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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 first time I saw Splatoon being announced at E3 2014, I had two reactions. First, “this game looks amazing,” and second, “I could see this game having a ton of competitive potential.” The new and refreshing approach to the shooting genre combined with the inherent concept of space control that comes with having your main weapon, ink, be also your goal and your primary mode of transportation had me envisioning clutch plays and highlight reels that would go down in history.

Since then, Splatoon has actually indeed worked to cater towards the competitive side of its player base, with patches, versus modes, and more, but I was surprised to see that its main format, a “Turf War” where the objective is to cover as much ground with ink as possible, does not have a ranked option, and in fact is considered by many in the competitive community to be an inferior format. I find the Turf War to be closest to the essence of innovation and possibility that Splatoon offers, and I actually feel kind of sad that it’s thought of as being incapable of supporting competition.

Keep in mind that, as I say this, I am not begrudging the competitive players for going with a format they prefer. I am quite far from being a skilled Splatoon player. I also understand that the reasons they might not like the Turf War format are probably valid. The argument is that only the first 30 and last 30 seconds really matter, and that it isn’t relevant to competition if a given way of playing is “against the essence of the game.” After all, Super Smash Bros. is designed for four or more players on a variety of stages with items on, and that competitive community has worked to fight the stigma that its players are playing the game “wrong.” Rather, in a way, what I’m expressing is rather selfish: I like the world of Splatoon where people can both attack and avoid conflict, or in a sense compete and not compete, in the exact same space, even if that doesn’t make much logical sense.

One of the major appeals of Splatoon, I believe, is that it provides a nice aesthetic and environmental alternative to mega testosterone headshot shooter games. Instead of getting bloodied, you get inked. Instead of every weapon being geared towards death and destruction, the question is if they can properly cover the ground in various hues. Theoretically, one can play and even succeed in this “shooter” without even shooting or attacking at all. However, in the ranked modes, Splat Zone, Tower Control, and Rainmaker, the specific mission focuses make direct conflict more of a necessity. You must remove their control, and the only way to really do so is to attack their position or to prevent them from getting close through person-to-person combat. Gone is all potential to compete through pacifism.

I don’t mean to say that Splatoon shouldn’t have guns, or that shooting should be removed from the game. After all, my favorite weapon is the N-ZAP ’89, a replica of the red-colored NES Zapper, because of its versatility in both fighting others and covering the ground in ink. Instead, what I’m aiming for is the possibility that Turf Wars are more likely to provide a space, or a mode, where very different philosophies can come into play without the absolute need to divide them, like Smash Bros. does (“For Fun” vs. “For Glory”). The people who believe shooters are great because you get to go all Rambo on your opponents can get just as much of a kick out of Splatoon as the people who love the strategic space control aspect or those who cherish just being able to run around with a giant roller and not have to point or aim or anything. I know this idea is inherently flawed, and the players themselves don’t necessarily want this, but I still believe that Splatoon can stand as this symbol where wildly different ways of playing can co-exist.

In game studies, there is a distinction made between “games” and “play.” The essential idea is that in games, you have a goal, a motivation or driving force that you aim towards, whereas play is more freeform, ever-changing, unbound by rules. In other words, think of games as football or baseball, and play as Calvinball. While Splatoon is much closer to “game” than it is to “play,” especially in comparison to something like Minecraft, I think my desired image for Splatoon is one that is in the territory of games but leans towards play. Competition is possible, but competing by not competing would also be an available option.

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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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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.

(Note: I originally posted this to reddit Smash Bros, and am putting it on the blog for posterity.)

The game has been out for over a year. During this time, it’s widely accepted by the community that Pac-Man is bottom tier. Try as people might, no one can seem to do anything with him.

EVO 2016 rolls around and it’s by far the biggest Smash tournament ever for any game in the franchise. All of the big names are there, but one by one they fall to a mysterious masked challenger who, unbelievably, is 4-stocking everyone with Pac-Man. Strangely, he appears to be much older than the average demographic for Smash.

