Before there were video games, we just had “games.” Most of the time it was with—and against—other people. It wasn’t fun to play by oneself, unless one had a childlike imagination. A narrative context wasn’t required to have fun playing card games or sports. The fun of competing against another person was enough, and some even took that fun very seriously. Today, the computer has allowed for a wide variety of games, attracting an equally wide variety of players. The players of video games, “gamers,” is a category meant to describe them all, but their motives, behavior, attributes of the games they play, and their “fun” vary so fundamentally that the designation has no meaning without a qualifier. This paper is a commentary on competitive gaming and how it contrasts with the other activities, examining the reasons people play competitively, what games they play, and the positive effects they have on its players.
Competitive gaming is playing a multiplayer video game seriously. It isn’t fundamentally different from any other competition. Basketball, spelling bees, cup-stacking—at their core they are all tests of various skills, compared between individuals or teams. The object of “competitive” is not the particular game, but the behavior of the player. No matter what game the players are playing, if their primary goal is to win, they are playing competitively, though playing to win is a means to a different end.
Competitive gamers play to win in order to stimulate themselves as much as the game allows. When playing to win in a video game, no strategy is dirty, cheap, or underhanded, so they can freely play with no limits other than the game’s unbreakable rules, which are more like physical laws. They can give it their all, with no reason to hold back. Attempting to maximize their effectiveness pushes their minds and bodies to their limit.
Non-serious gamers aren’t looking for maximum stimulation, however. Their aim is the opposite: relaxation. It is here we see the divide between different ideas of fun. A common sentiment expressed is that “playing for fun” is opposed to “playing seriously,” but few competitive gamers would tell you that their tense battles aren’t fun. The apparent contradiction between light-hearted fun and exciting fun is resolved when we recognize that those two kinds of fun describe opposing emotional states, heightened senses and dulled senses, so they shouldn’t be designated by the same word.
Gamers also play competitively for the unique social aspect. A competitive scene or community is a group of players that compete against each other. A competitive player is eager to find new challenges to continue stimulating them, so they often must seek out players beyond their group of friends. This can lead to arranging online matches with well-known players or in-person meet-ups with players in their local area. Players exchange strategies and meet new friends that are also committed to their hobby. In fact, some players play for the social aspect alone, with the thrill of competition as secondary. The competitive drive affects social dynamics in unique ways. The community and any sub-community is a meritocracy; one is respected by their skill level, with exceptions being those who help grow the community by running events and helping new players. Players compete against each other but they cannot succeed as on their own, even in 1v1 games. The players that fit the stereotype of training alone in their room rarely, if ever, show up to a tournament and win.
The majority of competitive players stop at the local level, but community website can connect players beyond state and national borders. As competitive players get more confident, they may start traveling long distances to regional, national, and even international tournaments.
Though the way a game is played determines the “competitive” distinction, communities don’t form around just any game. Many call games themselves “competitive” or “non-competitive,” but what they really mean to distinguish is whether the game’s attributes make it suitable for competition. The most important attribute is popularity. It may seem circular to say that communities form around games that have a lot of players, and it is, but you can’t play a game competitively if there’s nobody to play with. Once a game has a following, little gets in the way of its popularity spreading, even violations of other principles of competition.
Accessibility plays an important part in allowing a community to grow and spread. If new players cannot learn how to play the game, they will stop playing it. However, if the game is so easy to learn that players can easily master the game, many problems arise. First, there’s not enough difference in skill to determine consistent winners. Without some degree of consistency of results, skill comparisons are less conclusive, and winning isn’t enough to determine who is the best player. Second, there’s less ways to overcome rival opponents. Lastly, the level of the top players is less respected. If it takes hardly any time to become as good as the best, it’s not impressive to be the best, so there’s less incentive to become the best.
Balance is also important. Players must be on an even playing field before they start a match. That is to say, at the start of what is considered the tournament match, both players must have the exact same options available to them. This does not mean that every choice must necessarily be equally viable. On the contrary, the game should have good and bad decisions to test the player’s judgment. However, there must enough viable options or else the game lacks depth.
The game also needs to test interesting skills. Skills that are interesting to a wide variety of people tend to be skills that are testable in video games but have real life analogs. For example, reaction speed, or speed in decision making, and ability to form winning strategies given constraints is a valued skill since they help us survive and thrive in life. Less closely analogous is finger dexterity, which can improve results in games but is not a fundamental life-skill. However, the development of dexterity is similar to development of other physical skills, and the ability to train effectively is a valued skill. Least valued of all is knowledge of the specifics of a game’s constraints. Knowing a lot about a game can help you win at the game, but not much else. Applying knowledge effectively and efficiently, however, is a valuable life skill. Lastly, the enigmatic skill of reading the opponent’s mind has the closest analog, as it is a skill that’s applied the same way everywhere, as the game medium does not dilute it at all.
