Randomness in Competition: The Aftermath of BlizzCon 2016

One of the biggest differences between soccer and American football beyond the intricate rules of each sport is the ball itself. Soccer balls are round, spherical, and completely identical no matter which way you look at them. American footballs, on the other hand, are prolate spheroids. Looking at one from top-to-bottom results in a sort of diamond shape, while looking at one from point-to-point results in what looks roughly like a pyramid that is strangely rounded on each side. American footballs are shaped in a way which prohibits predictability.

Last night, Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos experienced the American football’s unpredictability first-hand. Santos, like he had done so many other times in his career, lined up to attempt a 34-yard game-winning field goal against the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football with one minute left to go in overtime. If he missed the kick, the game would likely end in a tie. With tens of thousands of fans screaming in the stadium, Santos drilled the prolate spheroid exactly as he had done hundreds of other times in his career. The ball flew into the air, where it proceeded to collide with the bright yellow goal post with a thud that silenced the stadium.

At this point, Santos had made a pivotal mistake. He had pushed the ball too far to the left in an effort to avoid the hands of Denver’s defensive star Von Miller, and in so doing put his team’s chances of winning the game in jeopardy. Thankfully for Santos, the ball happened to spin in a way where the inside of the ball’s top point hit the goal post, causing the ball to jet completely to the right side of the post with just enough clearance to sneak in the other side. The referees put their hands up and signalled that the Chiefs had in fact won the game.

The shape of the American football was an intentional choice. Without the ball’s peculiar shape, Santos’ kick would have jettisoned off the goal post, careened back into the field of play, been pronounced a dead ball, and the game would have ended. Instead, what over millions of people got to see that night was a miraculous play which allowed the Chiefs to take first place in their division.

At BlizzCon just a few weeks ago, renowned Hearthstone player Pavel defeated DrHippi with a Babbling Book which happened to give Pavel the exact card he needed to get back into the game (Polymorph). This act of decisive randomness happened just weeks after Blizzard nerfed Yogg-Saron, the most random card in the game. Despite this nerf, multiple pros included Yogg-Saron in their decks, and there were still instances where Yogg-Saron gave players the opportunity to win games that no other card could have ever done.

What both of these stories have in common is their randomness. Of course Pavel wouldn’t have won BlizzCon 2016 without a bit of luck from his Babbling Book, and of course Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos is relieved that his kick happened to rotate in just the right way to give his team the win. But for one party to win, another must lose, and both DrHippi and the Denver Broncos are left shaking their head, wondering what they did wrong to lose the game. Perhaps Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian will notice a pass that went over his receiver’s hands when he reviews the tape, and perhaps DrHippi will notice a new line of play where he could have been more aggressive. But the predominant rhetoric of this situation is that they shouldn’t have to. More and more high-stakes sporting events are being decided by chances that neither party can control.

Detractors of randomness in competition will be quick to point out that chance should be limited. In the past we’ve seen League of Legends take a similar approach, taking the dodge mechanic out of competitive League of Legends altogether (as well as reducing the impact of critical strike damage in the early game). Blizzard has shown they’re concerned with the randomness of their product when they nerfed Yogg-Saron, and even the NFL addressed player concerns of overtime rules being too random when they eliminated the sudden death overtime system a few years ago.

And yet what each of these games have in common is that they exist in their current capacity only because of randomness. What makes them such a joy to watch is that the viewership doesn’t know exactly what will happen. Sure, there are favored players or teams, but randomness offers the average viewer the ability to buy into the fantasy that they too can be great.

A few years ago I was playing in a Magic: the Gathering tournament hosted by, one of the best-known tournament organizers in the country. Going into round 6 I was undefeated, and as I looked at the pairings board I noticed that my next round opponent was Owen Turtenwald, the 2011, 2015, and 2016 Player of the Year. At the time, I was at the peak of my career, but there was no question that Owen was the superior player. My friends joked that I was going to be destroyed, that I would have better luck next time, etc. I stoically told them “You have to beat the best to be the best,” and proceeded to beat Owen Turtenwald in three games and move on to 7-0 on the tournament.

Owen was obviously upset, and I can’t blame him. After our match, I heard him complaining to his friends that he hadn’t done anything wrong. This actually wasn’t true (he named a card I only played a 1-of in my deck with his Meddling Mage), but the argument was one I hear echoed today in all kinds of games: good players shouldn’t lose to worse players.

When I saw that I was paired against Owen Turtenwald, I have to admit that I thought there was a very good chance that I would lose the round. Owen is a far better player at his worst than I ever was at my best. Between rounds, I thought of the best strategy to beat him. My deck was an aggressive combo deck that could win the game on turn 2, but ideally wanted to wait until turn 3 or 4 to protect my combo. I decided that every turn longer a game went, the smaller my chances of winning–Owen was simply too good of a player for me to beat over any extended period of time. I decided to end the game as quickly as I could. This involved me playing my deck sub-optimally in a way that it wasn’t designed, but it was my only chance to win the match.

If games only allowed the superior player to win in a head-to-head matchup, then I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of any strategy where I could realistically beat Owen. I would have had to shrug my shoulders and accept defeat. But the intrinsic randomness of the game let me design a strategy where I had a shot of winning: I had to hope his deck didn’t give him the right combination of cards to deter my aggressive start and leverage that aggression into a win before Owen could recover and defeat me.

I have two main points to address regarding randomness. The first is that competitions would be inherently boring to watch without some element of randomness deciding the outcome of the competition. Viewers, instead of buying tickets to fill out arenas, would simply look at the matchup and know who would win. The very economy of competition thrives on randomness. The implications of such a revelation should, I think, be relatively obvious. If nobody wants to watch the game, then nobody is going to bother to create the product. If Blizzard didn’t think people would watch Hearthstone, then Blizzard wouldn’t design the game.

I can hear those of you saying that games can still turn profits without being turned into a spectator sport, and for this argument I have my second point on randomness. The randomness which allowed me, Jon Naskrent, a player who had never even made it to the Top 8 of any meaningful tournament, to beat Owen Turtenwald, 3x Player of the Year, is the very randomness which affirms the fantasy of the competition. In much the same way we pretend to be Wizards or Warriors when we play Dungeons and Dragons, we pretend to be world-caliber athletes when we play Hearthstone or Magic or football. Without randomness, there would be no way I could ever conceive that I could beat Owen Turtenwald. Without randomness, the average player wouldn’t bother to play Hearthstone, because they would have no way of ever believing they could be good enough to be the very best. We see this fantasy all the time. Everyone has had the day-dream where they imagine themselves as the star quarterback of their favorite sports team or the ADC for TSM or even the top-ranked poker player in the world.

This fantasy is what randomness allows, and this fantasy is what constitutes the economic reality of competitive gaming and sports. Without the randomness required to allow the viewer to imagine themselves as the very best, nobody would purchase Hearthstone packs or download League of Legends or ever bother to throw a football longer than their P.E. teacher required. As a consequence, the games we all love to play would disappear and crumble.

This isn’t to say that there’s not a point where the randomness is too much, nor is it to say that games should be based entirely on chance; there is no fantasy in pulling a card from a deck and hoping that yours is the higher number. Rather, this is to recognize that randomness has a place–it is the element that keeps us coming back time and time again, the effect that allows us to step outside our realities of existence and enter a world where we can be anything. As consumers, teammates, competitors, and players, we are all involved in the business of fantasy, and I can think of nothing better to be involved with.


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