Do Points Define Sport?

London-2012-Summer-Olympics-Womens-US-Soccer-Team-jumpingWith half of my brain occupied with the World Cup and the other with board games, I’ve been thinking about quantitative victories (points) versus subjective victories (judges’ scores) and what defines a sport.

One of the interesting things about soccer–or most professional team sports–is that the best team can lose the game. In the recent Belgium-US match, Belgium had 38 shots compared to 14 for the US…and they could have lost if Wondolowski had make a very basic play in the 92nd minute. In some games, a team will control the possession for 60-70% of the game and lose.

And that’s just the metrics. Imagine if the winner of a soccer game wasn’t decided by the score, but rather by a panel of judges who watched the game and decided which team was better. That sounds crazy, right? But that’s essentially what boxing does.

I don’t think that defining what a “sport” is really matters–just because boxing or many Olympic sports use judges to decide the winner doesn’t make them any less worthy of entertaining people than soccer and football. Plus, NASCAR uses a quantitative metric to decide the winner of a race (the first car to cross the finish line), and I still have a really hard time calling that a sport. It’s entertainment for millions of people, sure, but…they’re driving a car around in a circle, right? Am I missing something here?

Also, college football has such an interesting place in sports because individual games are decided strictly quantitatively, but determining which team is the “best” (to play for the championship) is determined partially by people who rank the teams.

I wonder if someday, the final winner of sports will be determined by computer metrics instead of final score. Even as I type that, though, I really hope not. While soccer is a low-scoring sport, it could end up being downright boring if teams were more focused on successfully completing passes than scoring. It might turn into a game of keep-away.

Though it should be said that the winner of so many board games is determined by who has more points at the end of the game, and it feels perfectly natural that way. Points are the de facto way to determine who the best player is in that particular game. It often feels quite disconnected from reality, but it works in tabletop form. Why is that the case, especially compared to how dry that would be in a sport?

4 thoughts on “Do Points Define Sport?”

  1. One aspect of board games that I believe translates to sports (and is often overlooked) is the role that strategy plays in determining the winner. Consider a board game. Often it’s in your best interest to play quietly, hide your true strategy while seeming a bit harmless (so you’re not attacked/the focus of attention), then reveal what you’ve planned in a sweeping move in which you win the game and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop you. I’ve seen you do this a number of times. I liken this to sports in that the quality of a strategy can often be more important than the metrics it produces. Take the US-Belgium game for example. Belgium outshot the US by a 24-shot margin, but how many of those shots were quality shots? (Let me pause for a second to say that Belgium was still the better team, but in my opinion, not by quite as much as the raw shooting stats would indicate.) If you look at a heat map of where the Belgians and Americans fired their shots, most of the Belgian shots (and most of the American shots) were not in an ideal shooting position. In my opinion, if you draw a small arc from where the endline and the 6 yard box meet to the penalty shot mark and to the other endline/6 meetup spot, you form an arc for an ideal, high-percentage shot. Eight Belgian shots fell within this imaginary box. Six American shots fell within this imaginary box. Again, the Belgians were still the better side, but in my opinion, not by as much as the pure shot metrics would posture. I use this as a speculative example. Is it possible that the Belgians sought shot volume as a strategy while the Americans should quality shots? Is it possible that an American defensive strategy was to accept that Belgium would shoot and attempt to push them to areas with lower shot percentage? I don’t know for sure, but I do find that potential parallel to board game strategy interesting.

    • Trev: That’s a fascinating analysis of the shot placement in the US-Belgium game. I hadn’t considered that as a stat at all. You make a great point about how every team has a unique strategy that may not be apparent from the overall stats, and there is a direct correlation to board games.

  2. Jamey, this was truly entertaining thought experiment. But I don’t think we need to worry about the winning condition changing for soccer anytime soon. Like you said, I think the game would loose is essence of “Soccer” and become an entirely different game if left up to the decision of a few judges.

    Also, think about the level of bribery and corruption that would overtake the sport if the win was based upon the decision of a few human. I can’t think of a global sport that is more ripe for bribery and corrupt gambling practices if the win was decided by a group of humans.

    And agree with much of what T-Mac said. I think the Belgium team definitively had the edge, but I would argue the margin was much closer than many are wanting to think. The Belgians had a great number of shots, but a lot of those shots led me to say out loud, “Seriously!? You took that shot?” Anyway, great thoughts!

    • John: Thanks for your thoughts. That’s a great point about how bribery would completely take over the sport (or any sport).


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