It's time for tournaments to change

There’s the saying, “You’re not in a HEMA tournament if you’re not getting screwed by the judging.” And if you’ve ever competed, there’s some truth to the statement; judging in HEMA is terrible.

And we love to complain about it. Oh, how we love to complain! The awards dinner is filled to the brim with stories of how a small brigade of judges missed a clean strike to the head, or didn’t acknowledge a beautiful Control point, how Director X had it out for you, or how they only seemed to pay attention to the celebrity fencer in your pool.

So, we talk about judging certifications. We talk about needing 6-10 judges PER RING so that way judges can be refreshed. We make arbitrary and confusing rulesets in desperate attempts to either make bouts more ‘realistic’ or to be more accurate with scoring…ignoring the fact that those same rules often make judging even harder. We ask our Refs to perform bizarre math to divine HEMA TRUTH.

None of it works, or has been too hard to pull off effectively. None of it makes judging better, and in some ways makes tournaments even more difficult to pull off.

And as our tournaments get bigger, as the community grows at a fever pace, why do we keep trying to make old ideas work? Why do we think that exponentially increasing the judge staff is the only way to solve these problems?

Which is a long way to say that when I read Martin Fabian’s2 is more than 4 - The State of Judging in HEMA Competitions,” I finally saw a group of people trying to answer the question in a way that doesn’t require the entire tournament roster to judge itself in order to even compete. A way that maybe, just maybe, is a direction that we need to seriously consider if we want to make not just tournaments easier to run and manage, but to make judging better at the same time. If you are unfamiliar with the format used in Slovakia, read the link above.

So, myself and Aaron Karnuta traveled to Slovakia to experience their tournament format first hand. While we were optimistic before we even arrived (you don’t spend that much money on a tournament if you’re not already leaning towards liking it), the entire format blew us away.

Here’s some of the biggest takeaways, and why we need to start considering some, if not all.

First, some points about the scope of this article:

Most of my experience is in North America, and most of my arguments in this article are directed at that community. I’ve been to a number of European ones before Trnava, and some of this will apply to any tournaments, but if you feel a point doesn’t apply to your community, then take my limited scope in consideration.

This article is not about rulesets, especially around scoring. I’m making no claims about the superiority of one ruleset over another, and I try to focus on insights that could benefit any scoring paradigm.

This article is also explicitly NOT condemning other formats. I’m not calling for the removal of a 4 judge system. I’m only trying to call out that there are opportunities to improve formats that we often overlook, because we assume 4 judges = optimal result.

The judging was extremely consistent.

This was the most consistent judging I have seen in a long time, maybe ever. According to their ruleset, there were maybe 2 or 3 calls all weekend that I disagreed with across all 3 tournaments, and none of them were bout deciding or controversial. There was still plenty of conferencing between the staff, and yet it only a couple of cases did it materially delay the tournament.

Each bout had a full 3 minutes of potential fencing time.

Not 3 minutes with the clock running, not 1:30 stopped time. Provided you didn’t hit the point cap, you had plenty of time to execute your fencing how you wished. It took the clock completely out of the equation, and they couldn't do it with more judges.

When you combine *consistent* judging with a healthy clock time, fencers control their bout. The actions needed to win were dictated by the situation and the context. What they weren't dictated by were by a terrible call that sucked 40 seconds off of a short clock, which leads to desperate fencing.

More judges means more time to score each exchange, which is one of the biggest time sucks in a pool.

For the true martial artists out there, this should be considered a major benefit. Manipulating a clock is a game strategy, not a fencing one. Having it be a non factor was refreshing - no more having a single bad call send you into a spiral of needing to score FAST, because the time is running.

The rectangular ring benefits not just the fencing.

The rectangle-shaped ring had healthy amounts of space for offline work and advance/retreat (far wider than even the old FNY setup), but it encouraged the fencers to keep the action primarily on one axis.

This makes judging easier (no more having to run all over the place to get a good angle), is a smart use of space (more space for fencing, better viewing opportunities), and didn't hinder the fencing in any way.

Circles and squares contribute to bad calls. Judges either bunch up, run around in literal circles, and even forget which fencer is which with all the disorientation.

They also make it harder to manage your event space - rectangles “stack” more efficiently.

