I don’t remember my first tournament. I can deduce a few things about it, however: it was sometime in 2002, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I probably went out like a scrub. My second tournament sticks more clearly in my mind. A veteran local loudmouth didn’t take me seriously enough, and I pulled out a completely unexpected win.
Of course, I then proceeded to get rolled, but the one and only Michael Jackson bought me a buffet pass at Golden Corral as my own little consolation prize. I didn’t need all-you-can-eat fried chicken and mashed potatoes to keep me interested, though — I was already hooked.
Fighting games, particularly Soul Calibur games, have been my drug of choice for a long time now, and there are plenty of reasons why. They’ve given me occasion to travel, to meet a ton of people I otherwise wouldn’t have, and provided an outlet for my intense competitive drive. At a more fundamental level, they engender a complex, fast-paced mode of thinking that is at once rule-bound and rule-breaking, analytical and creative, and which is uniquely pleasurable. Add to that the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles, seeing oneself improve, and the visceral joy of smacking around some loudmouthed asshole who didn’t know when to quit, and we’re talking about a heady combination. It’s also something that gets better as more people become involved; there’s nothing whatsoever like the atmosphere of a big tournament.
For veteran players, the above sentiment should be little more than preaching to the choir, but 8wayrun.com isn’t just a collection of grizzled old-schoolers. This week’s article is for the newcomer, the avid “casualcore” fan, and especially people who think “I’d like to give competitive play a try, but . . .” So without further preamble, allow me to present:
The Case for Competitive Play
I will now attempt to speak using internet hieroglyphics in an attempt to reach a broader audience. This means "skeptical" right?
I. It’s More Fun
Why do we play games? It’s a simple question with a complex array of answers. For our purposes, it’ll suffice to say that there are a lot of different, often surprising motivations for playing any game, but usually these can all be described with the shorthand word “fun.” So what precisely is fun, apart from another nightmarish moving target when it comes to definitions? Frankly, it doesn’t matter, because whatever your reason for enjoying any game, playing that game more deeply enhances the fun. Since I know I’m dealing with an aggressively effete, intellectual crowd here, I submit chess as an example.
You first discovered the game when you realized there were horsey pieces, and horseys go “neigh,” which is fantastic. Soon after, it dawned on you that sticking pawns up your nose was hilarious. Over time, however, that began to lose its luster. You gradually became aware of the idea that the pieces could be used to play a board game, and moving them in accordance with certain rules allowed you to take pieces from your opponent and stick them up your nose. It was a revelation. Your motivations (ponies are adorable, my nostrils are chess piece-sized for a reason) didn’t necessarily change, but they expanded to encompass increasingly complex behaviors. Additionally, your notion of what is fun expanded and changed along with your understanding of the game.
Similarly, fighting games first enticed many hardcore players with superficial hooks. Confronted with reaching the inevitable limits of fun imposed by screwing around, mashing, and otherwise interacting superficially with the game, they chose to press onward rather than abandon it. Eschewing for the time being notions of “correct” or “incorrect” play, we can say that tournament players are playing more deeply by acknowledging the rules of the game. It’s no different than learning to bop question-mark blocks in Mario Bros or figuring out how to buy equipment in an RPG—deeper engagement with a game yields greater fun-reward.
II. Added Value
We’re seeing the first round of SC5 reviews hitting the web, and one common characteristic is some level of whining about the limitations of a three-hour story mode. It’s understandable, to a point. Taken as a narrative-driven single-player experience, a fighting game is pretty underwhelming. Competitive play transforms a game with three hours of hokey story and a few more hours’ worth of grinding for unlockables into a pastime that’ll last for years. Moreover, investment in competitive play augments the narrative experience.
If you’re a player who finds himself putting down fighting games after a while in order to play something else for the story, consider that the competitive scene allows us to write our own stories (and no, damn it, I don’t mean slash fiction). At the highest levels, we find ourselves rooting for particular players in tournaments, but that isn’t the only storyline. Consider the narrative of the new guy, an underdog who starts off meagerly but eventually proves himself. Competitive play allows you to be that guy. The inverse is true, too—I, for one, love playing the villain.
True Story: I have "Sweep the leg" tattooed just over my heart. Right next to my American Flag.
