Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fix the Reffing, Fix the Game

This is the blog post that gets me in to trouble. Before we dive all the way in, let me spell out some caveats and things that should go without saying. First, my personal tournament playing experience is very limited. My experience reffing tournaments outstrips it, but that's not really saying much. I'm coming at this not from a player's stand point, and not from a ref's stand point; but in the only way I'm qualified: as a spectator and fan/student of all sports.

Second, nothing I write is intended as an indictment of any individual ref, nor am I making light of the difficult job they have to do and how little they get compensated for it. Yes, we all know that it's a tough thing being 100% mentally acute after standing in the hot sun for 12 hours, and I'm not dick enough to respond by saying "suck it up, that's the job you signed up for." I know reffing is hard, and if you read through my thoughts, I believe it will be plain that I don't think the refs are to blame for the level of reffing we currently see in this sport. So there, I'm not hating on refs when I'm hating on reffing. Some of you won't see past your own defensiveness to get the distinction. That's fine, just tell your friends how lame I am and post many many comments! And then buy a Contract Killer shirt from RazaLife.com. Come for the debate, stay for the pie!

The 3rd thing you should know about me is that I have a very scientific way of looking at the world. No, I'm not a scientist, but when I approach problems of philosophy or in trying to come up with solutions to issues I try to stick to that which evidence makes most probable, and I rarely (if ever) come to full-on conclusions to things. If I do come to a conclusion, that conclusion is provisional based upon further evidence. In other words: I don't pretend to know the answers, but when forced to, I will make my best guess based on the best available knowledge, and will always be willing to admit I was wrong when my guess turns out to have been mistaken, either from faulty logic or new data. I love learning and that means I'm wrong a lot. I'm used to it.

Lastly, we're going to be honest here and assume the players aren't going to help the refs out by stopping when they are shot. The honor system? Never heard of it. Oh yeah, and for ease of understanding, the PSP game is called Xball in this piece. Race2 is going to get replaced once they wake up to how lame it sounds.

OK, so let's get in to this. I don't think 7-man is a viable format because I believe it is impossible to adequately ref.

Whoa... this is about 7-man and not about reffing? Well... kinda. In my internal quest to answer the question of where paintball is headed and if we should be headed there, I'm always comparing and contrasting the two most popular pro formats. Y'see, I believe we should have one way to play pro paintball. I think it makes me look ridiculous when I can't answer a question as simple as: How does one play paintball? I also think it's clear this sport just isn't generating the income for the major sponsors to have 10 events a year, so we really should pick one way to play it at the top levels.

One of the ways in which I gauge which one (Xball or 7-man) is better for the sport in the long term is in its ability to produce a fair and equitable match-up that truly shows us which was the better team. And I think 7-man has some inherent flaws that make it impossible to adjudicate close calls.

Let me explain. If, after the breakout (and regardless of format), the game consisted solely of guys gunfighting out of their spots or players making moves from one prop to another (with no bunkering moves), paintball would be easy to ref. What makes it tough are when guys run other people down, or worse, when there is so much movement you have guys running at each other. At that point, the game becomes un-reffable and the refs are forced to make their best guesses. If two guys basically joust each other up to the 50 bunkers, and both end up with hits, the action is too fast and too spread out for one ref to be able to determine who was shot first (and consequently, who played on and deserves a penalty). Now imagine if 4 guys do it, and you have the Joy Division/Dynasty Commander's Cup finale in Costa Mesa a few years ago.

In the case of Xball and 7-man, those calls usually end up about the same, at least from my experience. I've seen some bad calls and some great calls in both. The difference is in how those bad calls end up affecting the outcome, not only of that game but the whole tournament. In Xball, thanks to the format, the refs have time after the fact to assess any penalties without making a life or death decision over the entire game... just one point in the game. And even if it ends up being a missed call, the team on the short end of it has the chance to overcome it and still win the game. Now, all of those things are also true of 7-man, but with a much smaller (microscopic, by comparison) window for not only doing the work of making the call but also for the team that might have suffered a bad call to overcome and still prove they are the better team.

In 7-man, the decision has to be split second and the repercussions, comparatively, are much bigger and affect much more of the game. And, because of the much higher effort required by the referees to get it right, 11 more hours of such calls in the hot sun with teams and fans and parents all screaming for your head introduces more chances to get the calls wrong. It's true in my line of work and in most others: the faster you are forced to work and the more distractions you must deal with, the lower the quality of your output.

And 7-man, as long as I've been watching it, hasn't improved in its reffing. Now, there are many reasons for this, not the least of which is one set of fixes requires money and nobody ever has it or is willing to spend it on reffing. But, even just having experienced refs hasn't shown any kind of increment of improvement. Again, I'm not talking about individual refs, whom I'm sure have improved as they get more experience. I'm talking big picture, overall kind of stuff. Reffing of the pro's on the center court of 7-man paintball has seemed to have always been at about the same level.

And, as I'm trying to make clear: I don't think that's the fault of the refs. I think the system they are being put into sets them up for failure. The combination of promoters neglecting to get them food and water (which has happened often enough to be the trend and not the exception), a shift lasting 12+ hours, no consistent training and practice apparatus in place, and the very nature of 7-man and the demands it places on the refs all spell out, at least to me, an untenable situation. And the best proof I have that it can't be fixed is that, at any of those levels, it hasn't been fixed after 5+ years. And these aren't incompetent slackers, these refs. Not at all. And, thanks to my experience with Kristen Kleist and competing in or helping to ref her events, I feel familiar enough with these top level 7-man refs to say that. They care deeply about the sport, they care deeply about doing a good job, and they do strive to get it right, or at least make it better. While many point to the NXL/Pro Race2 refs as the best in the sport, it is hard for me to believe they are actually better refs than the 7-man regulars. More likely, it seems, they have a better system in which they ref.

At this point, I'm more inclined to blame the system rather than the people in it. And, with inventing Xball, they made wholesale changes to how the game is played that makes it much easier to ref. As a consequence, I believe they have made a game where the best team does win each match. And isn't that the point of the tournament? To see who the best team is?

What I have written above, I fully expect to be controversial, and probably in many aspects wrong or too simplistic to be accurate. I welcome your comments and look forward to learning from them. Thanks for reading!