The Hall Of Fame
It's July; the Hall of Fame ballots have gone out which can only mean one thing: time to get on the Internet and argue. I don't think that's a bad thing. At the very least it shows how much passion people have for the game and how much weight they put into the Hall of Fame. Each year it brings up a good deal of controversy starting with who has a vote how much those votes count for and eventually getting to who should be selected. A good deal of it is discussed by people like me without a vote.
What amazes me consistently is the wildly differing points of view on the whole thing. If you ask some people it was a real tragedy in only having three people elected to the Hall of Fame in the last two years and some people would tell you that even that is too many and the Hall of Fame should be reserved for only the absolute best-of-the-best players and that only around a dozen people throughout history have really earned a place in its ranks.
Personally I fall somewhere in the middle. I appreciate the Hall of Fame mostly for the importance of honoring the legacy of players who have passed on from the game and it's nice that some of them will show up for an event now and then and show these whippersnappers what's up. There are plenty of people who haven't been elected yet who I think more than deserve a spot due to their impact in the game and a few people who are in the Hall of Fame that could be swapped out for someone of a similar resume and nothing would be lost. The Hall of Fame isn't just the best stats. There is something more to it—visibility.
Like it or not in the end it's a popularity contest. William Jensen Eugene Harvey and Kyle Rose all had resumes that should have put them in contention but they were in the unfortunate position of having their best years in an era dominated by Finkel Kai Zvi and Maher. They just weren't in the hearts and minds of the players in the same way and they just haven't received the push from people remembering them fondly that it would take to get them elected and probably never will. The demographics of both the Player Committee and the Selection Committee are skewing away from people who were active at their height and it will be harder and harder to convince people who have never seen them play or possibly even heard of them to use one of their precious five votes on someone based solely on their reputation.
If that were the only problem with the Hall of Fame though we could probably set up an independent committee to shill for all of the players that time forgot but it's more than that.
The Problems with the Hall of Fame
The underlying problems with the Pro Tour Hall of Fame are tri-fold:
There is no guiding principle of what the real purpose of the Hall of Fame is or who should be in. Yes we have the requirements of "At Least 100 Pro Points" "Ten Years After Their First Pro Tour" and "Not Currently Banned" (which has awkwardly become an issue in the last two years) but there isn't a sense of how things should be weighed after that.
Is the real purpose to elect people who have had a tremendous impact on the game (in which case Patrick Chapin would be a lock) to elect the best/most important players in the game (in which case Mike Long should have been elected shadiness and cheating aside) or the most popular players in the game? Everyone has their own opinion and it has led to a real discordance in who should and shouldn't be in. There will always be people who are slam-dunks but after those two or three a year the rest of the votes are almost always hopelessly split on ideological grounds. Without a clear mission statement on what the Hall of Fame should be this will always be a problem.
The Player Committee is a joke. The Player Committee (made up of every player with 100+ Pro Tour points) and the Selection Committee (selected by Wizards of the Coast) have some intersection but are largely different demographics. Players versus writers/judges/administrators.
Like the first problem you end up with a number of people coming at it from very different angles with very different opinions of who should be in and who shouldn't. And because the vote is weighted heavily towards the Selection Committee (their votes count for 66% of the total) it's very hard for the Player Committee to actually get someone elected. In fact they've only done it once; in 2005 when the Player Committee was a separate vote it was given the responsibility of putting in the fifth player Olle Rade.
The only real impact they have had since 2006 was to act as a spoiler for Steve OMS twice and very nearly for Bram Snepvangers last year. There have not been any votes since where the Player Committee has swayed the decision of the Selection Committee.
The only way for the Player Committee to have any impact would be to band together and start putting up 4 to 5 people with 80%+ of the votes. Only with votes in those numbers would the player vote act as anything other than a tiebreaker for people the Selection Committee has already put at the 35% to 45% level. As it is the player vote is incredibly scattered and almost always results in lower numbers for the nominees overall which does not play well with the requirement of getting 40% of the vote.
One of the benefits of making the Hall of Fame—getting invited to every Pro Tour—has become the item of most importance and it's somewhat counterproductive to filling it with the people who deserve to be in it.
Unless that was the real purpose of the HoF all along. Yes I love it when Kai or Finkel shows up to a Pro Tour but there is also an overarching sense that this prize is more pressing than the honor of being in the Hall of Fame. People have asked legitimate questions over the years whether players who are unwilling or ineligible to play on the Pro Tour (due to working at Wizards) should ever be prioritized over players we'd like to see back or if people who are currently at the top of their game shouldn't be left for a year when they actually need the invite.
I don't think this has stopped most people from voting for someone with a resume like Gabriel Nassif or Brian Kibler but I can definitely see people this year wondering if it is as important to vote for Patrick Chapin who will be on the Tour regardless next year as it is trying to get people like Steve OMS Chris Pikula or Mark Herberholz back on the Tour.
If the purpose of the Hall of Fame really is just to act as a lifeline for old-greats who have fallen out of the game then it can be treated as such. I think that would be fine. That's just not what it was pitched as.
Gaming the System
While we're at it let's just be honest. People game the hell out of the HoF ballot system. The generally recognized three best players of all time received the following vote percentages:
Jon Finkel SC 97% (The Selection Committee chose four candidates in 2005 while the Player Committee chose the fifth)
Kai Budde (SC-97.83% | PC-75.61% | T-90.42%)
Gabriel Nassif (SC-94.57% | PC-78.43% | T-89.25%)
(Selection Committee | Player Committee | Total)
Bob Maher the other player to have had the 'best ever' moniker attached and eligible only received around 60% but we will chalk that up to the controversy around the ban he received for ratings manipulation. But for those three players there is absolutely no reason why all three shouldn't have received 100% of the vote. I would go as far as to call it a disgrace.
