I’m a 99.75 percentile player in Blizzard’s latest game, a MOBA called Heroes of the Storm. It’s a fast paced and unforgiving player versus player competitive game, following in the tradition of its forebears, League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients. Brutal but intensely exciting, these games inspire millions of players to sink thousands of hours into practicing and honing their skills in an endless quest to improve themselves and vanquish their foes.
I’ve been hooked on competitive games ever since I played my first Quake death-match 19 years ago. It’s been a lonely journey, in some ways, as very few people understand the draw these games have on players like us, but it’s also been fascinating and eye opening trip.
While MOBAs are held to be the epitome of competitive games – this year’s DOTA2 annual tournament features a 17 million dollar prize pool, for example – there are other genres which have fostered similarly fanatic communities over the years.
Guild Wars was my first foray into competitive gaming. New players were thrown into a situation not unlike what fresh job seekers have to face – you could only compete in the Hall of Heroes PVP if you entered with a full team of 8 players. However, as a brand new player, no team would take you because you had no experience. But if you can’t play on a team, you will never gain the experience you need. Chicken and egg problem indeed.
I started from the bottom, joining the lowest tier teams, watching and learning. It’s true what they say, as a beginner, that you stand to learn more from a poor magician than a skilled magician. I watched a lot of bad leaders, and observed the mistakes they made. I met better ones, and observed them too. I played, networked and made friends, my consistently strong performance serving as a ticket to playing with stronger and stronger teams. Eventually I got scouted by a player on a top team that was ranked 35th in the world – and finally had a place to call home.
I was quickly inducted into the rarefied environment of high end PVP. One popular strategy was called Ranger Spike, which consisted of a team of 5 Ranger primaries and 3 healers, and revolved around precisely coordinating a burst of lethal damage on the enemy kill target within a 0.3 second kill window before the enemy healer could react with a protective Reversal or other deflection spell. Because timing was so critical, we would run timing calibration checks for all players before each match – the team leader would count down, “ready, two, one, go” – and because each player had a different latency on voice chat and different latency to the server, each player had to judge for themselves when they had to fire their weapon against the leader’s count so everyone’s arrows struck their target in unison. We’d warm up until we could reliably hit our arrow volley with split second timing, after factoring in the roughly 100ms latency to the voice server and 200ms latency to the game server.
Only the most talented players in the world could lead a Ranger Spike team properly. The leader has a limited viewpoint into the battlefield (as he’s playing a character himself) and it’s pure chaos – 8 friendly and 8 enemy players darting this way and that, a shifting mass of probability lines. He has to decisively pick an exposed target that all 5 Rangers on his team can draw direct line of sight to fire upon. The enemy will be holding a shifting pattern of movement in and out of cover to break up line of sight firing solutions. So many things could go wrong: the attack would fail if even 1 Ranger lost line of sight of the target or had his attack interrupted. The enemy could deliberately expose a player, an obvious bait, who then quickly vanishes back into cover before you can coordinate a spike against them. At the same time, the enemy is also jockeying for position, attempting to draw good lines of sight to coordinate a burst against one of your own players. The leader has to keep up a constant stream of chatter, selecting target after target, giving instructions: he has to inspire trust and confidence in his ability to lead, shepherding his team through setbacks – especially during a recovery phase if they lose a player and have to regroup. The leader has to keep talking in order to sustain everyone’s focus and attention, and to give the impression that everything is under control and proceeding to plan. When everyone’s attack skills are poised and ready for your command, and you’re still scanning the shifting battlefield trying to pick a good target, you need icy cold nerves and patience to wait for the right target to present itself. Picking a target prematurely could lead to failure, but waiting too long might mean the enemy finds their target first and kills one of your members.
The very best leaders, however – and the one I played under was certainly very good – had the ability, I would say, something similar to what Mazer displayed in Ender’s Game – the ability to see the “eye” of the enemy. At this level of play, all 8 players will be acting as a single fluid entity, but all their actions and reactions are directed from the perspective of the leader. By observing the actions and counter moves of the team as a whole, you can tell which of the 8 players is the leader. Once you’ve identified the leader, you can put attacking pressure on him, either killing him or forcing him to stay defensively in cover, hindering his vision and thus hampering his ability to lead. Some teams deliberately hide the leader in an unexpected role, for example a back line healer.
Guild Wars was a fantastic competitive game. We got to face some of the best – we faced the 2nd ranked team in the world a couple of times. They practically invented the strategies we were using, and of course we lost – they’d gone on to refine the ideas to a level we hadn’t even imagined.
Eventually I moved to World of Warcraft.
There were two PVP games initially, Arathi Basin – a 15 vs 15 game with each team battling for possession of 5 control points, and Warsong Gulch – a 10 vs 10 capture the flag scenario. I found I had a natural talent for both the tactical and strategic aspect of these games, and I started a premade group that soon developed a large following – my 15 man team would fill up nearly immediately when I logged on, and sometimes people would be willing to wait hours for the chance to play in my group.
