Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why There Will Never Be An Official "Wargaming League"

 This is a mirror of an article original appearing at

From time to time, people of various persuasions wonder aloud about that millenial day when there'll be an organization that regularizes wargaming in the same way that the Chess Federation oversees chess and the PGA organizes golf, etc. My response is usually a loud snort and a "not bloody likely." When pressed for more rational comment, I answer as follows:
1. All the leagues, unions, federations and whatever that have professionalized and regularized other sports and games are dealing with only one game with one set of rules...In wargaming, one is faced with hundreds of games...

2. Wargaming is even less a spectator sport than chess (its closest professionalized analog). Chess only penetrated the public consciousness when Bobby Fischer managed to up the ante into the hundred-grand class. Incidentally, the buzz over chess (in the U.S.) died out pretty quickly once Fischer went back into the woodwork. Relatively few people are really interested in chess; even fewer are interested in wargaming. And chess has been around a lot longer than conventional civilian wargaming.

3. Much of what motivates people to play wargames has nothing to do with games and competition, per se. Many people play simply for information or as an exercise. I play for competition (I'll play almost any game with a grim determination to win), but that doesn't mean that I'm the archetypical wargamer; a sizeable number of people don't much care who wins - they just play.

 The preceding, by Redmond A. Simonsen, was printed in Moves in the February/March 1976 issue. (Moves was a house magazine of Simulations Publications Inc., at that time the leading commercial board wargame producer in the world.)

Given that no overseeing regulatory body has even been set up for either wargaming, or as far as I know for any single wargame title, one can conclude Simonsen was quite correct in his conclusion.

As for the "whys", they may be irrelevant, but he thought them worthy of discussion, and so do I. For what it is worth, I feel he makes a good case.

Point 1 - too many titles
His first point is obviously apt; there are far too many titles in existence to imagine any kind of "regularized" oversight of the entire wargaming hobby would be possible. His "hundreds" of titles have grown into "thousands" as a look at will prove.

Point 2 - spectators
Simonsen may be underestimating wargaming's appeal here. At least one commercial television program pitted amateurs against each other in military strategy games. Arguably, reality television like Survivor or The Amazing Race could be easily transitioned into a military theme (and Combat Missions attempted to do exactly that). The popularity of celebrity Poker on television suggests that while Chess may no longer be a large draw, games of skill and chance can still be successfully marketed to an audience, even if the participants are doing nothing more than sitting at a felt table. To date, however, a literal translation of board wargaming - or PC gaming - to a television series has not occurred.

I wouldn't invest my own money into such a thing, but I would not be surprised to hear of someone making a go of it, either.

Point 3 - people don't play to win
I think Simonsen makes an incredibly important point here, but again, it doesn't necessarily preclude the formation of an over-arching organization. Not everyone plays golf or chess to win, either, and that didn't stop the PGA from being formed, or from a professional organization forming.

There are many wargamers who play solely to exercise the imagination - especially now that battlefields can be experienced in simulated 3-D worlds. I've caught myself in the mission editor for Operation Flashpoint or even Combat Mission simply "walking" or flying through one of the stunning maps, or playing through a scenario against the AI just to experience it, without giving thought to the competitive aspects of the game.

But there is no reason to believe that wouldn't be possible if there was a "wargamer's league" either.
 The real issue

Simonsen missed the main point entirely - what need is there for such a league? Avalon Hill did do an admirable job with setting up the AREA rating system, and individual games have grown their own communities with competition circuits and now "gaming ladders" for PC titles. These all operate well on their own, aided by the level of interaction afforded by the internet. One has a hard time understanding what possible benefit a "league" would have. The idea of anyone professionally playing wargames - that is to say, making money doing so - is too absurd to contemplate. But I suppose people said the same thing about football players once upon a time, and they now make more money than doctors, lawyers, policemen, mayors, firemen, paramedics, CEOs, prime ministers and presidents.

