Conflict, of all types, is chaotic. There are many forces and interests that can come into play, any of which may be entirely incomprehensible or unforeseen, and any action may ultimately prove beneficial or harmful to the one who takes it.
This is not what the audience wants. People instinctively expect the world to be a sensible and just place, and we expect it to be portrayed as such in fiction. From this expectation comes the idea that Right Makes Might, and the deserving are always victorious. But that's not dramatic, either. A hero whose virtue makes him invincible quickly becomes boring, and an ineffectual villain likewise. Moreover, conflict depicted in this way is not realistic, and rings false to the viewer.
One trope that lies in the middle ground between the idealistic view and the cynical one is the Advantage Ball.
This is a status that is bestowed to one side at a time in conflict. Whoever holds the Ball is not necessarily invincible, but certainly more effective, more skilled than usual, less likely to fall prey to bad luck or Diabolus ex Machina. Similarly, their adversary is confused, fallible, less accurate in their attacks, more likely to make mistakes.
Ownership of the Ball is determined primarily by morale. Whichever side is more confident has the advantage. This tends to result in Hollywood Tactics: using your resources strategically is not as important as making a show. If you can break the spirit of your enemy, you are probably going to win even if they greatly outnumber you and have a far superior position. On an individual scale, if a combatant is unsure of either his chances or his reasons, he will fare poorly. But once he has an epiphany, is reminded of what he's fighting for, receives supportive words from his allies, wins the respect of a neutral observer, or gets news that help is on the way, he will instantly become much stronger, even to the point of forgetting previous injuries. A well-placed "World of Cardboard" Speech or "The Reason You Suck" Speech can render his enemy demoralised and weakened. In media dealing with sound, a Theme Music Power-Up is almost required for these occasions.
Visually, this trope often expresses itself in a Pendulum War, with the side in possession of the Ball advancing and the other clearly retreating. Once conditions change, the Ball may bounce elsewhere and those who were advancing suddenly find themselves falling back. It's noteworthy that it happens at both large and small scales, with whole armies or just two combatants.
When one side holds the Advantage Ball throughout an entire fight, it's a Curb-Stomp Battle.
- Most fights that aren't a straight up Curb-Stomp Battle in later episodes of Dragon Ball Z are a match of 'who has the most transformations'. Every time a character turns into a new form, they hold the Advantage Ball until their opponent does likewise. In one case, being changed into a piece of candy counts as turning into a new form... at least if you're Vegetto.
- This follows naturally in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, where, thanks to Spiral Energy, confidence is combat ability. Except for wild cards like the Mugann, the Ball is in the court of whoever is delivering a Badass Boast at the moment.
- Bleach plays with this a lot. In most fights, the ball even gets tossed between combatants at times. Very often strategic use of the Advantage Ball (by the author) results in wins or losses the fandom did not expect.
- Naruto has a bunch of advantages when he has to fight Pain, including a bunch of strong toads to fight alongside him, a new Super Mode, the Ninetails, information on Pain's abilities, and Pain's temporary loss of his Gravity Master powers.
- His earlier fight against Sasuke followed the Dragon Ball Z approach of passing the Advantage Ball for a few rounds by unlocking increasingly more power.
- Sasuke relies heavily on this in his battle against Deidara. He happens to have the correct chakra nature to overcome Deidara's bombs, the Sharingan to see through nano-sized bombs, and when he still has a tough time, the author throws him Plot Armor in the form of The Great Snake Escape.
- Choji uses colored pills during his battle with Jirobo, who during the battle counters this by using his cursed seal. Unfortunately for Jirobo, he only has two stages of his cursed seal while Choji had three pills.
- Much like Dragon Ball, Pokémon passes the ball whenever a mon evolves and/or learns a new move. This doesn't necessarily mean coming back with a new move though.
