Over the weekend, Splatoon had its first Splatfest event in North America, pitting dog lovers against cat lovers. Some people are not happy with the results.

Some preliminary background: “Splatfest” is an in-game event where players are split between competing teams, based upon each player’s choice between two options. It’s very similar to the old “Everybody Votes” channel on the Wii, if you remember it. Japan’s first Splatfest, for example, asked players whether they preferred rice or bread. America’s pitted dog lovers and cat lovers against each other, and Europe was split between rock music and pop music.

Then, during a 24 hour event, Splatoon’s normal matchmaking is slightly modified so that each team is only comprised of members from the same side. The teams compete for the greatest number of wins, and at the end a winner is declared. The prize for participating are sea snails, an incredibly useful, normally hugely expensive item; the more you play, the more you rank up, the more you earn at the end. However, the winning team gets their amount per rank doubled.

I played Splatoon for about six hours this past Saturday and loved every minute of it. The stages were transformed into nighttime versions, the outdoor “lobby” area was transformed into a concert show, and we got some cool remixed music. This was, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve had with the game so far. This kind of event is a testament to the kind of staying power Splatoon can have. The fact that my team won is just a bonus.

However, not everyone is as satisfied with it as I am. As you may have noticed from the image above, some potential bullshittery is afoot with how Splatfest was scored.

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You see, the votes didn’t simply split the playerbase into two teams. It also got factored into the score itself - and while it counts for much less than the number of wins each team got, in the North American Splatfest, ended up being the deciding factor, despite the “losing” team getting more wins over all.

The scores are calculated thusly: each team is awarded points for the percentage number of players who picked that side. So, Team Dog was awarded 62 points for having 62% of the votes. Then, the win percentage between the two teams is also awarded points, but these points are doubled. (Note that the smaller team is not at a disadvantage for being smaller, because it has to do with the rate of wins.) So Team Cat, who won 51% of all matches against Team Dog, was awarded 102 points.

You can predict what happens here if the win percentages are close enough: whichever team is larger wins, as the popularity rating becomes the deciding factor. This is exactly what happened with Saturday’s American Splatfest and Japan’s second Splatfest, in which Red Fox Udon beat out Green Tanuki Soba with a win rate of 47% but a popularity rate of 67%.

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In other words, your team can win not because you were better, but because you were more popular. As of writing this article, none of the four completed Splatfests have been won by a less popular, smaller team.

Bring on the salt. The internet is now full of armchair statisticians, trying to explain why popularity should or should not count.

Here’s a comment by skairue on /r/splatoon, which echoes many others I have read so far:

What upsets me about this isn’t that we lost due to some factor other than performance (though that is somewhat vexing). What upsets me is that we lost before splatfest even began, and had no chance for ever winning. The way this was scored, it looks like we would have had to win over 60 percent of our games to offset the popularity difference. And lets be real, a 60% win rate is unlikely to ever happen without a huge amount of organization.

After getting max rank, I spent several hours doing nothing but joining up with strong teams and absolutely destroying the enemy to help push cat’s win rate up. I’m sure most of you did this, and I bet it felt amazing. But how does it feel now knowing that doing so was absolutely worthless and a winner had already been decided? Will you do the same next splatfest, knowing it won’t actually be contributing toward a win? I’m not sure myself.

I never cared much about the sea snail bonus. It was a foregone conclusion that I would get a ton just from grinding rank. It would have been nice to get anything at all rewarding us for performing well. Anything at all to make me want to fight for it even knowing we already lost overall.

I guess the bottom line to this is: Do you guys really want the meta of splatfest to break down to “Guess which is more popular, quickly grind to max rank, completely ignore game until results” ?

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Which is a good question. If you look at how Splatfest is scored, it’s absolutely true that a smaller team needs to completely outplay the larger team in order to have any chance of winning.

Let’s look at the closest Splatfest in terms of popularity, the first one, which divided Japanese players into Team Rice and Team Bread. Rice won 58% of the popular vote, and Bread won 42%.

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Rice also went on to win overall, with a 55% win percentage.

How much would Bread have had to win in order to beat Rice? The point difference from popularity was 16 (58-42 = 16). Because win rate points are doubled, Bread needed to have a win rate at least 8% higher than Rice’s in order to make up for the points lost by the popularity contest.

Bread: 42% + 59*2 = 160
Rice: 58% + 41*2 = 140

In other words, a 59% win rate - and that is kinda insane.

(EDIT: I stand corrected in the comments - that’s what I get for attempting math. Actually, Team Bread could have just barely won by a mere 2 points with a 55% win percentage, which is what Team Rice actually got in this Splatfest.

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But I’ll also note that 55%-45% is the largest difference in wins so far. The other three winning Splatfest teams had win rates of 53%, 49% and 47%. We’ll have to see how long it takes, if ever, for a team to achieve a higher win rate than 55%, and whether it will even matter, especially if it becomes the norm for the popularity contest to land in the 60ish-30ish range.)

I have serious doubts that we will ever see a less popular team win Splatfest, and here is why: these completely arbitrary categories we’re asked to pick between - genres of music, flavors of instant noodles - have little bearing on how skilled each team actually is. Every Splatfest will probably have an evenly split win percentage regardless of what topic we’re voting on, making the more popular team the winner every time as long as the win rates are close enough.

You can argue that certain demographics that are more likely to be skilled might pick one category over the other - I’ve heard many people postulate that children like dogs more, and therefore there were more unskilled, young players on Team Dog - but just looking at the win percentage itself disproves that theory immediately. It still ended up being 51% to 49%. That is ridiculously close. Even the largest difference in wins, 55% to 45% in the Rice vs. Bread Splatfest, is so close that I doubt the particular demographics of each team made any difference.

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People aren’t happy about this, maybe rightly so. Splatfest was fun partially because of how incredibly competitive it was. My favorite thing about it is that you could pretty much keep the same team into perpetuity, assuming no one left - towards the end of my binge, I got teamed up with a pro Roller player and literally the best Inkbrush player I’ve seen so far, and we steamrolled Team Cat for a solid hour and a half.

But now that we know that popularity is probably going to be the deciding factor every time, will it effect future Splatfests? Will people start picking teams based on which they think will be more popular, rather than voting honestly? The team who plays better doesn’t get any kind of reward for playing better. You don’t get a bonus or special item for actually being the better team.

And what is the incentive to continue playing even after you have achieved the highest rank and maxed the number of sea snails you’ll be rewarded with? By the way, people absolutely did this - they wanted to help their team win by boosting their win rate.

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But now that we know that win rate has such a low chance of making a difference, why bother?

I think there are two options for alleviating the disappointment that Team Cat is feeling right now.

  1. Change how Splatfest is scored. This can be done in a number of ways - perhaps popularity points only count for half as many points, or maybe the win multiplier changes depending on how one-sided the votes are. When the split in win rates is so close, merely doubling that score only grants a handful of extra points to the more skillful team, which probably won’t be enough to close the popularity gulf.
  2. Provide some kind of special reward for getting the most wins. Specifically, something other than more sea snails. Maybe the winning team gets to keep their Splatfest shirt, which otherwise gets taken away from us after it’s over - there is such potential here for collecting special Splatfest shirts, akin to card backs in Hearthstone or hats in TF2.

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Overall, I’m still very happy with Splatfest. I think it was a huge success and the vast majority of players enjoyed it. But for those of us with a more competitive perspective, this method of scoring is worrisome. What was great about Splatfest is how much was at stake while we were playing - it made matches feel more important, it helped you feel more devoted to your teammates, and it encouraged people to keep playing even after they had maxed out their reward rank. But apparently, very little was at stake in the first place.