Survivor: The Greatest of All Time – An Introductionby Christian Williams -- 02/13/2012
What makes a Survivor player great, and which player deserves to be crowned the Greatest of All Time? All of this started with that fairly simple question addressed to my fellow RNO writers. Many players of the game have been quick to bestow the title on themselves, usually before asking a question as a member of the jury. Others have been given the title with a conditional, such as Greatest to Never Win the Game. Surely, with ten years of competition to look back on, we could examine the pedigree of these players and determine who in fact deserves the title of the greatest player to ever play the game.
Anyone who’s spent some time reading Survivor articles here on RNO over the last few seasons knows that opinions about what makes a worthy winner vary wildly among the RNO staff. While we respect each other’s opinions, we have different senses of what makes a player “the best.” Even where we have similar criteria, how we grade the actions of players against those criteria often varies as well.
The complete list of RNO writers who contributed to this project are listed below. This article wouldn’t be half as interesting if so many hadn’t been willing to pitch in.
What Does It Take?
In order to crown a player as “The Greatest,” we first asked each of these writers to send us their answer to the question: “What makes a player great?” While each of us emphasized certain criteria over others, there was a fair amount of overlap across our lists. Below you will find the consolidated criteria of the various writers on what exactly qualifies a player as the best ever. While these criteria don’t reflect the exact views of any one writer, they do reflect that average of those opinions, and were borne out by our voting.
Victory: While there were a few dissenters, the majority of our roundtable agreed that to truly qualify as one of the best ever, you have to win the game. While you can make an argument that several great players have fallen short of the prize due to bitter juries, bad luck, or the strategic missteps of other players, the ultimate proof was exhibited by our voting.
Only a single competitor who did not win the game received a vote as the Greatest of All Time. Several players with great reputations but no wins were left off the list by the majority of our panel entirely. In the end, only a few of our RNO panelists ranked non-winners in their top five, and only two non-winners received enough votes to finish in the top ten. Chris Harris probably put it best:
Well, first and foremost, in order to be the best, you have to actually WIN. I think you can put people like Rob C., Russell, and Cirie in the category of “among the best” for having dominated their seasons strategically – and maybe Panama’s Terry or Cook Islands’ Ozzy for dominating physically – but they can’t be at the top.So, we’ve determined that to actually be the greatest ever, you need to win the game, but obviously victory isn’t enough. If it were, then we’d hand the G.O.A.T crown to Sandra and just wrap up this article. But Sandra, the only two-time winner of Survivor, only received votes from seven members of our panel, none of them higher than second place. What was our panel looking for beyond victory? The best way to look at it is by breaking down the motto of this great game: “Outwit, outplay, outlast.”
Outwit: There have been players of Survivor who’ve gotten deep in the game without doing any of the strategic work. These players – thanks to the work of their alliance members, challenge wins, the strategic missteps of other players, or simple dumb luck – have made it to the jury phase, the final Tribal Council, and on at least one occasion stood tall as the sole Survivor. The voting panel didn’t give much weight to players who advanced in the game by default. One of my favorite RNO writers, William Hammon, put it best when he summed up this item in the list of our criteria:
The strategic game. How can you manipulate your opponents to vote the way you want them to? Are you able to blindside? Can you systematically eliminate the biggest threats to your game existence?This is a quality that can’t be over-emphasized and, in one way or another, was mentioned by each of our panel members. Survivor is a mental marathon, and the greatest players begin running the race on day one. They dedicate themselves to spending the next 39 days on their toes, continually assessing and re-assessing their position in the game, the actions that the other players are taking, and the actions the other players might be taking.
The importance of this category is why some very good non-winners didn’t make our lists. Each move a player makes has to be motivated by both short-term and long-term consequences, to ensure that the player survives the current vote and that the resulting tribe will carry that player even further into the game.
Outwitting also means knowing when to not make a move, when to let your alliance have their way and avoid creating resentment. Survivor is a continuous game of mental chess, where your moves, the moves of your opponents, and your opponents’ feelings all have to be balanced on a board that exists only in your head. All of the players on every season have faced physical exhaustion, but it’s the test of having to be “on” for 39 consecutive days that most players fail.
Outplay: A great mental game will get you far, and will let you put yourself in a position to advance to the finals. But to paraphrase an old saying, “The best-laid plans of Survivor players are often wrecked by the ‘challenge monster.’” The legend of the “challenge monster” started with Colby, who was a physically dominant competitor and an intense performer.
That mantle was passed on to Ozzy and, in recent seasons, Jud / Fabio. Jud in particular shows the havoc that a challenge monster can play in the plans of a strategic player. Jud won challenge after challenge while his opponents could do nothing but sit back and watch their plans fall apart. Eventually Jud “stole” a victory from Sash Lenahan, who most would concede played a better strategic game. That’s where being able to outplay your opponents comes in, as Jenn Brasler put it:
I’ve seen more of The Amazing Race than I have of Survivor, and though the two shows are very different, I think Phil Keoghan has some words of wisdom that can be applied to Survivor. Every season, he tells us that the winning team needs to have the right combination of brains and brawn to succeed. I think a successful Survivor player needs the same. Survivor is a game that requires strength – physical, emotional, and mental – as well as brains. If you’re physically strong but not savvy enough to negotiate the team dynamics or formulate successful strategies, you won’t get anywhere. If you’re smart and socially adept, you’ll go far, but brains won’t always win you challenges.
