The Case for Competition

“Wow you suck at this game.” …I’m sure most people have been told that at some point before when playing a game with someone else. “Get rekt!” is another idiotic saying that’s gained popularity in recent years. I must say I don’t condone saying those things to people. In general I like to have my opponent(s) play at their best, and I feel that trash talking, despite it giving a bit of an advantage in some cases, is just a case of whether or not your values will allow you to do it or not. I show a lot of respect to my opponents, but I would still definitely say I’m competitive when it comes to games.

People that know me very well know that I love competitive gaming. Not so much competing these days in the spotlight, but I’ve placed in or won tournaments for several games in the past (Smash Bros. Melee, Quake 3, Chess, and others) and I hold all 64 official Twin Galaxies world records in Mario Kart DS. There’s still much I would like to do in competitive gaming, but unfortunately I don’t play games nearly as much as I once did. Hopefully that will change at some point, but for now I’m working more these days.

I once told someone as a part of an explanation of what it means to take a game seriously, “I don’t play games for fun. The game isn’t the fun part, it’s the personal growth from competition that’s fun.” Obviously that’s not entirely true, because I love playing games even when not for competition, but as an explanation it actually seemed to make sense to them.

When I was in high school however, I got to a certain point of seriousness with Chess that sadly brought me to stop playing the game I loved so much. When you get to a point in which winning is just expected but losing is some big deal to other people, playing just becomes stressful. I was unfortunately not in the best health during this time, and was on medicine that really made me not think well. I was slow at moving, very tired all the time, etc., and my Chess ability suffered horribly. Yet, I was still in that situation in which winning was just expected and when I lost it was made into this big deal every time with people rudely commenting and even running down the halls cheering and laughing at certain times.

My Chess coach in high school, Mr. Nagy-Lup, is a great man, and the best Chess player I’ve ever known. He would talk with me a lot about my psychological situation with Chess, and even console me between rounds during tournaments. He once said to me that he always thought I was the best player, even when I wasn’t performing the best out of the team, because he knew that my ability was suffering from the illness and medicine I was on. I was alongside some other really incredible players though, so really I don’t know if I would have performed better than them even if I were in good health. Either way, I really appreciated his encouragement.

Mr. Nagy-Lup obviously was very against bad sportsmanship and was always talking about respecting your opponents, being humble, etc., and he was a very humble player himself, despite being a Romanian Chess Champion before coming to my school in the US and teaching Math. I truly believe he will be ranked as a Master one day (International Master most likely, based on what he used to talk about). It was very serendipitous for my life that I was able to be coached by a great Chess coach in middle school (Mr. Hardway), and then another great coach in high school, because I think it was Chess that made me truly realize my competitive nature.

So what does this have to do with video game competition? Everything. (Anyone who knows my philosophical views on games knows that I see board games and video games as much the same in many ways)

Sportsmanship. Respect. Personal growth. …None of those are game mechanics; they have to do with the people playing the game, not as much the game itself. Games can be designed, even accidentally in some cases, to be fantastic for competitive play, but at the highest level, it’s not as much about the game itself. It’s something more meta. That brings into play something I call a game’s meta-narrative.

Think of the documentary The King of Kong. It’s about two competitive players competing for the Donkey Kong official Twin Galaxies world record. Do you think the game was meant to inspire a documentary? I really doubt it. That movie, though, is an example of a meta-narrative from Donkey Kong, and the game’s design lends itself to dramatic meta-narrative, which is why that film is so interesting. I would obviously say the same for Chess, Quake, Smash Bros., Pac-Man, and Counter-Strike.

I truly believe games can be designed purposefully for competitive play, and that comes from depth as well as strong community interaction. Melee doesn’t even have online play, and yet it’s got an extremely strong competitive scene even now, thanks to its depth of play, powerful mind-t0-mind interaction, and great community of players. There’s no doubt to me that it somehow lends itself to competitive play, yet I do have some feeling that much of that was accidental, like the different forms of unusual jumping physics in the Quake games and how that lends those games to incredibly fast movement and therefore fast-paced competition.

The worth of competitive play comes from something very meta when it comes to game design, but it all stems from depth and community interaction. That is absolutely not the same as “complicated with online play” as many game companies today attempting to break into esports seem to think. Some of the greatest games for competition of all time are the simplest in their design (Go is the biggest example that comes to mind).

To be continued?

Until next time,
~David Klingler