HearthStone

Can Winners Show Good Sportsmanship?

hearthstone 10 - Can Winners Show Good Sportsmanship?
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Hey all, J_Alexander_HS back again today to examine the topic of two simple letters – GG – and the surprisingly complex variety of emotions that surround them.

While GG (short for "Good Game") might not seem like a big deal – a polite gesture, at first glance – many players have expressed a discomfort with an opponent who recently beat them sending the initial "GG" at the conclusion of the game. To them, it feels offensive or upsetting.

The first thing to say on the matter is that many people out there have shown little to no interest in understanding why some people might be upset by the GG before they just go ahead and tell them that they're babies and wrong (in one form or another). If you truly want to show how good of a competitor and nice of a person you are, that's probably not a great starting point. Understanding your opponent's feelings and perspective is a vital part of demonstrating good sportsmanship, as we'll see soon. So try to not write people's feelings off initially.

The second thing to say is that good sportsmanship is going to look different in varying domains. What makes for good sportsmanship when playing an in-person event might not be the same as when playing in an online format. To some extent, E-Sports are shifting the traditional means by which respect and sportsmanship are being demonstrated. This may mean that people who have been competing in a variety of other domains for a lot of their life might be trying to understand a new issue with an old lens that doesn't quite work.

With that in mind, let's jump into E-Sportsmanship.

What is Sportsmanship?

While I am by no means the world's foremost expert on Sportsmanship, I can take a rough stab at what it means and why it exists.

In life, there are what we call zero-sum resources: things that more than one person cannot possess at the same time. If I have $5, you cannot also own that same $5. If I eat that slice of pie, you cannot eat the same slice. They can be non-material as well, like social status and prestige. If I'm the best Hearthstone player alive (which of course I am), you cannot be the best as well.

In many non-human species, when these zero-sum resources are contested by more than one individual, they will threaten each other with displays intended to express their formidability (i.e., show off how tough they are). In the event one doesn't back down (judging their odds of success too low to be worth the possible gain and associated costs), they will engage in a physical fight until one either retreats or dies. Whatever the outcome, the winner takes the resource for itself while the loser gets nothing. Neither individuals appears to care much about telling the loser they did a good job and making sure feelings aren't hurt. Sportsmanship and reconciliation more generally just doesn't exist there.

In social species, like humans, where individuals benefit from living around others and cooperating with them, maintaining the social order is clearly important. However, these zero-sum resources don't cease to exist.

While that does mean that the former type of physical confrontations do still arise from time to time, there are other methods of resolving these conflicts and declaring winners that are less fatal. One possible method is through sporting competitions. These represent a type of mock fight that's intended to both decide a winner in the conflict and also leave the combatants relatively unharmed (or at least not dead most of the time).

What differentiates these sporting conflicts is that they are conducted within a set of pre-specified rules and the players understand that the rivalry is supposed to end when the competition ceases. It is intended as a play or proxy fight; not a real one.

These events do still carry stakes – from money to glory – and so the losers are expected to be upset that they lost. What they are not expected to do, however, is carry that frustration outside of the game and direct it towards the winners. This is what it means to display good sportsmanship: understanding that the competition isn't a real fight, even if the stakes are very real.

Maintaining sportsmanship is important for the safety of players and fans. It's the whole reason these events and rules exist in the first place: to help maintain a positive social order in the face of zero-sum competition. It's why MMA fighters may shake hands or hug after a match: it's a display that no animosity exists, that both players accept the outcome, and that things can return to normal socially between them. It's a formal gesture of reconciliation.

Good and Bad Manners

With that in mind, we can explore ideas about what makes one a good/bad winner or loser. A good winner doesn't want to rub his win in the face of the loser, as that would extend the conflict outside of the sporting event. The conflict is supposed to end at the conclusion of the match, which means any aggressive, threatening, or dominating acts should as well. A good loser, on the other hand, does not remain angry at the winner for winning. While they might be upset about the outcome of the event, that sadness is not to be considered the winners fault. It was simply that the loser came up short, for whatever reason.

Bad winners and losers do the opposite. They extend their frustrations outside of the match to their (former) opponent and fail to reconcile with them.

Ideally, both the winner and the loser should engage in these sportsman-like behaviors at the same time. This is why many players shake hands before the match begins to set the stage that this is all in good faith. However, Hearthstone (and E-Sports in general) can make this tricky. When I'm playing a ladder game, for instance, my opponent is anonymous. I cannot see his reactions and he cannot see mine. We don't need to share a physical space afterwards and, often, no one else is around to see our behavior. As I cannot communicate with my opponent if they're not on my friends list, this stops us from preemptively wishing each other a good game and generally being a good sport about things before we know the outcome (remember this for later). Even if we are on each other's friend list (as people will be during, say, open cups), communication is not simultaneous or mutual; one player will always message the other first.

These communications will not always be welcomed or feel quite right.

To place this in a concrete example, I want to talk about emotes in Hearthstone. Many people (myself included) are annoyed by them. When people ask why these silly, simple emotes bother us, the answer is that they are ambiguous in intent: the same emote can be used to express either a genuine or sarcastic "Well Played." Since they're so simple and lack nuance, this can make the emote seem like a sign of post-game disrespect; of bad sportsmanship.

