Bracket manipulation refers to any behavior by any player in a tournament with the intent to manipulate the progression or alter the result of a tournament bracket, usually performed in collusion with other players for financial gain. This is typically done by a player intentionally losing a match in pools or in winners bracket.
Reasons for bracket manipulation
Reasons for bracket manipulation may include, but are not limited to the following:
- A player believes they will have an easier bracket progression (and thus place higher) by being knocked into the losers bracket at a point before they should naturally enter losers. This can result from the players they'll play in their natural bracket progression maining characters that counter theirs, being players they have a poor win/loss record against, or being simply higher level players in general.
- Collaboration with other player(s) to win more money between themselves. May include specifically collaborating to eliminate another player.
- A player wants to stop playing in the tournament for whatever reason, but still wants to win money.
- A player is set to play against a friend of theirs in pools or in winners' bracket, and wants to help their friend make the tournament bracket/place higher in the tournament.
Types of bracket manipulation
There are various ways for players to manipulate the natural progression of the tournament, which include:
Self altering progression
This is when a player acting on their own accord intentionally loses a set and enters the loser bracket before they legitimately lose and enter the loser bracket naturally. This is a very risky tactic, as the manipulating player could have underrated a player they're set to play against in losers and/or unforeseen the character that player was going to use against them, resulting in an earlier elimination and lower overall placing. Additionally, upsets can occur in tournaments, and the manipulating player can mispredict the result of future matches, resulting in them playing a player in the loser bracket they intentionally entered losers early to avoid playing. This type of bracket manipulation is most apt to occur in bracket pools that reset players into winners upon advancing to the next phase of bracket. Due to their much smaller size, having greater variety in player skill, and the goal being to obtain a minimum placing to advance (where then a player's performance in their bracket pool has minimal effect on their actual bracket progression), intentionally entering losers early being beneficial in overall tournament progression is more common in these types of bracket pools. In modern tournaments however, players are typically not reset into winners upon advancing in bracket pools, with any player going into losers during bracket pools remaining there for the rest of their bracket run, making this type of bracket manipulation less practical.
Inflating a friend's placing
This is when a player intentionally loses a match to a friend to help them place higher in tournament. The losing player is typically a higher level player, who are more able to afford losing a match and then place high regardless of having a lower seed in bracket/entering losers early. This type of bracket manipulation is most apt to occur in elimination round robin pools, where a player may need an extra win to avoid being eliminated, and thus look to their higher level friend, who is in the same pool as them, to help them out. Since this higher level player already secured their spot in bracket, and won't be adversely affected much by losing to their friend (since the only possible adversity from losing the match would be a lower seed in the tournament bracket), the higher level player intentionally loses and secures for their friend a high enough placing to make the tournament bracket/advance to the next round of pools. While much less common, this can still occur in the tournament bracket, as the higher level player, if skilled enough, could be able to reliably beat everyone in the loser bracket until the end, and thus still afford to drop a set in winners to a friend without hurting their overall tournament placing.
To prevent these situations from occurring, tournament organisers will try to place players from the same region in different pools and on different sides of the tournament bracket.
Splitting is when 2 or more players collaborate and make an agreement for 1 or more of them to intentionally lose a match, while in return getting monetary compensation (typically via "splitting" of the players' tournament winnings). This often occurs in the finals of a tournament, where 1 or more of the finalists wants to stop playing and will thus make an offer with the other player(s) to split, enticing them on the idea that they'll get more money than if they were to play it out and lose, without having to put in the effort of trying to beat their opponent.
A more complicated form of splitting can involve the collaboration to specifically eliminate a third player. There may be a third player in the bracket that one of the players plays poorly against, while another player they're facing performs more favorably against. So to secure a higher placing and a higher payout, the player makes an agreement to split their prize money with the other player, who will then throw their set, and face off against the threatening player in the losers bracket to knock them out of the tournament. For example:
Smasher A, who mains Falco, has reached the winner semifinals, and is about to face off against Smasher B, who mains Marth. A however, notices that Smasher C, who mains Pikachu, has been dominating the losers bracket and is set to face the loser of his set with Smasher B. Smasher A, knowing Falco is hard countered by Pikachu, and remembering his losing history against Smasher C, conspires to manipulate the bracket with Smasher B, knowing that Marth counters Pikachu, and that Smasher B previously defeated Smasher C in the winners' bracket. Smasher B, seeing that the winner of his set with Smasher A is set to face Smasher D in the winner finals, who mains King Dedede, a character Smasher B plays poorly against that Smasher A will counter, agrees to the split. Smasher B then proceeds to intentionally lose the set against Smasher A, and goes on to eliminate Smasher C from the tournament, while Smasher A defeats Smasher D and secures a spot in the grand finals. While Smasher B does eventually get eliminated by Smasher D in the losers finals, Smasher A defeats Smasher D again in the grand finals to win the tournament. And through splitting that prize money, both players make more money than they would have if they played out their set with Smasher D winning.
