Saturday, March 28, 2015

BQC 2014-15 and the State of UK Quidditch

By Abby Whiteley, UK Editor

Abby Whiteley, our UK Editor, looks back at the British Quidditch Cup 2014-15 from early in March, and considers what signs of developing gameplay techniques mean for the future of the sport in the UK.

On 7-8 March, the British Quidditch Cup 2014-15 (the championship’s second edition) took place at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham. This should come as a surprise to very few of you, being, as it was, the highlight of the UK season. However, the tournament—rife with upsets and exciting matches right from the very beginning—has given us a great deal to think over, and has provided us with some fascinating insight as to the current status of quidditch in the UK. Although there could be many small observations made on specific teams and incidents, I feel that these are currently less important to the community than what we can glean from the tournament in terms of the future. 

The greatest single observation to be made about the BQC this year is the parity of teams. We are no longer operating in an environment in which games can be called easily; every team is under threat by teams considered close to them in skill, even those whom they might previously have dismissed. Derby Union Quidditch Club’s upset of the Keele Squirrels in the autumn was a harbinger for the atmosphere which would dominate the rest of the season: not an atmosphere of unease, exactly, but one of flux. No team is secure in its spot any more. This is a reference not only to the Radcliffe Chimeras, losing the final despite being considered favourites for the British crown before the tournament, but to every team whose fates were determined—for better or worse—by surprise snitch grabs, by a referee call falling one way or the other, by a single hoop, mistake, or crucial beat which swung the balance of close games and ultimately gave teams the places they will carry with them for the next year. Warwick University Quidditch Club was eight seconds away from beating Keele and drawing the Bristol Brizzlepuffs instead of the Chimeras in the Round of 16. The Loughborough Longshots only beat the Bangor Broken Broomsticks by a snitch grab (after one of Bangor’s was disallowed) in one of the closest games in the tournament with a stellar performance from Bangor. The Leeds Griffins beat the Leicester Thestrals in a surprise win, only to lose that lead—and therefore their place in the Round of 16—in their match against the Falmouth Falcons because of a scorekeeper’s mistake. Leicester, an unseeded team who finished third in its group, beat Durhamstrang, a seeded team who has been this season’s rising star. Forty-four percent of bracket play and 35 percent of games in the tournament overall ended in snitch range. Just under 10 percent of games went to overtime—and of those, the only game in which the team who had been losing on quaffle points in regulation time caught both the regulation and the overtime snitch, and therefore won, was the final.

The fact that teams in the UK are evening out in skill, with the exception of the brand new teams, is an unsurprising but nevertheless an encouraging symptom of the UK teams gaining more experience in both actual matches and in received knowledge. Two years ago, in the 2012-13 season, there were three tournaments in total: the original incarnations of Highlander, Whiteknights, and Mercian. In the 2014-15 season, we had seen double that number of tournaments by the end of November, not to mention all the Challenge Shield matches and multiway friendlies which were happening alongside them. Very few teams, therefore, do not have the means to partake of the shared knowledge which it is increasingly easy to access, and we therefore see teams making more intelligent decisions when it comes to drills and tactics—which results in closer team matchups overall. Furthermore, this increase in matches means that it is much more difficult to make snap judgements on teams, as we have so much more information at our disposal. Although some significant disparities still exist—one of the semifinals ended far out of snitch range, suggesting a gap remains between the top teams and those slightly less elite—the illusion that there is a set and predictable order in which all teams operate can no longer be sustained.

What does this mean in real terms, then? Where have the changes, subtle and incremental as they are, been appearing on-pitch?

