Playing any game well requires a range of skills and knowledge. You need to understand the rules, the actions required to succeed within those rules, and have the ability to perform those actions well.

As an amateur or hobbyist you compete against people with a similar understanding and ability level as you. But what if you want to go higher?

Getting better at anything means deliberate practice, you play more, you compete against better people and you learn what it takes to win. Maybe you have a really good serve in tennis and a competent all round game. You’ll beat 90% of other amateurs but come up against someone in the 99th percentile and you’ll likely lose 6-0. Come up against a professional and you’ll be lucky to win a single point.

On an individual player level everybody understands that. You need a base level of competence to compete at sport. The best athletes will always win, the cream will rise to the top. 

In simple sports like running, and even football, at an individual level you can get technological improvements that can improve athletes. A new shoe design, an new energy drink, a lighter ball. They can edge out a few tiny marginal gains.

In sports where technology is vital, such as Formula 1 or Track Cycling then the best teams will spend millions on research and development to find advantages.

Barcelona 1992 and a revolution in bike and helmet design

Chris Boardman’s bike in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 was revolutionary, the lightweight frame and aerodynamic design allowed a gifted athlete a huge competitive advantage. Likewise every Formula 1 world champion is completely reliant on the reliability and track speed of their car.

So although the sport of running, football, track cycling and motor racing is the same the combination of incremental progress and technological advances over decades mean older footage sometimes looks like a different game.

The speed of serves has increased by around 50% since Fred Perry played

We would also understand that each incremental advantage identified has a diminishing return. Imagine a new running shoe so advanced that it can take 30 seconds off the average recreational 5km runner’s time. 30 seconds is huge just for changing shoes. But the vast majority of what allows a pro runner to finish 10 minutes quicker than a good amateur is unrelated to footwear.

However if this took even 3 seconds off the time of the best 5km runners in the world it would potentially turn a silver to a gold or qualify somebody for the Olympic final.

However in order for it to be a competitive advantage you need to be the only competitor with the advantage. 

Meta Games

This is where the concept of meta games come in.

Meta games are games within a game. There is a really interesting article looking at the concept that inspired the article here.

To bring this around to football then let us imagine a normal 11v11 game. Both teams have identically talented players in every position.

One team trains full time, has a team of sports scientists, nutritionists, specialist warm up coaches, and has a tactically astute manager who has drilled them into a cohesive unit. 

The other gets together 30 minutes before the game for a bit of stretching, chooses the formation, and then plays.

Which team would be favourites? 

Fairly obviously the first team, you can be cynical about how much each of the additional elements contribute towards that team being better but a fitter and better organised team would be heavy favourites to win.

Each of these incremental gains has come about through teams looking for an exploitable advantage.

Exploitable advantages come in different sizes. In football we’ve seen several significant steps forward, where a team emerges that does something differently, enjoys a period of success, and then the competing teams learn to nullify the advantage by copying or bettering it.

These can be on the pitch tactical shifts, athletic improvement, better player identification, or many more areas where clubs can temporarily pull ahead of the opposition.

There are three stages to winning these temporary advantages

  1. Already be as good as you can be at the basics.
  2. Identify the opportunity to improve before your competitors.
  3. Quickly exploit the opportunity.  

Some recent examples in football would be:

  1. Set pieces specialisation
  2. Data Scouting

In these cases clubs who were first to realise that set pieces could contribute significantly to improving a team’s ability to win were able to develop specialist coaching and on-field routines that did indeed win them more games.

A Danish set piece

Likewise teams who were early in realising that football event data was actually very good at undentifying “good” players were able to sign player below their market value and make much better recruitment (buy and sell) decisions than competing teams.

These advantages are not gone, but certainly every club is now at least aware of the importance of set pieces and the vast majority have access to data that helps with player identification and assessment.

Good players show up quickly in data, advanced data should help reduce the risk of signing a player.

Eventually the base level shifts up, it is no longer a significant advantage against most opponents to have really good set piece coaching and data scouting but it is a disadvantage to not have them.

First mover vs Free Rider

Football clubs therefore need to alert to improvements and follow the adage that if you aren’t moving forwards then you are going backwards.

Although we describe these meta wins as offering a temporary advantage the reality is they can lock in gains in the long term.

Imagine a club developed an assessment method for 14 year old players that was 99% accurate in identifying elite talent.

You could take 100 very promising players in on trial, run a series of tests, and every time you’d be able to accurately sort who would or wouldn’t make it.

If you held this advantage for 5 years you could absolutely transform the club and create the world’s best youth system generating hundred of millions in player sales.

The accumulated Matthew-effect (the rich get richer) of being the world’s best youth system would lead to the best youth players wanting to join your club long after other teams had copied your methods and narrowed the advantage.

So some meta game wins can last forever.

Others will be temporary boosts.

Perhaps your nutrition team develops the perfect energy boosting vitamin shot that improves your players output by a few percent. This may be enough to win 3 more points over the course of a season but by next season everyone else has cracked the formula and that advantage has gone. Your years of research and development gave you first mover advantage but once the recipe got out the free riders replicated it without having to pay the development costs.

If this happens too much clubs stop investing, why pay the costs if others can benefit for free?

Returning to our earlier three step process

  1. Already be as good as you can be at the basics.
  2. Identify the opportunity to improve before your competitors.
  3. Quickly exploit the opportunity.  

We need to expand on some of these points.

Being as good as you can be at the basics will mean keeping the club up to date with the best practices in the industry. This is obviously budget dependent in which case you need a method to assess where the biggest gains can be made.

Identifying the opportunity before your competitors means that you need to be running some form of research and development operation. This does not have to mean a lab full of scientists (although that would be great) it means having people you can call on who are alert to opportunities that you listen to, and who have the capacity and drive to make things happen.

Then the actual exploit has to happen. You need people who can gather the advantages of the meta game before other people have noticed that the game is on.

Worked example

Game: Major League Soccer
Trigger: Creation of the MLS NextPro 

Meta Game: Exploit opportunities created by development squads to find valuable players previously unreachable to MLS squads

Process: Develop a thorough understanding of roster rules.

Note the addition of 7 international slots and the lack of salary control. Suddenly MLS teams are positioned very well to attract the best young international talents to their league with a built in development pathway.

Clubs will then need knowledge of the best young international players. Sure we have data and video for the best in Europe and South America but what about Africa?

An MLS club who chooses the right partner (such as MRKT Insights) can suddenly access a market that few clubs have scouted, where players are undervalued, and potentially sign up to 7 players for their NextPro squad.  

They will gain market expertise, experience in helping players adapt to MLS, and a long term reputation as the best place for African talent to develop if the project succeeds.

In short they win the meta game, and by doing so improve their ability to compete in the game.

Categories: MRKT Insights


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