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:
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 more apt to occur in bracket pools than in actual tournament brackets. 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), the situation of intentionally entering losers early being beneficial in overall tournament progression is more common in bracket pools.
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 place higher in tournament and earn more money in a tournament as demonstrated above, is extremely controversial in the Smash community. Many players see it as immoral, 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", rather than 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 the players' right to perform however they want. In regards to a third player's tournament progress being disrupted from other players bracket manipulating, defenders will claim that the third player would have advanced anyway if they "played better".
Despite the small amount of defenders, the majority of the Smash community is against bracket manipulation, and TOs will generally punish players that are caught splitting or manipulating the bracket in any other way.
Major incidents of bracket manipulation
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