Rules and Hallmarks of Competition
Bans in the FGC
Culture and Subjectivity
Rulesets Cannot be Perfect
Rules and Hallmarks of Competition
Games are played with certain inherent limitations. For a traditional sport, these mostly include physical limitations such as laws of physics, human endurance, and the like. For an esport, these include the limitations of the game such as programed physics, character limitations, and the like. Sometimes these limits can be bent to our competitive advantage. Other times they need to be bolstered in order to preserve fairness or competitive validity. This is the purpose of a ruleset.
Rules are artificial, additional limitations that we put on a game so that it will be a better measure of competitive skill. Skill can be understood as expertise or ability. It can be very clear-cut (running fast in a footrace) or more inclusive (using teamwork, strategy, tactics, and other practiced physical and mental sub-skills to beat another team in basketball). The word Competitive, though, is a bit loaded. To better understand it we need to consider the following hallmarks of competition, which are well articulated here.
To paraphrase, in competitive games
1) Skill is measured fairly.
All variables are constant except the skill being tested are constant. You are allowed to do everything that your opponent can. Any difference in conditions other than skill is either negligible or considered inconsequential in comparison. In a footrace, every competitor runs the same distance in the same conditions. Although they may wear different shoes, shoes are not generally consequential in comparison with the skill of running fast.
2) There are universal rules designed to preserve fairness.
These rules will emphasize rather than change what the game measures. This may be a fine line. Swimsuits are all fair game until their sole influence adequately determines results, at which point they are bannable. In a less ambiguous example, doping is banned as it effectively eliminates the skill being measured and substitutes it with “access to steroids.”
3) Results are unambiguous.
The more skillful player wins. The less skillful player loses. Any draws contribute to rankings by way of a ladder etc or are solved by sudden death etc.
Some games are naturally very competitive. Others are not. There are two main indicators of natural un-competitiveness. First, if a game is overly simple and the skill-cap too low, its competitiveness suffers. TicTacToe is so easy to play perfectly that it is not competitive. Second, a game can be too high variance. A game where luck determines results more than skill is not competitive. Uno is not a competitive game. That being said, there are some games (including Poker) in which variance does not outweigh skill so much as accent it. Generally speaking, a game that is high in luck and low in skill (Rock Paper Scissors) can be competed in but is at least not a good competitive game. By default settings, Melee is such a game. However, over its competitive lifespan, the Melee community has used an evolving set of rulesets/bans to all but eliminate variance and emphasize skill. It is now a very competitive game.
Bans in the FGC
Traditionally, FGC rulesets (best of 3, 90 seconds or what have you) are simple and in the game itself. Those kinds of rules are in place already and rarely need to be altered. The purpose of a rule-change or ban is to make the game more competitive than it is natively. To avoid abuse, rule-changes are treated seriously and their reasoning is well-documented. On occasion a tactic or character appears that changes the competitive landscape enough to warrant banning. The guidelines in place for bans are spelled out in Playing To Win.
PtW says that any ban must be
• Enforceable (detectable)
• Discrete (completely defined/unambiguous)
• and Warranted (dominates the game)
Because these criteria (particularly Warranted) are so strict, the FGC rarely bans in-game techniques or characters that don’t make the game unplayable. Rather, they accept that strong tactics are strong tactics. As long as it is possible to beat a character without the exclusion of other tactics, that technique, while strong, does not break the game. If it makes the game unfun or uninteresting then in truth the game was always unfun or uninteresting; you just didn’t know before. But more often the rampant use of a strong tactic drives the development of counter-tactics and counter-counter tactics, actually radically deepening the level of play. For this reason preemptive bans are unacceptable. They will not ban anything reflexively before it is demonstrated to be meaningful, dominant problem that breaks a game’s competitiveness. This approach is very fitting with the FGCs harsh, Get Good, adaption-centric culture. It is also quite reasonable, considering that any tactics that are not clearly bannable are likely to disappear with time, be it through meta-evolution, update patches, or a new title in the series.
Interestingly, in the same chapter PtW describes a concept it calls a “Soft Ban.” A soft ban is a sort of social stigma against using “unfair” characters or techniques. In the book, it describes top players in Japan refusing to use Akuma or Old Sagat, despite their being borderline bannable. Because they weren’t used except by uppity players that were quickly humiliated by veterans, these characters never dominated results and thus a ban wasn’t warranted. Relying on a social taboo wasn’t necessarily perfect, but in this case it was sufficient to keep the game worth playing and preserving the potential for meta-development. It is interesting to see this anecdote in a book called Playing to Win, a book that places extreme emphasis on removing moralistic judgement from your approach to games. It reminds us that these games are not played in a vacuum. They exist within a culture of players with complex value systems. In the smaller, insular communities that PtW was written for, soft bans are not just acceptable but preferable to hard bans. They are, for the time being, good enough. When they aren’t good enough then presumably a hard ban comes into effect OR the game is patched/updated at which point the problem vanishes.
Note: I do not think that the FGC criteria as defined by PtW is the best system, but it is definitely foundational.