Competitive gaming communities come and go, but only a few video games stand the test of time. Games that have competitive scenes that are over 10 years old include but are not limited to Super Turbo Street Fighter II (ST), Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Starcraft: Brood War (SC:BW), Counter Strike 1.6 (CS), Super Smash Bros Melee (SSBM), a large variety of classic arcade games where competitors compete for score, like Donkey Kong, and a large variety of speed-run games, like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. These games have a few interesting things in common. First, is that none of them were designed with serious competition in mind (though some of them have sequels that were). Second, is that the games have widely used glitches and exploits that, remarkably, increase their depth instead of outright ruining competition. Third, they are physically demanding to the point of being nigh inaccessible by today’s standards, their skill ceilings being through the roof. The top players of these games are incomprehensibly strong; they are gods of their realm. The rising competitive games of today differ greatly from the old winning pattern. DotA 2 and League of Legends, the rising stars, are carefully patched every few months with balance in competitive play in mind. They are also far less physically demanding, focusing instead on testing teamwork and impromptu decision-making above all else. Most significant is the amount of developer support pulling the competitive scene along. It is unlikely that we’ll ever see a new competitive game of the old style ever again.
Physical sports and non-competitive serious gaming share most of the aspects of competitive gaming, but competitive gaming achieves their primary goals to a greater degree. Like all challenging activities, those three remind us where we are lacking. Instead of pulling us into the false reality where everything is easy, they elucidate reality by removing distractions, allowing us to see how strong or weak we really are. However, physical sports distract its players with genetic heritage far more than any video game. A luck-of-the-draw advantage like height in basketball creates an unearned imbalance, distracting from the merit of the (more interesting) personal choices and willpower. Indeed, every physical sport favors a specific genetic disposition to such a degree that even at low levels of play, it is difficult to overcome differences in genetic endowment. Though intelligence is partly inherited genetically, the influence and variability is far greater in physical traits. Nobody can change his or her physical build, but one can put time into improving mental prowess. If a goal of playing physical sports is “see who is physically more suited to playing the sport,” it steals influence from skills such as the ability to play as a team, the ability to train effectively, and the ability to develop strategies while considering constraints, skills that competitive games test more closely.
Serious playing of difficult player vs. AI games can have some similarities with competitive gaming, but the most important difference is that AI implementations in video games are meant to be beaten, while a human player in a competition is not. You may never stand a chance against a top player, who will be harder to beat than the hardest game. Some players play these games for the power fantasy, but because of that fact, even that emotion is felt more strongly in multiplayer games.
The competitive mindset causes competitive players to choose games that are suitable for competition, but competitive games also have interesting positive effects on their players that are unrelated to the reasoning of that choice. Winning and losing, especially in pressured situations, provides feedback necessary for self-improvement. Without distractions interfering with the results, feedback is accurate enough to allow players to discover their weaknesses, so that they may develop themselves to overcome them. Improving at a video game isn’t valuable outside the scope of competition, but learning how to improve is. Competitive gaming itself is a meta-game of self-improvement, a simulation where players can strive without fear of failure.
Or, at least with less consequences for failure. Competitive players may take losses as stepping stones for future wins, but nobody wants to lose when they’re on the tournament stage. To succeed, not only must players learn how to continuously improve at the game, they also must be able to perform. Competitive gaming gives its players practice bringing the best out of themselves when they really want to, as in the end, how they are when everyone’s watching is how they will be judged.
The competitive drive motivates its players to utilize anything they can to win, forcing them to recognize several truths. First, is that no man is an island. People cannot reinvent the wheel and expect to improve faster than those who can utilize the many benefits of a social group. Second, is that practice and experience is everything. The players at the top are never the ones that obsessively study the game’s mechanics, developing theory, they’re the ones that are going out there and trying and failing so that can learn and improve. Third, is that excuses are irrelevant. The results that one can put forth are all that matter. Fourth, that ignoring weaknesses will result in failure. Lastly, is that they are capable of adapting and changing themselves to perform well in whatever situation they might find themselves.
Competitive gaming’s analogs to life’s struggles guarantee that it rewards behavior that effects them positively in life, but no such guarantee exists for other forms of media. Themes, messages, and meanings presented by media can be outright incorrect, and reward systems in virtual worlds can train behavior that is ineffective in life. For example, experience point mechanics in RPGs give the player the sense that they are improving when they aren’t—their avatar’s numbers are just increasing. It can trick people into thinking that spending time, however ineffectively, guarantees success.
Competitive gaming provides a unique mix of stimulation, community, and life lesson that few activities can rival. It’s world where interesting skills can be tested in isolation from that which distracts from them, one that does not remove what makes life interesting, but instead shows us. At the end of a competitive gamer’s journey, a possible answer to life’s meaning is posed: to walk the path of endless self-improvement.