Skip to content

Yoyo Code
MatyΓ‘Ε‘ Racek's blog

Who should win a yoyo contest?

Years ago, I asked this question on my YouTube channel, when trying to derive judging system from first principles. I wanted to define an abstract goal for our yoyo contests, and then derive the rules from that goal.

I don't think my viewers understood this the way I intended to, though. And since then, I also changed my mind about this quite a bit. I think it's very hard to derive the system from first principles like this.

Nevertheless, I think the question of who should win yoyo contests is now more actual than ever. As we see the freestyles getting denser and denser, it's getting very difficult to judge them properly. Unfortunately, we don't really have a good definition of our rules which would allow us to test the quality of judges and prepare them properly.

Once you start defining the rules more precisely, this question quickly becomes relevant. There are many choices that you have to do when designing the judging system, and it's not clear which criteria you should use to decide them. For example, one pretty actual problem is how much we should score difficulty.

The equivalence problem πŸ”—

So, Who should win a yoyo contest?

The obvious answer is "the best yoyo player." This is what I got as one of the responses initially. But this doesn't really help us in any way, it just kicks the can down the road. What it actually means to be the best player? And even then, do we really want the best player to always win? This answer has some serious implications, and it actually may not be desirable, but more on that later.

What it means to be the best player is tricky to define. Is it the fastest yoyo player? The one with the most difficult tricks? The one with the most musical freestyles? Or the one with the most diverse play style?

And again, the obvious answer is - all of these. Which makes sense, but here's the problem. What if the fastest player and the most musical player meet at the contest? What if Mickey and Gentry meet at the contest?

This question uncovers the root issue, which I call "the equivalence problem." We have to compare two players who do different things, so we have to derive some scoring system that sets equivalence between some amount of speed combo and some amount of musicality. How many cue hits is equivalent to one rail combo?

What do we really want? πŸ”—

Let's step back and ask ourselves, what do we actually want to score in an abstract way.

Obviously, we want to set the system up such that players who can do more difficult, more flashy tricks have higher scores. The same applies to musicality and performance. But when we compare players who have different skills, we have to find something they have in common, and use that as a metric for both.

One obvious metric is difficulty. For both players, we can reasonably say that it's difficult to make the freestyle musical, and again, it's difficult to make the tricks fast. The common metric that is usually desirable is skill. We want things that require higher skill to be higher in results.

What is skill, really? πŸ”—

What does it actually mean to be skilled? We usually associate skill with practice and work. When we zoom out even more, what do we actually measure is how much work somebody dedicated to the contest. Skill in any dimension requires practice, so a "fair" judging system would measure how much work has somebody dedicated to their skillset.

Let's say that it takes 30 hours of practice to land 2.5 hook with 90% certainty. Then it makes sense to give it the same points as for a speed combo that also takes 30 hours of practice to land with 90% certainty.

This is obviously an imperfect model, practice comes in many forms, some better than others. Just because you practice, doesn't mean you practice optimally. There are ways to accelerate learning, so we can't measure this just as a time unit. Nevertheless, if we define some abstract unit of optimal practice, we could derive our scoring metric based on that.

How do we incorporate this? πŸ”—

Skill required to perform something is definitely hard to measure, so I don't think it's practical to define the system like this directly. I think it's easier to start where we are, and tweak the system over time. Whenever we find an inconsistency that we can all agree on (e.g., some hard trick being judged the same as some easy trick), we can adjust the system a little bit. Over time, these adjustments will accumulate and hopefully converge to a somewhat optimal system.

One thing to note: This optimization currently doesn't happen with the judging system, but it's done intuitively by players. Over time, competitors figure out which things are worth practicing. If something is too difficult to practice and doesn't score much, people just stop doing it.

Over time, freestyles become composed of tricks of a very similar score/difficulty ratio. Players then naturally compete in how much time they dedicated to effective practice anyway, they just exclude tricks that are not worth doing based on the judging system.

What we can do as organizers is to re-include some tricks into the game by scoring them higher, such that they become worth the cost again.

Why this doesn't work πŸ”—

Now, I want to talk about a deeper problem. Even though this line of reasoning and definition of the system looks reasonable and logical - the player who wins is the most skilled one - you might already see why I don't think it's that great. It has a bunch of externalities that are not desirable.

If the player who wins is always the one that did the most (effective) work, and the work accumulates, it means that in the end, the contest will be dominated by small set of players who put in the most work. Everybody else is excluded.

We can already see this effect in some well-optimized divisions like 2A. 2A is practically inaccessible for new players. It takes many years to get where the top players are, and even then, they will always have the advantage of more practice time in their past, so it's almost impossible to beat them. If you've been paying attention to this division, you might have noticed that new world yoyo champions are usually winning not because they beat the old ones, but because the old ones stop competing.

Because it's tricky to define the equivalence of different skillsets, there's usually some set of things that have the best score/effort ratio. More generally, there's usually an ordering of elements based on this ratio. This means that over time, contestants will converge on the trickset from the top of this list and all freestyles will be very similar, players will basically compete in how well they execute the same trickset.