Upon reaching the finals, the man removes his mask and reveals himself to be Billy Mitchell. Somehow, the skills that made him the first person to ever beat the Pac-Man arcade game have translated to Smash 4 almost perfectly. At this point, people are discussing if everything they knew about the game was wrong.

However, there’s another unidentified challenger in a hoodie who, while falling to the lower bracket early on, has been tearing it up. In the finals, he also reveals his true identity: Steve Wiebe.

Upon sitting down, they both set aside their mains and go straight for what counts the most for their pride: Donkey Kong mirror match. Gamers young and old start to watch. Just after the first set, people are declaring it the greatest finals ever in any competitive game, let alone Smash.

At EVO are both the crew for a new The Smash Brothers documentary, and the director of The King of Kong. The next day, they announce their collaboration for a sequel to The King of Kong in the Smash realm. The film is released internationally and is so successful, it turns the esports documentary into the most popular genre ever.

In a recent video interview by Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham about the world of eSports, djWHEAT espouses his beliefs on how eSports can grow, and that in defiance to the doom and gloom that surrounds declining numbers in games such as Starcraft II there is steady growth in both the idea of video games as sport as well as streaming. One of the frequent criticisms I see from people towards djWHEAT’s philosophy is that for most people, eSports as a whole doesn’t matter, and that if their game is the one that’s doing worse, then little else matters because they are not going to jump ship to another game just because. However, I feel that this view is something of a shortsighted misunderstanding on djWHEAT’s viewpoint, and one that limits itself not only to an unfortunate a favored game vs. an evil usurper context, but to an ephemeral present too narrow in scope.

When I hear djWHEAT talk about how the growth of one game can benefit eSports as a whole, and that people leaving Starcraft II for League of Legends or other games is not such a bad thing, I do not interpret it as this idea that the games don’t matter, that they’re just interchangeable within this structure of the competitive gaming scene. Rather, it has more to do with increasing the presence of eSports as a concept to the point that it gets as close to a commonly understood idea as possible, not just among gamers but among non-gamers as well. While one can argue that there will always be economic limitations to how much eSports can grow, this does not mean that there is a limit on growth in terms of exposure and acceptance. The more people know about competitive gaming, whether that’s through friends or family, or seeing matches online, or through playing the games themselves, or even just from a random guy on the street, the greater the opportunity for eSports to never truly fade away.

The scene might wane. It might become a fraction of what it was. However, establishing a cultural foothold by just having enough people positively experience eSports through games—whether it’s StarcraftStreet Fighter, DOTAPokemon, or something else—creates a mental and emotional connection more difficult to take away than money and eyeballs. If we look at Japanese anime, for example, there are certain titles (again, such as Pokemon) which, regardless of how you judge their quality, made the idea of anime simply better known and more acceptable to a wider range of people than just an existing hardcore fanbase.

I find that djWHEAT’s vision is one for the future beyond the myopic squabbling we see now, one where the ground is more fertile for the potential growth of new eSports-capable video games in a way which does indeed benefit everyone. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Starcraft II is fated to die out in a year, that it is on a downward and unrecoverable spiral. In light of this scenario, I want to give two alternate realities where this could be happening: one is where Starcraft II is the only game in town, the only game people consider competitive in any way, and the other is where Starcraft II is but a fraction of a complex milieu of a society in which eSports is known and accepted.

In the first, when Starcraft II goes, so too does the notion of competitive gaming, and if ever some game developer wanted to make their own Starcraft, they would have to start from scratch in more ways than one. People would see Starcraft as an anomaly, something which fell with no viable alternatives, and the creators of this new game would have to convince people all over again that this was a worthwhile notion, that people enjoy spectating games just as much as they enjoy playing them, and that there are positives to creating a competitive video game for the benefit of viewers.

