Tl;Dr: Less means more; It’s time to stop using judge hives and replace them with pairs of qualified, competent and professional refs/judges with authority; let’s give them more power, let’s make a few changes which could eventually raise the controversial bar of judging everywhere.

HEMA tournaments have been thriving for the past few years. A natural evolution within our hobby/sport/martial art has put them on a very prominent spot. Many different rulesets are used around the world. Some use the afterblow, some put emphasis on initiative. Some use weighted scoring, some score everything the same. Some use difficult combinatorics, some are rather simplistic.

No matter what ruleset you prefer, no matter how good the original idea behind the rules may have been, every single ruleset usually breaks down on one thing – judging.

Exchange with longswords
Exchange with longswords

Judging equals quality and consistency

Concepts like Afterblow and Vor (right of way variant) both assign priority to certain fencing actions which they theoretically value. Each of these concepts has got its downsides but that doesn’t matter if you know that you will get the same judgement for the same repeated action.

Consistency of judging is in my opinion even more important than quality. When judging isn’t consistent, meaning for the same action you don’t get the same outcome on different occasions, the point attribution is rather random and the result is no different than if you’ve rolled the dice.

Quality on the other hand means the ability to judge correctly. To differentiate the type of attack, the target and all the other factors that may stem from a ruleset. Generally, the basic training that a judge should undergo and his continuous experience should build up quality.

In order to boost the quality of judging, different organizers, creators, federations and groups have been trying different models. Maybe the most prominent of those is the system of 4+1 – 4 corner judges who raise flags and a referee who announces the result of the judging (side note: in some systems refs are able to overrule judges). But is this system really better than simple models? The answer is NO and my suggestion is to move from this model as soon as possible.

Fencer in action at DLC 2017
Fencers in action at DLC 2017

The downsides of a judge hive

A “judge hive” is a term I use for a collective of judges. It is a nick name for the (now) traditional model, where 3-4 people stand in corners and one referee oversees the course of the fight and pronounces the point attribution or decisions.

The idea behind this model isn’t bad. It was believed such system would be more objective and fair towards participants and many precautions were made to make it so.

However, not everything goes the way we plan. There a few issues which I think the hive model will never be able to solve – see below.

  1. To run an average pool, you need almost the same number of staff as is the number of fighters.
    1. Number of participants within a pool is usually somewhere between 4-7. If you run a bigger competition (let’s say 50+) and time is also the essence, running 3 pools at the same time needs half the people fighting just to judge and award points!
  2. Supporting staff will always be scarce
    1. Big international tournaments mean big responsibility
    2. Unless you have a full troop of volunteers ready to jump in on your signal, getting everyone join your cause is a huge and time-consuming undertaking
    3. Volunteers have low bonds towards your cause and can drop out randomly
    4. The larger the group of volunteers/judges, the greater the quality gap
  3. Training a huge number of judges is extremely difficult and time consuming
    1. We all want quality judging
    2. When you run multiple pools and multiple competitions within one event, you usually need 30-50 judges
    3. To ensure their numbers and quality, you have to put a lot of effort into their organization
    4. In the end, the larger the number, the less control you have towards every single individual
  4. You are an individual, you will be assimilated
    1. No matter how good or expert judge one may be, their decisions have no real value in a judge “hive“
    2. You may have 2 professional judges but if you have 2 amateurs, they may easily overrule their decisions
    3. If the situation is more complicated, it’s much harder to reach a conclusion between a hive than between fewer people if discussion happens
    4. Giving feedback to worse judges will never really improve the situation because if hive decisions are made and the responsibility for the decisions is shared, the blame goes towards everybody
  5. Judges have extremely variable backgrounds
    1. If you use hives, unless your school (etc.) can provide every single member of the hives, you usually need to combine people from different backgrounds.
    2. If you ask 4 judges what “a valid hit“ is, you will get 4 different answers
    3. Ruling tougher decisions leads to more random results than actual objectivity
  6. More people doesn’t mean more objectivity!
    1. The buzz word of a judge hive is objectivity
    2. The idea that if 4 different people judge something you will get more objectivity is completely false. You will get more or less random results since they judge on different criteria they don’t (usually) discuss and even if, it rarely changes the outcome
    3. Objectivity should mean judging everyone according to the same criteria – quality+consistency
    4. The same randomness for every participant is absolutely not objective!
  7. No one is responsible for the outcome
    1. In a hive, when you make a decision, unless the exchange is completely unambiguous, you get very variable decisions
    2. You cannot really blame anyone for their decisions, because they are just following the system
    3. Blaming any number of people for bad calls within a hive is unfair, because the decision is shared! Every single member of the hive is behind the decision, no matter good or wrong. Addressing a hive usually doesn’t lead anywhere cause a collective cannot learn to be better, only its members can and they will always be affected by all the points above and below
  8. Judges concentrate more on their flag combinations than what actually happened
    1. This article is not about rulesets but rulesets can affect the quality of judging by adding unnecessary complications
    2. One of the most prominent of those are flags and flag combinations
    3. The more combinations every system uses, the more judges migrate from system to system, the harder we make it for them to show individual combinations
    4. The decision process after a hit is made is the following: A judge concentrates more on the proper order of raising flags than on what happened! That leads to forgetting what actually happened in an exchange
    5. If you don’t believe me, approach judges individually after they’ve raised flags and ask them what happenedFighters getting ready at FotS 2017
  9. Whether you admit it or not, your judges affect each other
    1. Jesus-on-cross posture is a common feature of the hive model
    2. Judges are asked to lean their head down when making the decisions to not affect each other
    3. Side note: This is one of the funniest specific of the hive model
    4. Judges still do affect each other! They look at each other, follow someone who they accept as an authority within the hive
    5. When the judges’ positions are fixed and for some reasons only one sees a hit, they may be overruled by the rest that nothing happened
    6. I’ve experienced judges giving a weird look to the only one who actually saw what happened and the judge pulled his flag back!
    7. I recommend to make some reading into Asch Conformity Experiments, which proved such behavior to be standard within a group
  10. Referee is usually the best qualified person for the job
    1. The refs are usually the most qualified for the job in the whole hive
    2. They need to react to what’s happening in the arena, calculate combinations and organize the course of the match
    3. Since they are the directors in the pools, they usually have the greatest control over what’s happening
    4. If you’ve asked the refs if they noticed what really happened, they almost always know
    5. They are usually the only really attentive person in the arena because it’s their job to ensure safety of participants, to announce decisions and to steer the course of the match
  11. There’s nothing wrong when judges/refs talk together and discuss their judging
    1. I don’t understand what’s wrong on judges talking to each other (except when 4+ people need to reach a conclusion)
    2. A quick exchange of “why do you think it was a hit“, “where did he hit her“, “was there a pommel strike“ etc. could speed up decisions and the agreement rate much quicker than anything else
    3. With regards to what was said before, if there’s s a person who’s much capable of explaining what happened, why should we ignore them? Shouldn’t we instead give them more freedom and responsibility?
  12. Not talking to fighters boosts misunderstanding
    1. Lots of tournaments want to speed up the process of judging by implementing multiple precautions; one of those is omitting (or in better case limiting) any communication between fighters and the judges
    2. When you show flags fighters are often wondering what was that for? They are left for guess
    3. If the judges (or the ref) gave the fighters just some brief info in the form of “red attacks, blue parries, blue hits in return, red’s afterblow comes late” they would avoid lots of questions and confusion. Plus, they would orally affirm that they understood and saw what happened.
  13. People need to accept responsibility
    1. At the end of the day, from a hive perspective no one is to blame and no one has the responsibility for bad calls
    2. Giving feedback to everyone leads nowhere
    3. No one can honestly talk to someone in particulars
    4. It’s extremely time consuming to watch videos of pools and to note decisions of one judge in the hive and then to give feedback to them; there are 4 people with the same amount of responsibility within each pool!
    5. Imagine you needed to talk just to a handful of judges/referees, who could further give feedback to their assistants instead of huge, semi-anonymous mass