Who's included in the game? πŸ”—

The reason I wanted to find a common goal in the first place is because the naive definition of it from above is not necessarily the best one for the community.

To illustrate this, there's a useful comparison to board games. Board games range from fully deterministic ones with open information, like Chess or Go, to completely non-deterministic random games, where your outcome is completely determined by roll of a die. As a logical and competitive person, I always inclined to the first group, because I like when the outcome of the game depends on my decisions, my skill.

The problem with skill-based games is that they are not fun for less skilled players, especially newcomers. In many of these games, I was always the one to win, because they favor logical and strategic thinking, and I was already practicing that on many fronts of my life, because I just like it. And I have to say, it's not very fun to play a game where you know you always lose to more skilled player. This naturally leads to people not wanting to participate in the game at all.

Over time, I began to appreciate games that have different qualities. Games with random elements tend to have a property that anyone can win, even if not particularly skilled. Even if you are skilled, the game can roll a die against you and you can lose.

These games are fun for more people, because everybody has a chance to win, even newcomers. As a social activity, these games are more about connecting people than about playing the game. For skilled players who would otherwise always win, they are also a bit humbling. I think it's good to sometimes lose, it keeps your ego in check.

The role of a yoyo contest πŸ”—

Yoyo contests are similar to board games in this regard. I think that the property that "anybody can win the contest, even newcomer" is very desirable property for a yoyo contest. Otherwise, it becomes uninteresting for newcomers and the community starts to loose new players. We don't necessarily have to add random elements to our scoring system, but I think it's useful to think about ways to break the "more skill always wins" property in some cases.

Outside the competitors, it's also desirable to keep contest fun for spectators. We have to keep in mind that the vast majority of the yoyo community is not competing - actually not even attending the contests directly. Competitions are a big drive for the community, but not the competition itself, but all the downstream things that happen because of it.

Brands promote new yoyos by sponsoring players, people buy yoyos based on their favourite players, others start yoyoing because they see the contest and want to participate. Many people stay in the community or visit the contest just because of their relationships with other players, even when they don't play yoyo as much anymore.

It's also important to realize that the community, while driven by contests, is being run and held together by non-contestants. Beginners and yoyo enthusiasts basically finance the whole thing. Organizers and brands make the contest happen. Our community stands on the shoulders of invisible people, who do that work for different reasons than one might naively assume.

I think it's important to keep in mind that we don't necessarily do the contest because we want to find the best yoyo player, we do them to support and advance yoyo community. Yoyo contests have to be interesting for the whole community. Otherwise, it slowly falls apart, unless we replace contests by some other way to glue it together.

Let's not turn everything to 2A πŸ”—

Even without high-level goals, though, I myself would just like to keep contests fun, and as I stated earlier, optimized skill-based systems are not necessarily fun.

Look at what happened to 2A. It went from the most important division, basically the only real division that was considered proper yoyoing, to something that just seems so hard that almost nobody does it and nobody cares about. I'd like to know exactly why, but I think it's at least partially because the division is so optimized that it's inaccessible for most people and therefore most people don't do it and don't push it forward (even though it's clearly possible, as evidenced by players like Arata Imai or Shu Takada, who have brought a lot of new elements into the game).

It's important to recognize that we are on the same path in 1A. We are still far from full optimization, because 1A is wider style with more options, but if we don't change the rules or tweak them in some way, this is bound to happen, too. Many people complain that the competition is already too monotonous. This will only get worse, naturally, as people optimize their routines to the current system.

How to escape the curse πŸ”—

So the question is, how to get out of this? Who should actually win the yoyo contest?

To put it shortly, I think the person who wins should be exciting for the community in some way. This is a bit tricky, though. It seems like this advocates for making it a popularity contest, but I don't think that's the right interpretation. Popularity contest would have different externalities, notably a lost interest of competitive people. It's not that straightforward.

For the contest and the winner to be exciting, there has to be some element of surprise. Something new, some innovative trick, some new style, some original routine. To use a corny phrase, the best player has to win, but it has to be the best player in everyone's heart, too. The Community has to be excited about this person.

We sometimes get it right πŸ”—

I think the last World Yoyo Contest (2023) is actually a pretty good example. Mir Kim won, and his style has exactly this kind of vibe. There was something legitimately exciting about it, something new for the whole community. The downstream effect was that suddenly everybody had a common topic to talk about. People on the contest could discuss this new style; it was a good opening topic for meeting new people. There was a feeling of expectation and excitement throughout the whole contest, everybody was awaiting his final routine. After the contest, it became a huge inspiration for other competitors who are now motivated to build new routines.

And of course, YYF is now milking his title as much as they can and as they should, because that's also what pushes the community forward. More yoyos bought means more people playing yoyo, more excitement, more inspiration. This is exactly the thing I'm talking about.

Curiously, I think there are more contenders who could cause similar effect in the community. It isn't necessarily related to the current contest performance. Keiran Cooper could very well be in this spot with similar impact, even though he didn't even make finals this year. His style is currently in the forefront of tech innovation, which fullfils the exciting requirement.

