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Saturday
May092009

Stanford Seminar on Gaming

On Friday I was a speaker/panelist at a Stanford University event called How They Got Game put on by Professor Henry Lowood of the Libraries and Academic Information Resources department. The theme was professional gaming, examined from several angles. We looked at the perspective of players and how they prepare for events, the challenges of managing teams and entire gaming leagues, and how to take professional gaming to the next level in North America.

Annie "Exstasy" Leung talked about the gaming competitions she's been involved in for the last four years, including Unreal Tournament 3 and Guitar Hero. She emphasized that practicing long hours was vitally important, and that playing games at home is quite a different matter than playing them at a competition with all the noise and distractions. She said she tried to create distractions at home while practicing to simulate this, and at events sometimes wears those big helicopter pilot earphones with tons of noise-canceling.

A professional Fifa player (his name isn't on the schedule, I'll add if when I find out his name) talked about the frustrations of having to learn different versions of a game. Fifa on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are very similar, one is a port of the other. But the PC version is substantially different, with different ball physics(!) so playing that is like playing a totally different game. Ball physics and lots of other things also changed between Fifa 08 and Fifa 09, so he said there is really no way to be good at a game with different physics than to practice it endlessly, even if you are already a master of the 08 version. He mentioned one ridiculous tournament where the organizers required the players play the game using a different camera angle for television purposes, but this of course throws out their months (or years) of practice and is clearly unacceptable. Luckily, the later rounds were played using the standard camera angle because the organizers did find a way to broadcast with the camera angle they wanted while the players played using the standard view.

A top European Quake player joined us via video conferencing (his name also doesn't appear on the schedule, I will add it when I find out), and was definitely the most serious out of all of us when it comes to practice. He practices more than most people work full time jobs, and trains specifically for each upcoming event. About a month before a major event, he organizes what he calls a bootcamp where he gets group of gamers together in one house. I think he said about a dozen players, but I'm not sure. He's very picky about how is invited, and he makes sure to pick players that represent a variety of styles: one aggressive, one defensive, one who always does insane and surprising things, and so on. I think he said he intentionally excludes top players who he considers a major threat to him, but I might have misunderstood this (the quality of the video conferencing audio was poor).

I gave an alternate view, reiterating my thoughts on the Evolution 2008 tournament. I placed 5th that year and the year before in Street Fighter, which isn't bad, and had nearly no practice. John Choi placed first and also had very little practice that year, as far as I know. I explained that the notion of practice is a more complicated one that some realize. First, I said that if 10 years ago someone asked me to make a list of all the things you'd need to know to win a tournament in Street Fighter, I would have written down only things that exist inside the game. But now I would write down many things outside the game, such as getting into the right mental state, understanding ideas applicable to any strategy game (attack the opponent's weak spots, wait out the opponent to make him tired, harass him to make him annoyed, etc), learning how to read opponents, and so on. There are so many skills you can develop in one game, then take with you to another, that you have a big headstart in that second game and get away with practicing less than people realize.

There's two more twists though. The next is that yes, there is no way around practicing a lot, even given that last paragraph. Professor Lowood asked about where our games fit on the spectrum of running a sprint to competing in gymnastics. What he meant is that anyone can wander into a sprinting race and do well instantly, if they happen to be in good physical shape. The barrier to entry is relatively low because it's at least possible to be good instantly for some people. But in gymnastics, it is impossible to be good immediately no matter who you are. It requires learning choreographed routines and developing extensive muscle memory, so there is no way to even compete without practice. I responded that practically every competitive game I can think of is on the gymnastics side. Even though I said that bit about many skills transferring from game to game, there is no way around spending the time it takes to learn all the faces of a game and develop instant, unconscious, correct responses during gameplay.

But the other twist, in my opinion, is that in a fairly mature game, it's possible to reach a level where very little practice is needed anymore. Maybe I would have done even better than 5th if I actually practiced, maybe Choi would have done even better than 1st(??), but really it seemed like a mental contest between me and my opponents. I know where they stand in the game, because I know pretty much all the top opponents. I know where I stand. As long as I'm reasonably in shape for the event, the game itself feels like just a tool for the underlying mental competition. I even felt my choice of character didn't matter, the various characters I play are all roughly equally viable tools. This entire proposition was definitely counter to what the other attendees said, and I could be wrong about it, but I offer it as something to think about.

There was a lot of talk about how to bring games to the mainstream. Dave Geffon was there (former General Manager of the Championship Gaming Series) and Alexander Garfield. CGS is now defunct, and each of them now run competing gaming leagues, but they also joined together to form an umbrella organization called G7, which allows gaming leagues to create a unified front when trouble arises, like a tournament not paying out prizes on time. There was a lot of talk about the fall of CGS and what that means for us all. That was big money from News Corp spent on taking professional gaming to television, and in the end it didn't work. Alex pointed out the obvious problems of trying to reach the demographic with television, considering the target market are the same people who play games and torrent any tv shows or movies that they watch. He and several others there proposed that maybe gaming just isn't ready for tv here and that focusing on streaming matches on the web might just make more sense.

