What’s in a List? Thoughts on the Smash 4 Backroom Tier List v3

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Recently, the granddaddy of all competitive Super Smash Bros. sites, Smashboards, released their third Smash 4 tier list. The significance of this version is that it’s the first tier list that did not come in the middle of patches or DLC, so it provides our first big look at the status of Smash 4 in a stable environment.

Overall, I have no major qualms with the tier list, and my go-to characters—Mewtwo and Mega Man—are right where I think they should be. Some characters might be a little too high or a little too low, but I don’t have any horses in that race. However, I’d like to talk about two topics: theory vs. results, and the most controversial characters among the tier list voters.

Theory vs. Results

One of the frequent struggles when it comes to bringing together tier lists is the balance between theory and results. A character can look great on paper, but actually using them and winning with them is another matter entirely. On the flip side, even if a character is winning consistently versus everyone else, this could be simply due to a gap in knowledge.

For likely a multitude of reasons, the Smash 4 community at large seems to have a hard time marrying theory with results to the extent of other fighting games. For example, the tier list above has Bayonetta at #1, but it wasn’t long after the list was announced that people were commenting that the results don’t support the position. This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily wrong, but always get the impression when looking at and joining in on discussions about character viability that people either overshoot or undersell the influence of a character’s theory with respect to what they’re capable of.

Some of the reasons I think it’s hard for Smashers to get the right balance of theory and results are as follows.

  • The game is full of Nintendo icons, so there’s often the desire to argue in favor of your beloved character
  • As a result of the above, players will often theorycraft from a biased perspective. This is difficult to avoid, and is not inherently bad because of how it can motivate people, but leads to a lot of broad leaps and assumptions.
  • People become distrustful of theorycrafting and instead lean towards results, which have defined parameters (wins, losses, championships).

This leads to people taking extreme stances about the importance of results vs. theory, where one is touted as significantly more important than the other. However, I believe that the ideal tier list is one that uses results to theorize further beyond what results currently show us. They should be less a snapshot of what the actual current metagame is like, and more an image of what we think the game will become given the information we have.

Disagreements on Character Viability

In the Smashboards post about the tier list, it’s possible to order the tier list in order to see which characters garnered the most disagreement in terms of placement. The top 5 (not counting Miis) are Samus, Bowser Jr., Pac-Man, Olimar, and Wario. According to the tier list, these characters are supposedly mid-tier at best, but it’s still worth noting that there were some who thought highly of them nevertheless.

One of the reasons for this might just be that the voters come from all over the world. Different regions are known for having strong players for characters that one might not find elsewhere. For example, Duck Hunt was considered a pretty bad character until three Japanese Duck Hunts made their way to the US and took some big names. In the case of the five characters above, Olimar is a major influence in California, Florida, New York, and especially Japan; the ranked fourth best Japanese player in their region is an Olimar named Shuton. Similarly, Wario is a major presence in Europe thanks to France’s Glutonny, with a lesser but still significant mark being made by Wario player TheReflexWonder.

Pac-Man and Bowser Jr. have been on a progressive downward slide because their most prominent players, Abadango from Japan and Tweek from New Jersey respectively, have long since put them on the backburner. I believe that there must still be those holding out hope that Pac and BowJow have what it takes to cause the occasional upset (and they still do sometimes!).

Samus is the major enigma. She has never been considered strong in Smash 4, especially compared to her armor-less counterpart, but even after a number of significant buffs she received through patches there’s still not the sense that she’s any good. And yet, enough players voted her as being at least mid-tier that there has to be some strong belief in her potential. I think what causes such disagreement as to her character is that her toolkit is actually very diverse and her physical properties all appear to be strong but dysfunctional, and how much a player can overcome that dysfunction (as they have with Shulk) remains to be seen.

The Future!

Early Smash 4 was an interesting beast because of how, for once, swordsmen weren’t dominant. This meant characters with lesser range could thrive. This has changed dramatically with the rise of Marth and the advent of Cloud (pun intended). Will there be another major shift, even without balance patches? I look forward to seeing players push their characters to their limits.

 

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Why is Defensive Play Maligned and Is There Anything We Can Do About It?

