iNcontrol, You Will Be Missed

On Sunday, Geoff “iNcontrol” Robinson passed away due to a sudden illness. A beloved figure in the StarCraft community, his gregarious nature and sense of humor did a lot to push and keep StarCraft in the limelight for many years.

The news hit me in a way I wasn’t entirely expecting. I enjoyed his work, but I haven’t been avidly following StarCraft for a few years now. Still, I remembered all the times I would stay up late to listen to a State of the Game podcast or leave a match on in the background just to hear the entertaining banter between him and the other casters, and I realized what an impression he had left on me. When I did check in on what he’d been doing as of late, it seemed like the world was open to him. He had so much potential left.

33 years old. Damn it, that’s much too young. While jokes are made in esports that anyone over 30 is a relic, iNcontrol always looked like the picture of health. To say his passing was unexpected is an understatement, and it saddens me in a profound way that I can’t fully describe or understand.

iNcontrol leaves behind a hell of a legacy. He was a major figure in the early days of non-Korean Brood War. He helped to bring esports to renewed prominence in the early days of Twitch streaming and being a positive force in his community. I can tell his impact because I find myself impacted by him, and my deepest condolences and respect for those near and dear to him.

 

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Highlight Clips and the Loss of Context

On the internet in the early 2000s, the short, 5-second-at-most animated gif reigned. Before high-speed internet became ubiquitous, the gif was a low-commitment way to share snippets of your favorite show. While gifs are still used frequently, things have changed with the advent of YouTube, Twitter, the webm format, and more. Where once gifs were ideally super short, super-optimized for size, and often made to loop smoothly, now clips can go for minutes on end to showcase exactly what’s necessary to impress and astound. But as fandom and even online cultures in general have grown into an environment of instant gratification and moving snapshots, I find that it can influence how people view a given work or performance.

Highlight reels are nothing new, and I think they fulfill a useful role. Speaking from personal experience, they help me understand things that I can’t quite make time to fully delve into. For example, I’ve never been a big basketball fan, but seeing highlights of Michael Jordan’s famous “flu game” (where he managed to lead the Chicago Bulls to victory despite being incredibly ill) helps to drive home to a novice like me the sheer significance of Jordan’s feat. However, not everything boils down easily to small, digestible clips, and there’s increasingly a risk that people will judge the clipped version as if it speaks for the whole product.

Here are three examples that I think encapsulate this dilemma:

On the wrestling subreddit /r/squaredcircle, one fairly common topic is the WWE wrestler Finn Bálor. In multiple instances, Bálor is criticized for being a boring wrestler whose offense lacks weight and pizzazz. However, I’ve seen another sentiment in response: Finn Bálor is impressive when viewed over the course of an entire match. His moves might not leave a deep impression individually, but he weaves them together into a story. Every dropkick, every stomp from the top rope means something, and viewing the moves in isolation fails to tell the whole story.

Starcraft is a series of competitive video games known for pushing players to the limits. Occupying the real-time strategy genre, it will have the occasional flashes of brilliance that can be captured in highlight clips, but more often what makes people fans are the stories told over 20-60 minutes of adversaries trying to outwit and out-muscle each other. It’s often the case that written essays more accurately capture the strength and tactical brilliance of a player than a minute-long Twitch clip. As a result, games that are conducive to highlight reels, like fighting games or MOBAs, tend to go viral much more often.

On a personal note, when creating the “Precure Party” panel for AnimeNEXT 2015 with Alain from Reverse Thieves, I tried to find the best clip to convey the quality of my favorite, Heartcatch Precure! In my opinion, the show’s greatest strength is how it delivers very profound and considerate messages using the depths and quirks of its characters. What I ultimately decided on was to combine two clips: one showing Kurumi Erika (Cure Marine) being jealous of her older sister, and then another showing her older sister Momoka being jealous of Erika in contrast. The point was to show how it threads together those two episodes two make a stronger point about how Erika’s sense of inferiority isn’t the entire story, but the short highlight reel didn’t hit as effectively as I’d hoped. It just wasn’t as effective as showing transformation sequences, dramatic character development scenes, or easy-to-understand gag scenes. If I were to do it over, I would pick something with a lot more impact, but I’d still be a bit sad that I couldn’t properly convey in that instance the X-factor of Heartcatch.

