My Darker Competitive Side

My hands hurt from holding my mouse so tightly and my heart’s pounding. In a few seconds, I will be wiped out by several siege tanks, but I don’t know this yet and what I don’t know is killing me. It’s a mirror match for 1v1 ladder play in StarCraft 2. I just placed platinum in the previous game and although I should be pleased, all I’m doing is panicking instead. Whoever said the most stressful part of SC2 multiplayer were the initial five placement matches hasn’t played afterwards–or at least hasn’t played them as someone as competitive as me.

The enemy appears as I’m debating taking a third expansion to support my burgeoning army. As I see him coming down the map, my mind stops and my stomach sinks. Seconds become minutes as I realize I am about to lose.

And lose I do. His units stream into my base, breaking through my expansion and destroying my mineral line. Dozens of SCVs are slaughtered before I can react. In horror, I watch as he overwhelms me and proceeds up the ramp to tear apart my poorly placed defenses. I load my remaining army up into Medivacs and try to go drop them behind his base, but it’s too little and much too late. He’s already on my Command Center and it’s about to be over. I exhale sharply when the score screen finally pops up and finally let go of my mouse. Our scores are nearly identical in many areas and if you watch the replay–as I would, many times after to analyze each little mistake I made–you will see that there are several times I would have won if I had pushed.

But I didn’t push. I didn’t win. I lost because wasted too much time. I hesitated and I played the match poorly.

It’s only after a few hours that I even think to look him up on It turns out he’s a top-ranked diamond player, the only league above platinum in StarCraft 2. It’s in hindsight, away from the heat of the moment, that I admit I was too hard on myself–and also way too serious about a video game. The sad thing is, this is not an entirely new revelation for me.

Some people play for the plot, others play for the experience, and I play to achieve. When I play games, I’ve always played for the win. I don’t know how to see the bigger picture, to appreciate the multilayered whole. Where others see engrossing characters and vibrant landscapes, all I see is the victory line and what it will take me to get there. I can’t be calm in multiplayer games and they are never relaxing for me. I’m bad enough that I could probably take the recently announced breathing simulation called Innergy that Ubisoft is making for the Kinect and turn it into a competition if given the opportunity.

I blame my DNA a lot, frequently joking that I’m a lost cause–that I must just have an extremely competitive allele somewhere in my genes. It would be fitting and unsurprising if that were true. But I also suspect it’s a byproduct of environment, one part learned reaction and one part genetics. Whatever the case, it’s extremely detrimental to gaming at times.

When I was younger, I lost a game of Candy Land. My brilliant six year old reaction was to grab the board and snap it in half. If I couldn’t win in Candy Land, no one could. A few years later, on a vacation in Hawaii with my best friend in an arcade, I lost a game of Tekken 3 and I stormed out. As a Street Fighter devotee, I’d never even played Tekken before that, but I couldn’t believe I lost. And, while playing Counter-Strike competitively in my youth, I would get so high-strung that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself for days if I messed up. I will always remember the scrim where I miscalculated the allotted time and let the bomb explode because I was too busy faking a diffuse, assuming the Terrorist player would come back to snipe me while I was busy snipping wires. It was just the two of us and my adrenaline spiked, clouding my judgment. He never did come back–it turns out he had less health than me and just ducked out, not wanting to risk it–and I cost us an entire round with my indecision.

My failure haunted me. My team placed hope in me and I let them down.

Truthfully, all I’d really done was let myself down. I shouldn’t have cared so much, it was just a game. Hours after the match, while everyone else was scrimming into the late night and having fun, I was off being sullen and regretful at that particular LAN party. It soured my entire night to lose a round, even though we won the overall match. I could not see the entirety–instead all I saw was that small miscalculation I made on de_dust. It replayed in my head several times and I couldn’t explain why. After a while, my friend came up to me in the adjacent room and explained they were doing a knife-only round on de_aztec for fun. “You should go back inside, everyone misses you,” he said.

Then he said, “You know, you might take games a little too seriously. Maybe you should stop doing that.”

It was good advice, I just didn’t know how to take them any less than seriously at the time.

