Reality Ensues: What Can We Do about the Slow Decline of Fantasy Tournaments in the UK?

Alex Greenhalgh from Werewolves of London at Southern Cup 2017 | Photo Credit: Paula Marmolejo Photography

By James Burnett

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Quidditch Post.

Another Valentines Cup has come and gone, with Alex Greenhalgh’s Green Team 2.0 crowned worthy champions. In some ways, the fifth iteration of the biggest and best fantasy tournament in Europe was the most successful yet. Moving across Oxford from its perennial home at Horspath Athletics Ground to Oxford Brookes University’s Botley campus in the south west of the city was a welcome change even before the weekend, with many in the UK scene feeling as though the quality of Horspath, while pioneering in its day, was no longer up to the standards of other venues used for major events, lacking extensive toilet facilities, large heated changing rooms, and local food availability, all the while suffering from being very open and exposed to strong winds.

The tournament weekend itself only proved that the new venue – also playing host to the fifth British Quidditch Cup (BQC) in a few weeks time – was the correct decision by tournament director Robert Brignull, who will also take charge of BQC, and the team around him. I heard nothing but praise for the indoor area and refectory on a weekend which was, if not quite reaching the frigid extremes of some past tournaments at Horspath, still blustery and cold for long periods. Further to this, the latter stages of the tournament featured some exciting games, the refereeing was generally without issue, the tournament ran with clockwork efficiency, and although bearing a little of the uncertainty of an experimental system, the new points-based ranking format which ran through the majority of the weekend’s play was a bold move which provided plenty of useful information to shape future events. Oxford University Quidditch Club (OUQC) have at this point established a firm reputation for running excellent events, so it is little surprise that their flagship remains a resounding success.

Yet in some respects, the 2018 Valentines Cup did fall behind its predecessors, in ways which I feel are indicative not of any specific failings of the tournament committee but of the general decline of the fantasy tournament as a concept in the UK. The inaugural Valentines Cup in 2014 was oversold so rapidly and to such a degree that additional spaces and teams were created and worked into the event’s profoundly ambitious structure to accommodate demand. In the past couple of years, the once infamously small window of opportunity to snatch a spot at Valentines Cup and other tournaments like it, such as Christmas Cup (also run by OUQC) and Derby Union Quidditch’s Mercian Cup (the longest-running fantasy tournament in Europe), has been growing. From the halcyon days of the time for spots to sell out being measured in seconds, for the first time in its history Valentines Cup this year did not sell out the advertised number of spaces. Fantasy tournaments are no longer headlines in the quidditch season; players used to talk about Valentines Cup excitedly, second only to BQC when it comes to domestic events, whereas now they are distinctly an optional, almost selective interest which many – if not, perhaps, most – players eschew.

Certainly, the buzz that once surrounded big fantasy events is no longer there. You only need to look at the list of highprofile names, some of them previously historically ever-present and all of them major players in the UK or wider European quidditch scene, conspicuously absent from Valentines Cup.  Whatever the reasons for it, the trailblazing, category-A, best-in-category fantasy tournament in Europe, is now eminently skippable in a way which historically, it has not been.

There are a number of threads to explore here, the first of which is to acknowledge that it is not necessarily a bad thing. The list of elite, active players who did attend Valentines this season is at least as long , for one thing, and it was a fitting highlight to some of the brighter stars in the sport from outside of the UK, with plenty of talent on display from elsewhere in Europe. It also provided ample footing for the emergence of some of the next generation of excellence in the UK sport, with up-and-coming players drawing attention in the form of, without being an exhaustive list, Marinus Stadler, Anna O’Gara, Tua Karling, Carina Werner, Chloé Hemingway, and Jack Kohli. For fantasy events to be less dominated by the “big names” and provide more of a breeding ground for nascent talent under a different spotlight and in different environments would be no bad thing. Certainly, for scouts from the Team UK setup and Quidditch Premier League managers, Valentines Cup was a very productive weekend.

Moving beyond that possible – and not insignificant – upside to the trend of a decline in interest in fantasy tournaments, however, it is prudent to look at why this is the case. Certainly, I imagine an aspect of it is a by-product of the gradual increase of the age of the demographic – not that the youngest players are any younger, of course, the peak recruitment always being amongst 18-year-old university first-years, but each existing older generation pushes the bell curve of player age further into the mid-20s. As players get older – and the flaw of measuring solely by elite players is particularly egregious here as they, by virtue of playing experience, are disproportionately older – they are more likely to have more finely-balanced lives which for various, almost uniformly boring and tepid reasons, limit the free time they have to spend on tournaments which in the big picture of the competitive calendar are non-essential. Mix into this the more serious consideration of quidditch as an athletic discipline in recent years, with mature consideration of the likelihood and repercussions of a major injury with both BQC and the European Quidditch Cup within the next ten weeks, alongside more regular training schedules and fixture congestion, and there is a certain context within which the reduced profile of Valentines Cup this year fits.

