HEMA League ZA, rules and rankings (or how I get to hit more people for fun)

I enjoy sparring, but I love tournament fighting. There is something about being in a competitive situation, with something riding on the outcome. In the past, I played rugby and soccer, and in the now, I hit people with swords. However, tournaments aren’t as much fun if you know all the fighters. They are even worse when you actually trained everybody. Basically, drawing from a wider pool of participants ensures a wider variety of fights, and more fun.

Now, considering the South African situation (which I previously spoke about here), where there are very few HEMA groups around, and those that exist are scattered. How do you expand your pool of participants? Well, in South Africa the secret is to make the tournament as all-inclusive as possible, to draw in not only the HEMAists but other fighting types like the Battle of the Nations groups and so on. This year I’ve been running (with the help of my wife Anja and the members of MACS, of course) what I call “HEMA League ZA”, a series of tournaments with a unified ranking system. We’ve had 4 tournaments already this year (3 in Gauteng, 1 in Cape Town), and we’ve had 30+ fighters take part over the 4 tournaments (a lot in South African terms).

I’d been thinking about doing something like this for a while, and I set out certain criteria:

  • The weapon used must allow the minimum of armour- preferably none, so price is no barrier to entry, and we can cope with high temperatures.
  • The weapon used must be amenable to historical methods, but simple enough to be used by groups with a less rigorous approach to training
  • The tournament itself should involve as many fights per person as possible in the time allowed
  • Every fight should count towards a ranking, making every fight important, and give me enough information to analyse the fights.

So, what did we decide on? Well, the best weapon for the criteria was the synthetic baskethilt sword (we use Rawlings synthetics for those interested). Besides the fact MACS has a number of swords, there are other advantages- the hand is mostly protected, so expensive gloves are not required, and the basket keeps the hand aligned with the blade (mostly), which aids judging. The edges are thick enough and the blade light enough that we were confident in allowing participants with only a groin guard and a fencing mask to participate (subject to oversight of the marshal to look for excessive or dangerous hitting).

For the rules, I wanted a rule set that allowed for quick (but not too quick) fights, which rewarded deeper hits, and which was simple to implement. What I came up with was the following:

  • Fighters are required to have a fencing mask and appropriate groin protection. Breast protection is required for women. The sword forearm can be lightly armoured, but no other armour or padding will be allowed unless required to protect a previously injured joint or limb.
  • The aim of the fight is to score 6 points on your opponent.
  • All parts of the body are target areas, and all touches (cut or thrust) count 1 point, except cuts or thrusts to the mask which count 3. The head is defined as the area of the mask, including the bib, to aid judging.
  • Double kills (simultaneous strikes) are not counted for points, but 3 double kills in a fight results in a double knock out- both fighters score zero for the fight.
  • After blows, when done clearly after the initial strike and within one tempo, score one point no matter where the blow lands
  • Grappling, disarms and throws are allowed (though the director will halt an inconclusive or dangerous throw). However, no points are awarded for the technique itself and the fighter must continue and actually hit (or demonstrate he could have hit) the opponent.
  • Dangerous play such as striking to the back of an opponent’s head, excessive force, or similar behaviour, will be flagged by the director, who will then issue a warning the fighter involved. Subsequent transgressions will be punished by the director, who may dock points or remove the fighter from the fight at his or her discretion.
  • The director will be assisted by two spotters and a score-keeper. Each spotter watches one opponent, looking for contact. The director is in charge of evaluating the sequence of attacks, using the spotters to assist. The director will announce the score and describe the action. Fighters may indicate a hit on themselves, but never on their opponent. The scorekeeper records the score as relayed to him by the director, using symbols for a 1-pt, 3-pt, 1-pt afterblow, and double kill, and informs the director when the fight ends.

You’ll note that the fight can be over very quickly- two head strikes in succession will end a fight. At the other end, we have fights that go to 5-6, and even to a 6-6 draw (since the opponent can score a point with an afterblow). Sloppy fighting with double kills results in both fighters losing. Practically, I divide everybody into pools of 5 (10 fights total, 4 fights each), and most tournaments have allowed participants to fight in 2 pools on a day (8 fights each in total). My estimate is that we finish a pool in about 40 minutes. No knockout phase is held, though we may hold one at a later stage.

