Monday, 15 October 2012

What Makes an Entertaining Game?

Now the reason that you are reading this post and indeed anything related to football is because you like football. Depending on how much you like it, you might love it, like me. In fact, to be more specific, I shall assume that you love football because you like to play football and to watch other people play football. When I say 'other people' I am referring to the players who make up the teams of Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and so on. We love watching these teams play because they have the best players. It's quite simple really. However, while we like watching these players on these teams play football, we must ask ourselves the question: what situation would make us like watching these players slightly less than normal (at least for a temporary time). The answer is quite obvious, is it not? It's watching a football match that is boring. I can't say that this is the only situation that would answer the above question but I would guess that watching a boring match is not desirable for the viewers of that match. Now that we (or I) have established this truth (unless anyone wants to disagree with me) there is a whole new branch of questions that we must answer. For simplicity and easy reading I will list these using the magic bullet points:

  • What exactly is a boring game? Once we can establish this we can find out;
  • What is an exciting game?
  • What are the components that make a boring game?
  • What are the components that make an exciting game?
  • And lastly, how can we make more boring games more exciting?
Let's start by answering the first question. What exactly is a boring game? I don't have to give you a definition of 'boring' because that is a pretty basic descriptive word which is pretty broad in its meaning and interpretation. What is more important is to make the term 'boring' football specific. This is beacuse boredom is relative and you cannot compare being bored by doing school homework in a subject you do not like to being bored by a particular football match. In this example, you cannot say 'I am bored by doing homework and I am bored by watching this match, therefore doing homework is equally boring as watching this football match.' I would hazard a guess that the majority of people would prefer to watch football, rather than do school homework. So this simple example highlights that even though, as a generalisation, a game of football has a superior ability to stimulate our excitement levels, it outweighs homework in terms of our expectaion that it should entertain us. This means that even though on an absolute level, a football match is not boring, it can seem so if it does not meet your expectation. Therefore, a person's expecation levels has a direct influence on the perceived entertainment value he/she recieves. For example, let's pretend there are two games that you want to watch this weekend. The first is between Bolton and Sunderland and the second is between Bayern Munich and Juventus.. Let's assume that your expectation of the two games were very different. For the first game between Bolton and Sunderland you expected a game which was going to be less exciting than the second game between Bayern Munich and Juventus on the (quite reasonable) assumption that the players of the second game were better. Therefore, in theory, the second game would produce better football and more entertainment value. Now let's produce some imaginary results for both games: Bolton 3 - 4 Sunderland; Bayern Munich 0 - 0 Juventus. If we take out the scorelines, the second game is the more desirable game to watch, but if we look at both games with the scoreline included, the first game suddenly seems much less undesirable to watch. To sum up the scenario, if we take games in context of the results, the first game has exceeded our expectations while the second has not reached our expectations. This doesn't mean that the first game was a better quality game of football and I can remember many games which finished scoreless that were more entertaining to watch than other high scoring games. However, while the absolute level of entertainment might have been better in the second game (on account of better quality football), the relative level of entertainment is greater in the first game which had a lower expectation from the viewer. In summary, if match>expectaion=exciting game. If match<expectaion=boring game.

Pheeew! Ok, now let's start to answer the second question in my bullet point list. What is an exciting game? Well, I think I have partly answered this question in the previous paragraph but nonetheless I will expand on it. Firstly, what I already wrote is quite a simplistic model of what a boring game is and I know that there are things you might disagree with. That is fine, but at least it gives us some kind of context to play with when answering this question. The simple answer would be the opposite of this: match<expectaion=boring game. The opposite being: match>expectaion=exciting game. As I've already mentioned, this is a simplistic view so now let's try to go into greater detail. Instead of looking at the scoreline vs the expectation of any single match, let's look at the quality vs the match. Let's get back to our example from above and let's keep the same scorelines of 3-4 and 0-0. While the expectation model tells us that the Bolton-Sunderland match was more entertaining, what will the quality model tell us? Firstly, what constitutes a quality match? Well, this delves into the delicate world of opinion because there can be many indicators, both qualatative and quantatative, to determine the quality of a match. For the sake of this article, I will eliminate the actual players as a possible predetermination to the quality of a game simply because it is dangerous to assume that two teams who have great players will automatically produce a quality game. This of course, does not always hold true. We could use statistics like passes completed, pass completion rate, interceptions, successful tackles, or anything else you can think of to give us an indication of quality. While this is all well, there are two reasons why I will not use statistics in this article: the first is I can't be bothered to reasearch and even if I did it would take me ages to find it and collaborate it, but the second and more important reason is that statistics cannot measure the aesthetic quality of football, one of the few remaining sports where there is still a wide discrepency between what the statistics tell us and what actually occured on the field.