Culture and Subjectivity
Ultimately, competitive games are an objective measure of skill. However, what skills they are designed to measure is a subjective judgement. This is easy to demonstrate with SSBM. As a community, we have decided to play with 4 stocks, 8 minutes, and no items. This is a radically different set of in-game rules than the default 2 minute time match with random items. Some casuals complain that competitive melee is not a measure of “real” skill because it does not account for other aspects of the game such as the situational awareness that comes from coping with items or some stages. That opinion seems scrubby to us, but it is not untrue. The current competitive ruleset does measure specific skills at the necessary exclusion of others. It measures a smaller set of skills that we collectively decided to be more desirable. In particular, we reject most variance. Most of our ruleset is specifically designed to root out randomness in favor of consistency. But in an alternate universe, a competitive melee scene based on an alternate set of values could exist. In universe B where competitive melee is played out in coin battles there would be an entirely different culture that develops entirely different rulesets that give rise to entirely different strategies, tier lists, and rankings that are all still highly-competitive. That would be fine. The difference between universe A and B is what skills we prefer to measure, what we value seeing and experiencing, what we think is good. While not quite arbitrary, this is obviously a subjective judgement.
It is also important to recognize that Melee is unique game with specific and individualized possibilities. Those particular possibilities excite and inspire the community that is drawn to it. If you ask competitors what they love about melee you will receive a number of different responses, but all of these will be particular to the game and are the basis of the culture that surrounds it. Melee, like any expressive medium, becomes a meeting point for people, their values, their experience, and the particular idiosyncrasies and limitations of each. The best possible ruleset is the best possible catalyst for this meeting as competition. It is not just possible but probable that its subjectively valued skillset will have a different identity than those of other games and subcultures. Which is all to say that melee is a unique game that attracts a unique culture and that its ruleset requires unique consideration. Furthermore, the creation of its ruleset is synonymous with the identification of values.
Rulesets Cannot Be Perfect
Very competitive games demand constant evolution. In order to get an edge, players constantly push the boundaries of what is possible. Consequently, there is a huge amount of uncertainty as to what techniques or strategies will remain at the top and rulesets can no more predict this than the people that make them. Rulesets cannot be perfect. The relationship between the game's rules and the community is at least as fluid as the meta. Sometimes bans (soft or hard) are appropriate, sometimes they aren’t. Because the skills that we choose to measure are subjective, any elaborations that we make upon the game’s limitations (i.e. rules/bans) are also subjective. In the FGC there’s an implicit understanding that rulesets are not perfect so much as serviceable. They are free to evolve and likely to fall into disuse as new patches or new games come out. Because Melee has been around for so long, we tend to forget this.
Because Melee is not a traditional fighter, some of the guidelines to traditional fighter rulesets do not apply so readily. In particular, liberal stage bans in the smash community have undoubtedly been positive, as have the other format changes that FGC criteria would have a hard time justifying. It is important to recognize that while a traditional fighter can rely on the meta, patches or new games to clean up its messes before any rule changes, Melee can only rely on meta and rule changes. Luckily the game has been able to sustain an astonishing amount of counter-play development, but some rule changes have been beneficial. The strict PtW guidelines are are fantastic, but certainly not unassailable gospel. Rather, it would be to our benefit to better identify in hot topics the exact points of disagreement as they relate to competitiveness and skill assessment while recalling the usefulness of soft bans.
Many disagreements over rulesets are disagreements over what skills or priorities you value. If the skill that we mean to measure is subjectively determined (but remember, objectively assessed) then that means that the ideal boundaries (rules) of the game are potentially different per individual. There are those subjective skills as represented in the current ruleset, then there are competitors that just want to win, competitors that want the game to measure different skills, spectators that want the game to measure the same or different skills, and spectators that just want their guy to win. All of these individuals have different priorities, articulate or not, rational or not. For example: how much emphasis should be placed on which sub-skill? How much of melee skill is physical execution vs tactics (controller controversies)? How much is conventional vs unconventional win conditions (timeout controversies)? Etc. But as should be clear by the groundwork laid out in this article, all disagreements can be better argued if not outright resolved if they can be better articulated in relation to the above.
• Rules are artificial limitations that we put on a game so that it better measures what skills we subjectively value while preserving fairness. (Swimming suits are legal until the impact of suits overtakes the swimming skill, but racing cars is different because developing driving and developing cars are both subjectively valued. Different sports use different criteria.)
• There are hard bans (rules) and soft bans (social taboos). Both are effective, but hard bans (PARTICULARLY PREEMPTIVE BANS) are undesirable because it likely impedes unexpected meta-development.
• By applying rules to a game you make it an objective measure of a subjectively determined skillset. That is ok and actually really cool when done well because it creates a meeting point for people and their individual values/experiences.
• Because the players push boundaries there are always unknowns that the community can't be ready to make a judgement about. Thus no ruleset is perfect. It is an approximate and flexible set of limitations.
• Disagreements over rules are disagreements over values. They are best resolved when those values are clearly articulated in a specific-as-possible context.