- Played With in Ranma ˝'s Shi Shi Hokodan arc. Ryoga learns the titular technique and uses it against Ranma. Deconstructive Parody Inversion Hilarity Ensues when Ranma understands the technique and adapts it; the fight becomes a Wangst contest, which Ryoga eventually wins due to having more true angst. Ranma then decides to use a modified variant powered by confidence (the Moko Takabisha), which comes far more naturally to him. The stage looks set for him to inflict a Curb-Stomp Battle. Subversion and Reality Ensues (relatively speaking, given that they're using Ki Attacks) when Ryoga learning that Ranma has a counter-technique only fuels his depression; his Shi Shi Hokodan becomes even stronger, breaking Ranma's confidence-powered Moko Takabisha technique. Then Ryoga revealed that he had been working to master an even stronger "perfected" variant of the Shi Shi Hokodan. Ranma ultimately wins in an unrelated and anticlimactic way.
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure uses this trope in an interesting way: While the battles can be physical in nature, they rely mostly on smarts and finding a way out of your current situation. In order to keep things exciting, whoever loses the advantage ball automatically gets to be the POV character of the following chapters, as it's now his or her turn to turn the tides of battle.
- In the Battle of Doldrey in Berserk, in terms of confidence the battle starts off fairly evenly matched, with the Tudor forces having all the material advantages (overwhelming numbers, a fortified position) and the Hawks having grit, determination, and the knowledge that Griffith has A Plan(TM). After Guts goes Straight for the Commander and Casca's unit takes the castle by sneak attack (a purely symbolic victory as they've had no time to dig in and fortify the place), the Hawks firmly grasp the Ball and the Tudor's Decapitated Army beats a hasty retreat despite still having overwhelming numbers and a more-or-less equal playing field to use them.
- Batman almost always holds the Ball in direct conflict. Three guys with knives or a dozen Mooks with machine guns, it makes no difference. Therefore, the general method of his rogue's gallery to deal with him is to attack him indirectly, especially by undermining what he believes in and threatening those he values.
- One notable exception is in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Batman does not hold the advantage in his first fight with the much younger and stronger leader of the Mutants, and is almost killed before Carrie rescues him. Batman learns his lesson and the next time they fight, he chooses the battleground and pulls out every dirty trick in the book to beat him. This time the Ball is firmly in Batman's court and he wins decisively.
- Child of the Storm and its sequel, Ghosts of the Past, tilt hard towards this, with the author frequently making the point that conflict is not a simple game of top trumps, that anyone can be beaten if caught off-guard, and "will does not beat skill." Accordingly, while the Avengers can and frequently do stomp most of their opponents flat in a straight fight, the smarter villains try and play Divide and Conquer, separating them out so they can pick them off one by one. Equally, surprise attacks are a key part in deciding who'll win one fight or another.
- This also applies a lot to Harry (and to an extent, his friends), who loses fights that he shouldn't, with both his inexperience, lack of durability relative to the raw power he's capable of summoning up, and unfortunate habit of losing his temper at the wrong moment frequently undercutting him against often less powerful but more skilled opponents. Particular examples include his fight with HYDRA's Destroyer, piloted by Zemo, in chapter 60 (after a temporary Plot-Relevant Age-Up, he's got all the powers he would as an adult, but none of the skill required to use them effectively, and nearly gets roasted alive for his pains) and his fight with Daken in chapter 70 (which involves Daken goading Harry into a fist-fight, which Harry barely survives and only because the Phoenix stepped in). In the latter case, Harry learns from his mistake and in the rematch uses his telekinesis to pummel Daken into submission, and by Ghosts of the Past, is taking steps to rectify his lack of skill/experience, control his temper, and fight smarter.
- Harry Dresden also manages to hurt and thus terrify Gravemoss, despite the fact that the latter is a Physical God and Necromancer on Loki's level, through an admittedly very powerful sucker punch (while he can't repeat it without dying, Gravemoss doesn't know that - or how Dresden survived doing it in the first place, which is why he's so scared of Dresden thereafter).
- In The Fifth Act, Cloud consistently has the advantage over the other characters due to having a decade of experience, better weapons and better equipment. Although he loses this when he gives the Ribbon to Kunsel, allowing Genesis to take Cloud down without killing him.
- In Tom Riddle's Schooldays, Tom usually holds this, although he occasionally passes it to Marca.
