Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The science of next

Ok, let's get a little social sciency up in here. I want to discuss something I've thought about for a long time: How does the process of "getting next" affect the dynamics of a pickup game? I've played in a lot of different games with various ways of doing this, but I think that there are two main procedures in the U.S.

Through democratic selection. The next five players to show up get next game, regardless of who they are. In general, those who have been waiting the longest are the next to play. If there are fewer than five players waiting, losing players engage in a shooting contest to fill the available spots. This is the most common form of next.

Through conferred authority. The next player to arrive becomes team captain. The captain has the liberty to accept or reject other players who ask to play with him. If the captain wishes, he can even select players from the losing team to join his squad, despite the fact that they are "jumping over" players who have not yet played. This is a less common arrangement, and I've mostly seen it practiced on the east coast.

Now I'm going to argue that the conferred authority method is worse on all counts. For years in Boston and New York, I played in games that used the conferred authority method, and it never made sense to me. Why not?

1. It lacks consistent internal logic. This method causes massive confusion. Who has next? Can I play with you? Why not? If I can't play next, can I play with the team waiting second next? Third next? Where is my place in the queue of nexts? At its worst, the conferred authority approach can produce a long string of captains with no teammates, each waiting to cherry pick the best players from losing squads. When games get crowded, the system's vague logic and players' intense desires to play spark a conflagration of arguing.

2. It unfairly stacks teams. This method eventually creates extreme team inequalities. Next teams are invariably getting stronger and stronger because they are selecting the best available players. Weak players, meanwhile, are being sent to the back of the line. When these weaker teams finally make it onto the court, they are quickly dispatched by the high quality team that currently owns the run. Ultimately, the weak players leave because they keep losing and then they have to wait an hour to play again.

3. It changes the culture of the game. Winning becomes the primary goal of playing. This is because the conferred authority method essentially changes the game's supply and demand of players. Since some players are in more demand than others, the likelihood of playing after losing is variable across players. Those who do not expect to be picked up by a next team must win to keep playing, or they will be subject to the humiliation (and long wait) of finding a spot amongst the sea of nexts. The need to win is a direct reflection of self-interest, which runs rampant under this system. Average/bad players who do not advocate for themselves will not play very often. (Good players will get picked up again no matter what their personality.) Thus, all average players must seek above average teammates to increase the chances of victory, and at the same time, above average players seek to avoid playing with the average players.

4. It encourages shady behavior. For all the reasons described above, players (especially captains) must use deceptive tactics to keep their teams strong and avoid relegation to "last next." This usually involves dissuading or refusing subpar players who ask to play. The most common form of shady behavior is when a waiting captain targets a star player who is currently playing and holds a spot for that player, even though others are coming up and asking to play. Again, this is technically allowed, but it just seems unethical. Many times, I'd approach a waiting captain and ask to play, only to be told that "his friend was in the bathroom." Of course, when the next game started, the "friend" turned out to be a star player who just lost. When shady behavior is built into the norms of the game, the norms of the game should be questioned.

Overall, the conferred authority method produces more competitive games, but also more stress, conflict, and unhappiness among players. I also feel that it compromises the integrity of the pickup game because it is so profoundly undemocratic. The larger point here is that the structural conditions of play can exert significant effects on who plays, how the game is played, and how players relate to the experience of playing. The conferred authority approach leads to a competitive environment structured rigidly around a hierarchy of skill. On the other hand, the democratic method mitigates this hierarchy and fosters a fair-minded approach to the game where playing time is freely available, regardless of how good you are.