League format with a handicap

I’ve been in a bowling league before, and I enjoyed that anyone had a shot at winning - because it was based on handicaps. Do you think such a system would be possible/fun in pinball?

(I believe that WPPR points should still signify who is “best”, regardless of handicap, so let’s leave that out of the discussion)

I’ve played in such a league. It was better than no league at all, but I didn’t enjoy it that much. My main complaint is that there isn’t any (external) motivation for the lesser players to improve. In fact, doing poorly can help you later on as much as doing well.

The format we used most of the time was pingolf with golf-style handicaps, using a running week-by-week average to figure out stroke subtraction for all but one player.

Jim Belsito runs a handicapped league. I played in it and thought it was a lot of fun. It’s a head to head matchup league that counts wins/losses. They maintain standings for both handicapped and unhandicapped and the latter is what gets submitted to the IFPA. I’m not entirely sure how the score handicaps are calculated but perhaps Karl DeAngelo (@kdeangelo) will see this and provide some insight, I think he built the leagues software.

I’ll be honest that I’m not a fan of handicapped leagues. With that said, not only did I write the software for the Inland Empire Pinball Association (Jim’s league) but also software for my Win-A-Pin league which was handicapped as well but via another method.

IEPA: Each game has a fixed value set (ex: AFM = 6.5bil). The formula used is Handicap = (FixedValue-PlayerAverage)*0.8. So for an example, my average is 4bil and Jay’s is 3bil. My handicap is 2bil and Jay’s is 2.8bil thus when we play head to head I’d be giving Jay 800million. The league is 16 weeks with head-to-head play each week. Round robin format apart from the final week. Sandbagging can be a massive issue here and we have the premiere sandbagger, Johnny Modica, playing in this league. Upside here is the top players do not win the top prize every season although it does happen frequently enough.
Do the handicaps bring in people that wouldn’t usually play? I think that was the case in the past (5+ years ago) but not anymore. I’d love to change this league format but it is Jim’s league…

Win-A-Pin: I’ve dissolved this league since it was more trouble than it’s worth and now run single day tournaments instead. The point of the league was to give away a machine to the winner each season. Problem with that is very few SoCal players would attend unless they believed they had a shot at winning the prize, thus the handicaps. For this I used IFPA rankings and again set a base value for each game. Each IFPA “tier” received a percentage of the base value added onto their score. 1-100 WPPR = 0%, 101-250 = 10%, 251-500 = 20% and so on. Those weren’t the actual ranges but you get the idea.
In place of the league I’ve run 3-strike tournaments with the exception that players ranked WPPR 150 or better are ineligible to win the machine. Considering moving away from this and towards a lottery system based on number of wins during the tournament, but that’s for another thread.

Last year we ran a league with a handicapping approach, but by choosing opponents, instead of score factors.

4 player matches, scores 7/5/3/1. Initial round seeded by IFPA, in order. Subsequent rounds seeded by nights current score, then IFPA.

Went over pretty well. Some players preferred it to our usual 2 strike random draw, others didn’t. I’m hoping to run it again this year. It did seem to do well in encouraging newer players to come back, as it made games feel more “winnable” with less total blowouts.

Sorry, this is not quite on the original topic, but I’m just going to post this here until you open that other thread.

I’ve seen how “not having a chance” can discourage people from even trying, and anything to counteract that is worth a try, in my opinion. We recently did a tournament where the main prize was a pinball machine, which was awarded semi-randomly, with the final rankings determining the chances of winning, and I think it went over pretty well, with lots of people trying to better their chances as opposed to just conceding the prize to the top echelon.

I’ve written a little piece of software for that tournament to make the lottery more suspenseful for the participants – if you’re interested, just hit me up. It’s not rocket science, of course, but if some one-off piece of code can be reused in any way, that’s always a nice thing.

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Our Seattle Pinball League is handicapped, but you wouldn’t be able to tell since the handicapping is done sort of ‘behind the scenes’. The way it works is we do a five round match play to start the day off (five 4-player games), but who you play is determined by your handicap. If you’re really good, you’ll play against other really good people, and so on.

Then it cuts to top 16, in which the process is repeated again, this time only three 4-player games. Then, depending on time constraints, we either cut to top 4, or do another round cutting to 8 and then top 4.

At the end of the day there is still a final four which come from all corners of the ‘bracket’ playing against each other. Anyone can win, even people way down in the rankings, but it’s still very hard because more than likely there will still be good people in the finals.

Oh, and during the 3-game rounds, the highest ranked person gets shafted and doesn’t get to choose a game (more challenge!)

Seattle Pinball league is handicapped to some extent.

I find it annoying because you mostly play against the same people who are at your same level. Though i am sure others can chime in.

@cayle Is it annoying from a social perspective (you keep seeing the same people), or a competitive perspective (you’re stuck with tougher competition than most)?

I know in our Chicagoland Pinball League we used to always handicap it by having the groups go 1-2-3-4, 5-6-7-8, etc. I actually preferred this as good practice against the best players in our league all the time, rather than battling these guys for who could get ‘perfect’ nights for the first few months as the groups bubbled closer together. (The answer for who wins those battles is Zach . . . every year)

Funny enough it was the lower seeded players that moved us into the IFPA/Pinburgh style convergence of groups because they wanted to play/socialize with more players in the league rather than constantly only playing people of their similar skill level.

