Sportsmanship is a subject that has fascinated me since I was young. The idea that we would need a correct way to conduct yourself while playing a leisure activity is certainly odd in and of itself. It becomes more obvious why we need sportsmanship, however, when we think about what people are willing to do not to fail. No one enjoys losing or not being successful. So what are we willing to do to succeed? Is it anything and everything? This may date me a little bit, but if we want to see what we can be done at the height of competition, just ask Nancy Kerrigan’s knee caps.
As a community, not just in Warhammer but as competitors in general, we set standards and codes of conduct. Guidelines and rules in place to make sure that if someone acts in an unsportsmanlike fashion that it be held up and investigated. Now so far, this is pretty basic stuff, but what I want to delve into is how do we push past needing a set of rules to keep us in check. The most sporting people you meet at tournaments and the most enjoyable people to play probably don’t even look at the codes of conduct or what will earn a yellow card. They are playing the game so far away from that line that looking into it would be a waste of time. You can tell in the way they play the game that there is no intention of pushing the game or their actions in that direction.
So how do you achieve this for yourself? Luckily, there here are a considerable number of ways to keep yourself in check. Unluckily, if you are already in the mindset of “must-win,” “gaming the system,” or “bullying the opponent,” these may be very challenging to put into practice.
1. This Game and Performing Well in it is Not Your Identity.
This is a big one. Whether coming from another competitive scope, sports, gaming, or even a job, some people absorb what they do into who they are. This is a horrible mindset that has to be pushed away. Even if whatever the activity is becomes a massive part of your life, it is still a part of your life. Not who you are. If it does become a part of your identity, then not being successful at it turns into something threatening who you are. “If this is me and I can no longer compete and win, then I am less than I was before.” That’s not losing a game anymore. Losing is an attack on you, and now it’s not just easy to cheat; it’s crucial. These are the sorest of losers. Any excuse is coming out after that game. The dice, the matchup, your dice, fatigue, stress from outside the game, anything. I’ve found this mindset to be rare in 40k, but it does exist. For some, this may be the first competitive thing that has ever appealed to them or that they have done well. The hobby takes a ton of time and patience to be good at it, and it’s hard to think of what you have put into traveling to a tournament just to find out that others are either devoting more time or that are simply better at it. This is a game, and it’s fine to be trying your best, but losing is part of playing a game, and incredibly it doesn’t affect who you are as a person.
2. You Are Not Entitled to Win.
This may be a less talked about one, but I think it’s essential. Once a player has had some success, they assume that this success will just continue. They have achieved a level of skill, and this will result in equal to better results forever, Hooray! Dips in win rate happen. They just do for so many reasons. You misread the meta or drew into bad matchups or, dare we even include it, played poorly! Another option, of course, is your opponent may just be really good, or the people around you are also improving at a similar rate. I’ve heard it all. I played so much better than my opponent; I can’t believe I lost (insert excuse here). I earned that win; they only won because… You may have thought you outplayed your opponent, and maybe it’s true, but that doesn’t mean you deserve to win. This is where we turn this bullet point into what we can do about it, though. How do we keep reasonable expectations at the fore, and how does this push us to up our sportsmanship. We want to win, but we need to understand the reality of losing. Like in the above point, losing doesn’t change anything about us, and it doesn’t mean we are going backward. Achieving a 4 and 1 result at one event and then going 3 and 2 at the next is pretty standard, and again there are so many factors that need to be considered to understand if that even was a worse performance. Work hard for your wins, but find other ways to look at improvement. Get out of your local scene and see what that does for your experience and win rate.
3. Arrogance is Ugly
This also relates directly to point two. Success shouldn’t stratify us in any way other than the actual scoreboard. Being the veteran with all the wins and trophies should never change how you interact with the rest of the community. Online or in-person success shouldn’t change how you treat anyone around you. If you are having success, you almost definitely received help along the way. It’s now your turn to hand out that help to others. Hiding all the information and skills tight to your chest is probably a sign that you are afraid of losing that edge. What if I teach them, and they surpass me! Well, don’t worry. If they are also good sports, then once they do surpass, they will turn right around and help you, speeding up your learning process.
