Spirit Championships Could Quickly Lose ‘Fun’ Focus

Fools Fest 2013.
Photo by Brian Canniff — UltiPhotos.com

The biggest Ultimate news last week was tournament organizer Trent Simmons’ announcement of the Spirit Championships, a tournament series envisioned as an alternative to the USA Ultimate championship series that places the focus on fun, rather than competition. On Deep Look, the Ultiworld podcast, Simmons spoke about the new series and the growing divide between elite players and the rest of the Ultimate community.

Simmons emphasized that the Spirit Championships will give players a choice: play highly-competitive, less fun Ultimate in the USAU series or have more fun in a series of less-competitive tournaments. Of course, the success of the new series is still up in the air and many of the details have yet to be fleshed out.

Even so, Simmons’ discussion of the Spirit Championships raised some troubling questions for me. This new series is intriguing, but not without problems.

In his conversations with Ultiworld, Simmons keeps returning to his core purpose: giving players a choice. He believes that the current USAU series is highly competitive, but at the cost of being less fun or rewarding for many players. At the center of his plan is a desire to give those people the opportunity to choose between the competitive USAU series and a series of tournaments with a more casual, fun atmosphere.

At first glance, this seems like a great idea. Recently, there has been a great deal of debate over the myth of a monolithic Ultimate culture. Not everyone is playing for a championship. Some people want to party Saturday night and spend Sunday reliving that with their teammates and opponents. Even this binary is extremely reductive, but Simmons has a good point: Ultimate players are a diverse bunch and everyone deserves to play the game they want to play.

However, one thing that distinguishes the Spirit Championships from other “fun tournaments” is that it is structured as a championship series. According to the plan outlined by Simmons, there will be a number of State Championship tournaments, followed by Regional Championships, and finally a National tournament.

Adopting this structure could create real problems for the Spirit Championships. Even if they don’t have the same cachet as the USAU series, there is still something to be won. Winning games at the State Championship helps to send you to Regionals, where winning games puts you on the road to Nationals. For some, that prize might seem more valuable than just having fun. While winning USAU Regionals sends you to Nationals, winning Spirit Regionals gets you an invite to another Nationals and a big exclusive party in Florida. Some might find that worth competing for.

The biggest danger for the Spirit Championships is that it could become a kind of D-III Club Championship. It’s possible that teams will join the Spirit Championships not because they want to prioritize fun over competition, but because they know they won’t be competitive at an elite level. I don’t mean to insult teams that opt to play D-III, but as good as Puget Sound is, they’re not going to be contending for the title at D-I College Nationals. However, having a smaller pool of athletes to pull from doesn’t decrease their drive or force them to de-emphasize competition. When these teams go to D-III Regionals and Nationals, they’re playing to win.

Most urban areas have second or third tier teams in addition to their “elite” team. Chicago has Haymaker, Colorado has Jack Wagon, and Boston has the Detroit Lions (though the best example is probably Houston’s Space City Ultimate). Every year, these teams lose a few players to Machine, Molly Brown, or Slow White. It’s out of their control and makes growth difficult, much in the way that D-III teams have limited growth as a result of their small school size. Like D-III college teams, these teams are made up of competitive players who might decide that a chance at winning some Nationals is better than going home Saturday night of Regionals. This becomes more likely as more teams have this idea and legitimize the Spirit Championships through their participation. If this occurs, the Spirit Championships will lose their status as the non-competitive Championships and simply become another competitive series.

If this occurs, the Spirit Championships will not be an answer to the elite/non-elite split that is growing in the Ultimate community. They might just prove to be a patch, not a solution. In five years, we could be talking about the competitive/fun divide at the Spirit Championships.

Simmons and his fellow organizers, to their credit, seem aware that there is a potential problem here. While the details haven’t been finalized, teams will advance through the series based not only on the outcome of their games, but on Spirit Scores awarded by their opponents. Frankly, I don’t think that this will be enough to keep competitive players out or ensure that everyone has fun, especially with spots at future tournaments on the line. However, we’ll have to wait and see what Simmons and his colleagues are working on before trying to pass judgement on their scoring system.

Even with that system in place, the core issues don’t disappear. The Spirit Championships could — and likely will — become a championship series for competitive players who don’t want to go to the USAU series. Such players could have any number of reasons to choose the Spirit Championships. They might not want to get demolished at USAU Regionals and take an early ride home. They might want to party in Sarasota. They might want to improve as players to make their city’s elite team in two years or help their college to a Sectional Championship. Creating a full championship series makes the Spirit Championship more appealing to competitive players who might not want to play at the highest level of the sport that year. And that won’t be any more fun for the non-competitive players at whom the Spirit Championship is aimed.

  1. Alexander Palmer
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    Alexander Palmer is an Ultiworld opinion columnist. He is the captain of Columbia University's Open team, Uptown Local. He has played in the Club series with Flight NYC. He lives in New York City.

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