Yesterday I watched Starcraft II being played in an esports tournament and I thought:

"This asymmetry between the different races really makes the game interesting! Sadly, in normal sports something like this does not happen. Right?"

I searched a bit and actually couldn't find anything in that regard, so here is the question for you:

Are there any real world sports, where the rules/allowed tools are very different for the different teams/single players?

For clarification:

  • I am explicitly not looking for sports, where there are momentarily differences between players (like in Baseball), but over the overall course of the game every team gets to play the same roles.
  • This sport should be a real sport that is played by professionals somewhere, not some schoolyard kids game
  • I know of MMA tournaments, where very different techniques are used, but the underlying rules are the same, so this is not eligible as an answer, too.
  • Would real tennis count under your criteria? It is played on a highly asymmetrical court, with different rules for winning a point depending on which end the player is at, but I suspect it falls under the "baseball" category as the players swap multiple times in a game.
    – Philip Kendall
    Jul 13 at 7:57
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    Yeah sadly that doesnt count. It seems to be that the role swap to enforce balance is the goto concept in nearly all real world sports.
    – Nurator
    Jul 13 at 8:03
  • I don't know that I agree with the premise. Zerg vs. Terrans vs. Protoss operate under the same rules (not different) but with different capabilities. If you give a Zerg an SCV or probe, it would have the same capabilities as a Terran or Protoss respectively. The difference is that Zerg don't normally come with SCVs or probes. They get drones. That's the same as pretty much every sport. Wilt Chamberlain and John Stockton had very different playing styles and did very different things but under the same rules.
    – mdfst13
    Jul 13 at 11:46
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    @mdfst13 I agree there is a greyzone here. But still, the big difference is: If a beginner plays the game, will every beginner learn and play by the same rules? Or is the asymmetry grained into the rules of the game.
    – Nurator
    Jul 13 at 12:11
  • In many sports, a toss decides who starts first. This is assymetrical, but "fair". In chess, the person to start first (White) even has a higher chance of winning (55%)
    – Dhara
    Jul 13 at 15:15

I'm not aware of any sports where such an asymmetry is directly encoded into the rules of the game. However, such asymmetries do exist as different strategies evolve "naturally" from the rules of a game.

Possibly the best example of this is in table tennis, where a majority of players are "offensive" players who (dramatically oversimplifying) attempt to win points by hitting the ball hard and fast. However, there are a number of "defensive" players who instead attempt to return the ball relatively softly with large amounts of spin, and induce the opponent into making a mistake. The two styles of player play with what are actually significantly different equipment ("pimples in" vs "pimples out" rubber on the rackets), and it is very rare for a player to be skilled in both styles. While this offensive-defensive distinction isn't directly encoded into the rules of the game, it is implictly encoded in the rules in terms of the regulations around the rubbers on the rackets, and the rules have been tweaked on various occasions to ensure that both the offensive and defensive strategies remain viable at the highest level. This YouTube video featuring highlights of Joo Sae-hyuk, a defensive player, nicely demonstrates the two styles - even the points that Joo wins with an offensive stroke are because he used defensive strokes to get the opponent out of position first.

You can find examples of this in other sports; another case worth looking at is that of ski-jumping in the early 1990s, when there was a split between the traditional style of jumping with the skis parallel and the new style with the skis in a v-shape. Both styles co-existed for a number of years with the v-style producing greater distances, but the traditional style being given higher style points until the rules were changed to remove the style penalty for the v-style.

Professional cycling is another interesting case here: while the winner of the Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España) is a generalist, it is perfectly possible to have a successful professional career as a sprint specialist who isn't even attempting to win the race itself, but instead focuses on winning flat stages; the most recent example of this is Mark Cavendish who as of 13 July 2021 has won 34 stages in the Tour de France, joint most in history with Eddy Merckx. Again, support for this style of rider is implicitly encoded in the structure of the races by including a number of flat stages, which very rarely affect the overall outcome of the race.

  • The table tennis part is awesome. Thats exactly what I was looking for :) So, a game between two offensive players will look different from a game between two defensive players! I have to watch more table tennis :D
    – Nurator
    Jul 13 at 12:09
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    I've linked a YouTube video of some "offensive vs defensive" highlights, hopefully that's helpful. A defensive vs defensive matchup often isn't as dramatic as the players will transition into a more offensive style (and is also rare at the top level, given the small proportion of defensive players).
    – Philip Kendall
    Jul 13 at 12:28

Maybe ice hockey?