It’s certainly possible to win Survivor and never win an individual immunity or reward challenge. After all, the best players often position themselves with their allies so that they don’t need to win a challenge to advance. However, when there are opponents left in the game or the game is approaching its conclusion, it is certainly helpful to be able to compete successfully for immunity.
Occasionally players need to win for the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they are safe. At other times they need to make sure that their intended target doesn’t win safety. Either way, there are times in the game where a player simply has to be able to switch into another gear and at least contend in critical challenges. This isn’t the most important criteria, but being able to seize control of their own destiny can be the deciding factor between victory and a second-place finish.
Outlast: There are a lot of factors that tie in with outlasting the other competitors on the island, but predominantly this is where the social factors come in to play. A player can have a great plan, be physically dominant, and be voted off their tribe so quickly that we barely remember their name... as Hunter Ellis can attest. To get past the early days when tribal alliances are still shaking out, a player has to have this quality, and it’s a must for navigating the waters at the end of the game as well.
Many players have found themselves going from a controlling position to a seat on the jury, and every great player has faced the challenge of avoiding that. You can call it the “X factor,” call it the “social game,” or call it the “diplomatic view” as we have in previous seasons. It all boils down to the ability to form relationships, make it to the end of the game, and get the most votes when you get there. As we put it in the first “Diplomatic View” column for Survivor: Redemption Island:
Survivor has always been a three-headed monster ever since Richard Hatch taught a nation of television viewers how to play. Strength in challenges will make things easier for you and your tribe and may help you in crucial spots to get to the finals; strength in numbers will let you control the votes and go as far as possible in the game; and being liked (or less hated) will win you the million dollars. The diplomatic game is less flashy than winning challenges but without it, alliances are much harder to form and winning is next to impossible. Just ask Danielle from Heroes vs. Villains how one slip at the wrong time can change everything.
So perhaps Jeff Probst’s summary at the start of the season of what it will take to win describes what it will take to be the Greatest of All Time. But there is another factor that bears considering, an over-arching quality that ties the others together and turns them into the perfect recipe for success on Survivor.
Flexibility: It’s easy for players to create a strategy before they come to the island, playing out in their minds how they’ll befriend the young guys at camp, work hard, provide food, stay in the background, not be a threat, and any number of other strategies that we’ve seen previous winners play out. However, once players actually get their boots on the ground, they often find that the strategy they thought they’d employ isn’t viable at all.
One thing that Mark Burnett and company have done very well is to tweak the formula each season so that no preconceived strategy is guaranteed to work. Every season of Survivor is a little bit different, and Jeffrey Clinard summed up the importance of that flexibility:
The best Survivor players examine the situation from the start and adapt their strategy to the elements around them. The biggest factor is assessing the other players in terms of their ability to either enhance or inhibit the ability of a Survivor to win the game. I don’t think there is any single good strategy, but the best Survivors are the ones who figure out how to best adapt their strategy to the demands of each particular game.
Things change in Survivor with every vote, with every reward, and with every argument back at camp. Great players are always ready to shift their strategy when they need to adapt to current events. Trying to keep the initiative and keep other players reacting to their moves is one of the small touches that make a big difference in the game. It’s also not always possible, and this quality covers great players knowing when they have to relinquish control and do whatever needs to be done to last another three days in the game, even if that means watching an ally get sent home.
Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, Chief of Staff of the Prussian army and one of the greatest strategists of the 19th century, once said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” He did not mean that plans weren’t important, which the quote is often used to indicate. What he meant is that any plan must have a series of options so as to be adaptable for any circumstance that a general might face. So it is with Survivor.
Finally, before we get to our list of the Greatest Players of All Time (and those who should have received a higher grade), a quick note on the voting. Each of our voters ranked their top players, and points were allocated to each player based on their position (10 points for first, 9 for second, and so on). These points were then tabulated and used to determine the top ten. In cases where players were tied in points, average ranking was used as the tie-breaker. Twenty-five different players received votes. One player appeared on all ballots with ten players appearing on only one ballot.
After the voting, for each of the top ten players, a member of our panel was given the chance to write a piece justifying the placement of that member, or a dissenting piece arguing why they should have been ranked differently. We hope you find those arguments as interesting as the list itself.
Christian has been reading Reality News Online for a very long time, but joined the writing staff a little over a year ago. A reality television junkie who still wishes Anderson Cooper would come back to host one more season of The Mole, he’s almost always willing to argue about Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, and about a dozen different Food Channel shows. He and his writing partner Shane share a Twitter account (@howwejudgeit), and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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