4. Playing a Clean Game While Being Watched Isn’t Good Sportsmanship
If you are going to push yourself to be a good sport, you will need to be able to govern yourself. Any child can put on their best behavior when the parents are watching. Adults are self-regulating. By being watched in this sense, I don’t mean being on a stream or watched by a judge. I mean, the person across the table from you. Do you start to bend the rules if the game is going poorly, and you think your opponent won’t know if you are lying? There are degrees worth of rules in this game, and no one knows them all. But we should know our own well enough to represent them correctly for the sake of our opponent. Does our vulture suddenly move 60 instead of 45 so we can get an angle to behind a wall? They won’t catch it; a lot of flyers move 60. Or do we have the fortitude to just play it right even knowing we may not be caught? Good sports are consistent. Every opponent regardless of skill, every game regardless of importance, and every moment regardless of the state of the game is played with the same integrity. Game 1 at your local RTT and game six undefeated at LVO should be played with the same level of respect for your opponent and the rules.
5. Sportsmanship is More Than the Rules
There are more ways to cheat your opponent than by rules abuses. Everyone coming to the table has a different temperament. Some are outgoing, and others not. Some are loud and boisterous, and some are naturally soft-spoken. It is cheating to use a well of personality to influence your opponent’s decision making. This is a tough one to pick up on because there can be no written rules for this. But a strong-willed person can push that will on others, and if this is something you know you don’t have the capacity for, believe me when I say that the people that can do this are very aware of it. I have never had an issue with meeting new people or public speaking. My wife has described me as “obnoxiously outgoing” before. I’ll make friends in the sketchy back alley if the opportunity presents itself. We do have a good amount of introverts in the hobby, though, and it’s essential to realize that this disposition will be looking to avoid a lot of conflicts if possible. That may mean bending to the suggestions of the outgoing player. Play the game in a way that allows both parties to make the decisions without pressure.
Boy, this sure has been a lot of negativity. Let’s turn it around and talk about self-improvement!
1. Reading Body Language
This is a tough one and takes a lot of practice. A lot goes into understanding the person across the table in a very short time. 40k is speed dating. Get to know this person really well. You have three hours. GO! But sometimes personalities don’t mesh. They are the “work friend.” He isn’t a bad guy, but I don’t think we would get along if we didn’t have to be around each other every day. Sometimes the person across from you just isn’t your type. Reading body language is vital in understanding how things are going. Sometimes the social agreement is that we shoot the shit for three hours over the game. Sometimes it’s the Uber ride, “driver never talked, five stars.” It can be hard for the introvert to talk more than needed to accomplish the game. It can be equally hard for the extrovert to be almost silent or not joke for a few hours. In a short span, you also need to figure out how the player responds to certain situations. If the dice go super cold, do you laugh to break the tension, or is silence best? Do they want you to mention the terrible luck in solidarity and understanding, or do we not talk about it. If your luck sours, how do you respond? Is it a little salt, or is it bitterness that makes them feel awkward? Controlling emotions is essential when you are four feet away from them. And of course, if you just can’t read the body language, beer is usually an acceptable alternative.
2. Open Communication
Warhammer is not a game of hidden knowledge. If your opponent asks you a question about your list or your army, it’s up to you to answer that in the most accurate way possible. Understand the intent of the question and answer what they were asking. Like we have mentioned above, there is a library of rules to know, and knowing it all is very unlikely. However, with a base amount of knowledge, you and your opponent can ask the right kind of questions to avoid the dreaded “gotcha” moment! An excellent example of understanding intent is when someone asks about an ability to do something twice. If they ask, “do you have a spell that lets you move twice, like warp time?”, the technically correct answer is “no.” I play Tyranids and don’t have a spell that lets me move twice. I do, however, have an ability from the Swarmlord that acts the same. They specified a spell, but the intent is clearly any ability that performs the same. Whether it is a stratagem, baked-in ability, or anything else, the intention is to know precisely how far you can move. Don’t be that guy. Tell them what they need to know. Giving out more information than was asked for, and maybe even letting them know about odd things that could happen, will allow you to start to build trust. I’ll use my faction as an example. Genestealer Cult has the most lengthy and in-depth pre-game shenanigans. I will go step-by-step through everything I’m going to do. “Do you understand the blip mechanics? I can pull blips back into ambush. These are my three warlord traits, some gain CP back, Vigilus detachment, adaptive physiology choice, multiple relics, stealers move 34.” Anything I can do that is going to make my opponent feel cheated or lied to, I’m going to tell them off the hop, and I expect the same in return. With Psychic Awakenings coming out rapidly, I can’t keep up with it all. Does your whole army have seven racial traits? Iron Hands, let me in on that knowledge.
