Foreword: The magnanimous Michael Harari let me post some disorganised thoughts on EvE while he was away. This is submitted without his usual editing and style. It is my personal opinion and should be viewed as such. KwarK
Whatever the propaganda you may have heard, or maybe even buy into, PvP in Eve Online is a fundamentally consensual affair. Strictly speaking you consent to PvP whenever you undock but that's not what I'm referring to here. I'm referring to how the game, its mechanics, third party tools and player experience provide a smart player with a wide variety of tools to assess the enemy before a fight can take place.
Firstly, let us consider if there is actually any need to take a fight in Eve. The answer, in all cases outside of some niche sov warfare defence fleets (and even those generally aren't necessary) is no. There is no reason to PvP beyond the satisfaction of having beaten the other guy and associated flag planting and ego jerking benefits to a potential victory. There are situations in which winning can be beneficial or profitable but very few in which one side declining to fight is actually punishable and none of them outside of sov null. Highsec PvP is predominantly consensual, made up of duels, war decs and people who are baited into volunteering killrights onto themselves by griefers. Mechanics such as dropping corps in and out of alliances and rolling between disposable corps make war decs essentially optional, suffered out of pride or for roleplay reasons, or simply because they generate content while duels are entirely optional. Lowsec PvP is the epitome of pointless PvP, fought between groups for entertainment rather than isk with nothing of value at stake and literally no way of influencing the terrain around them, nor the way their opponents interact with it.
It is reasonable to conclude that the overwhelming majority of PvP in Eve takes place because both sides think it is a good idea to have a fight. Maybe they do not think the fight they end up getting is a good idea but they certainly thought it was a good idea to form up, to undock and to go to the battlefield. There would almost never be any negative consequences for them if they simply chose to station spin instead, it is the desire for content that makes them volunteer themselves for PvP.
Secondly, let us consider the tools available to the fleet. Chiefly among these is local chat (in k-space), local chat tells you who is in the system and from there you can get their corporations, alliances, look up their killboards, so how they fit their ships, who they fly with and so forth. Tools exist such as Pirate's Little Helper which will break an import of local down into known falcons, cyno alts, associates and so forth based upon the Eve api feed and their killboard history, although the tools do nothing that a sufficiently dedicated scout couldn't do themselves. Before a fleet even undocks it should be aware of who is in the area around it and the risks they pose. Fleets will invariably have scouts checking the local of the systems they mean to pass through, and often neighbouring ones, and upon finding a target a number of other tools become useful. The directional scanner will tell you who is together, where they are, which ship types the people in local have and so forth. Intel channels will give you warning in advance about hostile movements in local chats you don't have access to. General familiarity with the area you're working in will often allow you to piece together the intel you have into a more complete picture. Known key hostiles can be added to contact watchlist so you are notified when they log in, spies can relay enemy movements, jabber broadcasts can be listened in to. What all this means is that a competent FC will have a very good idea of what he is fighting before he fights it. When we consider this, in combination with the first point, we reach the conclusion that if fights are optional and if FCs know what they're fighting then FCs will opt out of the ones they can't win. This conclusion will surprise nobody with any experience in Eve Online, the player base is notoriously risk adverse and blobby, "gudfites" are notoriously rare and the vast majority of PvP interactions the average player has will be decided before they actually touch the keyboard and will consist of receiving killmails or lossmails regardless of what they do. Unfortunately what I'm trying to say here is PvP in Eve is really, really terrible for the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time. That paints a rather bleak picture but fortunately there are exceptions which will be expanded upon later.
So we've established that both sides of the fight are aware of what they're fighting ahead of time and that neither side wants to take a fight that they'll lose. The vast majority of FCs will apply only a very basic level of analysis to whether or not they can win a fight, the "do I have more guardians than they have ships" approach, also known as the Shadow Cartel gambit. In this case it is simply Rock Paper Scissors. The enemy fleet is scouted and identified as paper, the FC looks at his own fleet and considers whether or not it qualifies as scissors and then if it does then he chooses to have a fight. At this point the enemy FC, leading his paper, is confronted with scissors and he also gets to choose if he wants to have a fight, something he will generally decline. And yet fights happen, even when logically they shouldn't, and this needs explaining.
Often it comes down to simple incompetence, one of the FCs will simply be unaware that this fight is unwinnable to him, even given all the information, because he is incapable of understanding what that information means. Even in a Rock Paper Scissors scenario when the enemy shows up with paper an FC may be unfamiliar with the type of paper in question, or just be unaware that paper beats rock. I saw this situation play out first hand over and over with rail megathrons trying to kill afterburning ishtars up close, a situation which is literally mathematically impossible, because the FCs in question were unfamiliar with the maths that govern Eve Online PvP and had sufficient alliance isk backing them that their incompetence was not punished. More interesting to me though, chiefly because the enemy FC being incompetent and handing you free kills is literally less skill intensive than highsec missions, is the hidden advantage.
