With all of the Splatoon 2 I’ve played as of late (It’s a great game, if you’ve got a Nintendo Switch you ought to check it out.) I got to thinking about previous multiplayer shooters I’ve gone back to again, and again, and again. I’ve reviewed a number of them on this blog, and in some previous ones I’ve had over the years. Obviously I talked a lot about the features, modes, how they work, and how these make for a good game.
But over my life growing up with games, I’ve found I get very competitive. More so with myself than opponents. Though I’ll put my best attempt at winning forward, I know, at least in the realm of video games, I can’t claim to be the top guy. If I were, I could be like the great Chris Jericho cutting amazing promos, and winning e-sports championships. (Seriously, Chris Jericho is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. That’s one of my favorite of his promos. It’s great. That feud gave 2012 one of the best WrestleMania shows ever.)
Where was I? Oh right. Competitive gaming. More particularly why do I find it so compelling? It’s hard to describe really. Depending on the game there could be one or many goals. You may have to fill a role on a team, and work well with everyone else while focusing on your task. But you have to be well-rounded enough to pick up the slack if someone else falls. In another game it could be a free-for-all where you only have to focus on your own performance, hopefully being a cut above everyone else in the match. It could be a one on one game like a fighting game, where you have to not only continually hone your own skills, but be aware of both your own weaknesses, and your opponent’s weaknesses.
Then you have the cerebral aspect of strategy. In an actual strategy game it might be about managing resources, properly placing units, and making contingency plans in case your current plan of action doesn’t pan out. But there are different layers of strategy in any game. In a turf war round in Splatoon 2, you may decide to paint your side thoroughly, and slowly push ahead with a defensive focus. Or you could decide to just rush ahead, and get early claim at the middle ground. Then hope you can hold it, while touching up all you’ve skipped at the start. Or you could send two people ahead, and leave two behind. What load outs does everyone have? You could create a plan of action around your armaments. There is a lot more to think about than you might realize.
I remember way back in 2004, when I first got Unreal Tournament 2004. I had played the first game (commonly referred to as UT99) to death working at a OEM at the time. I loved it so much, I was excited to pick up the 2003 edition, and of course the 2004 version was lauded for ironing out some balance issues, adding new modes, and options. Though some weren’t fans of its omission of a few features in the process. But I digress. I had decided I wanted to get better at the game. Not to be a professional player (which wasn’t as common as it is today. There was no Twitch. There were a handful of major tournaments, and a number of smaller, regional ones. The major competitor back then was Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, and chances were I was never going to go up against him on TV. Obviously, I never have.) but just to be able to get a win online occasionally. To not always be at the bottom of the scoreboard. Also to beat my coworkers.
Anyway, I decided that I was going to improve by focusing on one weapon in the game, and becoming proficient with it. That weapon was the Bio-Rifle. It was probably the least popular weapon in the original game, and so in the world of 2003/2004 not much more. People were enamored with stalwarts like the Flak Cannon, or the Mini-gun or the Shock Rifle (Those shock combos are known to clear rooms.). But I found the weapon to be pretty cool once I started getting a handle on it. In the Unreal Tournament games, every weapon has two firing modes. The Flak Cannon shoots shrapnel, or a bomb. The Shock Rifle shoots a laser, or an orb. You can shoot the orb with the laser to make an explosion. In the case of the Bio-Rifle you can shoot slime on the ground, walls, ceilings, etc. If people touch it, they get injured. But, you can hold the secondary fire, you can charge a single glob of slime. When you let go of the button, it shoots it off in an arc. If that glob touches someone, more often than not they’ll die, or be on their last 5% of health.
Each version of Unreal Tournament has a different design, and physics for the weapon, so you can’t expect to be a whiz overnight going from UT to UT2004 or from UT2004 to UT3. But the point is it became my de facto weapon in the series. And I honestly became pretty good with it. I was no Fatal1ty by any means, but I started finding myself in the top 5 in a full death match game of 20 people more often than not. At least on public games. Well imagine my surprise when a couple of other players noticed this, and asked me to be on their team. I ended up not only improving my own skills for my own personal goals. But I impressed players who were even better than I was. As someone who has always had self-confidence issues, low self-esteem, and other problems this was a pleasant surprise to me. Anyway, for a good four years or more we frequently played against other teams in scrim, and had fun trying to master the game together. Improving trick jumping skills, getting better at other modes, and mods. At one point our head player rented server space where we had our own public server, where we hosted our own maps. They weren’t the best maps. But they were our own!