The ring and judge format let the fighters get to fencing faster.

Do me a favor, and watch a bunch of tournament matches. Fencers can take up to 3-8 seconds to begin pre-fencing (engaged out of range, but making tactical decisions). When the clock is running continuously, this means that in a bout, you could suck up 20-40 seconds with fencers just getting to the actual fencing. If your matches are only 1:30 long, that’s a lot of time.

That. is. insane. Fewer judges means less need for a director to have visiblity on all of their staff, and with the rectangle they can simply look across the ring to gain their consensus.

This means that we can start fencers slightly out of measure - just enough distance where neither fencer can simply SURPRISE ATTACK, but close enough that they will begin pre-fencing the moment “fight” is called.

This also does away with the tactic of rushing to the middle of the ring, which does nothing for the fencing.

Fewer judges = less salt.

We’ve all been there - the traditional airing of grievances against the judging staff at the celebration dinner. We’ve all done it! It’s cathartic, but it’s also so consistent that it’s become toxic.

Let’s leave aside the idea that fewer and more senior judges lead to more accurate exchange conclusions.

Let’s talk about emotion.

When you have 4 people who all are calling an exchange completely differently, as a fencer you feel judged. When you’ve put your heart into a clean strike that you and the other fencer both acknowledge, and nobody sees it? Or when your opponent is awarded control for not reason other than they bowed their blade on your chest? You feel a little bullied.

There’s a tangible psychological effect to public humiliation, and when 4 judges get a call wrong, it can certainly feel that way. Fencers become more tilted, more desperate. Power levels increase to “show” the judges a clear hit. Animosity builds.

But with just two? It’s easier to remember they’re human. And when the calls are only occasionally inaccurate, they’re easier to accept.

Do you want to know how much complaining about the judging I heard at Trnava? Zero. Zilch. Not during a pool, and not at dinner.

No more chasing down armbands!

When you have fewer judges, less circling, and fencers starting closer together, you don’t need silly armbands to figure out who’s red and who is blue.

Armbands are bad. Fencers leave the ring with them, fencers wear the wrong ones, and when directors insist on judges holding flags in specific hands, we increase the error rate.

This is a pet peeve of mine - some tournaments and directors insist judges hold specific colors in specific hands. All this does is forces judges to reframe after every exchange which flag they’re holding up, and you can sometimes see judges making the right call…for the wrong fencer.

All of this goes away when you don’t need armbands anymore.

Disciplining fencers with performance penalties is more effective than using a stick. Literally.

Especially in the states, we have discipline issues. A part of this is because directors abdicate their responsibility to the staff they use to separate fencers.

But when you don’t have a staff, you are more inclined to be stricter with bad behavior. A point penalty will get people to stop far more effectively, and many fencers in the states have trained themselves NOT to stop until a stick is put in between them and the other fencer.

This is dangerous, and it leads to bad blood between fencers. We’ve all seen tape of shockingly late hits, even by well known fencers, just because they know they can get away with it.

Having the only recourse for directors being actual penalties will hopefully lead to some of those behaviors going away.

Even if you’re not convinced the judging is better, this format is still worth considering.

We forget that judging isn’t binary - it’s not bad judging or good judging.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, say that 4 junior judges can get the calls right 80% of the time (I’m being generous). Let’s also say that 2 senior judges can get the calls right 70% of the time.

If I can execute a tournament with less staff, more fighters, and still be done with it earlier…is that 10% worth all the extra hassle, logistics, hurt feelings, and lack of enjoyment by all involved?

As Matt Galas has pointed out to me, a lot of the current tournament formats were done for branding reasons (ie constrasting HEMA with sport fencing via circular rings, authority via the staff, etc). Branding is a fair consideration, and HEMA does need to do a better job of branding itself. But if branding is making it more difficult for us to scale, then our branding needs to change.

I think everything needs to be on the table, and I don’t think you need to utilize everything the Slovakians or Polish do in order to improve the experience of your tournaments.

But what’s the harm in trying out new things aside from just trying to come up with fancy rules?

What if we can find a way for our tournaments to be not just more efficient, but more fun, enjoyable, and dare I say it…better for the fencing and pressure testing?

Isn’t it worth trying?