It’s easier to train a fraction of refs/judges

Enough of the rant. What do I propose?

There is an alternative which is working well not only in a fair amount of HEMA competitions around the world but also in a huge number of other sports.

A very example of upper winding
A very example of upper winding

Let’s reduce the number of judges to but a fraction; let’s have one person who makes all the calls, steers and directs the course of the fight. Let’s have one more person who will help their perspective watching the fight from the other side.

One judge to rule them all

  1. There is nothing to fear. I had my doubts about whether – in complexity of our sport – one person will be sufficient and able to judge objectively, but when I first experienced this system on a Polish competition many years ago, I was positively surprised. It worked
  2. The refs/judges were very professional. They openly communicated with their assistants and combatants. They were able to repeat an exchange and argument their decisions really quickly
  3. Even if you agreed with the rules or not, there was absolute consistency between their calls and could know what to expect from them
  4. 4 years ago, when we laid the foundations for our Czecho-Slovak HEMA League (soon to become CE League, with over 100 regulars now) we were sure we would follow this system; it was already popular between various schools in our region
  5. The point is: Every pool just needs one main referee who does all the calls. They need to have proper training, be accessible and be able to steer the fight. They also need to be able to orally reproduce what has happened in the ring and put arguments behind their decision
  6. No one is perfect, so let’s give those refs an assistant who will help them with the judging from other side
  7. Making people working in pairs creates a strong bond and functional relationships
  8. For more difficult scenarios, like eliminations or combinations like rapier and dagger, let’s have two assistants if needed
  9. For elims, let’s use a video ref but that is a different topic
  10. In order to run a whole day 90+ people tournaments, we/you usually don’t/wouldn’t need more than 6-8 main refs and a similar number of assistant. In later phases, we could rotate them more or combine them more. Still, there is but ONE in the ring who makes all decisions
  11. If there are quality or consistency problems with judges, we can address them extremely easily and specifically with a particular audience
  12. Judges can have more flexible seminars to train their proficiency; you don’t have to call 30-50 people at the same time, but a fraction is/would be enough
  13. With a smaller, more easily approachable group of refs, we can raise the number of judges and the quality faster
  14. With less refs/judges needed, we can choose more easily those who are better and how they generally advance
  15. Prominent, good and respectable judges directly inspire others
  16. Such system grants more mobility inbetween tournaments
  17. etc
A lunge with rapier at Tyrnhaw 2016
A lunge with rapier at Tyrnhaw 2016

The whole aim of this article, or rather challenge is for people in our community to rethink an experiment which after many years doesn’t show any promising change or evolution. Our gear has evolved, rules have matured but judging is usually still at the same amateurish level and it is not unfixable.

Of course, nothing will suddenly work as a charm and there are still tons of work ahead and if we decide to transition to any other system, it will be painful for some time but I believe based on our experience, on experience of many people, it will be eventually for the good of all of us.

Try it. Try it within your school, when sparring, try it on a local level. Try it on a bigger competition. Hold on to the system for a while and you’ll see the results yourself.

In a way, it’s inevitable. The larger our competitions are becoming the harder it will be to work with a huge mass of people. Why complicate stuff if we can make it easier?