I care little for complaints about shrinking attention spans; I’ve been hearing them since I was a kid. While there is a lot of desire out there for immediate satisfaction (see commenters online who write gigantic replies based purely on the title of a video or article), I can only put so much blame on the viewers and readers when it’s the people making the ads and videos to exploit their customers’ tendencies. What’s more important to me is that I hope people who see short clips or highlight reels for more complex subjects understand it’s just a taste of whatever they’re looking at, and that it’s not always the best or most ideal representation.

Pre-Evo Thoughts: Video Games vs. Chess Analogies

Introduction: “It’s like Chess, but…”

One of the most common ways to try and explain the appeal of competitive video games is to make a comparison to chess. Starcraft is “real-time chess.” Smash Bros. Brawl players used to explain the importance of decision-making by saying the game was more “chess-like” compared to Melee. While I haven’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone called Dota 2 “chess where each piece is controlled by a different player.” Making the connection is essentially shorthand for highlighting a game a “thinking man’s endeavor.”

The accuracy of the comparison is often limited to the most basic similarities, and tends to fall apart under greater scrutiny. Despite that being the case, however, I find that there is another kind of chess comparison that can open up greater understanding of how we view competition through games. Namely, if we think about not just the western version of chess, but also the many variations of chess and chess-like games that exist in the world, then it can help us understand and appreciate the unique qualities of video games that are from the same series but have differing gameplay.

As a note, I am not an expert on chess or any chess-like game. There will not be any high level examples, and most of the comparisons will be based on descriptions I’ve found from others. I’m also knowledgeable but not amazing at any competitive games I mention, so keep that in mind as well.

Chess vs. Shogi: Similar Games, Different Dynamics

Chess and shogi (“Japanese chess”) have a lot in common. Both are turn-based games played on large, tile-based boards where the goal is trap the enemy king in an inescapable situation. Both have different types of pieces, each of which have different rules for moving, with the most common pieces (the pawns) having the fewest choices and the strongest pieces being much rarer. However, there are differences of opinion as to which game is better, and they hinge on a few key elements.

The queen: chess’s mightiest warrior

Chess pieces have more freedom of movement compared to ones in shogi. Chess has two rooks and two bishops on each side, who can move as far as the board (and any interfering pieces) can take them. It has two knights who can jump in that characteristic “L” shape. And it has the queen, which can move across the board in eight directions. In contrast, shogi pieces can cover much less ground. Not only is shogi board bigger (10 x 10 as opposed to chess’s 8 x 8), but players get only one rook and one bishop, and there’s no such thing as a queen. Shogi has pieces that chess doesn’t, but all of them are much more restricted in terms of their mobility.

The gold general in shogi is extremely powerful, but no chess queen

The result of this difference is that chess emphasizes the center of the board as a major point of contention because the pieces simply have more movement options. Shogi pieces take more turns to get from one place to another, but this also means skirmishes can happen all over the board. Also, whereas the king in chess is seen as a relatively weak piece because it can “only” move one space at a time, in shogi the king is a fearsome fighter because of its relative versatility.

Example in Esports

In spite of their similarities, chess is a game where greater range and possibility of movement produces one range of play, while shogi’s shorter range per piece produces another. They’re actually different enough that a person can love one but hate the other. One can find a similar relationships in other games in the same “families,” of which I’ll be listing a couple below.

Take the Street Fighter series and the Marvel vs. series, for example. Movement in Street Fighter games are traditionally very restricted. One walks back and forth and maybe has the ability to do a small dash, but jumping is a risky commitment and the game stays very grounded. In Marvel Vs. games, however, characters can make massive leaps, fire large beams that cover most of the screen, and dismantle each other quickly. Even though they’re both fighting games, tweaking certain elements means one could be great in the former type but awful at the latter.

Even games within the same series can be as dissimilar as chess and shogi. When discussing what makes Smash Bros. Melee such a beloved game among its fans, one common reason given is “movement options.” Not only do platforms allow for vertical movement, but a plethora of advanced inputs exist for players to practice—wavedashing, dash dancing, ledge dashing, etc. Other games in the Smash Bros. franchise, such as the more recent Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U (aka Smash 4) have nowhere near as much range of movement, but small steps matter more. Melee top player Mang0 has mentioned in the past that walking (as opposed to dashing or wavedashing) is under-utilized in Melee. When looking at Smash 4, walking is incredibly common.