The challenges facing PVP leaders in World of Warcraft was of a different nature – this time, it was one of scale and complexity instead of coordination. The battlegrounds were very large, which meant that I could only directly see a small fraction of it at once, most of it outside my field of view. I would liken it to playing blindfold chess – imagine playing chess with an opponent, but you don’t have a chessboard in front of you, you each just call out the moves you want to make, and each player has to keep track in their mind where all the individual pieces were. I was completely reliant on the reports from my team over voice chat to tell me where the enemies were and what they were doing: I would divide my players into various sized teams to scout / capture various objectives, and they would report back to me on voice chat what kind of resistance they were facing. Based on their feedback, and through a process of elimination, I would piece together the enemy’s movements and strategies, figuring out what their plan was – then decisively formulate a response and give instructions to the different teams in the field to carry out, whether to attack, defend, fall back, split up or join another team. This is the opposite to leading in Guild Wars: the leader there had to chatter non stop, while here I had to spend most of my time listening, only giving orders when I absolutely had to deviate from our prepared strategy.
The older, traditional strategies revolved around splitting the team into offensive and defensive groups, with the attackers conquering territory and the defenders securing and holding territory. My teams ran something newer, a highly aggressive strategy I called “full contact”, with every single player devoted to offense – I considered the idea of defense to be outmoded. Players standing around doing nothing were a waste of resources. Even reactive defense – where you react to an enemy’s attack by defending – was an outmoded idea. Right from the start my team would alpha strike the enemy with a devastating attack (since I had twice as much devoted to offense as the average team) and I myself – playing a hunter – would play a sweeper / interceptor role, scouting for stragglers and stealthers and interpreting intelligence coming from my team. Instead of passively “defending” locations and waiting for the enemies to show up, I would pre-emptively predict where the enemy was planning to attack, and intercept them before they got there. You’re NOT meant to react to what the enemy is doing: you want to force the enemy to react to you, so you’re always in the driver’s seat, you always have the initiative. A large component of winning in this game is psychological – once the enemy is in a defensive-centric mode of thought, they will begin to commit players to defend the most heavily attacked areas, as seems logical. Here’s the point at which we win: my team reports defender numbers at each location, and they’re effectively cut off from each other – we simply redeploy and attack them where they’re weak, and leave them to uselessly “defend” their other strongholds against no one.
The other challenge I faced was actually playing my own character: a typical class needed 20 skills available at will for twitch response, and maybe another 20 skills available for general use. Combat was a lot faster paced than in Guild Wars, and if I was fully engaged in combat, there was no way I could be devoting any time towards directing the rest of my team. It’s for this reason I usually played the Hunter class, stealthed in the rearmost defensive position – a role that sees only sporadic combat, if at all. Some entire games passed without me seeing combat at all, the entire game played out in a kind of zen back and forth over voice comms as I directed my players across the battlefield and visualized the ebb and flow of battle in my mind.
You could definitely tell if the enemy team was leaderless, just a group of 15 players swarming over the battlefield, each acting and reacting to what they individually saw around them. Sometimes, though, as reports of enemy movements came in over the comms, I could sense the malevolent intelligence guiding their movements and actions, enemy players making decisions which could only have come from someone with a wider perspective.
With the Burning Crusade expansion, Blizzard introduced organized 5v5 arena matches, small team based combat in a tiny gladiatorial arena.
An example of the information overload facing team leaders in World of Warcraft 5v5 Arena – the GUI is chock full of customized information, cascading over the screen in a waterfall of data in real time. As the leader you need to track the cooldown timers of every ability on every player on either team, so you know the safe windows for spell-casting through enemy interrupts.
This game mode brought information overload to an entirely new level – there was a staggering amount of information the leader had to track and make decisions on. Watch the video linked above: every piece of information displayed cascading and blinking over the screen is potentially useful to your decision making. I started a team, then another, and then another, becoming not just a player, or leader, but also a team manager. It was interesting, having to keep the teams in an equilibrium of sorts. There’s pressure to fire the under-performing players, but being too quick to dump them demonstrates my lack of loyalty towards my team, and in turn breeds disloyalty to me. Yet keeping under-performing players around demoralizes my better players, making it more likely they get poached by other teams. I ended my WoW career with my teams rated in the top 10% worldwide (Rival ranking)
Today I’m playing Heroes of the Storm, and enjoying the competitive aspect of it. At 3500 MMR, I’m in the top 1,000 players out of around 500,000 rated players in the US. I’ve been matched with and against some of the top players in the world – like players from Tempostorm, who’ve won something like 18 out of the last 20 tournaments they’ve participated in. In the ANZ finals qualifier for the Blizzcon World Championship, I recognized 7 out of 10 players as players I have played with and against in my normal matches since we’re not rated too far apart – and 3 of them were on my friends list.