Problems? Well, the director has a lot of power, and so I have to be careful who I use. Spotters gain confidence with experience, but experience comes with practice. Safety-wise, we haven’t had anything other than bruises, though one group of visitors did succeed in bringing all their war wounds back to life! The directors have generally done well to keep the sparring fast but controlled, and this is reflected in the fighting.

So the fighting is a lot of fun, but what about the ranking? I wanted a system to be able to rank fighters according to who they faced and their success rate, over several competitions. I can’t expect everybody to be at every tournament, and I want the guys in Cape Town or elsewhere to know how they rank relative to the fighters in Gauteng. I did a lot of reading, but in the end I settled on a modified version of the ELO rankings used in chess. Each fighter’s ranking is compared with their opponent’s, and an “expected” result calculated. Points are scored by beating the expectation, and lost by doing worse than expected. So, if a fighter with 150 pts fights a fighter with 50 pts, the higher ranked fighter should win, and by a margin of 0.8 (i.e scoring 8 pts out of 10 in the match). In this form of ranking, scoring each fighter in a double kill as having a losing ratio of 0 really hurts. What I like about this setup is that weaker fighters are still encouraged to try their best against a strong opponent- they can still improve their ranking by exceeding expectations.

The ranking system is still a work in progress, but seems to be working. The assumption is that fighters will progress to their “ideal” ranking, i.e. a ranking that truly reflects their ability. This means I need to guess the ideal ranking, or start all fighters at a ranking that may be far from ideal. I’ve done the maths roughly, and a minimum of 16 fights is required before the ranking is reliable, and more than that if the fighter is improving (i.e. the “ideal ranking” is actually changing). Still, it’s a start, and some groupings are starting so make themselves visible.

Rankings for HEMA League ZA (names of fighters removed)

Rankings Details Stats
Fighter Feb April JHB April CT June Wins Losses Draws D.KO Fights Win% DKO %
1 82 138 150 163 23 2 0 3 28 82 11
2 NA NA NA 142 7 0 0 1 8 88 13
3 NA NA 125 125 4 0 0 0 4 100 0
4 NA NA 103 103 1 3 0 0 4 25 0
5 NA 101 101 101 4 1 1 2 8 50 25
6 101 101 101 101 2 0 1 1 4 50 25
7 NA 101 101 101 3 1 2 2 8 38 25
8 76 97 89 89 6 2 3 5 16 38 31
9 88 88 88 88 1 1 1 1 4 25 25
10 68 68 68 87 5 3 0 4 12 42 33
11 NA 84 84 84 0 1 0 1 2 0 50
12 NA NA 83 83 2 1 0 1 4 50 25
13 NA 79 79 79 2 6 0 0 8 25 0
14 NA NA NA 76 0 2 0 1 3 0 33
15 NA 77 77 76 8 6 0 2 16 50 13
16 NA NA NA 76 3 4 0 1 8 38 13
17 NA NA NA 76 5 6 0 1 12 42 8
18 NA NA 74 74 0 4 0 0 4 0 0
19 NA 72 72 72 3 1 2 2 8 38 25
20 NA NA 67 67 1 0 0 3 4 25 75
21 62 62 63 63 6 2 0 6 14 43 43
22 NA 57 57 57 4 2 2 4 12 33 33
23 NA NA 57 57 0 5 0 1 6 0 17
24 55 55 55 55 6 0 0 2 8 75 25
25 NA NA 52 52 0 6 0 0 6 0 0
26 NA NA NA 46 0 5 0 2 7 0 29
27 NA NA NA 44 1 3 0 4 8 13 50
28 NA NA 43 43 1 4 0 3 8 13 38
29 NA 55 55 15 3 11 0 2 16 19 13
30 6 6 6 6 6 1 0 1 8 75 13


Beyond the rankings, I’m accumulating a lot of data. Because we record who each fighter fought against and the number of 3pt/1pt/afterblow/double-kills, I can tell a fighter that he/she takes too many head hits, or that they always lose by double kill against certain opponents. It’s a data-scientist’s dream!

Hopefully this article has interested people in what we are trying down here in South Africa. With time, we can expand the concept to other weapon forms, and hopefully grow the tournament. We’ve got some sponsored prizes, and people interested in sponsoring more, so that’s looking up.

Though there is one embarrassing problem- the current top fighter (number 1 in the table) is also the lead organiser. I’m not sure it’s ethical for the organiser to take the prize how, so I’m trying to come up with another reason to award the prize- possibly to the most improved fighter? Suggestions welcome!

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