Defensive styles get a bad rap in many arenas of competition. Whether it’s Floyd Mayweather in boxing, Jigglypuff in Super Smash Bros. Melee, or turtle play in Starcraft, a strong focus on defense can draw the ire of both players and spectators. Whether or not the defense is the product of immense skill seems to matter little except for the most hardcore or well-informed. Defense is viewed as passive, and passive is viewed as lacking in “hype.”

It’s not surprising that many people share this belief. The impact of aggressive play carries a kind of emotionally visceral thrill that the mental excitement of defensive play can’t quite fulfill, and participants (both in the game and in the audience) are frequently looking for entertainment and gratification. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset, and it’s a bit presumptuous to decry people for liking what they like (as tempting as it is to do so), but I have to wonder if anything can ever be done about this mindset such that a significant number can enjoy or appreciate defensive play.

Esports historian, writer, and commentator Duncan “Thorin” Shields has argued that people’s uses of the terms “aggression” and “passivity” are too simplistic, and that this limits their ability to discuss play styles in games. In fighting game terms, this would be the false idea that aggression can only come in the form of rushdown, constant in-your-face attacking, when there are a whole range of possibilities. I think Thorin makes an excellent point, but that still requires people to take that extra step. They have to search out information, to think more deeply about the games they play and watch, and this is perhaps more than what can be expected of an audience (though perhaps that onus should be placed on players who are critical of defensive styles).

Not that I think people like Thorin should stop what they’re doing, or that it’s pointless. They provide a valuable piece of the puzzle towards increasing people’s appreciation of competitive play, but perhaps there should be an additional step in between, something that can reach people even when their minds are not fully geared towards learning.

One possibility comes in the form of commentators often found at these events. Perhaps there needs to be a more active push by commentators in general to emphasize the positives of defensive play, and to encourage that more mental (rather than emotional) look at games and sports. One potential problem with this is that it doesn’t apply when commentators aren’t around, and that it still might not convince people’s hearts where it arguably matters most.

Is it a hopeless cause to get people who thrive on “hype” to not sneer at “overly” defensive play? Is there a future where this can happen?

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The Comfort of Tech Skill in Competitive Games

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[9] 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[9] 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[9] 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[9]’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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Smash Bros. vs Traditional Fighters and What Lies at the Core of Fighting Games

Fighting games at this point are decades-old. While it’s debatable what can be considered the very first fighting game, what is indisputable is which game is responsible for popularizing the genre: Street Fighter II. That game, as well as all of its upgrades, are the standard by which all other fighters are judged, and it’s had a profound effect on how people discuss fighting games in terms of gameplay and strategy. However, if Street Fighter II is the archetype, there are a number of deviations from it, and one that’s become increasingly popular in recent years has been the Super Smash Bros. series.

Whereas in the past these two communities, traditional fighters and Smash, remained fairly separate (and one even unfairly mocked the other for not being a “real” fighting game), over the past year with the release of the latest Smash Bros. games, this has begun to change. One curious outcome of this has been that, when it comes to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, a number of notable traditional fighting game community (FGC) members have taken to it, such as EVO Champion Infiltration and commentators Ultra David and James Chen, but it has also received negative attention from many players of Super Smash Bros. Melee, what is widely considered the most technical and mechanically difficult game in the franchise. The reason I believe this disparity exists is not only because of a difference in terms of the games themselves, but also a difference in how these respective communities have argued for what makes their games great.

The arguments made by many Melee supporters as to why it’s the superior game tend to revolve around the slew of difficult techniques that expand the range of possible moves available, as well as a heavier emphasis on free-form combos. The idea is that, while Melee is simple on the surface, being a game that was intentionally designed to be more accessible than the traditional fighting game, it in fact hides layers and layers of complexity. What might appear to be a game that is competitively limited due to its simplicity is in fact only the first step into a demanding realm of technical depth and discovery. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U lacks many “advanced techniques” and is slower-paced, and is therefore seen as an inferior game.

Perhaps this reasoning is a product of the way in which the FGC would dismiss Smash Bros. as a whole as “kiddie games,” but, whatever the case, this is the rhetoric that has been built up from Melee, that simplicity makes way for complexity, and that complexity equals depth. In the documentary The Smash BrothersMelee commentator Prog likens the difficulty of Melee to Starcraft, a game that is also known for its mechanical difficulty that leads to a wider range of options for a player, with the idea that this leads to a kind of expressive freedom (though it should also be noted that the documentary’s director, Samox, chose to include that in the first place).