Is larger range of movement and prerequisite to a better game? The answer is that it’s largely a matter of personal preference, as opposed to any sort of objective standard. Take this 2007 post from the chess blog The Only Winning Move:

I do think [shogi] is probably more complex than chess …

Naturally, “more complex” doesn’t necessarily translate into “more fun” …. I much prefer Chess…. My favorite Chess game, in fact, is one of Bobby Fischer’s, which he describes as a “lightningbolt,” in which he absolutely castrates a fussy opponent who spends so much time setting up the perfect defense net that Fischer is able to just zap him with an unexpected sacrifice. That kind of thing happens a lot less often in Shogi, and this makes it less thrilling … Chess seems more integrated and elegant to me. It’s a beautiful thing in the hands of skilled player. I never get the same feeling of being in the presence of beauty watching Shogi players at work….

All the same, at the end of the day I would rather play Shogi – and that’s simply because it’s mindfood….

Chess is more fun to watch, and more fun to play for amusement. It’s a truly beautiful thing when done right – and thus better appreciated as a spectator sport. But I ultimately like Shogi better.

And Still More

If the chess vs. shogi comparison seems too simplistic in terms of how games of a similar genre can differ, keep in mind that there are many variations of chess-type games out there as well. Xiangqi (“Chinese chess”), for example, is famous for having a very explosive mid-game, as well as obstacles to get around in the form of rivers. Perhaps your preferred game resembles xiangqi more than chess or shogi.
Let’s Appreciate the Differences

Games can be “chess-like,” but it’s potentially better to bring that up relative to other forms of chess so that discussion can be more fruitful. The examples I’ve given do not map perfectly to chess and shogi, but the point is less to find a perfect analogy and more to show how games that can look the same on the surface can produce very different games that can carry different appeals to their respective player bases.

 

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The Safe Appeal of Fallen Champions

After a small drought of first place finishes, famed Smash Bros. Melee player Mang0 of Cloud 9 Gaming recently took home the gold medal at Royal Flush 2017. The tournament’s viewership was fairly modest throughout the tournament, but by the time grand finals rolled around the viewer count spiked to an impressive 73,000. While Mang0 is a perennial crowd favorite for his flashy, yet intelligent play and his devil-may-care attitude, I think there was another factor at work drawing eyeballs to his Mother’s Day victory: the appeal of a dominant champion turned underdog.

People love an underdog, as the saying goes, but there’s often an emotional investment to trying to cheer on a player or team with the odds stacked against them. For every Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs breaking their decades-long curses, there are many more across various competitive fields that wither and die in the early stages without achieving anything. Is it really worth cheering on someone who loses in the first round of a tournament every time? If it is, there’s typically some other element to consider: regional loyalty, character loyalty, etc.

But when it’s a known commodity, i.e. a former champion with a record of winning but who’s fallen off more recently, then there’s a different appeal at work. Think of Michael Jordan on the Washington Wizards, an aged George Foreman, or JulyZerg in Starcraft: Brood War. In each case, they arrived to make up for a loss of physical prowess with skill, experience, and ingenuity, but in their pushes for victory one thing was certain: though they fell behind, there is historical evidence of an “it” factor: the will to win, and the potential to snatch victories from the jaws of defeat.

In a certain sense, cheering for former champions become a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too. People cheer for underdogs, yes, but they also like to cheer for winners. When you have a former great, you get the best of both worlds. They’re a comforting pick because, even if they lose, a person can simply look back in time and say, “But I know they have what it takes!”

Mang0 is not the same as the examples I gave above. He’s still a top 3 player in his game, and slumps are often exaggerated in the world of eSports because the concept is so young and people think 3 months is a long time. However, if it were a true veteran of the past who enjoys legendary status such as Liquid’Ken, the “King of Smash,”  then I believe even more spectators would have flocked to Royal Flush.

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. 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.

Dutch Starcraft League Cheerfuls

The past two years, I’ve attended the Dutch anime con, “Anime Con,” but this year I decided to mix it up a bit and go primarily to the Dutch Starcraft League Finals, which was happening as a part of the Anime Con. It was a fun event, and I got to meet such great personalities as Madals, Kaelaris, and even German champion Hasuobs, who was actually there not for the tournament but for the anime con. Also of course congratulations to the winner Harstem, who managed to upset in the finals with strong Dark Templar play.

One weird thing about the event was that the cameras broadcasting the event had a tendency to fixate on cute girls (especially if they were in cosplay), as if to say, “Hey, girls watch this too! Isn’t that amazing?!” The funniest thing to come out of this was the fact that the camera would focus on one female cosplayer so much that it failed to actually notice that the guy she was with was Hasuobs.

As it was a Starcraft tournament at an anime con, I thought it only appropriate that I quickly make some cheerfuls combining both hobbies together.