Actually, Quidditch is good
The rules of the game make perfect sense when you look closely
When Oliver Wood took Harry out to the Quidditch pitch that night in 1991 and explained the rules of the game, do you think he knew he was setting off decades of debate? He didn’t, of course, because he understood the rules perfectly. But the rules of Quidditch have been under scrutiny more or less ever since, and the consensus among Harry Potter fans seem to be that the rules have some pretty significant problems.
The Golden Snitch, the argument goes, blows up the entire point of the game. The chasers fly the Quaffle around for hours scoring goals on either end, then eventually one of the seekers catches the Snitch and all the scoring goes by the wayside, and whoever catches the Snitch wins.
If that were true, it would definitely reflect a major flaw in the game. But that understanding of Quidditch strategy has some pretty significant gaps.
Why Quidditch might seem bad
Here’s one of the main problems with Quidditch comprehension: We never really see a strategically sound version of it. That version exists, but we don’t see it in the books, because they’re not works of sports reportage: J.K. Rowling isn’t going to give blow-by-blow commentary on hours of Quidditch, because in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. We don’t see Quidditch strategy in the movies, meanwhile, because the movies just do Quidditch badly. The players are zooming all over the place for no apparent reason, and the game seems more like a circus than two teams competing against each other.
Even in movies about sports that really exist, you rarely get an accurate depiction of actual gameplay, because a lot of it is boring. In hockey movies, you see the big plays, the goals and the acrobatic saves and the violent hits. You don’t see the seven minutes of back-and-forth, setting up, play between the lines, etc, because it just doesn’t make for good storytelling and there are only so many minutes in a movie.
So, while we don’t see those parts of Quidditch matches on page or screen, they do exist. It’s not just zooming around hitting things and catching the Snitch in four minutes; that’s a highlight video, not the entire sport. Real matches are long, complicated, and multilayered.
Moments we don’t see
Pretty much all team sports where you try to score goals have some basic elements in common. Most fundamentally, of course, there’s offense and defense. And the offense and defense that we’ve seen so far doesn’t make any sense. It paints a pretty distorted picture of how Quidditch would actually work in a world where both teams are thinking strategically.
How would strategic Quidditch look? Probably a lot like lacrosse. Whichever team has the Quaffle brings it up the pitch and tries to run plays that lead to open shots at the goal hoops; the team on defense tries to get in the way of those plays. Each team’s set of beaters is there as well: The beaters on offense try to disrupt the defense with Bludgers, and the beaters on defense try to knock the opposing chasers off their play designs. The defensive chasers, meanwhile, play lacrosse-style defense, using their bodies to try to stop the flow of the Quaffle and/or shove the offense off-course and intercept the Quaffle that way.
Even when the defense is being strategic, though, the offense is going to have the advantage. There are three goal hoops; offensive players can fly in every direction including up and down; broomsticks are fast and can turn pretty quickly, so it’s harder for the defense to keep up. In lacrosse, there’s a lot of scoring. Top college teams average more than 15 goals per game. Add the fact that Quidditch has three goals instead of one and there’s no clock, and the goal totals will be even higher than that.
Why the Snitch matters
We haven’t really gotten to the heart of the critique yet: the fact that the Snitch is worth 150 points, which makes it — allegedly — pretty much an automatic win.
But that’s why it’s important to remember how high-scoring these games are going to be. The Snitch is not an automatic win, because in games with dozens of goals, it’s completely realistic to think that for large stretches of a game, one team can be up by more than 150 points. And when a team is up by more than 150 points, the Snitch is no longer an automatic win — the team that’s behind will lose if they catch it — so the strategy of the game shifts completely.
When the game starts, the strategy is pretty simple: The seekers look for the Snitch, the keepers guard the hoops, and everyone else tries to score and defend. But if one team goes up by 150 points, the incentives change. The team that’s losing needs to prevent the leading seeker from catching the Snitch at all costs. So the opposing seeker should move from looking for the Snitch to preventing the leading seeker from catching it, probably helped out by the beaters. The team that’s leading, meanwhile, should take a more defensive posture, looking to maintain their 150+ point lead. As long as they do so, they’re basically invincible: they can’t be beaten even if the opposing seeker catches the Snitch.
