Neeb’s Triple Crown and the Meaningfulness of Achievements

Hey folks,

I’m brownbear. Today’s piece focuses on Neeb’s Triple Crown and the meaningfulness of achievements.

Background

Neeb recently emerged as the latest recipient of the Triple Crown, a fan award granted to StarCraft II players who have won at least one Premier Tournament in each of North America, Europe, and Korea. Sadly, this quickly turned into controversy as many commenters lamented that Neeb’s Triple Crown was not as meaningful as previous winners.

Just to illustrate, I’ve pulled out a few quotes from the top comments on Reddit. I’ve also included point scores at the time-of-writing to demonstrate that these are not niche viewpoints:

“I feel that there can be argued that Neeb’s triple crown isn’t on the same ‘level’ as that of the other Koreans.” (107 points)

“All this means is Neeb is pretty much a really really great player who on the best of days can duke it out with some of the best players in the world but this Triple Crown is kinda weakened because of the above points imo it just doesn’t carry the weight it did when say Life for example obtained it.” (22 points)

“Lets be real though, triple crown is worthless now that Koreans can’t compete in NA and EU.” (19 points)

I was disheartened by this response, mainly because Neeb is a good player who’s done nothing more than beat the opponents in front of him. He wasn’t involved in the creation of this award nor did he play a part in structuring or regulating WCS 2017. Taking the piss out of him seemed undeserved.

Nevertheless, I wanted to dig further. I write articles partly to clarify my thinking and see if the hazy ideas in my head can hold water once they’re forced to be logically consistent. I think this is particularly important in moments when we’re prone to lazy thinking, and there’s nothing so conducive to that than the convenient punching bags of Reddit and foreign StarCraft. Even if it’s uncomfortable – perhaps, especially if it’s uncomfortable – it’s worth properly thinking through.

So, here we go.

The Triple Crown

Here’s how the Triple Crown is defined:

The Triple Crown is an unofficial title reserved for players who have won Premier Tournaments in each of the major SC2 hotbeds: Europe, North America, and Korea.

We need to first establish that this is a meaningful achievement, that it says something non-trivial about its winners. It needs to mean something. If it doesn’t, then there’s no point in evaluating and comparing different ways of getting it: zero is still zero.

It’s here where I think the Triple Crown runs into trouble. It’s surprisingly underspecified, practically to the point of meaninglessness. Let’s go back to the original definition, starting with the notion of Premier Tournaments. Here’s what that phrase actually means:

Premier Tournaments offer an outstanding prize pool, are frequently played out offline, and feature the best players from all over the world. They are commonly held by well-established franchises and are considered especially prestigious amongst the community.

It sounds good at first, but on closer examination it’s too vague. Here are some questions that come to mind:

  1. What’s outstanding? Who makes that determination?
  2. Why “frequently” played out offline? At what frequency and how is that determined?
  3. Who are the best players from all over the world? At what threshold does a tournament meet this criteria? Who makes that determination?
  4. Why does it matter that a well-established franchise is holding the tournament?
  5. Who is the community? Is it all 300,000 ladder players? If not, who represents them? How was this decided?
  6. What does it mean to be prestigious? Is it just a majority vote by the community? When do these votes happen? Who manages the voting process and guarantees that it’s fair?

The “best players from all over the world” criteria is particularly galling to me. There’s always at least one top player missing from any given tournament. Does that mean all tournament victories ought to come attached with an asterisk?

When a specification is so blurry – when its interpretations range from every tournament in history to none of them – it loses value as a useful marker of achievement. One of the ideas that came up in this discussion is whether a Triple Crown backed by a KeSPA cup carries the same weight as one backed by a GSL victory. A well-defined specification would tell us how to answer this question because its criteria would attempt to convey specific meaning, forcing the criteria themselves to be thought-through, narrow in-scope and properly justified.

The Premier Tournaments definition is none of those things. In fact, even the GSL – probably the most prestigious StarCraft tournament in the world – doesn’t meet the bar given that it has historically featured very few top foreign players. How can we hand out awards on a definition that’s so hand-wavey? It’s so paper-thin that Liquipedia itself ignores it, happily marking the GSL as Premier anyway.

We’re not done yet. Let’s move onto the geographic constraints:

each of the major SC2 hotbeds: Europe, North America, and Korea.

This raises a bunch more questions:

  1. Why these three regions? Why not include China? What about tournaments in Asia but outside of Korea?
  2. What’s the difference between winning two premier tournaments in Europe and one in Europe and one in America? Doesn’t the word “premier” specify that “the best players from all over the world” are regardless present?
  3. Why did geography matter in an era when there was no region lock? Isn’t this another way of asking “which players have sponsors willing to buy plane tickets”?

What additional conclusions can be drawn from knowing that one player won tournaments in Europe and America whereas another player only won tournaments in Europe? I understand that there are intuitive answers to this question, but that’s not good enough. Can we identify a concrete example where knowing that a player won (or didn’t win) the Triple Crown says something about their achievements and career? Can we say something about Bomber’s career that we can’t say about INnoVation, given that the latter didn’t win the Triple Crown?

I don’t think so.

What about foreign stars – would we think differently about ThorZaIN’s career if he had completed the Triple Crown by winning a Premier Tournament in Korea? Sure. But not much differently than if he had won a Premier Tournament in Europe and Korea but not America, or Korea and America but not Europe, or just Korea. Really, it would just be a statement about the prestige of winning events in Korea, or the value of winning multiple events instead of one. The Triple Crown itself – particularly its geographic constraints – would say very little.

This goes to the heart of “meaningful achievement”: how can we label something as meaningful if it doesn’t actually tell us anything?

The Backstory

I was really surprised by the above analysis. The passion with which folks defended the award’s prior meaningfulness gave me the impression that it meant something substantial. Previous Triple Crown winners were obviously very good players, but the Triple Crown itself didn’t do a very good job indicating that. I decided to dig further, and discovered that the Triple Crown is a made-up label created by a guy who got bored waiting for the GSL to start.

It’s fan service. When you go back and read the original thread, it’s just folks having fun and talking about how their favorite players are awesome. It’s a way for fans to get together and celebrate a player’s achievements, engage with their favorite sport in a different way and just generally get hyped. Nobody in their right mind puts any real weight on an award that equates Homestory Cup with Blizzcon.

And that brings us back to Neeb. He’s an excellent player. He’s the first North American in a very long time to grace the upper echelons of professional StarCraft. His success over the past year is nothing short of remarkable.

Naturally, people are very hyped. Awards like the Triple Crown exist to capitalize on that – they create an opportunity for fans to get together and chat about their favorite player, chat about the game, chat about whatever. They’re supposed to be fun.

Complaining that Neeb’s achievement is “less meaningful” than other winners misses the point. The award was never about that in the first place – it never meant anything, for anybody. Harping on Neeb’s Triple Crown wrongly disparages a good player by holding him up to a standard that is non-existent and unattainable: it’s a Rorschach Test for opinions on region-locking.

Final Thoughts

I do think there is a place for thoughtful analysis of player achievement and a genuine reckoning of who is really the best, what’s really the most meaningful achievement, whether this player accomplished more than that player, and so on. Here’s an excellent example – I disagree with many parts of this article, but it’s well-written and intelligent. That means it ignores fluffy fan awards, choosing instead to patiently make a logical argument and focus on hard numbers whenever possible. I’d like to see more pieces like this one, and less raining on the parade of folks getting hyped about their favorite player.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece, I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter and Facebook and checked out my game-design focused YouTube and Twitch channels. Thanks and all the best.

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