And there's good reason to suspect this is the case in the absence of other information. When I don't have access to my auto-squelch plugin for deck tracker (which has improved my play experience remarkably, by the way, and I highly recommend it while also recommending Blizzard implement this as a simple in-game option), I notice that my opponents seem to emote "Well played" far more likely when they're winning a match than when they're losing it. Were I to guess, I'd say opponents emote "well played" about three times for each time a loser does it. (Other emotes often follow a similar pattern, the only common exception being excessively spamming something when they're losing, which seems like a sign of frustration.)

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This suggests to me that people are more likely to feel a game was "well played" or "good" when they're on the winning side of it. And why wouldn't they be? Winning feels pretty great. If it was a "well played" game, that means you'll feel you earned your win and your opponent earned their loss. As the win and loss occurred during fair play, you are naturally entitled to whatever you earned from your win.

However, when that same player would not have said "well played" if they lost, that's a sign that the "well played" isn't actually a universally genuine expression of that feeling. That's it's not good sportsmanship. Instead, it's simply a sign that the winner is happy they won, which is not a part of sportsmanship.

While I cannot know that is true about any specific player when they're strangers on ladder or in a tournament (that they would only say "well played" when they win), I can say that it sure seems to be that way for many of them, judging from the previous anec-data about the contexts in which I usually get emoted. Combined with the fact that the anonymity of the internet can bring out the worst in people sometimes, my default assumption has become that emotes tend to be delivered in bad faith. It even bled over to the point that a simple "Greetings" before the game began could leave a sour taste in my mouth, even though it's delivered before the results are in. (For a similar set of reasons, handshakes and greetings before the game begins are a fine gesture to engage in, but aren't very meaningful because they're delivered before the results are in. It's not unambiguously "good mannered" until one player knows how the actor would behave if they lost. It's easy to be polite when the stakes haven't been decided and harder to maintain that when you're on the losing end). That's why emotes annoy me and why shutting them off altogether makes for a better play experience. It cuts away the feelings of potential disrespect. Removing the (perceived) sore winners and losers made for a much better experience than retaining the (perceived) good ones cost me.

In the context of the simple "GG" within a tournament, players are left with the same dilemma and, in some cases, the same baggage. As emotes are often used sarcastically, there's no guarantee the "GG" would be delivered if the winner lost, and there's not enough information to judge which case is which, many may find the "GG" tilting, as it is viewed as a potential sign of disrespect and bad sportsmanship.

(One takeaway here is that it's possible the emote system in Hearthstone is contributing to people's feelings about the GG issue in a negative way. Worth looking into)

Asymmetry Issues

Since both players cannot read each other well and behave in a sportsman-like manner at the same time in online games a lot of the time, it falls upon one player to make the first move following the end of the game; the first gesture of good sportsmanship.

I do not believe the winner of the match is truly capable of doing so in a credible way.

To understand why I say that, let's consider a winner who has extended the initial "GG." Maybe he thinks the game was good and his opponent played well. Maybe he thinks the game was good simply because he won it and he wants to make his victory feel as legitimate as possible. These two options cannot be reliably distinguished from the simple "GG." In the face of uncertainty and how emotes are often used in the game (sarcastically), this can understandably upset the loser and make them feel, at least potentially, disrespected. That's not to say that the winner is BMing by default; just that it might be all cheap talk and the loser has no way to tell which is which. As the loser may already be sore about the loss (especially if it was to "some random bullshit"), their negative feelings may not be alleviated by the "GG" very well. Winners would do well to bear that in mind if they truly want to be a good sport.

On the other hand, the loser does have a reason to feel upset; they lost the game and all that was at stake. To express a formal "GG" first from that position sends a much more honest signal of sportsmanship. Now I know how they would be behave if they lost the game because I've seen how they behaved when they lost the game. No need to guess.

For this reason – and due to the changing nature of online communications – many feel proper etiquette is for the loser to extend the initial GG. It's hard to disagree with that. Even though the winners might genuinely mean it, they lack the ability to show it honestly.

When events are held in person etiquette may change (especially if opponents can observe how you behave with others, win or lose, publicly before they play you), but for the same reason it's probably for the best to allow the loser to initiate a handshake or whatever mutual gesture is appropriate.

For a great example of the best sportsmanship I've ever seen, here's a recent clip from the DBZ fighting game where the winner (GO1) breaks down after his win and his opponent – the loser (SonicFox) – embraces him, raising the winner's hand high himself. It's a touching moment precisely because of this dynamic between winners and losers, I would wager. The loser has every reason to be upset, and yet he is celebrating his opponent's victory. I try to reverse the roles in my head – a loser with his head in his hands crying, while the winner hugs him – and while it's still a nice gesture, it's not quite on the same level of touching.

That said, fighting games are different than Hearthstone with respect to factors like randomness. One last matter to think about, then, is what happens when the game wasn't particularly good. Imagine being in a tournament where your hand is just dead. Your Shaman opponent with the perfect hand goes Hare, Mogu, Mogu, coin, evolve around turn 4. You lose on the spot and there was nothing you could have done, in the literal sense of the word, to affect the outcome.

Was that game "good" in any meaningful sense? Does saying, "GG" do anything whatsoever for either player? Perhaps as an expressed formality that the competition is over and neither player is going to challenge the result – perhaps even that they respect each other as competitors – but both players know that there simply wasn't an competition happening in that game beyond the luck of the draw.

This might suggest that the nature of the game itself (cards vs fighting games, say) can also influence what good and bad manners look like, and what expression is appropriate to minimize any hurt feelings and legitimize the result.

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