Not a huge difference, but for face-offs, the visiting player must place his stick before the home player, so the home player can adjust the position to his advantage.

From NHL rules (http://www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=25008):

When the face-off takes place in any of the end face-off circles, the players taking part shall take their position so that they will stand squarely facing their opponent's end of the rink, and clear of the ice markings. The sticks of both players facing-off shall have the blade on the ice, within the designated white area. The visiting player shall place his stick within the designated white area first followed IMMEDIATELY by the home player.

  • The home team getting to make the last line change is probably more significant here; The home-away advantage also cancels out over the course of a season.
    – Philip Kendall
    Jul 13 at 11:38
  • Thats interesting. So in each game there is an asymmetry, but over the course of a season its still fair. Cool :)
    – Nurator
    Jul 13 at 12:08

I would think one of the examples that most similarly mirrors the SC2 example would be tennis: while both players play on the same court with the same ball, each player chooses their racquet ahead of time and there are a variety of factors towards choosing the racquet and string that could provide benefits.

Here are some examples of individual factors chosen by the player for their racquet before coming to the match:

  • the size of the racquet: larger racquets have larger sweet spots and provide more surface area to hit the ball, but they are heavier and harder to swing
  • the type of string: tennis racquet string comes in a variety of natural and synthetic materials that offer different properties. One is the texture/shape of the string; "rough" strings with a polygonal shape provide more friction and thus more spin to the ball. Softer, fibrous strings give an increased "feel" and control on impact. Oftentimes players will choose a different type of string for the "mains" (the strings that run vertically on the racquet) and the "crosses" (the strings that run horizontally) for a blend of the two properties and to suit their playstyle.
  • the tension of the string: when a racquet is strung, the strings can be placed under specific amounts of tension to alter the properties of the racquet. Stringing a racquet with higher tension gives the racquet more control as the string will deform and shift less on impact, while lower tension increases the trampoline like nature of the racquet and delivers more power.

Altogether, a player that wants to maximize their power might choose a larger, more loosely strung racquet than a player that wants to maximize their control and maneuverability.

These are some considerations for tennis (and any other strung racquet sport like badminton, etc) to be argued as an asymmetric game, although the factors are relatively small in comparison to something like different races in SC2. If the game was completely symmetrical, I'd expect both players to have to use a standardized racquet or have to exchange racquets at some point during the match.

Maybe a more drastic example would be motorsport divisions that are not "spec" (ie they all use the exact same chassis, engine, suspension, etc). Each racer is all racing the same course, but if they are in different cars will different capabilities, that would seem pretty asymmetric to me.

  • Yeah that counts! But still, it seems to be like there is no real world equivalent to the overall feel of SC2...
    – Nurator
    Jul 14 at 6:08

Having different rules for a single player is not uncommon. Most sports that have a goalkeeper, have special rules that only apply for that position. These rules are mostly there to protect the goalie or because of their special equipment.

In Soccer, the goalies can touch the ball with their hands, something no other player on the pitch can. But also they're more protected than other players and pushing and hitting them results in fouls easier and more often than other positions.

In Ice Hockey goalies get bigger sticks, can't advance the puck past the center line, and can't touch the puck behind the goal outside of the trapezoid area.

In sports like Lacrosse and variations of Hockey since the goalies are allowed more padding for their own protection as they're shut at repeatedly at high speeds.

But perhaps the king of asymmetry is American Football! Each position has its own rule set. Here are some that come to mind:

  • Most famously, quarterbacks are heavily protected by rules from getting hit. Hitting QBs has its own rules, and also depends where they are on the field (ex. in vs out of the pocket). Also a simple tap on their head can result in a penalty.
  • The offensive linesmen also have some extra protection in terms of getting hit for their, in fact the rule to not hit offensive linesmen below the knees lead to them becoming so large in size.
  • Certain players (offensive linesmen) can't run down the field based on their jersey numbers before the ball is thrown down the field.
  • Punt and kick returners cannot be hit once they signal fair catch.
  • Punters cannot be ran into during their kicking motion

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