Bigger Tournaments Don’t Mean More Fights!

Going to a big HEMA event is cool. Fencers from all around. And as the tournament registration numbers increase people get excited that there are so many people there to fight. But is that really justified?

Let’s say we have a 20 person tournament, that we run with 5 pools and a single elimination bracket of 8. How many matches can we expect to see? (Note: I’m going to go with no bronze medal match because it complicates things, and would only be relevant to two people.)

12 people will only get their 4 pool matches, and the finalists will get more depending on how far they go. On average it works out to 4.7 matches each.

What if we take the same tournament and double the size?

Well, you wouldn’t get any more matches. Because of a very important point: no matter how many pools you have, each individual still fights the same number of people. If I have 100 people, or 10 people, you’re still only facing the same number of people in your pool matches. 

Bracket Sizing

Right about now you might be thinking that the previous example isn’t fair, as the tournament doubled in size but the bracket remained the same 8-person bracket. While I’ve seen things like this happen, it’s generally not good tournament design*. But the total tournament size affects the total number of matches less than you think.

If we go from a top8 to a top16 bracket how many fights would you expect to see on average? Basically no change. A 20 person tournament with a top8, and a 40 person tournament with a top16 goes from 4.7 to 4.75 average matches fought. So while you may get excited when you see the tournament attendance numbers double, it basically means you probably don’t get any more matches. Unless you are one of the lucky ones who gets all the way to a medal match; then you can get a single extra fight.

So basically the size of the tournament doesn’t matter much, except unless you think you have a realistic shot at the whole thing.

*Traditionally people think only of brackets with size 2n, eg: top8, top16, etc. However there is no reason to be constrained by this, and you should size the bracket based on the size of your tournament. Hopefully you’re using some software to run your event at it will handle the seeding and byes, but even if you’re doing it by hand a quick google search will show you how to set up any arbitrarily sized bracket. If you want to advance 50% to elims, running a 13 person bracket out of a 26 person tournament shouldn’t give you any difficulty.

Quality of Competition

At one event I attended there were skill divisions, and only 10 fighters in the Advanced tier. Some of the participants bemoaned this, and said it sucked that it was so small. At another event there were only a small number of participants in the advanced tier, so they brought people up from the next tier down to make it a bigger, and therefore hypothetically better, tournament. I will propose to you that a smaller advanced tournament is actually a good thing!

Let’s use the similar setup from above. We have two options:

  • 10 person tournament, all advanced fighters. 5 person pools, 8 person bracket
  • 20 person tournament, 10 advanced/10 non-advanced. 5 person pools, 16 person bracket

Using the former we expect the winner to get 4 matches against advanced fighters in their pool, and 3 matches against advanced fighters in their bracket, for a total of 7. The last place fighter would only get their 4 pool matches. 

In the latter we expect that you would get an average of only 1.5 advanced fights in your pool (you have either 2 or 3 advanced fighters in a pool, and subtracting oneself leaves 1 or 2 opponents.) We would assume that they all make the top 16 elims (if they are truly advanced fighting majority non-advanced in pools), but in the first round many of the advanced fight non-advanced who also made it in. If we also assume that an advanced fencer will also only lose to another advanced then the lowest placed advanced fencer gets an average total of 2.5 fights vs advanced and the winner gets 4.5.

So if you want lots of meaningful tournament fights you want smaller tournaments that are more stratified in skill levels. Making tournaments bigger can, counterintuitively, lower the number of meaningful fights you get.

(I’m well aware that in many cases the bottom of the ‘advanced’ is lower than the top of the ‘non-advanced’. We’re making the simplifying assumption that they all deserve to be there.)

Quantity Of Competition

Another thing that is associated with having a bigger event is that you expect a bigger pool of high end fencers. In the previous example I kept the event talent pool equal, and just mucked with tournament sizes. There is also an expectation that if you have more people coming, you have more good people coming.


  • Event: The overall event that you are attending. Eg: SoCal Swordfight, Swordfish
  • Tournament: One of the competitions in the event. Eg: Advanced Longsword, Beginners Rapier

Point #1:  Pools aren’t really sensitive to tournament size.

The pools are going to be seeded so you have approximately 1 person close in skill better than you, and 1 person close in skill worse than you. The number of good people at the event doesn’t start to matter in pools unless you can change the composition of the tournament (via skill tiers). So rather than getting excited about how many people are going to an event, you should be excited about how many different tiers there are in the weapons you’re fighting.

Point #2: Depth of talent pool doesn’t matter unless you get really far in the bracket

Having a stacked top16 doesn’t matter if you get eliminated in the first round of 16. If you lose out in the top8, after a hard-fought win in the top16 it’s the same as a much easier tournament where you only had to ramp it up in the semis and finals.

Counterpoint: The Intangibles

First of all, this analysis has been viewed in the context of your tournament matches. It doesn’t at all account for the intangibles of being at a bigger event with way more sword nerds. Bigger pool of instructors for classes, more people to free spar, meet a bigger crowd of people getting shitfaced at the bar, etc…

Second of all, I don’t discount the excitement factor of having huge brackets. For those who do make it through it’s an intense gauntlet. For the spectators you get to see a fun spectacle developing. But this is a different phenomenon than having the average person get a lot more people to fight.

And thirdly, if you are used to only ever having the same people to fight then having a bigger tournament increases the chances you have fresh blood. But that has nothing intrinsically to do with a big tournament. You could also accomplish the same feat by visiting somewhere small in a region far away from home.

And In Conclusion

Big HEMA events are a ton of fun. You should go to them. But know that having a bigger tournament ≠ getting more people to fight. And if you want more meaningful fights then what you really want is skill divisions that group people of similar ability into smaller tournaments.

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About Sean Franklin 119 Articles
Sean has a Bachelor's Degree in Mechatronic Systems Engineering, and is currently employed as a Controls Engineer. He is passionate about developing more analytical ways to view sword fighting, wishing to develop evidence based standards for protective gear and rule sets informed by tournament statistics. His martial arts history includes competitive success, medaling in international competitions for Longsword, Messer, Grappling, Rapier, and Cutting. In addition to competition Sean has been invited to instruct at a number of events across North America and Europe. For non-STEMey coaching topics Sean posts on