EG|PPMD—recent champion of Apex 2015, the largest Melee tournament ever—shares this sentiment:

EG|PPMD: Melee allows me to express myself on a very profound level. I am not just playing the character, I am my character. I am not just playing against my opponent, I am communicating with that person deeply and getting to know them on a very personal level and conversing on that level with the game as a medium.

Said differently, the depth and speed of the game allow me to really bring myself out. Competition is also incredibly fun! I would be really surprised if another game gave me this feeling, but that would be awesome if it did happen.

In contrast, the most prominent arguments as to why traditional fighting games are great take the opposite angle. Traditional fighting games are known for being difficult to learn on the surface, due to specialized inputs (quarter-circle forward + punch makes Ryu throw a hadouken, while just hitting the “special move” button for Mario makes him throw a fireball) and complex combos, but the prevailing philosophies are of the mind that the ideal core of fighting games, what makes them really worthwhile and competitive, is a foundation of simplicity and elegance, and that this is what leads to depth.

While the above video is super corny, it reflects the lessons taught by great players such as Tomo Ohira, who is featured in that video and is often argued to be the first king of Street Fighter II in its earliest days. For another example, take the fighting game player turned game designer David Sirlin, who argues that what makes fighting games games truly interesting is the level of mental interactions that come from “yomi,” or reading the mind of the opponent. Others such as Ultra David have argued that yomi isn’t as important as developing and executing a strategy, but the emphasis is still on the idea that technical complexity should ideally make way for something more basic and fundamental. This is what drives Divekick, a stripped-down fighting game that attempts to get to the core of fighters by limiting players to two buttons and emphasizing spacing and reads.

Although what I’ve shown above are not universally held beliefs by either community, I wanted more to show that they exist and are prominent parts of each community’s identity when it comes to their games. I also don’t want to give the impression that the communities believe that complexity vs. simplicity and their relationship with depth is black and white in either direction, nor that the games necessarily reflect the philosophies described above 100%. Rather, it’s more about how people visualize depth, and why the idea of depth becomes so subjective.

As for why all of this matters, there are two points to consider as to why traditional FGC members might praise Super Smash Bros. for Wii U whereas Melee enthusiasts might look down upon it. First, much like Divekick, the Super Smash Bros. games with their simplified commands have already removed a surface layer of complexity, and to many experienced fighting game players this is seen as a positive. Complexity hides an elegance of simplicity and what makes fighting games truly beautiful. These players want to introduce this beauty to as many people as possible, and Smash Bros. allows this.

Second, while previous games in the Super Smash Bros. franchise were developed by its director Sakurai Masahiro with a team that was more experienced in other genres, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U was developed with the help of Namco, which is known for fighting games such as Tekken and Soul Calibur. Although there haven’t been any specific statements made on this matter, I believe that the development team, rather than viewing Melee as their template, looked more to conventional fighting games for ways to add competitive depth to Super Smash Bros. and that the mechanics of the new game reflect this. In discussions with Dave Cabrera, a friend and someone much more knowledgeable about fighting games than I am, he had a similar impression. Ultra David and James Chen also state how they find Melee to be a more momentum-based game similar to the also-unconventional Marvel vs. Capcom series while Smash Wii U is more positional, similar to Street Fighter games.

The result is a clash of perspectives. On the one hand, the Melee community, which has developed its conception for what makes a good competitive game based on Melee and the idea of hidden complexity, sees Super Smash Bros. for Wii U as lacking many of the elements that made Melee great, and that it is therefore a lesser experience. On the other hand, the fighting game community, which bases its standards for fighting games on Street Fighter II and the idea of hidden simplicity, has in this new Super Smash Bros. something that exemplifies that concept while also catering more to their tastes. Whatever the reasoning, it’s clear that there are two different philosophies at work driving discussion.

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Smash Bros. and Games as Physical vs. Mental Competitions

Note: As is evidenced by some of my recent posts, I’ve been quite into the new Super Smash Bros. as of late, and have been participating in online discussions more because of it. Rather than keeping those posts in forums or on other sites, however, I’ve decided to also include them here as “supplemental” blog posts.

