Check other Deep Dives!
5/15/22, Re: MJF's contract dispute
3/14/23, Re: Danielson vs MJF
4/1/23, Re: the Build to Wrestlemania 39
6/4/23, Re: the Future of AEW Rampage?
6/17/23, Re: Anticipating AEW Collision
11/18/23, Re: the AEW Devil and tropes!
Dive 7 | Continental Classic Explainer
12/11/23, Re: Helping Understand Round Robins
Deep Dive is an opinion and analysis series where I go RIDICULOUSLY deep (whether that be statistically, or with trope analysis, or with something,) into some pro wrestling issue of the moment—usually relating to All-Elite Wrestling, but sometimes regarding other promotions. The goal is—while it does involve my opinions—to add some value beyond "that's just, like, your opinion, man," by genuinely exploring the issue at hand deeply.
AEW’s Continental Classic tournament is probably one of the most uniformly praised ongoing storylines that AEW has had going for them in some time, but it has not been completely free of complaints and detractors. Most noteworthy among these would have to be long-tenured wrestler and producer with AEW, QT Marshall, who made it clear that his reason for leaving the company was that the storytelling was moving in a different direction than he preferred, towards a more athletic, less soap-opera presentation, more along the lines of Japanese promotion NJPW.
This was clearly a swipe at the new round-robin style tournament, seeing as—due to the similar format—it is widely seen as AEW’s answer to NJPW’s long-running and prestigious G1 Climax tournament.
But another complaint coming from some fans is that the tournament is confusing, and that the points table of a round robin is not as self-explanatory at a glance as the brackets of an elimination tournament.
Evidently, what some fans make of a Round Robin Table
On the one hand, I don't agree with those voices asserting that everything in pro wrestling should always be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. But, on the other hand, I think that some knee-jerk defenses against those criticisms go too far.
What is it Good For?
Math anxiety is a real thing, and it's no laughing matter. It's certainly likely enough that some criticism of the C2 is not in good faith, but many people may well genuinely find round-robin rules and tables confusing. Berating the legitimately confused as “dummies” may very well be uncomfortably like the shaming they may have experienced in similar situations back in school, and that's no way for us as AEW fans to be a welcoming fandom!
And I think it's worth noting, I am absolutely a “Math Guy”, and even I have sometimes gotten confused about the nitty-gritty details of the workings of round-robin tournaments. (And, I may be wrong, but I'm half-convinced the announce team doesn't actually understand when and why someone is “mathematically eliminated”... But we'll get back to that!) So whether you aren't super adept at math concepts, or maybe you are a US-ian and don't follow global sports like soccer or NJPW wrestling, and so the ins and outs of round robins are just new to you, you maybe could use a more detailed breakdown of just how this tournament works, in order to better follow the stories—the competitors’ strategies and thinking, what it means to be frustrated over being “mathematically eliminated” and the multiple hurdles the ultimate winner will have to clear to claim the so-called “American Triple Crown.”
Fundamentally, the concept of a round-robin tournament is simple: every competitor plays one game or match against every other competitor and the one with the best record wins. But in practice, most round robins add a bit more complication than that: multiple blocks or leagues and some form of final determining the ultimate winner. There are two reasons for this added complication: to keep the number of matches manageable and to prevent the anticlimax of the final tournament winner being determined before the final match is played.
To explain the first issue, I'm going to have to invoke something my math-haters will not appreciate: the cousin of the dreaded factorial, the termial function. Those who do not appreciate having been forced to study advanced math as teenagers will tell you that letters have no place in math… and even more so punctuation marks! A factorial is a math function that comes up a lot in algebra and trig and especially statistics that is symbolized by an exclamation mark after a number, and it just means that you multiply an integer by each positive number that's smaller than itself. So 4! is 4 * 3 * 2 = 24. The termial function is the same thing except with addition and is symbolized with a “?” So 4? = 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 10.
