots of issues. Still, this is better than having to do it another way, namely by hand. Regardless, in the interest of improving I will be exploring other options. Likely there is just simply unfamiliarity on all parts with the website and that led to some less than satisfactory experiences.
Although at the time of writing this I haven’t heard back from all participants in the event we do have about two-thirds of the competitors replying and based on their comments I think you can call Fright Night #3 a big success! Pretty much everyone said they not only had a great time but signs point to interest in future events. It isn’t all rainbows and unicorn farts though.
The largest complaint was unsurprisingly about the large time commitment. Not to be a broken record but this was not unexpected either. Tournaments do demand a lot from the participants. Even if your day effectively ends early by being eliminated from prize contention, you still probably blocked out your real life schedule and if you were still within striking distance of top cut or prizes then obviously you are still slugging it out every single round. That’s a lot of ask of people. The good news is that Fright Night seems to be mostly on the right track. Best of 3 is really popular, level 1 phobies makes games more entertaining seemingly across the board, and swiss meant that people weren’t just kicked out from the event prematurely.
Now is the complicated part, trying to make the adjustments necessary to improve the tournament while still satisfying everyone’s taste for bloo….I mean competition. To that end I am posting a second survey with slightly tighter questions to really determine what players want. Hopefully anyway. If you participated in Fright Night #3 or are interested in playing in a future one, let me know what you think!
Who comes out ahead?
One of the worst kept secrets about tournaments is they are marketing. The majority of pretty much any player base is not competitive, but instead casual players. They outnumber any hyper invested individual by orders of magnitude. That’s why even if a single player whales the game and is consumed by Phobies, obsessed with it at all times, they are still dwarfed and drowned out in the noise of thousands more people who put in between $0 and $2.
Tournaments exist both to appease the competitive mindset but also to invigorate and excite players of all kinds. Tournaments give them something to talk about and look forward to. As mentioned above the ladder can be a real grind and it doesn’t take a wild imagination to see a grind wearing people down. Competition in the form of tournaments, playoffs, and championships give people that a unique treat. Something excitement to get caught up in. This in turn leads to more attention on the game. Ideally the excitement results in net new players and more packs/subscriptions/boosts being bought.
Fright Night has grown with each iteration, and that is fantastic. However, I want to keep that streak going. It is important to both justify the event’s existence to the developers as well as show that the “experiment” works. Growth shows there is an interest in not just the competitive scene as a whole but also the specific parameters for a given event. Although the information can be gleaned ahead of time through surveys and pools, ultimately when people show up to play is the real test of what they want.
In the end I have to call Fright Night #3 a success. There were of course challenges but no endeavor involving humans is perfect. I will continue to improve and hopefully bring the sort of events that continue to energize the player base and are enjoyable for competitor and spectator alike. Single day tournaments, more league/season based events, maybe competitive clan wars with other content creators. These are only a few of the ideas swimming in my head. I am ready to get the next one off the ground!
If you have any feedback, comments, suggestions, questions, whatever feel free to join the Random(‘s) Thoughts discord! As always everyone. Thank you for listening, thank you for watching, and Black Lives Matter.
You made it this far? You mad person! For your efforts I both commend you offer a picture of my baby – Harley. She’s a very good girl.