Another related topic was about the problems of making professional gaming interesting to television viewers, even if you can actually get the viewers. Some proposed that maybe hardcore gamers will always reject it as "inauthentic" no matter what. I rejected this as a false dichotomy, saying that authenticity requires only two things: 1) tournament rules that aren't horrible and 2) open tournaments. We had already covered the problem of many gaming leagues using laughable rulesets, such as playing on maps that the competitive community for that game totally rejects, or banning a bunch of things for no reason, and so on. The simple solution here is to have some clue about the game you're running a tournament for and having decent rules. Yes there might have to be changes because of tv, maybe the number of rounds in a match would have to change, or the timer, but this is not insurmountable. Players should be willing to make certain kinds of changes for watchability, but the bigger problem is really tournaments run people people who don't know the games at all, and ruin them with crazy rules.

It's actually the other point that speaks even more to false dichotomy I'm claiming there is between "authentic pro-gaming" and "can be watched on tv." That's the point about having open tournaments. I have always pushed for the Evolution Fighting Game Championships to remain open, meaning anyone can show up to play. An invitational tournament is just another word for a fake tournament. Sure it can have entertainment value, but it's inauthentic. A real tournament would allow anyone to compete, and let the best players--the authentic ones--to rise to the top. Invitational tournaments are tests of how well you play politics or who you know, and are in my opinion, a disgrace to competitive games. I gave as a specific example the Dead or Alive tournament that took place at Treasure Island near San Francisco, sponsored by CGS. David Geffon, who was sitting right next to me, was involved in that. I said it was a great example of "not a real tournament" and "totally inauthentic" because I tried to compete in it but was told I was not one of those "invited." Disgraceful and phony.

Geffon offered the counterpoint that if the goal is to be on television, that using the actual gamers is not going to work because they are generally ugly and lack personality. That's why television versions of professional gaming try to pick those who will have the most appeal. I objected to this manufactured-boy-band method, saying that's exactly why gamers reject such shows because they can sniff out the fakeness of it all. But more to the point, I explained that the fighting game community is incredibly diverse, featuring pot-selling gang members, a suave pre-med genius, death metal fans, stereotypical shy asians, muscular rowdy partiers, and so on. Why in the world would you need to manufacture interesting characters when the actual authentic players are already so diverse and interesting? Maybe this is not true in other genres? I think Geffon actually said "yeah, not so much," though I might have heard him wrong. Perhaps counter-strike and warcraft3 have really homogeneous, boring players, I don't really know. (Note that I'm not trying to trash talk Geffon at all here, we were just trying to understand each other's different gaming worlds, I think.)

We seemed to not care about getting to the bottom of that though, because the general sentiment was that maybe television isn't the right move right now anyway for progames, that the web is the way. And regardless of the medium, there is the fundamental challenge of making gaming understandable to more people. DJWheat was with us via video conference, and I was surprised how similar his efforts are to mine. He's a commentator on many pro games in many genres (and was part of CGS as well), and he repeatedly emphasized that he tries to bring this stuff to the common man. Much as I like to translate the arcane world of fighting games to people outside the genre, he does the same for many types of games. While I do that kind of thing on general principle, DJwheat does it as part of a crusade to make competitive gaming more mainstream, damn it! Incidentally, he seemed very authentic when he talked about that.

At one point DJWheat talked about how there's a real disconnect between game developers and pro gaming. He rattled off a whole list of games that are played at the pro level and talked about how every single one of them got there for various anomalous reasons. Valve didn't set out to release a pro gaming game with counter-strike, it just became that through years of grassroots efforts. The consensus was that Valve does nothing substantial to help the game succeed as a tournament game, it's mostly that they don't fuck it up too badly. Meanwhile Blizzard does more than just about anyone, but even they (in his opinion) don't design for pro gaming. I'm a little hazy on that because StarCraft really does seem aimed at that market plus at casuals, but I don't know. Blizzard aside, his point was that no one is really thinking about making a game whose purpose is pro gaming because everyone has other goals like "sell X million copies in the first week because of the story mode" or whatever.

This made me think about the inherent conflict between wanting a game that changes all the time vs. never. I'm actually not talking about patches to fix stuff so much, but entirely new versions (like Call of Duty 2, 3, 4, etc) and endless new cards in Magic: the Gathering or whatever. There's really something to be said for a sport that is what it is and stays that way. StarCraft has succeeded at that and that makes it more similar to something like basketball or baseball than most other games. Call of Duty has completely new versions all the time (by different developers!) for example. Many gamers only want the superficial, so they want something new all the time. New maps, new games, new everything. But pros want a stable base (like StarCraft, Chess, or Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo) that they can spend years and years on. It's no wonder that no one is making a game for pro gaming because that flies in the face of "deliver endless streams of superficially new content" that drives game companies today.

