You’re in 10th grade and your History class has just spent a week playing “American Presidents” jeopardy. You studied up and knew your stuff pretty well and you were your team’s MVP. On Monday your team got 20 questions right, compared to the 7 from the other team. You’re up 6,000 to 2,000! Wednesday goes even better and your presidential knowledge is just bursting through the seams. You’ve now out-answered the other team 45 to 12. It’s a landslide! You’re up 12,000 to 3,000. And now it’s Friday. But the competition is over already, right? You have an insurmountable lead. But wait, what was that? The teacher says that the final question is worth 10,000 points? And by some fluke the other team has a kid related to Calvin Coolidge and gets the question right and WINS THE GAME?
Sound familiar? Sound like just about every class competition, community scavenger hunt, city sports league, or game night you’ve been to in your lifetime? Well, that’s because what I refer to as FINAL JEOPARDY SYNDROME has infected America (and perhaps the world, I’m not sure). And it’s infected us bad.
Final Jeopardy Syndrome means giving unfair weight to the end of a contest. It treats the first 95% of the contest or the season as a warmup, and lays all the pressure and the glory on the final 5%.
It’s all about the drama. In our world of explosion-filled movies and look-at-me-now ads and time-suck culture I think we just don’t have the patience anymore to put on a good fair contest that rewards the person or team that did the best. We have to finish with that explosion that leaves everything before it in unrecognizable pieces.
The other day I pulled out a popular online trivia game called Jackbox to play with my family. There are a handful of different game modes involving coming up with clever responses and tricking other players and digging for right answers. But what do each of the game modes have in common? You guessed it. Triple points in the final round. It’s awful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dominated a round of play only to lose to some rando on the final question. It doesn’t feel good.
I make board games for a living, so this topic strikes a particular chord. We try to make games that have some “lucky bounces” so people can maintain some hope and have an opportunity to leverage good fortune. But ultimately our goal is for the player who played the best to win. We shoot for 80% skill, 20% luck. And this tends to make effective, enjoyable games (in our humble opinion). Imagine if you went to game night and played something for 2 hours and then at the very end a card appeared that said, “The next player to roll doubles is the winner!”
If that happened I would 100% flip over the table.
In college I played on an ultimate frisbee team. The format was as follows:
-Each team plays 10 regular season games.
-All teams enter the playoffs with the top seed against bottom seed, etc.
-Single elimination until there is a winner.
So essentially we played 10 games to determine one thing: which team we would play in the first round of the playoffs. And seed rarely, if ever, influenced who emerged as the “league champion.” Why couldn’t we have just played those 10 regular season games and the team that had won the most of them been crowned the winner? Makes sense to me! But no, instead we somehow convinced ourselves that those 10 games mattered in some inexplicable way and then got all surprised when we lost in overtime in the first round of the playoffs and our “season” was done.
If the league champ is based on who won the most games during the season, sure, there will be some teams that lost their first 5 games and are “eliminated” from the possibility of winning and there will be 5 “meaningless” games to end their season. But last time I checked, 5 meaningless games is a lot better than 10 meaningless games.
I once knew a team that lost every regular season game on purpose so that they could get put in an easier playoff tournament, and then they turned it on and won the trophy. Something is broken.
Perhaps the biggest perpetrator is ALL of the pro sports leagues.
I really enjoy watching professional sports, but most of them are structured to feed into this dramatic, random-feeling mentality. In basketball, 53.33% of the teams make the playoffs! MORE THAN HALF! In many seasons, teams with losing records make it into the playoffs. 14 of the 26 the MLS soccer teams, 16 of the 31 NHL teams, and 16 of the 30 NBA teams make it into the playoffs. That’s right, in 3 of the major professional leagues, if you’ve had a quintessentially average (or worse) season, you get an equal shot at the crown as the team that won 30 more games than you over the last 5 months of the grueling regular season.
And this just in: during the course of me writing this article the NFL expanded to 2 more playoff slots (14 of 32 now make the playoffs. Just under half!), and while they were at it they expanded the season by a game just to devalue it even more. I’m sickened.
I’ll tell you what all these free passes into the “playoffs” do. They make me not care in the slightest to A) watch the regular season or B) even care when my team loses a game. With nearly every “average” team making it into the playoffs, why should l even bother expending energy caring until it actually matters? It just seems silly to show any sort of disappointment or joy over any kind of non-playoff victory.
Heck, in the top level of college basketball the top 68 (recently bumped up from 64) teams in the country get to compete for the national title. And this only after many of them won a free-entry single-elimination tournament in their conference for an “automatic berth” into the tournament. And they’re even talking about expanding this to even more teams! Please remind me why I should care about the last essentially meaningless 30 games that were played in the regular season? And why I should feel fine if the 68th best team in the country wins the national title?
Why are we like this? Are we really so adrenaline-starved that we just can’t bring ourselves to crown a deserving winner? Are we so bored with life that we can’t stand to be part of a contest that isn’t determined by a coinflip at the very end? Can we really not handle being “eliminated” from contention before the final game, justice be darned? These are all things that we can, and should, get over.
It is much more compelling to add excitement and weight to every part of the contest. To the 5 months of season instead of the 2 weeks of playoffs. Then every game is a playoff game and every aspect of the journey is important. Crucial game-deciding or season-deciding moments will still arrive and they’ll arrive in much greater numbers than the current format provides.
Sure, sometimes the victor won’t be determined in the final game of the season or the final question of presidential jeopardy…
And that’s ok!