Simonsen does dismiss the perceived need for legitimacy that he felt was the root cause of talk about a national PGA-like organization, saying that any desire for public/media recognition (and one would presume acceptance) would matter little given that "there'll always be some ignorant fool standing around to cheap-shot your hobby." If credibility as a hobby is the only reason to form such a league, I'd argue that insecurity simply isn't reason enough.

My final word

Simonsen theorized in his editorial that magazines like Moves, of which he was the Editor, were already a form of international organization that knitted the hobby together. One can conclude that sites like gamesquad now serve the same function. I can understand the desire for greater public acceptance/awareness, but I don't think an international federation could achieve that goal. The involvement of more celebrities like Curt Schilling in the hobby, however, might be a way to draw favourable attention to the hobby and its devotees.


  1. This was originally posted at The comments read:

    Scott Tortorice - 31 May 08 17:24
    This is a great blog post! Coincidentally, I explored this same issue from the chess players perspective in my blog entry entitled Wargamers Could Learn A Lot from Chess Players.

    Let me take a crack at these points:

    #1: Complete agreement: While I never read Mr. Simonsen's article, I reached the same conclusion in my blog...and proposed a possible solution.

    #2: Disagreement with Simonsen: His point concerning the "Fischer Boom" is accurate. However, because the article was written in 1976, Mr. Simonsen could not have been aware of the subsequent "Kasparov Boom" whereby millions followed that GM's battles with Deep Blue and Anand over the internet (in fact, so many people logged onto the IBM website to follow the former, that it crashed!). Likewise, in the wake of the release of the critically-acclaimed chess movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, the United States Chess Federation membership swelled to "Fischer Boom" levels yet again. I think the main point here is that if you have a larger than life personality behind the activity, people will watch it as a spectator sport.

    I believe the same is true with wargaming. Someday (war)gaming will have a bona fide celebrity. Once you have that ingredient, all you need is a catalyst - i.e., a game that spans all demographics in popularity and/or is tied with some sort of great cultural or political movement (as Fischer and chess were tied into the Cold War). Furthermore, as (war)gaming becomes both "prettier" to behold and of greater depth and complexity (or realism, if you prefer), I think wargaming could easily become a spectator sport. Right now, when most people think of (war)games, they conjure up images of Pac Man or Grand Theft Auto. As I wrote in my last blog entry, too few people are aware of the more serious gaming fare out there (such as Total War).

    #3 Disagreement with Simonsen: Sure, some people just play for fun, but there will always be people more competitively minded. And, as soon as big money becomes involved, wargaming will develop a large competitive community and a wargamers league will become a reality (now, we can question if there ever will be money behind wargaming, but if there ever is, there will need to be a league of some sort to keep the competition fair.)

    As I see cyber-athleticism become a growing industry, my doubts begin to fade concerning (war)gaming becoming a competitive and lucrative sport. I think that there will probably be a very small chance that ASL or TACOPS will become a spectator sport, but future wargames that are more attractive and easier to grasp have a good chance of doing so. When I play World in Conflict, for example, I marvel at the beauty of that battlefield. If you could take such a game, make it more realistic, and place greater emphasis on thoughtful strategy and less on the click-fest aspects, you might have a winning formula (I think the first video game to make it as a television show will probably be designed from the ground up for that purpose).

    All I know is that as GenX and later, more gamer-heavy generations work their way into positions of authority in the entertainment industry, you can count on seeing gaming become a central component of American entertainment culture. It has already begun, in fact (please see some of those awful game-related movies).

    Finally, if you want to read a good sci-fi short story about "professional wargaming," check out William F. Wu's On the Shadow of a Phosphor Screen or Charles Sheffield's Fixed Price War.

  2. gamesqud comments continued:

    Michael Dorosh - 31 May 08 17:32
    I had meant to drop you a line as the resident chess guru to get your opinion, Scott - glad to see you're on the case!

