I am, perhaps by nature, not the most competitive person around. I like to win for sure, and I like to improve my chances of winning when in competition, but I have never had that win-at-all-costs attitude which defines the most successful players in any game or activity. Still, I have spent time in and observing many communities, particularly in the area of video games, and I’ve come to notice a number of trends which all seem to stem from the same fountain of human behavior and irrationality.
When it comes to “professional gaming,” there is no example more prominent than the Korean Starcraft scene. It is by far the most refined and successful example of video game as competition. Finally however, Starcraft 2 is right on the horizon, with a beta version out. I have not had the fortune of playing this game, and in fact I have not played the original Starcraft in well over six years. But as much as I am inexperienced in the scene itself, I am still fascinated by its growth. To that end, I have been listening to podcasts about the SC2 beta, particularly the “Team Liquid Beta Podcast,” recorded by Sean “Day” Plott and his friend Tristan. Sean Plott is a very famous American player who is known not only for his skills behind a keyboard, but his incredibly analytical mind. In episode 3 of the podcast, he addresses an idea which has been floating around, the idea that Starcraft 2 is less suited for competition than its predecessor, and makes too many concessions to neophytes. And it very well might, but as Sean points out, it’s rather curious that people would be so quick to jump to conclusions on a game which isn’t even officially out yet, a prototype which can very well experience drastic changes. Herein lies the logical irrationality I spoke of.
Through the hours of effort put into it by players in Korea as well as in every other country which houses competitive spirit for Starcraft, many discoveries have been made over a decade that have pushed the game to points that would seem unbelievable to fans of the past. It took time and effort and I think everybody who likes this game is likely grateful for a number of these progressions, if not all of them. But the mistake that the players of the beta make here, and it’s a mistake I can point out despite never having played the game, is sheer impatience. The error of reasoning in this situation is the idea that just because the community is so experienced with its predecessor and the process of discovering concepts and techniques to foster and push competition, that the same progress not only could happen in the sequel at an accelerated rate, but that it should happen.
This is not the only time I have seen this impatience in action. For years I was and still am a big fan of the Super Smash Bros. series, and have played every incarnation of the game. I pride myself on being fairly good at Smash, albeit not at the highest levels of competition, but I have a keen understanding of the whole deal.
While the original Nintendo 64 Super Smash Bros. did well enough, it was with its Gamecube sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee, that a competitive community truly began to form. Like Starcraft, the players, full of desire to win, created and discovered new techniques which pushed the game to unforeseeable levels. And just like Starcraft, when a sequel in the form of Super Smash Bros. Brawl appeared, people were quick to compare it to its predecessor (as one could only expect), and just as quickly pass judgment on it, decrying it as lacking the “advanced techniques” and overall suitability for a competitive game, and making big and bold declarations after the game had only been out mere weeks. Again, the same flawed reasoning appeared. “With all of our experience in Melee, advanced techniques should be getting discovered at a fraction of the time it took originally! We have more people and we don’t have that period where people were just messing around!” In addition, players were quick to establish a set of “tournament rules” at blinding speed, stifling the idea of discovery for discovery’s sake with the desire to simply win at “legitimate” competitive venues.
Why is there such impatience when it comes to competitive sequels? I understand well the idea that a follow-up to a popular competitive game will be compared to the original. It’s all but inevitable. And I also understand that people want to make sure their skills translate from one game to the next. But still, I can’t help but feel that this impatience can only hurt a competitive scene. Discovery happens not only when you cut away the fat, but also when you expand and explore, and such things take time, even if you have years and years of experience.
There is actually a game in which I have devoted myself to competition before, and that is Pokemon. I have played Pokemon more than perhaps any other game series, participating in tournaments and discussions and spending days and nights thinking of possible teams and avenues of victory. And though my main focus is on exploration and discovery and trying to find holes in the “metagame,” I have seen the state of competition as it applies to the Pokemon series, from the early days of Red and Blue all the way up to the recent generation starting with Diamond and Pearl, and two things are always clearly inevitable as the scene transitions from one version of the game to the next. First, we bring with us all of our old ideas about what makes a team strong, and what we predict will be the vanguards of victory and competition. Second, those theories are smashed and obliterated as we realize that, as similar as the games are to each other, subtle differences can have wide-reaching effects in the most unpredictable of ways. And it’s going to happen again and again and again.
There is no specific point at which you can officially decide if a game is worthwhile for competition or not, and it is very possible that initial reactions will be validated. Still, impatience brought on by the “pride of experience” is an incredibly dangerous thing to any competitive scene, and the sooner people realize this, the better.