- The Ball is carefully minded throughout A Knight's Tale. At the beginning, William and Adhemar are evenly matched, and the latter wins by his greater experience. In the final, decisive joust, Adhemar holds the Ball at first due both to the efforts of his herald and copious amounts of cheating, but after Geoffrey Chaucer gives an impassioned speech, the audience changes sides and William wins without even his armour.
- This is well demonstrated by the Flynning in The Princess Bride, where the advantage is determined solely by who most recently switched hands.
- The Man In Black/Westley's Mask of Power functions as an equippable Advantage Ball. With it he beats a swordsman in a fencing duel, grapples a giant into submission and outwits a schemer. Without it he barely beats a Rodent of Unusual Size, gets captured, is rendered Only Mostly Dead and saves Buttercup only with help and a giant bluff.
- The Battles of Helm's Keep and Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings saga. In addition to many other lapses in tactical realism, advantage in battle seems to be principally a matter of who makes the most badass entrance, regardless of such matters as numbers and equipment.
- Throughout The Matrix, agents are pretty much unstoppable, due both to their superior programming and the terror the other side has for them. But after Neo's awakening as The One, he can dispatch them with ease (and his team can at least hold their ground). Justified in the first and most of the second. The third doesn't even try to justify Neo's god-like abilities.
- In the Star Wars Expanded Universe there's Jedi Battle Meditation: an in-universe Advantage Ball. The side supported by the meditating Jedi is filled with confidence and clarity, while the opposing side is assaulted with despair. Grand Admiral Thrawn once quantified this; apparently, supported by battle meditation, his fighters performed up to 40% better in every category of pilot performance. He also suspects that this is why the Imperial Remnant was so seemingly incompetent for much of the civil war after the Emperor died; they had unknowingly become completely dependent on it.
- The Church Knights of the The Elenium and Tamuli, being basically Paladins, have superlative training and political support. Moreover, they have a fierce (deserved) reputation, very large war-horses and armour which not only protects them, but is also intimidating at the same time. Combining this with the extra plot protection that the named protagonists enjoy, the Knights have the ability to steamroll over practically any force, almost regardless of the opposition's numbers, tactics or equipment. This is taken Up to Eleven at the climax of the Elenium, when Sparhawk is driven into an Unstoppable Rage and kills probably dozens of enemy combatants without effort or personal damage. Soon after, however, he faces The Dragon, a man with considerable anthropic weight, and barely defeats him in single combat. In Tamuli there is some discussion on the topic, with the knights having trouble with keeping up with Atan levels of physical conditioning, recent advantages in crossbows and dealing with the overwhelming heat during the campaign in Cynesga. Vanion specifically mentions feeling near-obsolete, but concludes that he can still pull his weight, at least.
- In the Belgariad, Garion realises that the battle between him and Torak is one of wills, not strength, and that Torak has been dealt a mighty mental blow by Polgara's refusal of him. All Garion has to do is defy him, and the dark god loses all control and is defeated with relative ease.
- In The Bible, the Israelites' success in any conflict is based entirely on how faithful they're being to God at the time. When they're faithfully worshipping him, they wipe out hordes of Canaanites with a couple hundred men, and suffer no losses. When they're ignoring God or worshipping Ba'al or some other being other than God, they tend to get conquered, looted, and generally knocked around by any nation that cares to fight them. In one battle it's determined by whether Moses is holding his staff in the air, which he quickly needs help to maintain.
- Happens in Truancy Origins when Umasi reaches his resolve. This allows him to defeat Zen in battle after being defeated easily in the last fight and not training at all, unlike Zen.
- In The Redemption of Althalus by David Eddings, the protagonists are a tightly-knit group of Fire-Forged Friends (a family in all but blood), they have the full support of a major goddess and full access to her extradimensional house, and several armies of the best soldiers in the world on their payroll (and stationed in said house so they could be deployed anywhere at any time). The antagonists mirror all this at first glance, but their core group all hate and distrust each other, their sponsoring god commands them with terror (which is the only reason they even work with each other), their house is a terrifying hell full of fire, and their armies are primitive to the point of being at a stone age level (solely due to the aesthetic preferences of their commander). It's a credit to the author's writing skill that the series didn't end after the first battle.