III. Tournaments Are Amazing
Playing deeply is more fun than just messing around, and, by extension, a whole lot of playing deeply is more fun than that. Don’t get me wrong, tournaments can be frustrating, physically and mentally exhausting affairs, but they’re also a blast. Putting faces to the names online, competing against each other, hanging out, and seeing the country (or the world) are all worth it. Dive in with both feet and you’ll make friends and enemies to last a lifetime.
IV. You Don’t Have To Be Rich
Consoles, games, arcade sticks, plane tickets, hotel rooms, gas money . . . these are all daunting expenditures facing competitive players from time to time, so how can this be a hobby for anybody other than spoiled, rich little snots? First and foremost, it’s not because, well, it’s not.
Demographically speaking, fighting gamers reflect a large socioeconomic cross-section. Some people live well and have it easy, but most of us scrape and save in order to fund travel. We carpool, we share hotel rooms, and we have a hell of a good time in the process. In fact, those situations are some of the best contributors to the fun of tournaments and the friendships we form. Still, there’s a hint of the pathological about it, as many tournament skeptics are quick to point out, but consider this: if paying for a tournament can prompt a (relatively) rational, (arguably) sane person to bust ass and save money, it must be a pretty addicting experience.
V. It Gets You High
Emotion expert Paul Ekman, in his book Emotions Revealed, identifies a feeling known as “fiero.” In brief, fiero is an intense sense of accomplishment which comes after overcoming a particularly difficult obstacle. If you’ve ever loosed a primal scream of victory, ever pumped your fist in the air and yelled “YES!” through clenched teeth, or anything like that, you have experienced it. At the neurochemical level, fiero floods your brain with delicious dopamine and a norepinephrine chaser. As games researcher Jane McGonigal states in Reality is Broken, it’s “one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience.”
The idea behind this trailer was to highlight that "fiero" at the tournament level.
All human beings are fiero junkies to a degree. Competitive players definitely are. The great advantage we have is that games, competition, and the like are amazingly efficient at creating the conditions under which intense fiero can be experienced. You don’t need to win major tournaments to feel it, either; dosing up on fiero can be as simple as mastering a technique, defeating your best friend, or setting a new personal best in a local tourney. Next time you find yourself thinking that the tourney players are getting way too riled up over a simple game, remember this: it feels really, really, really good.
VI. You Don’t Have To Be The Best Ever . . .
Nobody becomes a “pro” overnight. Hell, most competitive players never reach the highest echelons of performance, but they still have a great deal of fun. One theme I’ve touched on throughout this piece is that there are myriad little rewards along the way. Competing, improving, and socializing are all enjoyable irrespective of whether you ever win EVO. Competitive play doesn’t have to be work, and, frankly, it shouldn’t be.
VII. . . . But You Could Be
What’s stopping you? Your twisted little mind might just take to high-level play exceptionally well, and with serious practice you could find yourself winning tournaments. Every single person at the top had to start off somewhere.
VIII. There’s No Time Like the Present
This is an amazing time to start getting involved in competitive Soul Calibur. Whenever you pick up a fighting game, you inevitably run into players who’ve been around longer than you, who possess a great deal of legacy skill, and who, frankly, beat the shit out of you in a very not-fun sort of way. The gap between the haves and the have-nots can be quite intimidating. Alternatively, sometimes you find yourself enjoying a game but unable to find a regular local scene, and therefore you’re simply unable to practice, play, or improve.
Fortunately for new players, the release of a new game works against both of those potential problems. As I said in my hands-on preview, SC5 throws enough new mechanics at veterans that what they already know will only take them so far. Yes, they’ll start off with a large advantage, but not an insurmountable one. Deciding right now to take the game “seriously” means you won’t start off too far behind the curve. Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, a new game means heightened interest. If, unluckily, you live somewhere without a really established scene, there should be enough people around you who like the game that you can create one. Use this site and others as resources, locate nearby Calibur fans, and step your game up together.
“Casualcore” folks, give it a shot. Ask questions here, reach out to people, find locals and semi-locals, etc. Vets, I confessed to getting beaten up badly when I started—what are your early tournament experiences? What was your first major rush? Why do you play competitively?
More shameless self-promotion: @Original_Hater on twitter, bug me to your heart’s content.