The Selection Committee which most pros seem to be in favor of ragging on was mostly successful in fully voting for the luminaries. The Player Committee did their best to maximize their votes at every opportunity.
In almost every case the people who decided to leave them off the ballot did so because all three were locks and they wanted to free up votes for people they were trying to get in. While it is true that a large number of people changing their vote from Gabriel Nassif and lowering his percentages to 'only' 85 or 90 in favor of Steve OMS could probably have gotten him in last year (which would be a net-positive) is that really what we want the Hall of Fame to be about? Getting in as many people as possible through voting blocks and other Survivor-esque tactics? Shouldn't we care about unanimous (or nearly so) elections? Of course it isn't just the players' vote; plenty of people on the Selection Committee have used similar tactics.
It shouldn't be a shock—gamers are going to game and you give them a system and they will figure out how to abuse it but this is an important part of Magic's history. At what point does voting for your friend (or helping secure a vote for you or your friend) detract from the purpose of the Hall of Fame?
The true greats will always get in. Shuhei is the clear frontrunner for 2011. I'd have a hard time believing that PVDDR and Kenji won't be elected in 2012 and LSV is essentially a lock for 2013. The rest of the vote though involves some level of gaming the system. While many players (Americans players especially) questioned if Bram Snepvangers' career was strong enough to deserve a spot they will all be happy to see that the votes that went to him over the last two years are up for grabs again. The Europeans will probably work hard on getting Anton Jonsson in this year and it would behoove the Americans to play nice and get him in or he will be splitting votes for years to come.
These are the kinds of concerns that float around as everyone works to maximize their chances of getting themselves or a friend into the Hall of Fame. Two years of small HoF classes have left a surplus of players with similar achievements in the 3-4 Top 8 range with a win somewhere.
Osyp Lebedowicz was a great player but there's little chance that he is in serious contention for the Hall of Fame this year. His best chance of getting in next year is to clear up the vote for next year by making sure that some combination of Patrick Chapin Anton Jonsson Mark Herberholz and Steve OMS get in this year along with the requisite Shuhei Nakamura. Next year he will have to contend with Kenji and PVDDR taking up two slots as well as a very good chance of Masashi Oiso getting in.
Paul Rietzl and Ben Stark are both in a similar position each with three Top 8s. They are in the discussion this year but will almost certainly not get anywhere near a 40% vote. Luckily they are still active and could easily be locks by next year if they put up the kind of performances in the next 12 months as they have in the previous. If they don't they will have to do even better as the ranks of '4' Pro Tour Top 8s continues to fill and '5' will be needed to stand out.
Creating a Better System
The current HoF system works but not well. Wizards needs to seriously evaluate what the purpose of it is and change the ballots to meet that purpose. The Player Committee is almost useless in its current state and might as well be abolished unless they are either given an equal standing with the Selection Committee (which still probably wouldn't fix much given how diffuse the player's vote has been in the past) or given a different role.
In 2005 the Selection Committee voted in four players and the fifth was decided by the Player Committee. That may seem like the players aren't given much to do but it's one more person than they have managed to get elected in the past five years. It may be better to bring that back or find something else for the Players Committee to do.
Allowing a two-stage process where the Selection Committee narrows the field down to just a few choices then the Player Committee selects from it may be a better option or even vice versa where the players nominate a certain number of final candidates for the Selection Committee to vote on.
It also may just make sense to only allow players who are not currently on the Pro Tour to be eligible for admittance to the Hall of Fame. It's very hard to accurately gauge the difference between a player who was a true force to be reckoned with in their time and a player who has been consistently good for ten years or longer and currently the second type of player has a clear edge in getting elected to the Hall of Fame if just because people are more familiar with them today.
The criteria could be no higher than Level 2 no Pro Points in the last year or even just no Pro Tour appearances in the last year (play all the Grand Prix you want). Until that happens the vote is going to more and more heavily favor active players and a lot of wonderful personalities will never get the recognition they deserve.
But again this all comes back to the fact that the Hall of Fame has no unifying goal behind it—is it honoring the best players of the past the best players currently who have been playing for ten years or is it meant as a vehicle to get people back on the Tour?
Magic Is more than Just the Pro Tour
There also needs to be some way to honor people for other contributions to the game aside from just tournament performance. I don't know if this is a lifetime achievement award an honorarium or just a Writer Laureate position but it seems insane to me that there is currently no way to officially honor the contributions that people like Skaff Elias Mike Flores Brian David-Marshall or Mark Rosewater have had for the game.
Ideally at least one award could be given out every year for contributions to the game voted on by a much smaller committee than the current Hall of Fame voters. This wouldn't need to come with an invite to every Pro Tour. A lot of the people who would be honored wouldn't have any use for it. Instead it would be a way of recognizing that the community is much larger than just the Pro Tour and contributions to the game at large benefit everyone.
As Magic approaches its 20th anniversary in just two years I think we need to look towards the future and assume that it will be around a lot longer. It's important to understand that the reason it will hit that milestone is because the community has always been there for it acting as the greatest marketing tool that any company could have.
Not recognizing their accomplishments and only focusing on Pro Tour results seem unambitious in that context. Imagine the game today if The Dojo had never surfaced online or if Robert Hahn had never written his School of Magic. Would we still be playing if Skaff Elias hadn't put together the Pro Tour when he did or if the legion of coverage writers hadn't helped build excitement about the game?
It's easy to just look at Pro Tour statistics and make a decision but some of the real people who should be honored will never have those. All they have are fond memories of the game and a few hundred remaining players who remember what they did and how their actions got us to where we are today.
P.S. While we're at it can we please get Pro Player cards back?
samstoddard at gmail dot com
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