So: what does this have to do with a round-robin tourney? Well, think about figuring out how many matches are in the tournament. One might expect it to make sense to multiply the number of competitors by the number of matches each competes in. So, if there are 6 competitors—as there are in each league of the C2—and we know that each competitor will fight through 5 matches per, that works out to 6 * 5 = 30 matches. The trouble with that logic is that if you do it that way, you're counting a bunch of the matches more than once!
Take the Blue League of the C2 for example… If you count all the matches Danielson will have, that's one match with every other competitor making 5 matches. But then, if you count 5 matches for, say, Kingston, you would have counted the Kingston vs Danielson match twice, which, you know, as great as it was, it's still one match! So as you go down the list, for each competitor there is one less of the five matches they will have that wouldn't have already been counted, for 5 + 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 15 total matches in the primary round robin of each league. Or to bring in letters (sorry!): (n – 1)? = (6 – 1)? = 5? = 15 matches!
So, one of the reasons for dividing up the 12 total competitors of the C2 into two leagues is to keep the number of matches manageable. If the 12 of them were NOT split into two leagues, the total number of matches would be (12 – 1)? = 11 + 10 + 9 + 8 + 7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 66 matches! So twice as many competitors makes for over four times as many matches. Whereas, by putting them in two leagues, doubling the number of competitors only doubles the matches, not counting the three finals matches.
BUT, that's not the only reason!
The Story Killer
The other reason for dividing into leagues or blocks is that it's one of the ways that round-robin tournaments are tinkered with to ensure that the match that decides the final winner actually happens at the end! There is not fundamentally any reason you can't simply do a FULLY round-robin style contest and say that the winner is simply the competitor with the most points, ie the best win record. But if you do that—unlike with an elimination tournament—there is no way to be sure that the last match—or even the last several matches!—have any impact on the overall winner. If you want to makes sure that your tourney doesn't go out with a whimper, there are several alterations to the round-robin concept to ensure that the climax comes at the end.
For example you can have the competitor with the highest score face the prior year winner, a style that was used by the original puroresu round-robin tournament from before NJPW or its G1 existed, the World Big League Tournament back in the 1960s. This has the downside of making the round robin itself a grueling marathon for the opportunity to job to Rikidôzan. Again.
Another option is to have the top two highest points face off one more time as a final. Or the top scorers of two leagues. One of the oddest ways to push at least bigger matches to the end is to take a few top scorers and put them in a smaller round robin, which is how NJPW World League handled it in their first year back in 1974.
But the most common way to end decisively is to take the top two scorers in each group and throw them into a simple knock-out tournament. But that still leaves one question: Do the top two scorers in each group face each other in a rematch to move on to the final? Or does the top-scorer in one group face the runner up in the other group to determine who reaches the finals? The latter plan will be familiar to soccer fans and in many ways seems the more obvious way.
A typical Round Robin with Knock-Out Finals
But the C2 is going the other way with a final within each league with a rematch of the top two scorers with the winner moving on to the finals. I can see one major advantage to this plan: it ensures that the final, crowning match at World’s End will be competed as Blue vs Gold.
One of the less obvious things about a round-robin tournament is: what exactly does it mean to be “mathematically eliminated”? The commentary team on Wednesday was making me feel crazy, half-convinced they didn't know! When Mark Briscoe lost his third C2 match in a row to Swerve Strickland, they said that he was eliminated because of that, which was true, but not JUST because it was his third loss, but because it was Swerve Strickland's third win, making him the second competitor to hit three wins, as Mox had already done so earlier in the night.
In my version of the points table above, I've added a column that I hope makes something like "mathematically eliminated" clearer: a "max" column that shows the maximum points a competitor could reach from this point if they were to win the rest of their matches.
So, Briscoe and Lethal max out at 6 points they could possibly get by the end, and since both Swerve and Mox already have more than that, they are completely locked out of any possibility of reaching the Gold League final.