One fleet might be masquerading as scissors in order to bait out a rock response, only to reveal themselves as paper or, in the case of :elite pvp:, not actually playing rock paper scissors. Common examples of the hidden advantage are having more guys in a neighbouring system, having a cloaked falcon, having links and so forth. One FC might put just a few fleet members in tackle ships in a system to bait an enemy response, the enemy FC will see the vulnerable gang and attempt a risk free rock paper scissors victory over it with a gang three times its size only to find himself outnumbered. Or a player might accept a 1v1 that he thinks he can win due to the superior size and stats of his ship, only to find a falcon decloaking and making it an unwinnable 1v2. A strange sense of justice pervades the game mentality regarding these scenarios, player A might think himself completely justified in attacking a cruiser in his battlecruiser, despite the advantages of his larger hull, and yet equally think himself betrayed by the falcon for reasons he might struggle to explain.
So, I've explained why PvP shouldn't happen, why it's generally awful and the reasons why it happens anyway in spite of being pointless and awful. That's our bleak picture. But I play this game and there's a reason for that, so, onwards to the exception. :elite pvp:
Elite PvP is a bit of a joke in Eve, largely because of the hubris and the incompetence of the majority of those who claim to do it. Most of its proponents are simply specialists in one of the least skill intensive ways of having a hidden advantage, neutral cynos bringing in guardian blobs and the like in order to secure preordained victories without any dependence upon pilot skill at all. They still stick to the rock paper scissors approach to PvP in which they establish ahead of time that there is no conceivable way of losing, they are simply better at target selection and at being a big rock. I am now going to argue, with very little justification, that some hidden advantages are more elite than others and that a master race of elite pvpers exists in this game which anyone can aspire to. Because for me the chief hidden advantage, the one that makes this game playable and which makes a PvP victory more satisfying than killing a red cross in a level 4 mission, is pilot skill. The Rock Paper Scissors dynamic only exists assuming equal pilot skill, a competent player can simply opt out of it and instead choose flexibility, most often characterised by the nano style of PvP.
Let's take a basic example, a fast, lightly tanked tackle ship working with a tanky, high dps, slower ship against your solo ship with less speed than the fast one and less dps and tank than the slower one. In theory this should be a draw, the enemy small ship has to stay close enough to its larger friend to ensure it can get help if attacked but your ship cannot stray too close to either without being initiated upon by the smaller ship and held down long enough for the larger ship to get on you. They might think they have a paper to your rock but you're not playing that game, you're playing a much more complicated one. You know the speeds and locations of all three ships involved and that means you know that if, for example, the large ship moves at 1k/s and has a tackle range of 10km while the smaller ship can tackle you for only 20 seconds before dying then if you can get the smaller ship to initiate upon you anywhere outside of 30km from the larger ship then his friend will not be able to secure tackle upon you before the smaller ship loses tackle. You're playing the numbers in a constantly evolving situation and if all they're thinking is "paperpaperpaperpaperscramrockkill" then you will beat them. Furthermore you can influence the situation drastically in your favour in ways they don't understand through controlling variables. By retaining the flexibility and ability to alter the variables of the fight rock can create opportunities to exploit the vulnerabilities of paper without ever being less hard countered according to game theory. One ship may not have the dps to break anything in an enemy gang with logistics but if they can convince an enemy ship to isolate itself away from the scimitar reps they may still get kills, by understanding the limitations of the enemy fleet better than the enemy do you can actively avoid the situations in which you lose and try and manipulate them into walking into the situations you win. You are still, in theory, taking unwinnable fights but that assumption of unwinnability is based upon an assumption of equal pilot skill which you know to be untrue. It is not risk free, if you are ambitious and aggressive with target selection, assume the enemy to be worse than they are or rely upon perfect execution upon your end when, in reality, your execution is less than perfect then you will still lose. But the dynamic of the PvP is fundamentally different from that most of Eve plays, the winner is not set in stone, if you bring your A game, if you manage your heat perfectly, if your decision making is good that day then you can bring rock and beat paper. And likewise if you make a mistake it punishes you. This is the holy grail of game design in my opinion. The situation in which a loss is not out of your hands and a victory is not rewardless. When I lose a ship I don't want to go "sigh, nothing I could have done". I want to be pissed at myself, I want the drive to improve, I want to know exactly how I fucked up and how I want to do it better. And when I win I don't want to yawn and wonder why I'm bothering for the 2m isk in loot compared to the 200m I could have made doing PvE, I want that feeling of "fuck yeah, that shouldn't have been possible but holy shit I made it possible". I want to know that through practice, experience and a lot of hard work I got really good at what I do and that the battle just now was a testament to that. That is, for me, what Eve PvP is all about.
I challenge people who disagree to ask themselves what they really get out of the PvP they do. If it's killmails they're after then they can blow up noobships all day. If it's killboard efficiency they'll get more blowing up mackinaws in catalysts across highsec. If it's to ruin someone else's day then again, mackinaws (or therapy). If it's for the satisfaction of a challenge and a kill then I can absolutely get behind that but I must ask, exactly how much more challenging is killing a ship while your falcon alt permajams it than an npc? And if it's for isk then you're doing it wrong, you'll make more doing PvE than you'll ever make in PvP. I submit to you that the vast majority of players who subscribe to PvP are entirely unambitious in the face of a challenge and choose instead to avoid it, simply because they don't understand how big of a factor pilot skill can be in overcoming that challenge. And if they stick to riskless, pointless, dull PvP then they'll never appreciate what PvP in Eve has to offer because they'll never face a fight in which they know, for a fact, that it was won or lost by their dexterity, decision making and flying.