Taken from Smashboards:

I’m not competitive on the level of anyone in this discussion thread, but I wanted to post in here just because the direction of this conversation is one that I’ve seen fought a million times over in multiple competitive gaming communities. I’m not a game designer so I can’t say firsthand what works and what doesn’t, but what I mainly want to say is that it’s very easy to take a firm position on how competitive games “should be” but it risks inadvertently accusing others of making or even playing games “incorrectly.”

Sirlin usually comes up in these arguments because of his emphasis on yomi and how polarizing it can be. To simplify Sirlin for a bit, he believes that execution barriers are the devil and if we could all play with purely our thoughts and intentions games would be much better. Essentially, Sirlin wants games to answer the question, who is the superior thinker? It makes sense, but mainly if you see games as “brains over brawn.”A number of years back Sirlin took a class on Starcraft Brood War that was being given at a university, and from his perspective one of the issues with Brood War is how tedious the game is in terms of things you have to click to even play the game at a remotely decent level. I can’t remember the exact words, but he basically suggested something like a maximum cap to APM so that who presses buttons faster wouldn’t be a measure of skill. Instead, it would be about using your actions wisely instead of simply some people getting more opportunities than others. Naturally, the Brood War community disagreed. It loved the idea of APM as an execution barrier, or more specifically the combination of speed and precision needed to use it effectively. It separated chumps from champs, and when a great player is able to build his army so perfectly because he never misses a beat in his production cycles, it’s viewed as a thing of beauty.

We’ve heard it over and over again that fun is subjective. It’s the rebuttal that competitive Smash players use against the argument that they’re playing the game wrong because they don’t embrace the free for all chaos that Smash advertises itself as. It applies here too: different people get satisfaction out of games differently, and this includes competitive gaming as well. In other words, while Sirlin views games as a domain of the mind, some people like the idea of being able to defeat brains with brawn even in games. They like the idea that they can train up their “muscles”, and that, by being bigger, faster, and stronger too, even the most brilliant tactical mind in the world wouldn’t be able to keep up.

For some, mastering a frame-perfect 50-hit combo in an anime fighter sounds like the most tedious thing ever. You sit around, committing things to muscle memory, hardly a showing of your mental skill. However, for others, improving your ability to read the player and to think more critically in a match is too abstract a reward. Others still might believe that the true test of skill comes from managing luck and taking advantage of uncertainty, as in games like mahjong or Texas Hold ’em. Depending on where you fall between those two extremes, different games appeal to different people because of what they believe “competition” means. Bobby Fischer famously promoted a version of chess where starting positions were randomized because he believed that chess was becoming too reliant on memorizing openings, but it didn’t stick because, most likely, people on some level liked being able to improve by having superior memorization compared to their opponents (inertia from years and years of tradition was probably a factor as well).

I think the implicit disagreement as to how games should be competitive is what creates such tension within Smash Bros. itself. You have this massive clash of philosophies within a single franchise, and even within a single game. Putting aside the fact that Melee is more mechanically difficult than Smash 4 (as far as we know), and that this has created some dissatisfaction for players who believe the Melee way is the best, even Smash 4 itself has different philosophies behind its characters which can cater to different people’s idea of “competitive fun.” We’ve seen the argument that Sonic’s gameplay is degenerative because it forces the opponent to have to guess where he’s going to be and throw out moves in the hopes of catching Sonic, but there are people who love the idea of games as gambles, of having to shoot into the darkness because there’s a thrill in being able to more effectively navigate uncertainty. This isn’t to deny the frustration fighting Sonic can create, nor is it an argument that Sonic or any other character is balanced or imbalanced. Rather, it’s about the fact that different characters in Smash end up embodying different concepts of competitive play, and when they clash there’s always the chance that arguments of a character being bad for gameplay for being too simple or complex or whatever. It’s important to think beyond our own conception of competitive fun and to be able to see from the perspective of others.

The Skill Mezzanine

Over the past few years, there has been an upswing in video games geared for competition (or at least modified to be competitive). Starcraft 2, Street Fighter IV, the new Mortal Kombat, the concept of “eSports” is managing to achieve more success around the world than had been seen previously, with the notable exception of South Korea where Starcraft competition already managed to achieve a good deal of competitive success.