These strategic considerations, in turn, will lead to other strategic choices earlier in the match, before either team is 150 points up. If one seeker trusts their team’s offense and defense to take a 150-point lead, that seeker should probably not focus so much on catching the Snitch, but rather on preventing the other seeker from catching it. It’s all game theory: If a seeker believes that their team can take a 150-point lead, they just need to prevent the opposing seeker from catching the snitch until their team takes that lead. Then they can get to work looking for the Snitch with impunity, not worrying about leaving the other seeker alone, because that seeker can’t catch the Snitch themselves if they want to win.
If a seeker doesn’t trust their team to take a big lead, on the other hand, they should just work to catch the Snitch as fast as possible. But then both seekers need to make more strategic choices: Do they try to catch the Snitch themselves, or do they try to prevent the other seeker from catching it? After all, there are basically two ways to make sure you catch the Snitch before the other seeker does: Catch it quickly, or make sure the other seeker can’t catch it quickly. So what choice does each seeker make? It depends on how they weight their skills, their opponents, and the other factors involved. In other words, it’s a complicated strategic choice.
And meanwhile, there’s also a greater strategic question for the team at-large: Do you prioritize scoring or Snitch-catching? If you want your seeker to catch the Snitch as quickly as possible, you can assign your beaters to protect the seeker — but then the opposing offense will find it easier to score and your offense will find it harder to score, which will make it easier for the opposing team to take a big lead, and if your seeker can’t catch the Snitch quickly, you might fall into such a deficit that it doesn’t even matter. That’s another strategic choice that each team has to make.
The main criticism of the Snitch is that it makes the rest of the game moot; you can give up ten goals, then catch the Snitch, and you’ve won comfortably. But there are two main problems with argument. First — as we’ve established — these games are going to be really high-scoring, so a 150+ point lead shouldn’t be that uncommon. Second, the Snitch is really hard to catch. It’s this tiny, walnut-sized ball flying really fast around a giant stadium, as high or low as it wants, and meanwhile the chasers and beaters are constantly disrupting the seekers’ view. And because the Snitch is really hard to catch, matches are going to last for a long, long time, which leaves lots of space for pretty enormous scoring totals.
Quidditch matches can last hours (or, as Wood mentions, three months, but that seems like a rare extreme). There’s plenty of time for lots of scoring before the Snitch gets caught, which means the lead can swing wildly back and forth. Even if one team manages to take a 150+ point lead, the scoring still matters; it just takes on a new meaning. Rather than the teams fighting for the lead, they’re fighting over whether the lead will be under 150 points or over it. And so, once again, we see strategic choices involved that aren’t obvious at first glance, and indeed, might initially seem like problems with the way the game works. But really, they’re just part of the design of the sport.
The Quidditch World Cup
Here’s another thing to remember about the Quidditch we see at Hogwarts: It’s not professional Quidditch. Not even close. It’s the equivalent of a combined middle school/high school football team compared to the NFL.
So what does that difference mean? For one, it necessarily implies that Hogwarts Quidditch uses a different Snitch than professional Quidditch does, one that’s slower and easier to catch. It just doesn’t seem at all likely that Harry as a first-year could ever catch the Snitch faster than the greatest seeker in the world in the final of the Quidditch World Cup if they’re both searching for the same Snitch. Maybe “Quidditch Through The Ages” has something to say about this, but regardless, it's the only thing that makes sense.
Another thing to consider, though, is the difference between youth sports and professional sports in terms of scoring. In some sports — baseball comes to mind — youth sports see a lot more scoring than the professional versions, because defense is relatively more difficult to master than offense. But in other sports — think basketball and lacrosse — it’s the opposite: Offense is harder to master than defense because it involves a lot more complexity and physical skills than defense does. Scoring is orders of magnitude higher in professional play than it is in the amateur version. You’ll see middle school basketball games where the scores are in the 20’s and 30’s, while professional games routinely reach triple figures.
So, when we look at whether or not Quidditch makes sense, it’s important to remember that we can’t just consider the Hogwarts game: We need to look at the professional version as well.