If we speculate even further - If Brandon Vu in this spot, it would create a wave of excitment in his YouTube fanbase. It's that kind of person who could make this into a good story and push the community forward in a different way, even though his style is neither technical nor as difficult as Mir's.

I don't argue that these guys should actually win, this is just to illustrate that there are many trajectories that the yoyo contest can take that will be good for the community in some way.

How to turn this into rules, though? πŸ”—

If we define the winner this way, though, the next challenge is how do we actually set up the rules to enable that. One thread we see is some kind of innovation. We don't necessarily have to score innovation itself, but we should keep in mind, that the rules should enable it. I don't necessarily mean technical innovation, but generally in every dimension of the contest. There has to be something new to be excited about. Here are some ideas:

  1. Balance the system

    The hard way to do this is to actually balance the system, such that many different activities have the same score/difficulty ratio. This is hard, and I'm not sure if it will work anyway, because people tend to emulate and copy each other - instead of figuring out something new, it seems easier to copy something that already works. It will also just widen the options but not fundamentally fix the optimization problem.

  2. Can we score innovation?

    If it's easier to copy, then we should reward when somebody figures out something new. This would be cool to do, but it's hard. We used to score rareness and uniqueness, but we moved away from it because it was tricky to judge and I think it was the right decision.

    Nevertheless, if we had a reliable way to measure uniqueness just in the scope of a single contest, I think it could be useful to play around with. This would push players to differentiate themselves and make the contest more diverse, which would make contests less repetitive for spectators and judges.

  3. Avoid stagnation

    Another interesting option is to keep changing the rules periodically, to avoid getting the system into the optimized state.

    For example, Kojo Boison once told me about an idea of introducing thematic seasons to yoyo contests. Let's say for a year, we will rate horizontals much higher than usual. Next year, we give them no points and instead bump points for musicality. The point here is to always change the rules before the players fully optimize to the new system and freestyles become monotonous. And also, to give every playstyle a chance to shine at some point. It would also make every year special in some way. Now, this might lead to freestyles being too monotonous in a single year, though, especially if we recycle these seasons, but I think it's an interesting idea.

  4. Shuffling the contest

    There's also an option to do this in the scope of a single contest. For example, we could assign each player a special ability, kinda like in the "Bang!" game. Either randomly or by letting the players choose. Let's say you can choose which category of the results will have the points doubled for you. Maybe Gentry could pick Music Use, Mir Kim would pick tech, I'd pick slacks, Mickey would pick rail combos. Now, this obviously suffers from the equivalence problem on a different level, but it's also an interesting idea.

    Even more general option is to randomize weights of all scores in the table, for each player. This would sometimes align with player's abilities, but other times would force them out of their comfort zone. Over time, we could probably see generalists stand out, though, so yet a gain another optimization problem.

  5. More prizes?

    Another option is to split the yoyoing into even more categories or introduce more prizes. Kinda like how AP works. I think this is interesting theoretically, but it might just dilute the titles and become uninteresting in a different way.

  6. Chaos

    We could also make our system more chaotic, in a mathematical sense.

    In the yoyoing context, this would mean making freestyles and scores dependent on other freestyles and other scores. This is already the case because of normalization, but the effect is usually negligible. It can also happen in battles where players can react to each other's performances, or in the game of Ken, where one player challenges the other player to do a specific trick.

    Chaotic systems are ones that are deterministic (i.e., there's no randomness, everything is predictable in theory) but practically unpredictable. These systems typically involve some feedback loop, recursion. Meaning that the output of a single step is input to the next step.

  7. Chaotic uniqueness

    Notice that the uniqueness idea is actually also a chaotic system.

    One crazy idea I came up with is to determine points for a trick by how many other players did the same trick in the same contest. If everybody does it, you get no points, but if only you do it, you get maximum points.

The chaotic idea is interesting because it makes the system much more of a game, instead of a pure skill contest. Players would have to speculate about which tricks will be done in the contest, or maybe even change their routines as they see each other's freestyles. This would make the contest much more dynamic.

Notably, this contest could completely eliminate the current concept of a meta. Players would be encouraged to develop their personal styles, because those would be more likely to be unique.

But maybe not! The point of a chaotic system is that it's unpredicable. For example, at the moment almost everybody does frontstyle in their freestyle, so in this system, it'd get no points. So everybody stops doing it, but hey, suddenly it's worth the points againβ€”so what happens? Will players reintroduce frontstyle or keep it safe and make new tricks? Or can they predict what other players do? Who knows! And that's the whole point. This is a system that breeds surprises and that's what keeps the game exciting. Players are encouraged to be suprising, because that gives them points.

In the end.. πŸ”—

Anyway, you can see that I'm pretty excited about some of these, but the point is not in specific ideas. The point is to keep the yoyo community alive and contests currently play a vital role in that.

I acknowledge that another solution is to keep the contests the way they are, and solve problems above by different activities (meetups, shows, ...). We haven't yet seen this working, though. For some reason, contests are still the biggest driver, and it's hard to bring yoyo players together for something else.

Anyway, this is already long AF, let's end it here.