    Cyber-athleticism. Well, Red Vs. Blue has already made HALO a spectator sport, of sorts. At the very least, it has opened the eyes of people towards FPS, in the same way that Robot Chicken has opened eyes up to action figure collecting.

    In other words, not very far, and without any hope of lending any more legitimacy to the activity!

    I agree with you that ASL will never be a game in which third parties (particularly uninitiated ones) can ooh and aah at the subtle nuances. Even baseball, a mainstream sport, is far more complex than the average person realizes. A right-handed batter coming up against a left-handed pitcher is a huge deal, but for the baseball fan who is not into statistics or following their favourite team, the drama is minimalized into nothing more than another at-bat.

    I would agree with you also that increased ability to provide an interesting graphical experience may have an impact on the ability to find audiences here, too. I think the tactical wargamer will still be left in the cold as far as public displays - being Napoleon will always trump being Roman Legionnaire XVII in the third row of the second cohort in the reserve phalanx as far as excitement and drama. We're seeing more interest in the tactical, though, such as in shows like Dogfights, using computer generated imagery that is getting more and more realistic.

    Scott Tortorice - 31 May 08 17:47
    All good points. The different elements that will prove necessary to make (war)gaming a spectator sport are all slowing falling into place - except for one. IMHO, the current crop of games are all to player-centric. It may be great fun to play WiC, or GTA, or CM, but there really isn't a lot there for an audience to interact with because the action is often too fast and furious (CM is the sole exception - perhaps WEGO is the solution?). Chess succeeded, even only briefly as a TV sport, because the audience could puzzle out the best move along with the GMs. Gaming needs to put forth a game that is both visually captivating to watch, as well as offering some sort of mental interaction on the part of the audience. Following some guy as he runs around an FPS environment capping opponents just doesn't do it. :-)

    Michael Dorosh - 31 May 08 19:25
    I think you're right in that what matters in the end is the spectacle. If you can't 'get' the drama of the right-handed hitter going against the left-handed pitcher, it doesn't matter, because you can still thrill to the sight of a home run or a stolen base winging a batter. How many people go to the Indy 500 just in hopes of seeing a car crash, and how many actually care about the revolutions per minute Danica's car is getting, or what temperature her tires are rated for, or how much torque the pit crew has on their wrenches?

    To follow your FPS example, there is spectacle there. A game of Combat Mission provides relatively little for a third party given how hard it is to remain in context in the repetitive 3D world with its simplistic graphics. Of course, Bobby Fischer wasn't a spectacle on TV, but I get the feeling that during the Cold War, the stakes were a bit higher as far as US-USSR matchups, so any endeavour in which the US could reasonably win was exciting given that the true athletes in the USSR were trained from birth as competitive machines and routinely cleaning the clocks of other countries in international athletics.

    Or so the story goes.

  3. gamesquad comments continued:

    Rindis - 02 Jun 08 11:38
    I saw the title for this one and thought, "I've read this recently, didn't Michael talk about this a while back?"

    No, I was thinking of the Simonsen editorial you quoted. I hit that issue of Moves a couple months ago as I try to read my way through my old magazine collection.

    Simonsen's weakest argument is #3. It doesn't matter that not everyone plays them competitively. Competitiveness is part of human psychology, and there will be enough to support a league if there were to be one.

    I don't think there ever be a wargaming league. There are a few things out there showing that some sort video gaming league may eventually evolve. However, the presence of wargames in the video game market is minuscule, and any league that does form will only include them by happenstance.

    Any league that wants media promotion will have to not only provide spectacle, as mentioned, but concentrate on games that are reasonably short. I don't think any video game league would pick up the Europa Universalis series, for example. Or how about Civilization IV?