Again for the sake of this article I need to make a few assumptions about our two example games. The first assumption is that the high scoring game between Bolton and Sunderland was a poorer quality game than the second game which was a scoreless draw between Bayern Munich and Juventus. If this was the case, how does that change how exciting the games were in relation to each other? To put it another way, knowing both the scoreline and quality of the games, which game would you rather watch? Rearranging the question again, I could ask you which kind of football watcher are you? Are you the kind who doesn't mind the scoreline as long as the quality is good or do you get easily bored by watching two top of the table teams battle out a high quality but dour scoreless draw. I believe that a persons' knowledge of the game as well as the reason for their interest can affect their opinion of a game. For instance, a person with an intimate knowledge of the game, whether through playing, watching or coaching, will have an empathy and therefore an appreciation of good football. On the other hand, a person with limited knowledge of the game might find he/she misses the finer details of the skill, technique and tactics of the game and think that the whole point of the game is who scores more goals. The reason a person watches football can also dictate their perceptions of the game. For example, a football coach would watch football because he wants to learn about the game and obviously loves the games of football. In contrast to the football coach, a girlfriend who is only watching the game because her boyfriend insists, would not appreciate the game in the same way. Getting back to our example, if we use the quality model instead of the expectation model, the 0-0 between Bayern Munich and Juventus would be the more exciting game. But if we were to ask our girlfriend to choose which game she would prefer to watch it would come as no surprise if she chose the more "exciting sounding" game with the 3-4 scoreline. So maybe the answer to the question "what is an exciting game?" depends on three things: your expectations of the game, your knowledge of the game, and the reason you are watching the game. Even by answering these three factors it is still not certain that we can know exactly how we will feel after every match. Perhaps-no, not perhaps-that is exactly why football is so addictive-because it is so unpredictable. Not only can the outcome of the match be unpredictable, but how it affects us emotionally as well.

Righto, now that we have some idea about why we find certain games entertaining and others not so much, we can now go into a bit more detail or a bit deeper if you wish. What are the elements that are common throughout all the classic games? Indeed, is there a pattern among the good games and a pattern among the bad games to watch? Can we use this to predict (or at least guesstimate) which matchups will be more likely to entertain. We all know that in all sport, especially in the last decade or two, that people will hype up some games more than others. When I say people I mean the media, the fans and the players and coaches. A classic example is the build-up to the El Clasico which is huge. Thinking about this, I made up a poll asking which hypothetical match-up would produce the most exciting game. I broke up these matchups into three categories. The first is the strength of the two teams, either weak or strong. The second is the type of fixture which can either be a competitive fixture or a friendly. The last category asks you to decide on a trade-off between the quality of a match (i.e. high technical quality displayed by the players whether due to the skill level or weather conditions etc.) and how many goals scored. In other words, the poorer the quality, the higher the goals scored and the higher the quality, the lower the goals scored. In my poll published on a club fan site, there were 114 votes cast and here were the results:

The first thing to note is that people were not interested in seeing a game containing a strong team and a weak team playing a friendly match with only 6% of the vote. Not far behind that option was the option of having two weak teams playing a competitive match with only 8% of the vote. The other four options all fell within 7% of each other, so people were not entirely convinced that a there was an obvious combination that should have won the poll by a landslide. Another interesting thing to note is that only two of the six options did not give you a say in the type of team. That means that 42% of the 114 who voted did not care about the strength of the teams involved as long as their demands for either a high quality match or goals galore were met. All-in-all this simple poll demonstrates that their is a wide variety of opinions concerning what people think makes an entertaining game. In this regard, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what fans want to see in a game of football and one cannot account for the unpredictable things that can happen on the field which can perhaps inflate the underlying entertainment value based on a single incident like a controversial red card or penalty.

Perhaps the last thing I want to touch upon is whether we can predict which games will be entertaining and which ones will end in a bore game. No we can't. Well, not perfectly anyway. We can however make life easier for us if we understand our psychology. Firstly, have a go at the poll-which option would you pick if you could only pick one. Or if you want, pick either option 1 or 2, 3 or 4, 5 or 6. Secondly, ask yourself if you have high expectations in terms of the level of entertainment you need to feel satisfied. Thirdly, ask yourself if you have a high knowledge of the game or a poor knowledge. A good way of knowing this is by looking in your cupboard and seeing how many jerseys you have. The more jerseys, the higher your knowledge (I am kidding of course). Fourthly, ask yourself why do you watch games on a game-by-game basis. I find that if you watch a game because you are utterly bored sitting on your couch and have done nothing for the whole day, you will tend to become less stimulated and therefore less entertained than if you were in a good mood watching a game with your friends because you have invited them over to watch the game. Another way of looking at it is if you have many options and you choose football, you are more likely to be entertained than if you had to choose football because their were no alternatives. Once you have answered these questions about yourself, I think you will find that you will now start to be aware of the emotional aspects of watching a football game and therefore start to understand more about yourself. Once you understand, you can manipulate and hopefully avoid the boring games and enjoy more exciting ones.

I leave you with a quote from the Sherlock series from BBC which I find quite amusing and only slightly relevant to this article. Happy watching!

[John comes in to Baker Street, where Sherlock is casually shooting up a smiley face on the wall]
John Watson: [comes in] What the HELL are you doing?!
Sherlock Holmes: Bored...
John Watson: What?
Sherlock Holmes: BORED! [continues to shoot wall] BORED! BORED! [stops, hands the gun to Watson] Don't know what's got into the criminal classes. Good job I'm not one of them.
John Watson: So you take it out on the wall?
Sherlock Holmes: Oh, the wall had it coming.
John Watson: What about that Russian case?
Sherlock Holmes: Belarus? Open and shut domestic murder. Not worth my time.
John Watson: [dryly] Oh, shame!