3. Understanding Frustration
Psychology and biology time! Impulse control and emotional response are some of the key things that show a person’s maturity. Children don’t have impulse control, and neither do some adults. Don’t feel superior yet, ’cause man, is it a challenge, one we probably deal with our whole lives. There are a variety of reasons we can get frustrated in-game: poor rolls on our part, excellent rolls for our opponent, making mistakes, or in the worst case, the opponent playing in a less than sporting way. We will start with the game-time disasters that we associate with the D6: everything from horrible saves, rerolling a one into a 1, or failing a short but necessary charge (did I mention I play GSC?) These things are out of our control. Still, they can get the blood pressure up when they persist. They can feel like you have been robbed of a well-deserved win. Of course, you didn’t deserve to win. See above for more on that, but it certainly can feel that way. Keeping those emotions under control is important. Your opponent has zero effect on what is occurring, so your frustration exists but can’t be directed anywhere useful. Sometimes all it takes is a quick word to your opponent: “I think you can understand my feelings. It’s not directed at you, though. Just let me stew for a second, and we can carry on.” This can quickly diffuse uncomfortable feelings. Making mistakes is a big one for myself personally. I have no problem if my opponent beats or outplays me, but I hate when I play poorly and hand my opponent the win. None of us are ever going to play the perfect game, but we can always work towards it. Making the big game-throwing mistake is a terrible feeling, but again this has nothing to do with our opponent. Our moment should not lead to an outburst or a reason for them to feel anxious. This especially goes to the big players in the community. If you are six foot plus and throwing a tantrum, and your opponent is 16 years old, it is more than just poor sports. You could be turning someone off from returning to events. Frustration happens, but it’s our job as good sports and responsible adults to have self-control in public situations. Now the last point is when your opponent is not acting in a sporting way. This is a little harder to deal with. It can get frustrating very quickly when someone is starting to act the bully, or even just playing the game in a generally poor way. Sloppy movement, hidden dice rolls, fast dice, and anything similar: doing something about it can be, literally, a nightmare for an introvert, but hopefully a good judge and TO is there to make life easier. If you’re one of the weirdos where confrontation doesn’t scare the pants off you, then dealing with it yourself can also be tricky. How much of your response is standing up for yourself, and how much is just picking a fight? Be firm about the game being played correctly, but don’t become a bully yourself.
4. The Mulligan and The Pre-Game Talk
This is a big one. There are a few things before the game that need to be discussed. Even knowing what to ask can be confusing to a newer player, but sometimes a rule that is misunderstood or an interaction that wasn’t confirmed beforehand can lead to a heated conversation. It’s essential to have a brief discussion beforehand to understand how both players’ views line up. It’s likely the most common reason for before game talk is understanding what the terrain is representing. The ITC and Frontline Gaming has done their best to clean things up, but the 8th edition terrain rules do still leave some things to be desired. Talking about whether certain buildings have doors and can be entered or if standing on top of terrain that appears very open counts as a cover save is something that saves a lot of headaches. This ties into the open communication point above. In this example, you don’t intend to keep information from each other, but you both believe two different things. Work with the opponent so that these conversations don’t happen when the game may swing in someone’s favor over the outcome. Potentially even more important is to talk about the mulligan or “take back.” In many games, even tournament games, it may be expected that you can go back a short step to perform something out of order. Forgetting to move for a squad that was tucked into a building is a common error. Asking to move the squad once you have left the movement phase can be tricky, especially if the move is critical. These mulligans can be very touchy and fluid. Most people don’t want to win the game because you skipped an entire psychic phase, but with that mistake being made, if the game is still very close, they may understandably not allow you to go back. A game is won and lost on mistakes and errors. Talking through the thoughts of both players on take-backs is important. Is there a level of knowledge gained from the ensuing turn that doesn’t allow us to go back? Has it been 30 seconds into the next phase, or is the phase almost over? Is the mistake minor or game-winning? Looking at this in a sporting way, we understand this has to change from each person and game. Two top-level players may give each other none but also expect none. A veteran and a rookie player may need to talk more to come to a conclusion. Indeed, a good rule to go by is if you have asked for one and received it be prepared to give one back and usually a more important one at that.
Sportsmanship is a massive topic, but I hope that some of what is here has been useful, not just on the tabletop but in everyday life. Sportsmanship is just a word to describe how we treat each other when we are put into competition against each other. Just like any other interaction, we should be looking to treat each other with respect and understanding and expecting it in return. The player across the table is looking to defeat you, but they aren’t “out to get you.” You don’t always have to be looking to make a new friend every game, but you better not be willing to make an enemy. Take into the fact as well that if you travel to play, this may be the only interaction you ever have with them. If your first impression has the chance of being your only impression, wouldn’t you want it to be a pleasant one? Better to leave a string of people behind that only have nice things to say. Be polite, courteous, and respectful, and you’ll never have to look at a code of conduct again!