    Of course, I can't help thinking of ESPN's coverage of the M:tG world tournament one year. The report I heard was that it was covered by people with no knowledge of, or interest for, the game. Gee, wonder why that crashed and burned.

    pward - 04 Jun 08 19:06
    Could you not see an organization similar to RPGA or the house run "ranking" system for various CCGs? While neither of these is really in the same league (pun intended) with baseball football etc., they are national or international organizations.

    Take Magic the Gathering for instance, if you play at one of their events, you are automatically setup with an ID number that you are expected to use next time you play an event. All of their sanctioned events require reporting to the organization of the results. (As I understand it from observing at the local game store on Magic nights.)

    The big question to me is why don't wargame producers choose to host similar ranking systems for their own products?

    Stalins Organ - 04 Jun 08 19:24
    And yet there are quite large single-game, or limited game organisations.

    There are FPS world championships and professional leagues for some games, there is an International Wargaming Federation which holds world championships for some figure game rules (Helsinki this year, Sydney last year....)

    Why should wargaming be considered any different to, say, "ball sports"? Is there a single ball sport governing body covering Rugby, Soccer, Gridiron, softball, lacross, squash, etc?

    Of course not - and there's not likely to be one either.

    Wargaming is the same - the games are superficially similar activities that are actually different in almost all important respects.

    There are "families" of games which might fall under a single roof, but otherwise there's no reason to assume that there will or should be a single overarching organisation ruling the roost.

  4. gamesquad comments continued:

    Michael Dorosh - 04 Jun 08 22:42
    Te big question to me is why don't wargame producers choose to host similar ranking systems for their own products?
    Time and manpower, I am guessing. Avalon Hill used to run AREA, did they not (or at the very list carry the rankings in the house organ every issue). The Combat Mission fans, for example, have always been acutely aware that the developers of that PC title never had much in the way of online support - certainly never hosted a tournament or contest. I think it was just a lack of time and probably interest. They wanted to research and sell the games; marketing it to people who already paid their money seemed out of their frame of reference.

    I think competitive play is only a small part of the pie to be honest. Solo play, be it PC or boardgame, is supposed to still outrank face to face play in terms of popularity. I doubt that is true for something like ASL, for example, and MMP does get involved in one or two tournaments annually. But as far as long term ladder tracking, it's a good question. Competitive players are only a small part of the market.

    It may even be a disincentive to potential purchasers, to see that the developer is actively promoting rankings, etc. "I just want to kill some time on a Tuesday evening - if I buy this thing, am I expected to register in a league?"

    I'd argue also that as far as PC wargames, "balance" is not an issue - they are almost always designed (as far as tactical wargame titles go) for solo play. True, one can rank solo games against each other, the same way you used to get a high score in Pacman, but it is difficult to do so without qualitative markers in the end game. Combat Mission for example was probably the best game of the mainstream tactical titles (CC, SP) in terms of being set up for competitive play - it gave you a score from 1-100 at the end and was optimized for multiplayer. You could create mirrored maps, but, could not fight red vs. red. The newest engine seems to have taken steps both forward and back, mostly back. You can still create mirrored maps and fight red v red or blue v blue with identical equipment (for a true competition of skills rather than trying to balance 5 Shermans v 1 King Tiger), but the game is optimized now for solo play. At any rate, no one seems to be playing much competitive CM:SF.

    On the other hand, board gaming leagues still go strong; I am off to Texas on the 20th to attend an ASL tournament there.
    Updated 05 Jun 08 at 07:41 by Michael Dorosh

    Dr Zaius - 05 Jun 08 08:16
    The Gamespy ladders are probably the closest thing there is for PC to an official ladder system for PC gaming.

    For console games, the Xbox Live! service is the most active. But it only serves the Xbox, so you can't really say it is any kind of formal organization for console gamers.

    I don't know that there will ever be one organization for all gamers, or even just for war gamers. It's hard to unify the community in such a way without having a lot of money and resources to back it up. And how would such an organization pay for itself? What would gamers get out of it that they don't already get from dedicated fan sites?