The future of HEMA tournaments

Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz
Keith Farrell and Robert Schwartz fencing with the longsword at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2015.

Everyone has a different point of view on the future of HEMA tournaments and their role in the development of the community. There are regular posts on Facebook discussing how the tournament scene might develop as the community grows larger.

I feel that it is important to look at the tournament scene in the long term, and to consider what we might want it to look like several years from now. My real hope is that as the community develops and grows, the tournaments will also develop, without stagnation.

The current dominant paradigm for HEMA tournaments

At the moment, the dominant competitive paradigm is one where people compete in a single discipline, under a single rule set, the whole way through that single competitive event. There are pool fights, so that everyone has more than one fight (important if travelling and paying a lot of money to attend the event!), and then there are eliminations leading to finals so that we can find a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. We then award medals, declare the winner, and done with it.

Maybe people participate in two or three such single-discipline competitions at any given event. Perhaps the competition is a bit more open and allows a variety of different disciplines within parameters (such as a “rapier and accompaniment” competition, for example, where people can take a dagger or a buckler or a cloak or whatever). But it still also follows the dominant competitive paradigm, because at the end of the competition, there’s a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in that one particular competition.

For the tournament scene to develop, we need to explore other competitive paradigms. Perhaps what is in place at the moment is the most useful to us right now; but will it still be “most useful” to us in five years, or ten years?

Even if other paradigms remain largely experimental right now, while the current dominant paradigm remains most useful, it at least sets the groundwork for other paradigms to be recognised and played with, so that they can perhaps become more prominent further down the line. If we set too much in stone right now, then we risk stagnation because it will be too difficult to change things a few years of one paradigm being dominant and unchallenged.

Tweaks to the current paradigm

The idea of weight classes, height classes, gender classes, cutting qualifiers, or whatever, is a challenge to the purest strain of the current dominant competitive paradigm (which is, essentially, the open tournament), but it is still within the parameters of the same paradigm. People didn’t like the idea of separate women’s tournaments when they were first introduced, and there is still some resistance to the idea in places, but this particular challenge has overcome the initial barriers and is becoming more popular and more common in HEMA tournaments across the world.

Tweaks to the current paradigm may help it avoid becoming stale in some ways, but may also cause it to cement or ossify in other ways.

Potential other types of HEMA tournaments

What I would personally like to see is more exploration of other, completely different competitive paradigms. For example:

  • tournaments following historical rule sets, as best we can interpret them.
  • tournaments where everyone fights everyone, and everyone votes for the “best fencer” of the day according to their own personal metric (a format developed by Fechtschule Gdansk a few years ago, that has been run quite successfully in other places by other groups as well).
  • tournaments where there isn’t a classical 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, but where the “winner” (or “winners”) are determined in some other fashion.
  • tournaments that are not single-discipline competitions, such as the triathlons and pentathlons that Longpoint has been trialling.
  • tournaments that are more subjective and that place more emphasis on “correctness according to the sources” than simply landing touches.
  • tournaments that are more subjective and that place more emphasis on “landing effective hits” than simply landing touches.
  • tournaments that are not symmetric, that do not give both competitors a fair 50/50 chance of winning (although the roles may be reversed halfway through each fight).
  • tournaments that follow a different scenario than “who can score the most points?”, for example, something like “who can remain unhit for the longest period of time?” or “who can fight their way through an alleyway most effectively?”

There are so many different competitive paradigms that we can explore… And, worth observing, the historical rule sets that we know about seem to follow a different competitive paradigm to the current dominant paradigm. Therefore, are we missing something by sticking to one particular format? Can we learn something else and become better martial artists by changing up the formats and paradigms of our tournaments?

Conclusion

I think that this is how the community will benefit most from tournaments as the community grows and develops. Not only will this help to keep various different elements of the community with different interests all involved in the competitive scene, it will keep the competitive scene healthy and avoid the risk of stagnation. The more we can explore now, without setting things in stone, the better we will be poised to make important decisions down the road with more options still open to us.

If we let the HEMA tournament scene stagnate by focusing only on the current dominant competitive paradigm, then we are cutting off our nose to spite our face, and I believe we’ll regret it a few years down the line.

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.