The question of how much technical skill or physical prowess should play a factor in competitive games is an on-going debate that really puts at the forefront the tension between “games” and “sports.” I’ve discussed this divide previously in reference to Super Smash Bros. with the intent to understand both sides, but a recent comment by Starcraft and Hearthstone community leader Day has me thinking about the extent to which technical refinement can contribute to the competitive viability of a game outside of the environment of competition itself.
While explaining why he believes that Counter Strike: Global Offensive is the best-designed competitive multiplayer game (emphasis on the word “design”), he organizes his argument into four key points that a lot of the best games tend to share: an engine that encourages interaction, room for strategy, variety of content, and some sort of execution skill with clear reward. In elaborating upon the idea of execution skill, Day explains that it can often be difficult for players to feel a sense of improvement if the goal or evidence of improvement is too abstract. In contrast to the difficulty of tracking your decision-making, getting a basketball into a hoop has a clear goal, and the actions you take towards achieving that goal are immediately noticeable (did this help me shoot more hoops successfully or not?).
The reason why I want to focus on this idea of a high technical or execution skill is, first, that I can totally understand what he means from my own experience playing competitive games, and second, that it really opens up the idea of competitive gaming as being about so much more than just “winners and losers.”
In my time playing Japanese mahjong, I’ve run into a number of hurdles that made it difficult to truly gauge whether or not I’d improved. As much as mahjong takes skill, it’s still a game where luck is a significant factor, and when playing opponents who are equal or better than you, it’s not uncommon to go on a serious losing streak that makes you question if your previous wins were due to luck of the draw or if you’ve indeed progressed as a player. It’s only over the course of many games, as well as by facing players of lesser skill, that it becomes more obvious if your skills have improved. You begin to see the mistakes that you made in the past in the actions of other players, and you understand on a more fundamental level what made those decisions mistakes in the first place.
The big issue is that this is a painful way to go about improvement, and it would not surprise me if most people were not this masochistic about finding out whether or not they have become better players. One has to claw in the dark, finding bits and pieces of light wherever they might appear, and eventually find out if they’re now standing on something stable or a worn-out rope bridge.
Abstract thinking and decision-making are difficult to quantify, which is why something like a Training Mode in a fighting game is so appealing to players. As Day mentions, even if you fall behind in terms of strategy, a game with a “high-variance execution skill band” can give players something to aim for (no Counter Strike pun intended) with very clear rights and wrongs. Compare trying to learn a high-damage combo to trying to understand intrinsically the concept of a “neutral game.” Some players are better at technical execution and others are better at grasping deep concepts, but I think both players would agree that the combo, the headshot, the waveshine are all much more tangible than what David Sirlin calls “yomi,” or reading the mind of the opponent.
This can be a problem, as explained by James Chen when he refers to fighting game players who try to master the art of complex attack patterns (mixups) that cause the opponent’s defense to falter (“opening up the opponent”) without actually understanding the fundamental goal is that you’re trying to psychologically intimidate the opponent into not blocking. James makes an important statement, which is that, while many people believe that the “neutral” (the game state where both players are fully in control and have equal dominance on the field) is all about the mixup, in fact the mixup is the reward you get out of winning the neutral. After all, what use is your amazing mixup and combo game if you never actually get to land it? It’s complex, I know, and it’s amazing that James is able to explain it so well.
Back to Day’s point, what I find to be the major significance of this idea of high execution skill is that improvement becomes almost like a salve, a way of reassuring yourself that you’re not that bad, or that you see a clear path towards getting better. Unlike blaming your teammates (common to DOTA 2 and League of Legends), this isn’t merely a placebo; you’ve still gotten better at your game on some level, and the best players marry brains with brawn. When looking at discussions of competitive games, certain communities such as Super Smash Bros. Melee and Starcraft will tout their games’ “high skill ceilings” with respect to technical skill as signs of their superiority as competitive games and as esports, but the presence of a high skill ceiling also becomes a comforting warm blanket. Even if you falter in terms of strategy and abstract thinking, you have the option to continually improve without needing it because you can advance your execution skill.
When I say that this idea seems to bring competitive gaming away from the competitive environment itself, what I mean is that, even though the improvement of skills (be they mental or physical) are generally supposed to accompany you to the moment of competition (whether it’s a tournament or a ladder), the ability to look back at your progress and declare yourself better than you once were is just as important. “I am not what I was yesterday.” Unlike strategy where the personal rewards can be distant and obscure, execution skill is both a short and long-term confidence booster, bringing the competitive game to be just as much about constructing pride as it is about victory or defeat.
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