But is it generally true that if you have three losses, it's no longer possible to win a tournament like the C2? No. Which is why on Saturday night, commentary was careful to say NOT that if Eddie Kingston had lost his match to Claudio he would have been eliminated, but that he would be "practically" eliminated, or that it would take a "miracle" for him to win. Because in the Blue League, there aren't two competitors already at 9 points. Or even one!
The Glass Joe Miracle
So how would a miracle comeback come about? Let's say that you are Glass Joe, and you just lost three matches in a row in a tournament set up exactly like the C2—you need to be one of the top two in points to go on to a League final rematch. But only one of the others has 9 points so far, so you aren't ready to give up. The points table looks like this:
In order for our Joe to make those League finals, only Glass Joe and Sandman can get any wins for the rest of the tournament. It would look like this:
You may say, "that's a lot of draws! Is it possible for 6 points to come in second without all those draws?" And the answer is yes, but that outcome would be an even bigger fluke:
...and that's a five-way tie for 2nd! See, one of the neat things about a round robin is that generally the tie-breakers are built in. Let's say two competitors are tied for 2nd most points, you don't need a tie breaker match—since it's all-play-all, those two competitors already had a match, whichever one beat the other is the one that moves on, (unless that match happened to have been a draw, of course.) But if you should get a three-way, or god forbid a five-way tie, you're likely going to be in a rock-paper-scissors situation where each competitor has an equal claim.
Forecasting the C2
Enough with hypotheticals, what about the ACTUAL Continental Classic? Looking at the Gold League, the story has been pretty simple: Mox and Swerve have been dominant and are set to crash against each other on Wednesday. My first thought was that the Ace would continue undefeated for Swerve to be looking to avenge a loss in the finals. But then I looked at the remaining matches for Week 5: It will be RUSH vs Swerve and Mox vs Switchblade. Depending which of Swerve or Mox comes out on top in week 4 will make one of those matches do or die for both competitors. I can easily imagine a situation where Moxley vs White is presented as a main event where one of them goes to the final against Swerve and the other goes home. The final would then look like this:
It would be possible to reverse this and make Swerve vs RUSH the do-or-die match, but this way seems the most dramatic, so that's the way I'm betting. Seeing as it's tough to beat someone like Mox (at all, but especially) twice in a row, I think that makes Moxley my pick to win the Gold League by getting his revenge against an undefeated Swerve in the finals.
The Blue League is a far more fluid thing, seeing as it remains a match behind schedule and the favorite Danielson took a massive loss this week. On top of which, Gold League has announced its three week-4 match-ups, which leaves the remaining three obvious by elimination. Blue League has seven matches left and has yet to announce when any of them will be happening!
The two wrestlers who remain undefeated—Brody and Andrade—are also the two who are a match behind: they've only had two matches unlike the rest of the field who've had three. So there is definitely a feeling that anything could happen, except for Daniel Garcia who is pretty well in a spoiler role now that he has three losses in a row. Kingston and Castagnoli both have an extremely narrow road to the finals, but I'm going to look specifically at Eddie's since he is the sentimental favorite.
Before Andrade got his massive upset against Danielson, I would have said that Eddie had to hope for a total collapse from either Brody or Danielson, because if he tied with either man for #2 on points, they both already had a win over him and so he still wouldn't make the finals. But now, one route he possibly has to the finals is a three-way tie for #2 with that rock-paper-scissors situation where each man has a win over one of the other two.
How would they resolve this? If this were soccer or badminton, they'd be in a spot! But this is pro wrestling, they could just have an impromptu triple-threat match to see who goes on to the Blue League final against Brody.
I think that it's a fair statement that round robins are a bit more complicated than what US pro wrestling fans (or even US sports fans in general!) are used to. But what they bring to the table is worth so much more than the opportunity cost of taking some time and thought to figure them out. And that can be summed up in one word: stakes!