For the money earned in this scenario assuming the tournament pays out $500 in a 55/30/10/5 payout:
1. Smasher A ($275)
2. Smasher D ($150)
3. Smasher B ($50)
4. Smasher E ($25)
Through splitting their earnings, Smasher A and Smasher B earn $162.50.
For the money earned in the scenario where the players don't split, resulting in Smasher B winning their set, to then lose to Smasher D, while Smasher A is eliminated by Smasher C:
1. Smasher D ($275)
2. Smasher B ($150)
3. Smasher C ($50)
4. Smasher E ($25)
While Smasher B gets a higher placement in this scenario, earning $150, Smasher A, having been eliminated by Smasher C before the final four, earns nothing.
Bracket manipulation, while a practical method to potentially place higher and/or earn more money in a tournament as demonstrated above, is extremely controversial in the Smash community. Players see it as anticompetitive, as it interferes with the bracket progression of other players. As seen in the above scenario, Smasher C is prevented from placing high enough to earn money by having to face Smasher B sooner than he would have if the manipulation didn't occur. Bracket manipulation is also seen to harm the competitive integrity of a tournament, as it disrupts the natural progression of the tournament, and skews the tournament results from showing who the best players really were (as not every match was played to win). Splitting in particular is very controversial, as detractors see it as watering down the event for spectators as the players splitting will not give it their all in their set.
Bracket manipulation, while generally looked down upon, has some who defend it. In regards to intentionally losing to help a friend, defenders will claim that one should prioritise "being a friend" over maintaining strict competitive integrity. In regards to players splitting in finals, defenders will claim that it's the players' money, and as such it's their right to do what they want with it, as well as defending the players' right to perform however they want. In regards to a player's tournament progress being disrupted from other players bracket manipulating, defenders will claim that the player would have advanced anyway if they played well enough to defeat both bracket manipulating players. These defenses, however, were more prevalent in the MLG and Brawl era, where the competitive Smash community was less mature, much smaller, and bracket manipulation was a much more common occurrence among higher level players. As the community matured and exploded in size after EVO 2013 and the release of Smash 4, as well as with the proliferation of E-Sports, players of all skill levels treated competitive play in a more professional manner, causing any form of bracket manipulation to become near-universally shunned. In the modern era, TOs will generally punish players that are caught splitting or manipulating the bracket in any other way.
Major incidents of bracket manipulation
- The most notorious incident of splitting in competitive Smash was between Mew2King and ADHD at MLG DC 2010, when M2K allegedly intentionally lost to ADHD in the tournament's Loser Finals, in exchange for a portion of ADHD's winnings, who would go on to win the tournament after beating Rich Brown twice in Grand Finals. If M2K actually threw the set is disputed, with M2K maintaining he did legitimately try to win, claiming ADHD didn't agree to split his winnings until after the tournament was over, but both did admit to the exchange of prize money, casting doubt over the legitimacy of their set, and calling into question if Rich Brown would have been the tournament's rightful winner if he fought M2K or a more exhausted ADHD after a legitimate LF set instead. While the community largely backed or forgave them at the time, and no other TO would ban them from their tournaments for this incident, this did result in MLG disqualifying and banning both players from participating in the rest of the 2010 MLG Brawl circuit. This incident damaged the reputation of the competitive Smash community to those outside it, especially as it involved two of the game's most prolific players at one of the year's most prolific tournaments, with this incident being speculated as a major reason for why MLG chose to not run any more Brawl events after the 2010 circuit, with MLG not returning to Smash until four years later with MLG Anaheim 2014.
- At Pound V, there were reported cases of players bracket manipulating in the tournament's round robin pools in order to a help a friend of theirs in the same pool advance into the bracket. The most notorious of these was ADHD intentionally losing a set to Doom in his pool, which allowed Doom to make the bracket. This in turn prevented D1AOS, the player who would have advanced had ADHD defeated Doom as expected, from advancing. The incident caused a large debate on whether one should "be a friend" and willingly bracket manipulate to help their friend place higher, or if one should maintain competitive integrity and sportsmanship, thus treating their friend as any other opponent. This was the primary controversy of the Pound V results thread on SmashBoards until Plank revealed that he wouldn't be paying out the winners.
- At 2GG: Prime Saga and MomoCon 2019, Captain Zack blackmailed Ally into intentionally losing against Zackray in Winner-Semis of the former tournament and against Nairo in a top 8 qualifying set of the latter tournament, via threat to publicly expose their relationship if Ally didn't abide. After this instance of bracket manipulation was exposed in August 2019, Zack would be promptly banned from Super Smash Con 2019 and all 2GGaming events, with other tournaments following suit. While the length of Zack's ban was under dispute, with many arguing that the SSBConductPanel's indefinite ban of Zack, with a chance for appeal after five years, was too harsh, this argument would become moot after further allegations against Zack came out that solidified his indefinite ban from the vast majority of tournaments.