We disbanded after the UT series went dormant where others moved onto other games. Though from time to time I may see them online playing something else. But the bigger point is that competitive games can really drive you to want to keep playing them when their formulas gel with you. Some of the early Battlefield games were like that for me. Chivalry: Medieval Warfare was like that for me. It may have had some issues that kept it from perfection, but it was a blast to play, and the melee combat was, and still is quite novel. Not too many games make swinging a sword deeper than a left mouse button click. Toxikk was probably one of the better attempts to bring back the movement focused arena shooting that the Quake, and Unreal games gave us.
But even long before these games I’ve found competitive games compelling. As a teenager, and young adult I gorged on Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, World Heroes, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Virtua Fighter, and other fighting games. I loved Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Rise Of The Triad campaigns. I loved calling my friend via a modem, and 1v1 deathmatching even more. I’m not the biggest sports fan out there, as a casual fan. But NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, NHL Hitz, and Sega Soccer Slam gave some of the most intense gaming moments ever when they were new.
Even when I was growing up, there were a plethora of great competitive games I played with my younger brother. And I’ll admit, I often hated it when he’d beat me. Here I was, putting in time to try to master stealth, and ricochet tactics in tank mode on Combat. He somehow just knew where I was on the screen. To this day, I cannot defeat him in Warlords, one of my favorite Atari 2600 games of all time. And this is a man who rarely gets the game time I do, due to the fact that he owns, and operates a small business. Sometimes you just end up with a sibling who picks a game up like it’s second nature.
Be that as it may, whether you’re going for a high score in Kaboom!, trying to place first on Rainbow Road, or blow up the enemy cache in Insurgency, there’s something enthralling about competing against friends or strangers. There’s the joyous feeling of riding high when you’re victorious. There’s the humbling nature of a soul-crushing defeat. There’s a stressful, yet entertaining feeling you get when it’s neck, and neck, and that last second, or last frag, or last goal is about to transpire.
Obviously, not all of us handle a loss like a civilized person. I would argue that at one time or another we’ve all been guilty of this. Flipping the chess board. Screaming like a petulant five-year old. But there’s no place for the awful stuff some spew over a chat microphone. You never know who is on the other end of a headset, so one really needs to behave as if they were walking through a crowded mall. Not be a nuisance who is going to regret saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Fortunately, in most cases you can mute all of the instigators. But in the end sometimes it pays to remind oneself to take the loss like a grown up. Set down the controller afterward, and go do something else for an hour or two. Competition should feel exciting, and even cutthroat at times. But it should also come with a feeling of enjoyment. If it stops feeling fun, it’s time to take a breather.
Of course, there are going to be those who get a rise out of getting others upset in any given game. And it ruins the experience. But this falls in line a bit with sore losing too. In the sense that after the round ends, stop playing, do something else. Don’t rage quit, and further worsen things for other people. Don’t flip out, and give the bullies what they want. You have to be the bigger person. Which is admittedly easier said than done sometimes. That’s what made this classic Family Guy moment so funny.
In spite of these circumstances, I still find myself constantly going back to competitive games. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy solitary experiences. I like a single-player experience as much as the next player. And in some cases one could argue, you can even get competitive with yourself. Can you speed run a game faster than before? Can you get the best possible ending? Can you find every last item? Can you complete every side quest? Can you get a kill screen going for a high score? Can you speed run a kill screen?
But the point is competition is one of the highlights of gaming. Sure, not every game needs to cram a death match or tower defense mode into it. Especially in games where a story driven experience is the focal point. But competition can be its own reward. Giving players a drive to improve, little by little with every match. Learning more about the mechanics, or building a strategy with each setback. Getting that feeling of accomplishment waving over them with their first big win.
And you don’t have to be a professional player to get that kind of experience. You can find it in your inner circle of friends, and relatives on game night. Or on a holiday gathering. Or when you all get out of work at 9pm. Competitive games are also something anyone can enjoy. You don’t always have the time to devote to a 60 hour RPG, or a 10 hour campaign. But most of us can squeeze in an hour of ten minute matches into an otherwise busy week with friends.
But I’ve done enough long-winded rambling. Hopefully I’ve opened up a point of conversation, or have given someone something to think about. What about you? Do you have the drive to pop more balloons in Circus Atari than your siblings? Get more frags than your friends in Quake? Shut down your Aunt in Mario Kart? Sound off below.