Broadly speaking, people have got more clever. Teams have had enough time to test out what works and what does not, and have mastered the techniques which best suit their style. These are not naïve fumblings of teams’ first attempts to outplay their opponents by making up over-complicated manoeuvres; these are tactics developed with a solid understanding of how the game works, and implemented by talented players who know how to do so effectively. This is most evident in the chaser game, where the much-maligned system of hero running is becoming increasingly rare. Trolling is no longer considered a sly and innovative use of the behind-the-hoops space, but a staple of balancing the quaffle attack in every team from the newest to the most élite. Furthermore, the trolling techniques have developed beyond simple static positioning, with more players using fast movement to escape increasingly effective marking by defences. The system of point defence is slowly but surely being taken seriously by more and more teams, so we are seeing more complex and thought-out defensive plays, as opposed to frenzied scrambles in the keeper zone. Long shots are—although still a last recourse for some players—being edged out by shorter passes around the hoops; teams are getting more confident at making the decision to reset rather than flail wildly in the direction of the hoops and hope it pays off, and this is gratifying to witness. Not all of these things apply to all teams; some teams have made leaps and bounds in their thoughtfulness on the attack but remain scrappy on the defence, and vice versa. Some teams have individuals who are excellent, intuitive players in their own right, but need to spread this change throughout their squad. This is not a sudden transformation but an incremental change creeping through the teams in the UK, and it will be a long time before these tactics are omnipresent—by which point, of course, some teams will have advanced into new territory that has not yet made it into quidditch over here. However, there is a truly visible change in the quaffle game from last year, and this is a hugely encouraging sign for things to come.

On the black-headband side of things, the status of beaters is changing. In the UK and Europe, beater has traditionally been perceived as a position demanding less physicality of those who take it up, and although it is still safe to say that beating remains less inherently physical than chasing, many of the stronger teams are flourishing by utilising more physical beaters in their lineups. For some time now it has been no secret that beaters who are capable of tackling well can make life very difficult for opposing teams in a way which less strong beaters simply cannot (that’s not to say that less physical beaters are inherently less good, only that they neglect an aspect of beating which has become increasingly useful), and we are finally starting to see the position as a whole developing within the UK. Some notable examples of players who proved their excellence in this capacity, alongside the near-infamous Dale King-Evans (Oxford Quidlings), are Bill Orridge (Loughborough Longshots), who was a great chaser but has made the shift to beating with aplomb, and Joseph “Hades” Haerdele (Falmouth Falcons). As an increasing number of players are faced with powerful beaters such as this, and more beaters gain experience at using physical contact efficiently, we should see the physicality of beating evolving at an exciting pace both offensively and defensively. There is still a place in the position for people who prefer to avoid the intense contact of the chaser game, but many of the top teams will want to focus on training their beaters in tackling just as fastidiously as they do their chasers in preparation for the next season.

All of this said, however, there remains an area in UK quidditch which is a source of constant frustration to me, and the reason behind a vast amount of missed opportunities: passing. The ghosts of hoops which could haunt quidditch pitches up and down the country, and the single greatest change I would like to see in gameplay in the 2015-16 season, is people regularly making smart, fast, accurate passes which are received without fumbles. Most specifically I am referring to catching, as far too many teams continue to espouse the notion that one-handed catching is somehow preferable to two-handed. Whilst I do not entirely dismiss one-handed catching, and ideally one would be able to do both, eschewing two-handed catching altogether, or advocating the one-handed technique above it, is simply foolish. The shoddy catching is, however, not the only problem; there is still a strong tendency to make rushed and panicked passes once a hero run has been dismantled, often to people in the wings who are not paying enough attention to prepare themselves for the reception. It is no coincidence that the two teams that made the final are arguably those with the most accurate passing game in the country, and this aspect of gameplay should be a priority for captains and coaches next year. The simple expedient of communicating intended passes, and the recipient actually catching said passes, will transform UK quidditch in the months to come, and personally I feel this change cannot come soon enough.

On the whole, however, the changes that we have witnessed have been incredibly exciting. The BQC 2014-15 was the first time in over a year that we have seen a significant cohort of quidditch teams together in this country, and most of the teams are nearly unrecognisable in comparison with where they were in 2013 at the inaugural British Quidditch Cup. Quidditch in the UK is undoubtedly undergoing huge changes, as is to be expected in such a new sport, and with every large tournament like this we will receive yet more of an insight into the nature of our collective growing pains. With the European Quidditch Cup 2015 still to come in only three weeks, and tournaments getting bigger all the time (the traditionally petite Whiteknights tournament in Reading has expanded from eight teams in 2014 to 15 in its third edition coming this April), we can only expect to see more development in gameplay throughout the rest of this season, with significant implications for the next.

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