But nothing lasts forever; I am getting slower. Response time declines with age, starting at around age 22. At 250 milliseconds today, I’m no longer as fast as I was 10 years ago. At high levels of play, even a 50 millisecond difference in response time is hindrance: a 100 millisecond difference is awful. This is why you don’t often see competitive players past the age of 25. Mental stamina declines as well – it’s a young person’s game, really. Games in the top 0.25 percent are very draining. It’s not just you: you’re playing with a highly oiled and polished machine of 4 other players on voice comms, executing strategies and reacting as single unit, feinting and striking in lockstep. You’re invariably playing against another team of highly skilled players at the top of their game. It’s wonderfully exciting and it gets your heart pumping like nothing else.
Still, I’d like to think that what we lose in reflexes we compensate for in cunning and experience.
Example of high level play (all Rank 1) with my team – the blue team on the left waits in ambush and baits us (red team) into a blind engagement. We take the bait, and they immediately pop out and hit our Illidan and ETC with a brutal coordinated burst of Lunar Blaze + Hunter’s Mark + Entangling Roots + Starfall + Sindragosa + Wailing Arrow + Rain of Vengeance in the span of 1 second. We lose our front line tank, but quickly regroup and retaliate, winning the fight. There is absolute economy of movement and near perfect coordination, positioning and targeting. At this level, everyone’s individual mechanics are as good as they get: no one missteps, or fails to hit a skillshot – what determines the winner is how well you move and defend together as a team of five, with a kind of group consciousness.
Competitive MOBA players are special breed, I think, players with a penchant for self punishment nearly unique among all other genres in computer games. The matching system tries to find players “fair” matches: matches in which both players are equally skilled, and as a result, equally likely to win or lose. You get players who put in an intense effort to win, and end up losing – and losing isn’t pleasant. See, in nearly every other game genre, you go in, you play, it’s a near 100% positive experience, you’re making incremental progress, you’re seeing more of the story. A competitive game ends in disaster nearly 50% of the time, with you sliding backwards in ranking.
I would say a MOBA isn’t a game. It’s a test. You’re testing yourself, your reflexes, strategy, cunning, against other people who are just as determined to win. And so every night we come home, and we test ourselves in battle against the best players in the world, and for what? It’s lonely, to a degree, because of my inability to explain it. In a world where every expenditure of time seemingly has to be justified, I am unable to justify a game I’ve spent nearly a thousand hours on. What have I learned from this, this relentless honing and sharpening of the mind in futile combat against an imaginary foe? Most entertainment exists for you to recharge and relax: this is the opposite, where I will only start to play if I’m already in peak physical and mental condition. I can’t afford to be playing at anything less than my absolute best. Some people play games as a distraction or escape from the world: this is the opposite, I can only play once I’ve resolved all my responsibilities and distractions in the world, otherwise I can’t possibly be in the right frame of mind.
There were only 2 fully committed teamfights – the one shown earlier, and this one. This was a last ditch attempt by the blue team to score an objective turn in even though they knew they would likely lose the fight. We intercept them and take them apart in seconds. At higher levels of play fully committed teamfights are rare – there’s the maxim that combat only occurs when both teams think they can win: but only one team can end up being correct. Good team captains rarely make mistakes, and so combat is also rare.
So if I’m to summarize what I’ve learned from competitive gaming, here it is:
1) Get used to failure. Learn to deal with it and use failure effectively without it impacting your emotional state. Only the enemy can show you where you are weak, it is only through failure that they show you how to be stronger.
2) Don’t get stuck at a local maximum. It’s a mathematical optimization term. Think about climbing a mountain: logically, you will keep heading upwards and you’ll get to the top. But there are some smaller peaks along the way, and if you have that mentality you’ll get to a lower peak, and get stuck there, because there’s no way to go higher without first heading downwards. It’s the same with learning to win: sometimes, you may have to abandon strategies and ideas that seem to work and unlearn them, and in the process you will get discouraged when you find you are losing to players you used to beat before. It feels like you’re moving backwards, and it’s even more discouraging when you don’t know if you’re actually going to find a better path.
3) There will always be someone better than you, so you should always be humble and keep an open mind to new ideas: someone could teach you something unexpected.
4) You have to spend time with and observe people better than you to progress. The game puts you into matches with players of your skill level. They are your peers, and thus have little to teach you because by definition you’re all at a similar skill level. It’s the same with life: people generally mix with their peers, whether at work or socially. It’s easy to get stuck in a certain mindset and think, well this is all there is, this is the best we can do. If you have the opportunity to spend time or mix with more successful people – and I don’t mean success only in terms of money – make sure you treasure that and treat your relationships with respect.