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GAMEPLAN            

LEAGUE FORMATS

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PHILLIP PASSEY
30th October 2002

I love Gameplan but am curious as to whether you have any plans to renovate the game in order to bring it up to date as a real life simulation. Since itís inception back in the 80ís Gameplan has largely maintained a 24 team format (6 divisions of 4 teams). With the NFL recently re-aligning itself to 8 divisions of 4 teams (making 32 in total) is it time Gameplan followed suit?

If I were a new coach to the game, Iíd take a look at a 24 team league and think... "well, it looks OK, but it isnít an NFL simí and I might not bother beyond start-up. Consequently from a business stand point it would make sense to expand - as it would to have 2 Wild Card games in each conference, a real life NFL innovation for the last 10+ years.

I'm unaware of the limitations imposed by the software but it would seem that a renovated design, along with some well placed adverts would reap some rewards for the GM's. Please don't take all this as a criticism it's just that I am interested to know if there are any plans as the game I love appears to be in serious danger of being left behind.

As far as advertising is concerned, the various GMs are already running adverts in all the locations we know of that work. If you've got any ideas for other advertising locations then I think the GMs would be very pleased to hear about them (if they're not then I can run adverts myself, or we can sell new licences).

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RICHARD APPLEBY
14th April 2003

After almost 10 years of playing Gameplan I welcome some of the changes that you intend to do but it all seems to no point if re-alignment is not going to take place. In my opinion if re-alignment does not take place, it wouldn't matter how much you do to enhance the game if the old format of teams/leagues is antiquated & out of date. New players are going to be very confused & probably put off or not interested. Just my tuppence worth. I hope this is the first real change to Gameplan before anything else. Have you any plans to do this?

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GROUNDHOG
11th April 2003

HISTORY

Over the years we've tried several formats other than our standard 24 team league, and there have been several GMs who insisted on using formats that matched whatever format the NFL was playing at the time. Those leagues have not worked so well as the 24 team leagues. They have more uncoached teams and higher costs. Most other attempts at football simulations have adopted the NFL format of the day, and almost all of these games have failed, often badly.

The first thing is, there's nothing special about the format currently used by the NFL. It doesn't have a long tradition, and any given format usually only lasts a few seasons before it changes again.

The second thing is, we're not a simulation of the NFL. We've always said we're not. We're a simulation of pro football. Granted the NFL is effectively the only major pro league, but that's because it's a natural monopoly. We end up with a similar look and layout, but there's no reason why our format should be the same - and there are several reasons why it should be different.

The league format has generally not matched format used by the NFL, including back in the days when new players were joining in bucketloads. It didn't matter then, so why should it matter now?

WAITING LISTS

With a 24 team league, it takes as long to fill the last four teams as the first twenty. By the time the waiting list for one league fills, the next one is already half full, and there will be several teams already taken in the league after that. It's usually only possible to fill the last few teams at all because there are players who want a quick start above everything else, or who opt for "any team" if their preferred team is unavailable.

When we had some 28 team leagues (the format that Sloth used) the extra four teams doubled the time taken to fill the waiting list. A 32 team league would probably double it again. There are not a lot of football fans who don't have a team preference. Some teams are very popular, and others seems to have no fans at all. In the UK, at least.

If we had a league format where every team was one of the Dolphins, 49ers, Raiders, Cowboys, Redskins with maybe the Giants, Bears and Packers to make up the numbers... we could fill leagues in a fraction of the time.

There's one thing we do know has a major effect on new starters, and that's how quickly they're able to start. Mostly they'd also like to play against other new starters, and not join a game that includes experienced players or players who already know each other - but filling a waiting list quickly is far more important than anything else.

NEW COACHES

The attention of new coaches in Gameplan is on what they want on their roster or what they're going to put in their gameplans, not what the league format is going to look like.

On several occasions we've had different GMs offering different league formats and we've used the choice of formats as a method of distributing players between those different GMs The choices made by new coaches in those promotions has always been very clear, that it's the choice of team that matters, and not the league format. Very few coaches bother to choose one league format over another.

No-one takes a lower preference of team for a higher preference of league format. Forcing people into a 32-team league requires eight more people to play teams other than the one they follow.