As the years progressed, I’ve learned to tone it down. I’m done with the days of 100% completions or insanity runs. When I beat Mass Effect 2, I played it on normal difficulty and didn’t think twice. I knew if I started down the insane difficulty path, I would have had a lot less fun with the overall storyline and immersion the title provided. A couple months ago, I started playing Super Street Fighter IV and I made sure I didn’t go overboard. While I researched some moves for Chun-Li and made sure I had some good counters, I purposely avoided online play. I knew the beast within me wouldn’t be sated if she ever got started and I didn’t want to be forced to shell out money for a gamepad. I’ve also made sure that while I play Team Fortress 2 well, I never join a clan. I know if I actually started to get competitive, it wouldn’t be enough to just have a nice kill to death ratio or to help defend a capture point. I would have to have it all.

Part of why I try so hard to reign myself in is that it feels like games get forever ruined for me when I take them to the level of intensity mirroring my Counter-Strike years. To err is human and I err quite a bit in this sense. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is a particularly good example of a more recent incident where I did not keep my competitive nature in check.

At WoW’s launch, I initially intended to play casually with friends. For several months, I was successful in this endeavor. But then I fell into the wrong crowd at random, becoming a member of one of the top guilds in the world where I got a few world firsts and lost a lot of sleep in the process–sleep I really wish I could get back. I remember being so into the game at one point that I would keep my speakers on so people could wake me up through ventrilo for impromptu world boss raids. They would wake me up almost every day. I would obsess over min-maxing, worry if I made a mistake, and stay up for hours thinking about certain boss fights. It was a disaster and, after over a year, I quit playing on that level. Playing World of Warcraft quickly became a chore and rarely fun, the very nature the spirit of gaming was against.

But from that point on, even after I shelved my top progression character, I couldn’t play the game like a normal person. Each top ranked kill had altered the game to an unplayable degree and there had been so many of them. I couldn’t wipe in a normal dungeon after playing with skilled players–it was too much of a regression. It was the difference between night and day. As I would discover, there was no going back to a casual player after being so hardcore.

I kept coming back, though, even in knowing this and genuinely disliking the game. And each time I found myself joining similar guilds–while they weren’t as serious as the original guild, they still fit the definition of extremely hardcore. In each guild in each expansion, I would compete for top ranked world kills against my better judgment and spend hours outside of raids playing the game. The game was almost a job and I barely liked it. In The Burning Crusade, I spent six days straight raiding the Eredar Twins in Sunwell on a Restoration Druid for a hopeful top five world kill. In Wrath of the Lich King, I became an officer of another guild that would push similarly. I even grinded out The Insane title with the advent of achievements, because it was a sign of dedication and mastery of the game. I don’t think I even had much fun spending hundreds of hours killing endless pirates for reputation, searching for rare drops like Pristine Black Diamonds, and running Dire Maul over three hundred times. In fact, it was really quite tedious.

However, that didn’t stop me from doing it.

It didn’t stop me from doing it because, for me, gaming is about the end game like I said earlier. I want to be first, I want to be one of the best, and I will do anything to get there. My hunger knows no bounds and it’s up to me to put my foot down. When playing Mario Kart against my cousin nearly a decade ago, I remember fist pumping after I beat him and got the gold. I literally turned around and told him that I “totally owned him.” My entire family just stared at my thirteen year old self–they could never understand. Honestly, I’m not sure I even understand. It was just Mario Kart, after all.

Whether it was DNA or learned responses, though, all I know is what I knew back then: I’m a competitive person and it’s in my blood. At least now I also know that I can reign it in if I try.

I never explained how my StarCraft 2 ladder loss really ended. After spending the entire night watching the replay, hemming and hawing at my mistakes, I logged off and took a few days vacation from the game. I almost uninstalled. I’m still playing mostly 2v2s, considering doing placement matches with my partner. But I don’t think I’ll do 1v1s again for a while, at least until I’m sure I won’t get obsessed with victory. Six games was enough for my competitive side to start rearing again and I’m not going down that road again. The last thing I really need now, in a world where gaming is supposed to be fun and I have a real full-time job, is another Counter-Strike.

Or another Candy Land.