- Harry Dresden starts grabbing this after having been through one too many Indy Ploys. In Turn Coat and Skin Game he knows that he's going to be outnumbered and out-powered, so he does a sanctum invocation, allying with the Genius Loci of a powerful island and uses a Xanatos Gambit and Gambit Roulette in the first instance, and gets Odin's advice and recruits Goodman Grey before even starting out in the second.
- A few schools of pro wrestling teach that best matches are not the most realistic, technically sound or athletically spectacular, but those that get the most "heat" without burning out the audience. Every audience being different means that basing a match on responses can result in anything from an extended one-sided affair with a few hope spots (Ricky Steamboat and Ricky Morton of The Rock 'n' Roll Express were famous for it), a dizzying see-saw of advantages (The Rock was well known for these but it was almost literal in a ladder match between Rob Van Dam and Christian Cage), miraculous second winds (like Hulking Up) or villainous underdogs becoming increasingly frustrated/frightened as baby faces keep shaking off their 'clever' strategies (Ric Flair, Terry Funk). Hold for hold (Kurt Angle vs Eddie Guerrero), blow for blow (Kazuchika Okada vs Hiroshi Tanahashi or AJ Styles), counter for counter (ACH vs Ta'Darius Thomas or Cedric Alexander) rarely last long in a bout, and the term "back and forth" is rarely as literal as it is in other "genres" of fighting. Some multiple fall matches such as Perro Aguayo Jr vs El Hijo Del Santo literally had "advantage" shift each decision, and match types like War Games literally run on it.
- Destroy the Godmodder: Lots of it, usually swings around as new summons hit the field, although not always.
- There are a handful of players the advantage ball likes to gravitate towards, things generally get very interesting very fast when those players clash.
- This is the usual justification for the turn-based structure of wargames.
- Explicitly modelled in the optional rules for "Swashbuckling Duels" in the Fate System Toolkit. In such a duel, only the combatant who currently has the "upper hand" actually gets to attack the other, and gaining the upper hand is a matter of succeeding with style at using some non-combat skill in a relevant fashion. More generally, fate points and free aspect invocations can be seen as a straightforward implementation of this in the Fate system, period — as long as you still have some (and especially if you have more than your opponent) you still have the ball, but making actual use of it expends them and getting them back or building up a good supply in the first place requires effort and probably taking some lumps. Thus how tight anyone's grip on the ball is at any given moment will naturally vary over time.
- This actually comes up in Dynasty Warriors and, to a lesser extent, Samurai Warriors. When you accomplish specific tasks, your side gains morale, which basically buys you more time and progress to defeat the enemy general, by adding or removing soldier units from the battlefield. Especially in Dynasty Warriors, even if you're being completely creamed, if you get over 1000 soldier kills, you get unlimited morale. Then you have hundreds of troops rush in and push back the enemy, for no particular reason than that you're now so cool.
- Any video game with a story that ping-pongs the narrative between characters like the new Mortal Kombat, many Transformers games and Devil May Cry 4 gives the ball to whoever is under player control. Oftentimes because victory is the only way to proceed thus the player has to overcome obstacles and enemies that may have once been under player control.
- In Devil May Cry the ball is always in Dante's court, the only person to bat it out of his hands was his Evil Counterpart Vergil a fact actually used against the both of them once. Its telling when Nero has the player ball in the fourth game, Dante still has his own ball that easily eclipses his.
- The final battle of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance minds the ball back and forth. At first Armstrong is invulnerable to both sword and hand to hand. When Sam's sword becomes available, Raiden is able to face him on even footing with or without it - in fact, the easiest way for the player to take off a large chunk of his health is to trigger a quick-time event that causes Sam's sword to fly out of Raiden's grasp and forces him to punch Armstrong several times.
