eSports. You hear that word thrown around a lot nowadays as the world has come to grow accustomed to the idea of competitive gaming being a “thing.” But every competitive gamer had to start somewhere. If you strip away all the light shows and stages and sold out arenas, you get three things: The players, their opponents, and their game. What are these players’ reasons for getting better? What drives them?
Personal Competitive Gaming
While the timeline for the explosive growth of competitive gaming on the global scale is worthy of its own discussion, let’s instead look at what I like to call “Personal Competitive Gaming.” This concept refers to the desire of an average gamer when playing a game that is competitive in nature. Think of it like a pickup basketball game for your Average Joe. What pushes this gamer to continue improving at their game of choice? They may never be a professional, sponsored player, but maybe they want to be the best in their group of friends. Maybe they want to have the highest score on the leaderboards online. Maybe the game they’re playing has a built-in ranking ladder that they want to climb.
Real World Examples
To provide some context here, I’m a competitive fighting game player. I’ve been playing for a little over 7 years now under the handle “Tsumuji,” and have traveled across the country to play against people. I’ve had the privilege of playing people from France, Chile, Japan, China, and more. And I’m pretty well-known in my local Arizona scene. I just participated in Rewired 2016, a major Arizona tournament, and placed really high. It filled me with a strong competitive spirit and drive to get better, and despite the frequent hills and valleys, I’m still going strong after 7 years.
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, Sal, about his feelings on Overwatch. While Street Fighter is currently my competitive gaming outlet of choice, Sal chose Overwatch and really enjoyed it for awhile. He played daily, climbed the ladders, got in-game rewards, even got his wife to play competitively with him. Over time though, he began to burn out. Just this afternoon I yelled across the hall (we work together), “Hey Sal! Wanna play Overwatch?” And the man who once feverently pursued this passion simply shook his head and said he had work to do. The drive has left him, and he and I wonder why.
So, what’s the difference between he and I, in that regard? Why am I still driven to pursue my game of choice, whereas Sal has burnt out? My theory is that it may be the difference in the games we play. Let’s take a look at the concept of drive and how it relates to modern gaming.
What drives a gamer to increase their proficiency and skill in a game? I alluded to it in a previous section, but let’s go over some basic examples of why someone would get better at one:
- Progression System/In-Game Rewards. Examples: League of Legends, pretty much all Blizzard games, Call of Duty. Many multiplayer games have some form of progression system with roleplaying elements. Think experience points, level ups, and the like. And usually with each level up, the player is rewarded with something new. Sometimes it can affect gameplay, like a new kill streak perk in Call of Duty or the rune system in League of Legends. Sometimes it can be cosmetic, like Overwatch’s spray paints or Counter Strike’s skins. Another noteworthy aspect of these kinds of system is that there are no penalties for losing. This basically cuts out the negative feelings from loss, and it leaves the player only with their desire to be rewarded. This is both the easiest and worst way to measure skill in a game, as it’s directly correlated with time spent playing but not necessarily to learned skills. You can have someone at the max level, prestiged over and over, but not actually be any good at the game on a competitive scale.
- League/Ladder Ranking Systems. Examples: Starcraft, Street Fighter, League of Legends. You can usually tell when a game is suitable for eSports if they have an active league system. This system is composed of tiers that players fit into based off a numerical value. The defining trait for this is that there are penalties for losing. If you lose to someone ranked lower than you, you lose more of these points. As such, the ladder becomes a pretty solid representation of skill level. For example, if you have a player who is ranked in the Bronze League, this player will likely lose to someone ranked in the Diamond League. Many players pull their motivation to improve from these systems, as league placement or ladder rankings are a status, or a title of sorts.
- In-Person Pride. Examples: Any multiplayer game, really. Last is the most amorphous source of drive. Do you, the reader, have any siblings that you grew up playing video games with? Did you ever push yourself to make sure you were better than them? What about that neighbor down the block that would come over after school and beat you in Smash Bros.? This also extends to local communities, such as the fighting game community. There’s something special about really knowing your opponent, their habits, their personality, seeing their face. If you have layers of abstraction like anonymous usernames over the Internet, you lose a lot of that. Being victorious over a person makes it personal. And that can be an enormous motivator when in the pursuit of success in a competitive game.
While there are many more ways to motivate a player, these three ways seem to be the most lasting and common in today’s current gaming climate. And they aren’t mutually exclusive, either! Overwatch has all three of them. It has a level up system for loot box rewards, a league system for competitive play, and I’ve personally bore witness to office water cooler talk about who is truly better at the game.
What drives you? That’s a pretty common saying that applies to everything, from sports to crafts to business to gaming. As gamers, we have the unique perspective of sharing the developer’s vision, and as such being driven by it to move forward and to progress. And when you throw competition into the mix, is your drive more powerful than your opponent’s? And where does it come from? This article wasn’t meant to provide the definitive answer to those questions, as it’s an immensely complicated topic. What other ways can a player be driven to improve at a competitive game? If you have thoughts on this, feel free to share in the comment section!