I think there is a more fundamental reason for the decline of fantasy tournaments, however, and it is one which is within the control of tournament organisers and the wider community. They just aren’t as enjoyable as they used to be. Within the UK and Europe, the evolution of the sport in the four years since the first Valentines Cup has been explosive. From a point where the best players were people who had a reasonable natural fitness and could, up to a point, sort of throw a ball, we now have bona fide athletes with three to five years of experience and a real mastery of their aspects of the game. Meanwhile, we still recruit from pools which include (albeit are increasingly not limited to) people with no athletic experience and the sport still has no youth structure to speak of – so if the lowest common denominator of quidditch player has improved, it has not improved by much. Similarly, on a tactical level, where in 2014 strategic variation between teams was close to non-existent and gameplans, such as they were, were executed with all the subtlety of a well-timed air raid, we now have visibly different styles of quidditch, integrated with systems of offence and defence, set plays, and strategic calls at both club and international level. The landscape of the sport is indescribably different from when fantasy tournaments were at their zenith, and this, I suggest, has played a fundamental part in their decline.

At club and international level, after all, the disparities work themselves out up to a point. Yes, we still have to endure some one-sided games which are of limited fun and value to all participants, but between tiered tournaments, intelligently-managed leagues, seeding structures, and distinct brackets, clubs and national teams can expect a healthy number of games across a regular season played at their level. Furthermore, training together regularly and making use of their known resources, teams can develop a game which suits the way they play and gives them a workable tactical setup even in difficult games. This means that playing games can be enjoyable even when your team is unlikely to win. Indeed, one of the most intimidating thing about playing Werewolves of London in the domestic season is not simply that they are likely to comfortably beat you (unless you are one of a small subset of top teams), but that such is their tactical approach that they will do so by applying formidable and overwhelming pressure when not in possession so that you simply do not have the means to play the game on your own terms. It’s not miserable because you lose when you try and fail to execute a game plan, but it is miserable when you don’t even get to try because of how good the Werewolves are at what they do.

Alex Greenhalgh from Werewolves of London at Southern Cup 2017 | Photo Credit: Paula Marmolejo Photography

But, to bring this back to fantasy tournaments, players do not get the chance to spend two to four hours weekly (or six to eight monthly, or equivalent depending on your club’s model) for a season building up how you are going to play. As a player, you are dumped on the team you end up on, and you play the way that team plays. If that doesn’t suit you, or if it’s not a system you enjoy or can play a meaningful part in, then much like a lower-level team playing against Werewolves, you can’t really be part of the games you’re playing. And that’s just not a fun experience – at club level, it is a relative rarity, but not so for fantasy tournaments.

Perhaps at this point you can see where I’m tentatively pointing the finger? I think the factors covered above substantiate that fantasy tournaments are past their peak for reasons beyond the control of individuals. But if we are going to accomplish the decidedly achievable goal of keeping them a sustainable and fun part of the quidditch calendar, it is fantasy captains who need to do better.

It’s no coincidence that more than one savvy pair with a bit of fantasy tournament experience signed up for this year’s Valentines Cup with a pair name or player bio which, for all the good it did them, said something along the lines of, “Please don’t draft us at a stupid time or onto a bad team. The vast majority of fantasy teams display limited knowledge of the nuances of what makes good players good, even less understanding of the ability of the players beyond the very top level in the draft pool, and next to no thought about the stylistic strengths and weaknesses of what their team might look like. This, coupled with a messy and uncoordinated (or worse, completely absent) attempt at leadership on the weekend, leads to a miserable time for everyone on the team.

Now let me say immediately that I’m not arguing that only quidditch savants and captaincy veterans should be stepping up. On the contrary, fantasy tournaments are magnificent places to test the waters and cut your teeth before taking on the huge responsibility of captaining, coaching, or managing a team for a full season. I myself used three successive Mercian Cup captaincies to establish myself and get a sense of my own capacity before becoming West Midlands Revolution manager for QPL 2018.

James Burnett (front row, kneeling) with their team at the 5th Annual Mercian Cup in 2017 | Photo Credit: Claire Purslow Quidditch Photography

But I do think captains need to take the responsibility a little more seriously. It is not fair to go into the process of selecting and running your team incoherently with the feeling that if it all goes down the drain, the worst consequence is egg on your face. When a team’s first draft pick or biggest investment of auction currency (depending on your selection format) is a player or players fundamentally below the available standard, it is not only bad for your team’s performance, but it makes it miserable for the rest of the team as they lack the top-level support other teams will haveand (I speak from experience), it’s not fun for the players either. Any prestige from the selection is quickly eclipsed as they now are denied the chance to play alongside players of the standard in question, and have the expectation placed upon them of going measure-for-measure with those players. It doesn’t matter whether you make this selection on the basis of a friendship, romantic interest, club loyalty, trying to prove some kind of point and be “different,” or just because you have a severe misjudgement of the players involved. It spoils the weekend for a lot of people either way if the players are not of a standard to suit the selection.