I can envision a different business model. If someone could really come along and make a professional gaming game on purpose (which is apparently never really done), then maybe it could be StarCraft. Maybe it could last for years, become huge, become a spectator sport, even. At the very least, it sounds a lot more interesting to try and fail at that than to try and succeed at making throw-away games that last a year or two.

So, I asked DJWheat, given his vast knowledge of so many genres and how audiences react to them, if he had any ideas about what properties such a game would have to have. If he were in charge of making the first "on purpose professional gaming game" then what things would it have to have? Does it have to have short, 3 minute matches like Street Fighter? Does it have to have 30 minute matches like StarCraft? Does it have to be first person? Does it have to NOT be? Anyway, his answer on all counts was that he doesn't know. He said it seems that so many things can work from fighting games to DOTA to FPS and more. He found it hard to give any rule of thumb or make an definitive statement at all. I think he (and maybe others there) thought that the things surrounding the game had more to do with it than the game itself. Things like, is it easy to record matches? To watch them? Do pros play the same game format as casuals (in TF2, casuals play 32 man while pros play 6 on 6)? There's a whole host of features outside a game that could help or hurt its tournament viability and maybe those things are what matters most. I find that answer unsatisfying, but I admit I don't have much else to offer. Others there only added that it must be simple (frag the enemy a lot before time runs out; play 2 out 3 rounds where you reduce health to zero, etc) and it must be deep, so that new strategies are discovered forever. While true, those things are too obvious and vague to be helpful unfortunately.

Last but not least, Dennis "Thresh" Fong was there for a short while. He had a cocky swagger to him, but when someone is as accomplished as Thresh, I can't really hold it against him. During a break, I asked him about his personality type and playstyle. He said he is ENTP, which was actually pretty obvious once I heard him talk. I asked how he sees himself on planning versus adaptability in games. He said he is far toward the adaptability side, preferring to just jump in and see how it goes. In trying to figure out which personality type would give him trouble (meaning which type would lead to a playstyle that counters his), I asked him about the styles of his rivals back when he played at the pro level. His response: "I had no rivals."

Indeed. Thresh was undefeated in tournaments for 5 years. He won John Carmack's Ferrari in a tournament, soon after appear on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, soon after that got corporate sponsorship in the six figures, and used that money to start his first company. He said he had time to start that company because the part about practicing and beating everyone only took a couple hours per day, tops. So yeah, cocky swagger is justified.

Someone asked how important watching match replays was, and about the reasons people watch them (to improve? for entertainment? something else?). Thresh said that during his 5-year reign he didn't really watch replays and he considered them basically worthless. Part of the reason is that he was beating everyone anyway, so what is the point of watching replays of them? There were no players better than him to watch. The other reason he gave is that watching replays is not very helpful to his method of learning. He said that when he plays a game and someone does something effective against him, he automatically files that way. That particular opponent will not get away with that particular tactic against him anymore. Also, he now knows one more tactic to use against others. By playing a very wide range of opponents, he builds up a very wide range of archived knowledge. He said he is not able to do this by watching and that things only really go into his archive properly if he experiences them first-hand.

He then added that he actually does watch replays now, but it's a different situation. At work, his co-workers were looking for a competitive game they could all play at roughly the same level (can't be a fps or thresh wins autoatically) so they chose StarCraft. Thresh actually does watch replays of pro StarCraft players so he can get a head start on learning top strats. He says he isn't playing StarCraft with even a fraction of the seriousness as Quake. He does play to win of course, but he's not willing to invest the time to truly be a pro, so he uses StarCraft relays to get a good return on the little time he spends on it.

Another interesting thing Thresh said was about people watching replays of him in his pro games. The UK held a tournament to determine the top UK player, then flew Thresh over there to play him, and Thresh won 14 to -1. People watched replays of this match (and many, many other Thresh matches) and concluded that his opponents must all suck. The replays don't show Thresh doing anything especially fancy or technically difficult. He had to explain in many interviews that the score is not representative of skill. What that score of 14 to -1 really meant is that it was a close game, but then Thresh got control of the map and rode it to victory.

Regarding Thresh doing "nothing special," I recognize that as a common cry of the unskilled player in many games. Really what that means is that what Thresh is doing is so far beyond the understanding of the person making that claim, that they just have no idea what's really going on. Thresh said he was known for "Thresh ESP" (which we also know as Daigo's psychic powers or "yomi") and that is why it appears he does nothing special. He always happens to be at just the right place to shoot you easily. When rounding the corner or turning to pick something, he's always "lucky" at being in just the right place to kill you, so no amazing dexterity is really required a lot of the time. Thresh explained that the actual skill here is knowing the opponent so well that you know them even better than they know themselves. Readers of my site are surely familiar with this concept...

That's probably longer of a summary than you wanted to read, so there you go. Thanks to Thresh and all the other attendees and Professor Lowood for organizing the event.

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