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What's the Optimal Game Theory of Team Grappling?

What's the Optimal Game Theory of Team Grappling?


I was lucky enough to be able to attend the inaugural Kinektic Team Grappling event in Los Angeles this weekend, which will host an innovative new format: Team Grappling.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has always struggled to adapt its format to a more watchable model. The tournament structure of traditional BJJ, which has been going since the 1970’s, is probably the optimal formula for determining what competitor is actually the overall best.

But as the UFC quickly figured out, tournaments prevent the ability to matchmake, and in turn, tell stories and build drama. And in the case of BJJ, too many matches happening simultaneously make it difficult to focus the audience attention.

The now defunct Metamoris took the first major steps towards streamlining the sport format in two ways. The first was simple: structure it like a boxing or MMA card. That would enable matchmaking and better promotion. The second, was the ruleset. The first promotion to abandon a complex point system in favor of simple, kill-or-be-killed jiu-jitsu. Submission only.

Rules Determine Strategy

At High Percentage, we’re all about rulesets. Because as much as competitors love to claim that they only care about finishes, the action tells a different story.

In fact, the best athletes appear to be hyper aware of the rules of any given tournament. It’s the reason why at ADCC, very little action tends to play out in the opening “no points” period of a match, when athletes would rather minimize risk when there is no immediate reward. It’s also the reason why IBJJF athletes tend to hold on to small leads, being aware that winning by a single point is just as good as winning by one hundred points.

It’s the constant cat and mouse game. Promoters trying to maximize entertainment verses athletes trying to minimize risk. In the last ten years, promoters have started to find the working formulas by using the rules of game theory.

Game Theory has a few core concepts that make games entertaining. The first is randomness, which in just the right amount allows for less skilled competitors to win or at least be competitive. The second is resets, artificial rules that reset the players in a way that allows losing teams to regain composure or position.

Take games like American football or baseball. In football, after every score the scoring team must give control of the ball back, ensuring their opponents opportunities to get back into the game. In baseball, both teams are ensured nine innings, regardless of how well one is performing over the other.

EBI was the first to introduce resets, which proved to be a resounding success. Overtime rules created a previously impossible back and forth. Athletes eventually correctly calculated that they stood a better chance of winning a match if they intentionally went into overtime, where they could execute well rehearsed attacks from a guaranteed position.

That brings us to the new(ish) team grappling format. The Urijah Faber helmed endeavor, Kinektic, is trying to tap in to the team pride that seems to key to most major sports in the world. By using a format that allows for constant reshuffling, the viewers should be able to see a huge number of matchups. But for the competitors, it’s still about winning. And you can bet they are going to take advantage of the rules in any way possible. How might they go about it?

Let’s look at some of the key rules of the Kinektic format and see if we can devise a strategy. Note: not all the rules of Kinektic have been made clear when I’m writing this. But most of it has.

You Only Have to Not Lose

Kinektic is an elimination style game where the loss conditions are more important than the win condition. The only win condition is to simply be the last team with at least one player left. This means that a team with more players will have incentive to play defensively. Since we know that in BJJ, it’s very difficult to submit opponents, a team that gains a lead won’t have incentive to increase their lead, besides pure pride (which isn’t to be underestimated). It will be easier for a leading team to fight for draws and eliminate both players, at which time they will win by default.

You Can Win the Game With Just Two Submissions

Since there are two rounds, the semi finals and the finals, a team could hypothetically win the semi finals with one submission. If every other match then went to draw, that team would win. They could then advance to the semi finals and repeat the same process.

There Can be Weight Mismatches

Each team is given a combined weight limit among all competitors. A team can evenly distribute this weight by choosing five competitors of relatively even weight, or they can have a mix of heavyweights and lightweights. This could mean that 200 lb fighters such as Gordon Ryan could potentially fight athletes much smaller.

Everyone Has To Fight

No team carries in this tournament. A team of five must see all athletes compete in order to win. This is big because teams will have to use their best athletes strategically, they can essentially only use them one time unless they are losing badly. It will heavily dull the skill gap of teams with one or two superior athletes.

So What’s The Optimal Strategy?

Strategies need time and feedback to be proven out, and we don’t have either. That being said, here’s some early suggestions worth trying.

Prioritize the First Score

It’s easier to force a draw than to submit and opponent, you should focus on scoring first so you can shift your strategy to defense. If you do not score first, you then have your four remaining athletes to pool from to choose who is most likely to submit.

Play Your Best Guy First, Preferably Against Their Worst Guy

Easier said than done. Truthfully none of the athletes are likely to be “bad”, but some might present more opportunities than others. You also have no real control or knowledge of your opponents, unless they have only one or two athletes remaining. Still, the theory is that your player most likely to score should get that early lead, allowing him to rest and be saved for another match. Your remaining team can then play to not loose, which is the optimal strategy.

Evenly Distribute Your Weight, Attack Smaller Athletes

While everyone knows size can be overcome by superior technique, when two players both have relatively even technique, the larger one will tend to perform better. Team Captains should try and make their team fairly even in size. Conversely, if a team has an opportunity to take advantage of a mismatch, they should ruthlessly send their largest athlete against another team’s smallest athlete.

These are my early thoughts on the most effective tactics available for team grappling events. But ultimately, time and data will reveal if they are correct. I might do a follow up article after this evening’s event to see what strategies emerged.

Livestream: Profiling The Top Teams in Submission Grappling

Livestream: Profiling The Top Teams in Submission Grappling

Podcast: How Do We Record The Matches?

Podcast: How Do We Record The Matches?