The league format is not what matters. When people have had the option to choose, they have mostly chosen the 24 team format.

LEAGUE EXPANSION

Expanding a 24 team league to a 32 team format means adding eight uncoached teams. There is not a queue of players wanting to take charge of expansion teams. Coaches don't want to give up the teams they're already attached to, just to fill up positions in other leagues. New coaches want to play against each other, not fill up spaces in a league full of veterans.

It also means adding another eight LOSING teams. There will still only be one bowl winner and two conference champions. With one third more teams, you'll win one third fewer championships.

Re-jigging the divisional layout in existing leagues doesn't look very enticing, either. Where people have got established rivalries it is probably better to keep them, and if we start moving teams around then we'll get the same problems as we did when it was possible in the past (where many coaches thought other coaches were moving around the league in search of easier schedules - and lots of bad feeling was generated as result).

DIVISIONAL STRUCTURE

The thing that is different about the current 32 team NFL is that it's actually a sensible and balanced format. That's something the NFL hasn't had in all the time that Gameplan has been running: commercial and legal constraints have worked to prevent them making the approrpiate adjustments. There's also a much better chance that they'll stick with the current format for a reasonable length of time, now they've got a format that's symmetrical and fair. It's to be hoped they'll fight quite hard to keep the balance, and divert any pressures for further expansion into the lower levels of the game.

The good thing is that everyone is now back in four team divisions, all playing the same format with schedules that vary according to the division you're in (which is unavoidable if traditional rivalries are to be maintained) and their standings the previous season. You don't get a radically different schedule from being bottom of one division as against being bottom of another, as you did when there were some divisions with four teams and some with five.

FUTURE LEAGUE FORMATS

It's pretty much a moot point at present, since we don't have any viable advertising slots and there aren't queues of new players waiting to sign up, but sometime we'll probably have to work out what format to use for any new leagues we start.

The best bet is probably going to be to move away from any similarity to recent NFL formats entirely, and either go back further into history or adopt a completely different system. My feeling is that people would usually like to retain the format of four team divisions, with a reasonably balanced schedule and as many of the traditional rivalries as possible, and the rest of the format isn't that important.

From a software point of view, any move away from the current four rounds of playoff games would make for a lot of work as our draft system is geared to work with the current playoff schedule. With one fewer playoff round we'd probably have to lose a round from the draft as well (unless we move the third round into pre-season, which at first sight seems a silly idea).

From a functional point of view, getting rid of the wild card week would be good, to get away from people having "blank" weeks with no game, but the dynamics of a league divided into four-team regional divisions does demand wild cards, because the different divisions usually have very different strengths.

The part of the structure that's actually the least important is probably the division into two conferences. One effect of the separate playoff structures in the two conferences is that often the two best teams meet in a championship game instead of the bowl game. Even if team strengths were distributed at random you'd expect to find the two strongest teams in the same conference nearly 50% of the time.

The NFL has played more years that ended with the championship game than with a bowl game, after all. And many that didn't have playoffs at all. There's no particular reason why our league format should be as similar to the real life one as it is. Especially now that many of the old divisional groupings have been broken up.

The most likely change, I guess, would be that we keep the same structure, but with a mixture in each conference of two real divisions with all the "correct" teams and one scratch division of four other teams. That would mean a bit of jockeying about while the waiting list is filling, but it concentrates the odd combinations in a single division containing the coaches who know the format is because their usual divisional rivals didn't want to play.

I'm biased, of course, but given a free hand to design a format from scratch, I'd go with the Australian system of playoffs, where home advantage, bye weeks and second chances all have to earned in direct competition.

WILD CARDS

The inclusion of a second wild card team in the playoffs was probably necessary in real life with the increased number of teams. But would it be desirable in Gameplan?

The main cost of adding the second wild card is that it's devalued the divisional titles, so that winning your division is no longer as important as your overall standings. One division winner (now two in the latest format) is effectively reduced to the status of a mere wild card, without a bye week - and they can be reduced to that status simply by having strong opposition in the division.

One wild card is enough to ensure that a team from a strong division gets a chance to prove it's better than the best teams in the other divisions, and to ensure that the best two teams meet in the championship game. It's actually far from certain, but at least it's likely (without a wild card the chance is less than 30% even if the better team always wins).

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