Many of these new games are sequels, and they emerge in a gaming environment far different from their predecessors. In some cases, as with Starcraft and Marvel vs. Capcom, it’s been over a decade since their most immediate ancestors. Online play has filled the long void that was left by the death of arcades. Facebook games and other bits of entertainment which fall under the heading of “casual” have made video games a common part of many people’s lives. There are now more people playing video games than in previous decades, but many of them do not devote themselves to games, particularly ones that foster competition. One of the results of this has been a move towards easier controls, reducing the number of things to do, simplifying actions, increasing the influence of random chance, and just making games where people can more easily feel like they’re accomplishing something.

In doing so however, there is a backlash created among those communities, because what this means is that, compared to those older games, they seem a little…softer. More forgiving. This in turn can be interpreted as an affront to the competitive spirit, especially for those games which dare to call themselves competitive, because it is giving a break to the weaker players. Many times, criticism will come in the form of questioning a game’s “skill ceiling.” The argument goes that if a game is less demanding on a fundamental level, it will result in a game where the best of the best will be unable to distinguish themselves from the masses more commonly known as “the rest.” Certainly this scenario is not out of the question, but what I’d argue is that those critical of these games’ skill ceilings often misuse the term and that they’re arguing against something quite different. For if the “skill ceiling” is the absolute limits of competitive skill, and the “skill floor” is the bare minimum to even understanding the game, then what those people are really arguing against is the lowering of a kind of “skill mezzanine,” the first space up from the skill floor and the minimum amount of skill needed to compete and win matches against others who are also trying to do the same.

“One guy was clearly making more mistakes than the other but he still won. This game is awful.” Putting aside the fact that weaker competitors are often capable of beating stronger ones simply because of how “skill” is nebulous and but one of many factors in competition (mental state being an arguably more important one), such an argument can be summarized by the idea that the game is too forgiving of mistakes, and that because a weaker player is more prone to errors, it rewards them unfairly. But a game that punishes mistakes less is not the sign of a lowered skill ceiling so much as it is evidence of a lowered skill mezzanine, and this is because even if the best players are the ones who are closest to touching the ceiling, the players worse than them do not have to aim for that ceiling as well. Their goal could simply be to touch the feet of those better players, and a more forgiving game means that they can accomplish such a task more easily, no matter how high the ceiling may be.

The higher the skill mezzanine however, the tougher it is for people to reach basic competitive competency, which has the effect of weeding out less devoted players. What remains, if numbers are sufficient (and there is always the danger of that not happening for a game), is that the only people left are the ones who have been able to overcome some very unforgiving limitations.

One of the consequences of mistaking the skill mezzanine for the skill ceiling is that people conflate the concept of game limitations that were overcome through skill with the idea that game limitations necessarily generate skill. Veteran Starcraft competitor and commentator Sean “Day 9” Plott often emphasizes that imposing restrictions can be a useful method for improving one’s gameplay. In that sense, the rules of a particular game can be seen as a forced limitation rather than a self-imposed one. But it is also a mistake to believe that those specific limitations should be the standard by which all other games are judged, to confuse the concept of limitation with the particulars of execution. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and is praised for the amount of mental and physical skill required to play it at a high level. One of the most basic rules, the one that gives soccer its internationally more popular name of “football,” is that a player is normally not allowed to touch the ball with their hands. This simple yet profound limitation (hands being vitally important to the survival of humankind) encouraged people to find ways to move the ball with the rest of their body, and as the game has developed over the course of generations, soccer players discover new methods and refine them. But one cannot say that, because soccer developed into “the beautiful game” in part due to the limitations on hands, that all other ball sports should also ban the use of hands.

There is nothing inherently wrong with criticizing a game’s capacity for competition, because there are games that are objectively more competitive than others. Chess is far more complex than tic-tac-toe. One game can indeed have a lower skill ceiling than the other. But I think it is important for people critical of a game’s skill ceiling to be able to distinguish between it and the skill mezzanine in order to discuss a game’s competitiveness.

Impatience and Experience and Competitive Gaming Sequels

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[9]” 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.