I’ll say it really depends on the group of players what will work best for that particular situation.

Yeah, this is kind of what happened in my previous league. There were only 15 players, but the top 2 and bottom 2 never changed groups. The people at the bottom would have rather played with better players and at least had the opportunity to learn.

What I’m considering is a format where there are (mostly) random groups of four each week (playing four player games on 5 different machines) - but you’d have a (different) teammate each week, with the goal of combining scores to beat out your opponents. Within the foursome, the teams could be made in a way that creates the most fair matchup.

The main goal would be to play with/against a wider variety of players throughout the season, and to help spread knowledge/skills to the lower players.

Individual scores would be recorded, and that’s how players would be ranked (and submitted for WPPR points), but your record as a teammate would play some major part at the end of the season. Maybe it’s the main thing for cash, trophies, tournament seeding (and/or honors)? Not sure yet.

I think it’d be fun to gameplan with a teammate in advance each week. Or meet early to go over rules/strategies.

Other pertinent info: 11 of the 15 people I had last season were first-timers. A few people care about points, but mostly people just want to socialize and play pinball. Last season had 2 players that were a head above the rest, but this next season it might be only 1.

There is some good stuff here. I really enjoy seeing how other leagues try to solve these problems.

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Just putting my 2 cents into this interesting discussion. I am philosophically against handicapping. Why punish someone who practices more than others? Our league in San Francisco uses totally random matchups during the regular season, which consists of 10 meetings. My reasoning is that it’ll pretty much even out if you play all 10 rounds, plus it is EASY to run.

To make it a little more fun for the majority of players who simply aren’t going to win the title (remember that we have this guy named Andrei to battle with…), we now have A, B, and C-division playoffs. While the B and C-divisions will not award wpprs, they still provide an incentive (plaques, glory, etc) for people to want to compete. To avoid sandbagging, there’s a minimum attendance of 70% and 80% for B, and C-playoffs respectively. So far, it’s been very positive and I think I’ll expand the number of participants in the playoffs for next season (now there’s 16 in each division).

I have a feeling that about 25% of our members are really concerned about wppr points, and the rest mainly come for the fun/social aspect. Being one of the 25%-ers, I still think this league is the most fun I can have in pinball due to the awesomeness of our members (and that I get to run it all I guess…)


The FSPA has been using a skill-based grouping system for 20 years now… each week, the winner of each group (except 1) moves up a group, and the loser of each group (except the bottom-most) moves down a group. This method “bubble sorts” players into groups of similarly-skilled players. Yes, it’s possible for a highly superior player to get “stuck” in group 1, and a highly inferior player to get “stuck” in the bottom group, but if their skills are really that much different from their opponents, is it good for anyone (the outlier OR their opponents) to exaggerate that gap? In my experience, even winners don’t enjoy blowouts that much, and certainly losers don’t, not when it happens week after week.

This system also has sort of a built-in progress meter: “hey, I used to always be stuck in group 8, but lately I’ve been doing OK in group 6!” It’s an easily quantifiable way to see when you’re making long-term progress relative to your opponents. (And it does work on both ends of the spectrum: if the undefeatable group 1 leader suddenly gets whacked down to group 2, perhaps it’s a wake-up call!)

The part about being able to play against more/better players to learn and/or for social reasons is valid, but we encourage all our players to mingle and play games for fun both before and after league.

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Handicapping is possible.

Before you start handicapping, you may want to consider why people are in the league, and what each of them want to get out of the league.

If a big part of the league is the social experience, you should consider that when developing or changing your league format.

Yeah, that’s why I’m considering something a little different. It’s a lot of intermediate players who want to be social and get better at pinball.

Hey Joe, how do you handle it when a player misses a week? Does he/she retain their “status” from the week they played or in which group do you place them?

This is the part I struggle with in our league. What do I do with the people that do not show up. I just keep the groups as they are and the person that doesn’t show automatically goes down a group, so the remainder of the people in that group are ‘safe’ for that week. That isn’t really fair to the other 20 people that show up though.

Has anyone experimented with a combo of handicapped and random picks? Maybe alternating every week? I’ve gotten “stuck” in groups for the majority of a season before–not that it’s a terrible thing, but I’d really enjoy getting a chance to know the people in the other groups.

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Short answer: normally, the absent player winds up staying in the same slot the following week. We do not want to artificially drop players to a lower group just because they missed a week.

Long answer: for each game that a player misses, we assign them 2 “effective points” solely for grouping purposes. (Our scoring is 0-4 points per game, so 2 is dead average.) Group movements are actually done based on effective points. What this means is that a player who totally misses a week with no preplays will be grouped as if they had 8 points (4 games * 2 effective points). This also means that, for example, a player who just arrived at league late and only missed the first game, then proceeded to earn 8 points on the remaining games, will be grouped as if they had 10 points. (8 real + 2 effective) Overall, this does a great job of rationalizing grouping for all possible absentee situations.