What does Quidditch offense depend on? A few things: Fast, high-precision passing, masterful broom control, the strength and accuracy of your beaters, and the intelligence and game sense to run plays correctly. These are all things that, intuitively, seem much more likely than not to improve with age. As players get older and reach more and more advanced levels of the game, therefore, it seems overwhelmingly likely that offenses will get better relative to defenses. Which means that scoring will increase.
Sure enough, we see exactly this in the Quidditch World Cup final. In a relatively short match, Ireland takes a 170-10 lead before Viktor Krum catches the Snitch to end the game with Bulgaria within 10 points (seems like a bad decision! The whole justification for what he did is that he wanted to end the game on his own terms and salvage some dignity, but he could have waited for literally one more goal from his own team, then caught the Snitch and seen the match end in a draw — or he could have just tried to actually play to win, gone all-in on the long game, worked to prevent Lynch from catching the Snitch, and hung around until whenever Bulgaria managed to pull within 150 points. It’s the final of the largest Quidditch competition in the world; you’d think he’d be more interested in actually winning. But whatever).
Actually, sidebar: Do you think Viktor Krum became a villain in Bulgaria after the match? What he did seems utterly selfish, and nonsensical to anyone who actually follows Quidditch: Surely, his decision inspired a lot of anger, both among his teammates and in his country. Now I’m imagining Bulgarian Wizarding sports talk radio. Mike Francesa, but as a Bulgarian wizard. “I mean, what a hawse’s ass move, Victa!” Ok, I’m done.
The point, though, is that we see this increased scoring at work. The final lasts maybe an hour or two, and Ireland scores 17 goals. In matches that last six hours, or even longer, how many goals will there be? Dozens. So the Snitch being worth those massive 150 points makes more and more sense, because leads and deficits are going to be equally gigantic.
It’s pretty easy to imagine if you think about it in terms of goals scored rather than points. Let’s say you have a sport where teams routinely score 40-50 goals per match (England loses the semifinal 390-10 and Gryffindor wins the final in book 6 450-140, and there’s nothing that implies that these are the high-scoring anomalies, especially when you consider the fact that some matches last much longer than these two — it’s easy to imagine 40 to 50 goals or more being scored in an average professional match). In that sport, doesn’t it make sense for the big match-ending reward to be worth 15? If you play a match where the winning team scores 45 goals and the Snitch is worth 150 points, that means the Snitch is worth roughly 1/3 as much as the winning goal count. That’s the same as the Snitch being worth 5 goals in a 15-goal lacrosse game, or two runs in a six-run baseball game, or one goal in a three-goal hockey game. Even if you go up to the Snitch being worth half the final winning score — that’s a 30-goal game for the winning team, meaning a 300-point game, which is even more plausible — that’s three runs in a six-run baseball game, or two goals in a four-goal hockey game, or five goals in a 10-goal lacrosse game. Considering that catching the Snitch is the big, climactic moment of the match, and it’s so much harder to do than ordinary scoring, that point value relative to the rest of the match doesn’t seem excessive at all.
Putting it all together
So, when you step back and look at a game of Quidditch, here’s what’s happening:
The chasers are working to score as many goals as possible while working to prevent the other team from scoring as many goals as possible;
The beaters are either supporting their chasers on offense and defense, or supporting their seeker in catching the Snitch, or playing defense against the opposing seeker in an effort to prevent the other team from catching the Snitch (or some combination of all three);
The seeker is working to either catch the Snitch or prevent the opposing seeker from catching the Snitch, depending on strategic considerations (mostly, how their team’s chasers are doing and what the scoring outlook is for the rest of the match).
One of the big critiques of Quidditch is that all the different parts don’t fit together, and it’s basically just two or three different games going on at once. But that really doesn’t hold up.
The elements are all connected in one unified game of strategy. It’s multilayered and complicated, but so are most sports. Even the Snitch fits really well into the picture when you dissect what’s going on. Quidditch is magical, and takes place on broomsticks, with four flying balls. That’s the unrealistic part. But the way the sport itself works actually makes complete sense.