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There are many sports and other events that are contested, but why are some contests called matches, like tennis match, golf match, and soccer match, and some contests called a game, like baseball game and football game? It's not a baseball match, or a tennis game, so is there a rule of English that differentiates a match from a game?.

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Interesting question. I'm wondering about this too. –  Lukman Jul 13 '11 at 16:57

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

"Match" sports tend to be the ones that originated in the UK or other Commonwealth countries. Consider:

  • baseball - "game" - originated in the US
  • football (American) - "game" - originated in the US
  • golf - "match" - originated in the UK
  • basketball - "game" - originated in the US
  • cricket - "match" - originated in the UK
  • boxing (modern) - "match" - originated in the UK
  • tennis - "match" - originated in the UK

The sport where players kick a round ball around a field is a bit of a special case: it's a football match in the UK, but a soccer game in the US. Since the US didn't import the name, apparently it didn't import the "match" terminology either, and the homegrown "game" tradition got applied to it.

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In association football, the Laws of the Game make it clear it is a match. –  Henry Jul 13 '11 at 17:46
I would disagree with you; a "match" is a meeting between a given set of two or more competitors in which one or more games is played. The terms are interchangeable when a "match" consists of one "game", but a tennis "game" and a tennis "match" are both proper and very important terms in the context of the "sport", but are distinct ideas in the context of that sport. –  KeithS Jul 13 '11 at 17:49
The terms are not always interchangeable even in meetings consisting of a single contest--no editor in the US would consider "basketball match" an acceptable substitute for "basketball game," for example. –  phenry Jul 13 '11 at 17:55
No, but the very similar term "matchup" is roughly synonymous, referring to the meeting of the two teams to play the game, or the combination of the two teams themselves. –  KeithS Jul 13 '11 at 22:59
I wouldn't call it synonymous, as I rarely see it used formally. More often it seems to be a colloquialism used by sportswriters to add a bit of color to their stories, similar to calling a boxing competition a "bout." –  phenry Jul 14 '11 at 2:15

A "game" is one unit of play according to set rules in which a winner can be decided. This is distinct from a "point" or "round", which is a possible substructure of a game in which one player may "win" or "lose" standing in a single game due to the scoring or winning of points or rounds, but has not won or lost the game itself.

A "match" is an "event" consisting of the "matching" of two (or more) opponents or teams in a competition involving the playing of one or more "games". If the match consists of more than one game, additional rules provide for the selection of an overall winner based on the number of games won by each player. A "game" of tennis is decided by the first to win at least five "points" with a margin of two, where a tennis "match" is decided by a more complex structure divided into "sets" which consist of "games". However, as noted in the comments, a single "game" of soccer (football) also constitutes a "match"; the two teams meet up and play one game, and that is the "event"; the terms in this context are thus interchangeable.

A "tournament" is a competition structure, often recursive in nature, consisting of many "matches" between subsets of competitors (usually but not always pairs), where the winner of each match gains standing and the loser loses standing among competitors in the overall structure.

A "contest" is overarching: it is any competition between two or more parties where the goal is to demonstrate superiority, which includes but is not limited to "games" (war, sweepstakes, lotteries etc. are also "contests" but do not meet other criteria of a "game").

See the Wikipedia article on "game" for more attempts to differentiate between terms for various leisure activities:

1.Creative expression is art if made for its own beauty, and entertainment if made for money.

2.A piece of entertainment is a plaything if it is interactive. Movies and books are cited as examples of non-interactive entertainment.

3.If no goals are associated with a plaything, it is a toy. (Crawford notes that by his definition, (a) a toy can become a game element if the player makes up rules, and (b) The Sims and SimCity are toys, not games.) If it has goals, a plaything is a challenge.

4.If a challenge has no "active agent against whom you compete," it is a puzzle; if there is one, it is a conflict. (Crawford admits that this is a subjective test. Video games with noticeably algorithmic artificial intelligence can be played as puzzles; these include the patterns used to evade ghosts in Pac-Man.)

5.Finally, if the player can only outperform the opponent, but not attack them to interfere with their performance, the conflict is a competition. (Competitions include racing, gymnastics and figure skating.) However, if attacks are allowed, then the conflict qualifies as a game.

Further, a game is a sport if one of its main properties is a high level of physical exertion or full-body coordination.

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A match is not always a series of several games. For instance, a football (soccer) match is a one-time thing, e.g. Who won the Nigeria-Argentina match?. Sames goes for cricket match, tennis match, etc. –  Jimi Oke Jul 13 '11 at 17:33
Good point. So, as edited, a "match" is simply the "event" in which a given set of opposing players compete in one or more "games". –  KeithS Jul 13 '11 at 17:41
Nice edit, Keith. +1 –  Jimi Oke Jul 13 '11 at 17:47
This distinction is rarely recognized in American English (tennis being an exception). In AE, you are more likely to see games consisting of rounds or heats (for competitions in which the overall set of individual contests is considered the primary unit), or games grouped into series, tournaments, or tourneys (for competitions in which the individual contests themselves are considered the primary units). –  phenry Jul 13 '11 at 18:04
In US baseball, two teams play a "series" of games with each other. Thus the "World Series", but also the term is used for the regular season. "Match" means a single game. For example, "Mariners lose Series Rubber Match with Angels": seattle.sbnation.com/2010/9/1/1664244/… is the headline for the Mariners splitting the first two games of a 3 game series, and losing the last game. –  Carl Brannen Jul 13 '11 at 18:06

Since baseball contests are called games then you would never use rubber match when referencing baseball. The correct usage would be rubber game of the series. Just because it is used incorrectly constantly does not mean it is correct.

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The difference here is just cultural convention. Different sports had roots in different time periods and places, and tend to keep the terms popular at the time.

Also some of it is arbitrary. In tennis, for example, a player needs a certain number of points to win a game, six games to win a set and three sets to win a match. The hierarchy is pretty much artificial.

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