Similarly, selecting 11 primary beaters on a team does not create a fun experience for those players. Nor does picking up the best two players in the draft and then failing to provide them with any credible support in the rest of your roster. Nor does drafting a set of eight chasers, all of whom expect to be playmakers and primary quaffle carriers, or rounding out your selection of high-intensity aggro beaters and powerful quaffle drivers without a passing game with two chasers who, yes, might be talented for the point or price that you are picking them up but have no physicality to speak of and are dyed-in-the-wool wide receivers. It is not as simple as winning or losing – yes, if you do all of those things above you are going to have a bad team and you are going to lose, but for most people, losing isn’t always miserable. What makes the above things a recipe for a bad time is, as I alluded to earlier, the fact that you don’t get to participate in the game in any credible or meaningful way.

So when I say captains need to do better in selecting their teams, I mean that they need to put the time in to do the pre-draft research, and put aside their biases with respect to the people they like or are on their club team (because really, they’re not as good as you think they are, and deep down you know it). You need to know not just in a vague order of what clubs team each person plays for how good they are, but actually what each player looks like as an individual agent, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what styles they play, etc. Of course you are going to build your team around a few excellent players – why waste the best players you get? – but you need to firstly make sure they are actually excellent, and secondly actually build the team around them. Not just picking the next best players you can get, but picking the players who can complement what you have, the players you are going to be able to make flourish around them, because that means the team will all be able to play the same game. The team will be stronger because of it but crucially, even if they lose, it will still be largely enjoyable because everyone is actually participating in a game plan (even if it’s a subconscious one) and playing as part of a team. And seriously, I promise, losing will also be much less likely.

I realise the above reads like a how-to on drafting a strong team at a fantasy tournament, and to a degree it is. The reason it is relevant here is that when a few key points are overlooked, usually out of a blasé attitude towards the responsibility of fantasy captaincy or a sheer lack of effort put into learning who the available players are before drafting, it creates that unpleasant experience liable to discourage a player from signing up again, especially during the winter months when, if you’re not enjoying the reason for being out in a freezing, windy, sleet-hit field for seven hours, you’re just not going to want to do it at all. But it is an extremely common fantasy tournament experience, and needs to be averted if these tournaments are going to remain a popular phenomenon.

A lesser factor in this is the captain who is apathetic, distracted, cliquey, insular, or simply altogether absent across the tournament itself. However, this is a more manageable problem as long as you draft someone with the on-the-day leadership role in mind – contrary to the vernacular, the actual role of captain on a fantasy team need not lie with the “captain” who drafts it. Indeed, in North America, for the drafting “manager’” to be different to the team’s matchday captain is commonplace. But if you are going to do that, please have the courtesy to speak to the individual you intend to be captain and confirm they are happy to fill the role before relying on them or informing the team. It is incredibly presumptuous to draft someone experienced or knowledgable, perhaps a captain in their club team, who has signed up for a relaxing tournament away from that kind of responsibility only to have it thrust upon them without their input or agreement.

Overall, then, I think to a degree the factors which conspired to preside over the glory days of fantasy tournaments in the UK no longer apply, and despite them continuing to be in some cases run as exemplary models of tournament organisation (I really cannot overstate how positive I feel about the venue and committee leadership of BQC being the same as Valentines Cup), they are set to settle in a more understated role within the bigger picture of the sport in this country and, perhaps, this continent. But there is a more specific issue which is currently making it more of a lottery to sign up for a fantasy event: paying travel, accommodation, entry fee, and a weekend of otherwise free time or work, which requires the people stepping up to captaincy to take the role more seriously. It is not as fundamental as a leadership role in a club team, nor should it be, but if you are going to do it then please recognise that the investment and enjoyment of 12-21 people is resting with you for a weekend and that for the weekend, and weeks before, you are taking on a commitment to do the necessary work.

Make sure you have a clear enough idea of who is available for selection and what you want in order to pick a team with a coherent strategy, balanced resources, and on-the-day leadership so that it will be a fun experience in which all members of your team can participate. If this can become the norm, rather than the exception, then these events – with the unique opportunities for development, bonding, recognition, and sharing of expertise they provide – will be altogether more appealing for all players and, I hope, have a more sustainable future in our sport.

Editor’s note:  This article was updated 23/03/2018 to remove a photo after a request to.