The Heart of Storytelling
One of the most important elements of a great story is stakes. When a character has something to lose or to gain from a situation it makes the audience so much more engaged. Wins and losses always matter, to an extent—you generally need an impressive record to make a case that you deserve a title shot. But you will often hear the announce team say something along the lines of "this wrestler has won 18 of their last 19 matches!" Well, that's an odd number, why go back 19? Of course, the reason is that going back further wouldn't be as impressive. To make a run at a major title, you need a hot streak, but if things aren't going your way, you can start that hot streak at some later time. So the C2 adds not only stakes, but also urgency. Every win gets you closer to the finals, every loss gets you closer to irrelevancy, and there is no reset button. Every match is SO important it's downright stressful, and I think that's a big part of why this tournament has been so well received.
Nobody has higher stakes going into this tournament than Eddie Kingston. He gave up the two titles he had been holding to go to the tournament winner. This seemed like a crazy thing to do, but Eddie wasn't simply being overconfident. He understands the importance of stakes to giving something prestige and meaning. It might mean a lot to be the winner of a big tournament, just based on how much the promotion seems to be backing it. Then again, who won the Owen this year? Can you tell me without looking it up? How much more will it mean to win the American version of the Triple Crown, a title that became triple because Eddie Kingston was willing to gamble two titles that meant so much on a personal level—his first title from Japan and the title that had been held by his mentor, Homicide—just for the chance to be able to call himself the holder of a Triple Crown like his hero—the man he modeled himself after and based his ring gear on—Toshiaki Kawada.
Kawada with the original Triple Crown
How exactly the Triple Crown will work is one of the aspects of the C2 that can be confusing at first. When Eddie first proposed the Triple Crown he said that he would defend his titles in the tournament, which could be interpreted as Kingston lost the titles to Brody in Week 1, and then if Brody later lost only one match to someone with a low point total in week 5, the lineal ROH title and NJPW Power titles wouldn't go to the tournament winner. But it was later clarified that all three titles would go to the winner of the tournament overall.
Castagnoli contemplates Triple Crown
How will the Triple Crown work? Will it be defended like a normal belt, or only in the C2? Evidently, (per reporting from Haus of Wrestling) it will be both: the champion will defend the title regularly on AEW, ROH, and NJPW Strong, but when C2 comes back each year the current champion will automatically be entered into the tournament and gamble their title on the chance of winning a grueling tournament, just like Eddie did in the first one.
Fatalism of the C2
Helpless in the Face of the Workings of Fate
To me, one of the really interesting things about the round robin system is how it sometimes sets up a situation where a character's fate hangs on something they no longer have any control over. Normally, in storytelling, it's a rule to avoid a situation where your protagonist doesn't have agency. If the hero wins, but not because of something he did, that's considered deus ex machina. But sometimes in life, things are out of our hands, and a story that subverts that rule can be compelling, as the protagonist struggles with their helplessness to effect the outcome.
For an example, lets take another look at a projection for the Blue League that gives Eddie Kingston his narrow path to the finals. In that final week of round-robin competition, Andrade and Brody need to wrestle an extra match against each other to catch up from being a match behind schedule. I showed before the outcome if Brody were to win that match: a roshambo three-way tie for the 2nd place slot in the Blue League final, leading (probably) to a tie-breaking triple-threat between Andrade, Danielson, and Kingston. but what if Andrade beat Brody instead?
In that case, Andrade would end up in first place, but Brody would be the unequivocal second entrant in the Blue League finals, being tied on points with both Danielson and Kingston, but having already beaten both of them in their earlier tournament matches. The thought of Eddie, having struggled mightily to pull out of his two-loss start, having to watch helplessly as his fate is decided by a match he can have no impact on sounds heart-wrenching, and I have little doubt that we'll see something along these lines before the tournament is done.
I hope that this primer has helped folks get a better grip on what the Continental Classic is all about, because I think they are in the midst of telling an amazing story here, and I can't wait to watch with you all as it all plays out!