Setting up competitive rulesets from eSports to Smash

In these days eSports are all the rage, from watching to playing them yourself at a high level they have become a mainstay of the gaming industry. This also means loads of companies trying to get their game to be played competitive as that can translate into money. However time and time again companies have shown to not understand how they can make a game competitive, or games being played competitively in spite of the developers or publishers actions. From the initial maps design choices in Valorant to my own stomping ground, Super Smash Bros. Because of this I’ve created a set of principles that on an abstract level that keeps you from making such mistakes and with playtesting allows you to correct course.

Principes of competitive rulesets

  1. Competitive games are a measure of skills that the game’s players have determined to be worth measuring.

These skills can be named “Valued Skills”, this applies to all competitive games and not just eSports. Checkers measures you positioning, calculating and attack and defending with your pieces. Poker measures your ability to bluff, risk management and calculations.
It’s hard to put a games valued skills in definite terms, but it’s easy what skills are not. In table tennis for example paddles need to keep to size regulations, if a paddle would be a meter in diameter you would remove both agility and positioning as skills required to win. Instead you could stand close to the table and reach the ball from anywhere.
It’s why nobody plays Mario Party competitively.

  1. The rules of the game are set up in such a way that valued skills are rewarded.

Or in different words, rules are set up in such a manner that the most valued skills are the best and most consistent ways to win a game. As the game develops, strategies change and the game begins to look different. In these cases either the values skills change or the rules are modified in order to preserve the valued skills as the most valuable path to victory. A shot-clock in basketball is famous example of this as it eliminated running away with the lead as a viable win condition. Instead skills like passing, positioning and shooting are are focused on as the skills you need to win.
Most sports have been around for so long that we don’t really think about the rules and accept them the way they are. But with eSports booming and competitive titles coming out every year it’s important to understand the nature of rulesets.

Increase a players win-rate by showing their understanding of the game and their mastery of the valued skills.

The Hyrule Castle Problem

Most videogames have what I’d like to call “authored rulesets”. These rulesets are created to focus on a specific valued skill or skills by the developers or some governing body, not unlike how sports are maintained. The only significant difference is that videogames rulesets are created by developers rather than some governing body that attempt to protect the sanctity of the game.

However a small number of videogames have a odd situation, communal rulesets. These rulesets created by players agreeing upon a given ruleset, more often than not these rulesets are house rules played by a small group. But in rare cases these rules go mainstream. One of my personal favorite games is a great example of this, Super Smash Bros., wherein competitive play was set up by removing random and game breaking elements from the game and by doing so creating a ruleset more focused on skill rather than the randomness of the game. But within this ruleset elements that don’t enforce the valued skills where quickly removed or banned, for example stalling is deemed illegal and as a result of that stages that allow for perpetually running away from your opponent without them being able to intercept are banned from competitive play. Because Super Smash Bros. is used a communal ruleset and very open about the ins and outs of the modification of that ruleset it makes an great way to see what happens when ruleset changes are made and what effect they have. As normally a authored rulesets are very closed of in regards to reasoning. However you’d quickly notice that because of the communal nature ruleset changes are rather slow. For example it toke 15 years before Hyrule Castle was banned in the competitive ruleset for Super Smash Bros. 64.

The hard part is that the idea of valued skills are rather vague, if you’d tried to describe the valued skills of a competitive game you might find yourself lost for words. Smash players might a valued skill of Smash is good positioning, but should you then ban long ranged characters? They might say a valued skill is the ability to combo opponents, but should you then ban characters that aren’t relying on combos but rather other tactics?
Rather than starting with a set of valued skills and building on it, communal rulesets modify them reactively rather than proactively. Any win condition that remains viable is in a way endorsed by the ruleset.
This is what I would call the “Hyrule Castle problem”, people have a hard time recognizing elements that don’t support the valued skills especially if they include parts people like. However if you focus on what skills aren’t valued in your game it’s much easier to see elements and mechanics that subtract from the competitive experience.

Takeaway

Game developers that care about their competitive scene should be mindful of adding elements that don’t support the valued skills of the game. This can be especially problematic when dealing with a existing competitive scene, where players already have an understanding and mastery of the skills valued within the game.
As when the core mechanics or win conditions of the game have changed the rules in place may not be suitable anymore. Making changes like this fundamentally changes the agreed upon rules of the game in question. In team fortress 2 for example, when a new item is introduced you can not compare it to things like weather or half time adjustments in traditional sports as items fundamentally change the rules of the competition. It would like replacing a soccer ball with a tennis ball, if the winner wins when switching the ball is the winner still the better soccer team? Would soccer players and fans care? Not really, as that game isn’t what soccer players and fans have determined to be soccer.
Of course games change, but some time needs to have passed for players to “this game still values the valued skills we care about”.

PS.
This article just addresses issues regarding rulesets supporting competitive play. However other issues, like poor net play, poor local support, poor matchmaking and other more technical reasons can also impact a games competitive viability. The best support can’t fix poor rulesets, however the best rulesets can can still create a lively competitive scene. In an ideal world your competitive game has both.

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