In the second, on the other hand, when Starcraft II dies out, the notion that competitive gaming is viable would still be part of the public consciousness. It may not have ended up working for this particular title due to some combination of reasons, but future game developers could look at it and ask, “Where did it go right, and where did it go wrong?” When they go to try and get funding and support, they can point to other games which have been successful, games which companies might even already know about as eSports, and say, “We know what mistakes Starcraft II made and we can adjust accordingly. And, as you well know, there are plenty of examples of this model working.”

In both cases, there is a chance for a new and better spiritual successor to appear and grab all of the fans who once supported that game, but where in the first reality a single company would have to struggle just to introduce the idea of competitive gaming, in the second reality the notion of eSports would be accepted enough that there wouldn’t just be one company trying to create the next Starcraft (or any game of your choice), but five or maybe even ten companies, all eager to re-capture and even improve upon the things that made it so widely viewed and adored in the first place. The potential would not only always be there, but it would be so visible that it would continuously inspire game creators, as well as players, casters, everyone, to seize that opportunity.

Essentially, what djWHEAT is advocating when he says that the growth of one eSport is beneficial to all is not simply the product of a “let’s all get along” mentality. Instead, it is based on the idea that the more “eSports” becomes a solid concept in people’s minds through exposure, the better chance future games and gamers will have of fostering and being fostered by that positive environment, an environment which benefits all competitive games past, present, and future, whether a game’s life span is 50 days or 50 years.

As an avid watcher of professional Starcraft I constantly hear of all the strengths and weaknesses of various video games as spectator sports. Starcraft, for instance, has tons of strategic depth and is also visually clear in many ways, but often times the complexity of a given player’s battle plan requires a commentator to explain it in detail, and differentiations in individual army units can be confusing for someone who’s never had experience with similar games. Compare this with soccer, where “kick ball into goal” is clear as day, or even fighting games, where life bars and graphical depictions of punches and kicks tell the story. So with all eSports, one issue is always, how far removed is the game from reality? If it’s too abstracted then it becomes a game mainly for the devoted or hardcore, which is fine, but spectatorship is the question here.

This got me to thinking, what about Pokemon? While Pokemon is pretty far-removed both in terms of its menu-based gameplay and the sheer number of Pokemon and attacks and the complex rock-paper-scissors chart that makes up the 17 types, I wonder if Pokemon can get around all of this by just being so internationally famous that a possible majority of people under a certain age have had some experience with Pokemon, be it through the video games or the anime or their friends/relatives telling them about how Rock beats Flying. If it’s a common-enough experience, then maybe there’s not as much immediate need for realism or explanation.

On top of that, Pokemon has always been quite robust when it comes to strategy, to the extent that not only have there been multiple tournaments over the years (see the recent Pokemon Video Game Championships for example), but there have been a number of sites dedicated to exploring strategy and tactics in Pokemon, whether that’s Smogon or predecessors such as Azure Heights. These forums manage to bring together the very young up to people well into their adulthoods.

Granted, there are a number of drawbacks and setback that could stifle Pokemon as eSport despite its popularity and penetration. The first is that it’s likely Nintendo would never entirely support a competitive Pokemon scene which fuels people’s salaries, especially because part of the appeal and atmosphere in Pokemon has to do with empowering players to feel strong and special and to bond with the Pokemon they catch and train. Ideally, a competitive version would just allow you to customize your Pokemon (and there have been online simulators over the years which allow this), but I doubt Nintendo would ever approve of such a thing themselves. The second problem is that Pokemon’s strategy and difficulty is purely in the mind, whether that’s coming up with ideas on the fly or memorizing statistics, and while plenty of games have those elements the fact that Pokemon is turn-based means there is no physical rigor involved. No one will mention someone’s fabulous micromanagement. No one will be impressed by 400 APM (actions per minute) when the game really only takes 1 APM.

In any case, while I’m not terribly optimistic of Pokemon Battling becoming a career, I still would like to think that some day there may be a game that is so commonly known that it’s a matter of course for it to enter a competitive realm accepted by many. I mean, more than League of Legends even.

I guess the only thing to leave you is an actual competition video of Pokemon, to see what people think.

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