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I don't recall this being clearly explained in the movie, but Wikipedia says:

Once every generation, there is an inter-dimensional martial arts tournament known as Mortal Kombat, designed by the Elder Gods to limit invasions between the realms of the universe. If the realm of Outworld wins Mortal Kombat ten consecutive times, its Emperor Shao Kahn will be able to invade and conquer the realm containing the Earth.

The movie does state that if Shao Kahn's warriors win one more time, he can lay claim to Earth's realm. Shao Kahn and his warriors are shown to be extremely capable, and could likely take over Earth's Realm with a large enough show of force.

Why does Shao Kahn need to abide by this "ten win" limitation before he and his forces can conquer Earth? How are the realms protected from them just skipping the tournament and invading?

In the absence of a movie-universe answer, a game-universe answer would be acceptable here.

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    Because bad writing. The tournament is the point of the film, all other considerations are secondary. – Valorum Jan 2 '15 at 10:43
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    I seem to recall the film said there's some kind of penalty if you invade a realm without winning enough tournaments. – Valorum Jan 2 '15 at 10:44
  • @Richard: You're correct. One needs to win a set number of tournaments in a row to successfully invade. I don't recall why this is, other than the Elder Gods attempting to prevent one realm quickly conquering all others, but it was used as a back-story for the video games. As for just skipping the tournament and invading; the game Mortal Kombat 3 involves just this, Shao Kahn's invasion. It ends in his defeat and death. I do not recall why he died, but it was possibly punishment from the Elder Gods for breaking the rules. Gods can make whatever rules they want. See Judaism, diet. – James Sheridan Jan 2 '15 at 10:51
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Why does Shao Kahn need to abide by this "ten win" limitation before he and his forces can conquer Earth? How are the realms protected from them just skipping the tournament and invading?

Because the Elder God's would interfere and punish Shao Kahn. They make the rules, they enforce it.

In the sequel, which is based on MK3, Kahn does break the rules, using Sindel resurrection in Earth to merge Outer world with Earth Realm. But that's because:

Raiden then reveals that Shao Kahn is his brother, and that Elder God Shinnok is their father. He realizes that Shinnok had lied to him and is supporting Kahn. ...Shinnok attempts to intervene and kill Liu Kang on Kahn's behalf, but two of the Elder Gods arrive, having uncovered Shinnok's treachery. They declare that the fate of Earth shall be decided in Mortal Kombat.

Kahn was only able to do it because an Elder God allowed him to do it.

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This is answered in the Writer's Guide for Mortal Kombat : The Animated Series. The short answer is that the "Elder Gods" are a bit worried that Shao Kahn is absorbing so much energy that he might begin to challenge them and they also think it's a bit unfair that he's using the power of his own realm to invade the others (essentially giving him an inbuilt advantage against whoever he attacks):

"It was the power of a realm called Earth that later lured Shao Kahn into attempting an invasion to steal the world from its underestimated human occupants. His ominous plans were thwarted by a group of WISE MEN from the Far East.

Thousands of years ago, an order of the wisest men from the Far East sensed a weakening of Earth's own furies. Through their magic, they were able to peer into the dark realm of Outworld and learn of the Emperor Shao Kahn's sinister plot to invade the still young realm of Earth. Knowing that the eminent Outworld invasion would prove too much for Earth, the Wise Men appealed to the Elder Gods. It was for this reason the Elder Gods created the tournament called Mortal Kombat. It was a tournament based on honor and tradition, in order to create an equal opportunity to defend one's realm. Shao Kahn and any other combatants must abide by the rules set forth by the Elder Gods, for they are the true rulers of all realties.

Mortal Kombat would allow Earth to fend for itself; pitting the finest warriors from both realms against each other in a battle to the death. The rules of the tournament were simple - Mortal Kombat would be held once a generation. The first realm to win ten straight tournaments wins the contest. If Earth wins, they have successfully defended their realm from an Outworld invasion. If Outworld wins, then Earth's furies would be weakened and Shao Khan would be able to step through the dimensional gate, or portal, which separates the two realms. Earth's land would merge with the Outworld, changing the once living planet into a dead world, its energies drained by Shao Kahn. It was through taking the souls of other worlds, literally sucking them into his own being, that Kahn managed to amass so much power. The addition of Earth's young energy would give him power unmatched even by the Elder Gods themselves."

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