- In Diablo III, this is more of a story fluff than a real effect. In theory there are other people fighting the forces of Hell, but because success in the game is dependent entirely on the actions of the player's character, the game makes the NPCs seem to have some significance by showing their effectiveness be proportional to the progress of the hero, specifically because it gives them hope.
- Insult Sword Fighting in the Monkey Island games implicitly relies on this. Fencing requires a certain amount of underlying skill, but what really matters is throwing a withering comment at the opponent that will sap their morale. Depending on a player's skill level, they might be curb-stomped, go back-and-forth for ages, or easily crush their opponent with the right combination of insults and comebacks.
- Most stretches of dialogue in Girl Genius can be described according to this, with the butt of the jokes being the ones not currently possessing the humorous Advantage Ball.
Tarvek grabs the ball! Gil struggles, but Tarvek gets in a solid jab! But who's that? Bangladesh Dupree tackles Tarvek from out of nowhere, grabs the Ball and starts piling on the humiliation... But then Vole appears, charming Bang's pants off with a bloodthirsty Villainous Rant, and picks up the ball. Ball occupied, Gil and Tarvek are able to have a conversation on equal terms, until Othar Trygvassen, GENTLEMAN ADVENTURER!, gets the drop on Vole! But what's this?! Gil goes for the dropped ball, grabs it with both hands, runs with it AND HE SCORES, dropping three of his opponents down a trapdoor to a long fall, and wounds the last - Bang - with a vicious playground taunt! What a game, ladies and gentlemen, what a game!
- Tex's ability to handle the ball in Red vs. Blue is subject to the Rule of Funny, she will beat entire teams into the ground when its funny and nothing is on the line and fail miserably when something actually is. This turns out to be a part of her character, she's an artificial intelligence based on a woman who died in the line of battle.
- In Death Battle, because the fights are made after the research is made and are for viewing purposes only, the ball is passed around like a hockey puck between the combatants.
- An exception is Rainbow Dash vs. Starscream, where Rainbow holds the Advantage Ball for pretty much the entirety of the fight. Its noted its almost a character trait of Starscream not to hold the ball regardless of circumstances.
- Another exception is in "Scrooge McDuck vs. Shovel Knight", where Shovel Knight holds the Advantage Ball for almost the entire fight countering or even No Selling his opponent's attacks against him, up until the end where Scrooge whips out his Anti-Inertia and Neutra-Friction Rays to turn the match completely in his favour.
- A point in Goku vs Superman is that Superman consciously keeps his strength at just enough to win the fight. As Goku powers up, Superman holds back less and less and in using the Solar Flare and blasting him to the sun Goku actually handed Superman the ball a few times.
- In Justice League the ball usually goes to whoever has the greatest impact and investment to the plot. Superman almost never has the ball, one notable instance involving John Stewart's old friend turned into Metamorpho. Metamorpho was able to turn his body into kryptonite despite it being explicit that he must know the chemical mixture to turn into something. His lack of being able to hold the ball is such that when in an Enemy Mine with Luthor to stop Darkseid, he makes a "World of Cardboard" Speech and really starts giving it all he's got while Lex goes on a vague mission to the outer reaches of the universe. Who do you think stopped Darkseid?
- Many Merchandise-Driven shows hand the ball to the new character to shill the toy. The Tfwiki actually notes this under the To Sell Toys page, showing what the character did with the ball when first introduced and losses taken after losing the ball.
- The second season of Transformers Prime had the ball being minded back and forth. With the acquisition of powerful relic after relic, the ball was handed to whoever got the newest one. Notably in the finale a full assault was carried out by the team despite Optimus still holding the same weapon Megatron himself viewed as the Decepticons' "darkest hour" when he got it.
- In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Clock King", we have the eponymous villain, a middle-aged efficiency expert, fighting Batman. This should have been a Curb-Stomp Battle, but Fugate has studied footage on Batman’s fighting, so he knows that it takes Batman exactly 1/20 of a second to throw a punch. As improbable as it sounds, Fugate manages to fight Batman to a standstill with using Blocking Stops All Damage, Nonchalant Dodge and Deadly Dodging.