I have always sucked at team sports. As far back as I can remember, this has been my curse. Or one of my curses. I'm sure I actually have plenty of curses. But if I stop to think about that I won't write this post at all, and not writing blog posts is another one of my curses.
In any event, I was the worst team sports player I knew growing up. Here's how bad I was. I would not be the last person picked for teams when kids were divided up--I was the leftover after the last pick. That is, I'd always make it to the final two. Me, and, say, Irving Needlebaum-- the blind kid with the wooden leg. The team captain would be looking us over with a pained look on his face, as if having to decide which piece of shit smelled less bad. Eventually, inevitably, he'd say, "I guess I'll take Irving," at which point everyone would immediately disperse to the playing field without another look back.
"I guess I'm on the other team then?" I'd say to all the players' backs. And then I'd take my gangly, redheaded, uncoordinated self out onto deep right field and then pray for an earthquake or plague of frogs or even spontaneous combustion so that I would not have to field a ball or go up to bat.
Later, in the videogame world, I fared somewhat better, thank goodness. Obviously physical prowess was not a factor, and the sheer amount of time I put into them (since I wasn't busy playing sports) meant that I actually acquired some skill. Key word being "some." Except for one game ever, Interstate '76, for which I had some kind of freak, natural ability, the best I could ever hope to be in a multiplayer match was Not Horrible. Occasionally, if I was particularly inspired, or perhaps unplugged everyone else's mice, I might actually win a LAN match. But it would never last. I'd never get to experience the feeling of being great or dominant in a game. And frankly, my childhood had prepared me for such inevitability, so I actually didn't (and still don't) have my ego tied into such things. The difference between videogames and sports, however, was that in videogames I could at least compete. I could at least score the occasional point. And, of course, the anonymity of online meant that no one ever know that it was me who sucked. It was Tinkletrousers, or Mike Oxbig, who would endure the brunt of any humiliation.
Where it all began to fall apart for me online, however, was with the rise of team matches. In solo deathmatches, I only had to worry about myself. I was liberated from having to prove myself to anyone. And my overall feeling would be one of triumph if I didn't suck. The fact that I knew that sometimes I could win, however rare, was enough to keep me going.
But once games like Counter-Strike started getting popular, where skill actually mattered, where players really needed other players to do their best, I was doomed. First, I was nowhere near good enough, from the start. By this time I was already older than the average player, and my reflexes were starting their slow deterioration to their current state of near total calcification. Second, there was the pressure. As in real-world sports, there was the expectation that you knew the rules, you knew how to play, and you were good enough to be on the field in the first place. Anything less, any sign of incompetency - like blowing yourself and your teammates up within the first second of the match by accidentally pressing the Grenade button - was to be instantly shunned and scolded, and possibly booted from the team.
The problem of course, was and still is the barrier to entry. If all the players in a particular game are skilled and experienced, then it just makes it that much harder for a new player to find his or her footing, to gain any experience or confidence. And there is little to no tolerance by a lot (but not all) experienced players to put up with noobs on the team. Especially in games where everyone takes it totally seriously and winning is everything.
Sometime around 1996, when I knew my deathmatch days were numbered, I started getting all my online kicks in MMOs. In those games, I could hold my own much better. I could also either play by myself or with friends, where the pressure was minor at best. Even if I played on PvP servers (like my main character in EverQuest), in the end it boiled down to one-on-one situations, where, again, I didn't feel beholden to other players, and thus did far better. Late in my Wow career, however, I had one experience with random players that has stuck with me ever since. I was playing my level 80 dwarf warlock, Eggbertt, a character I was quite proficient at. I was level 80. I'd invested hundreds of hours into the guy. I'd sacrificed a good deal of my life, ambition, and self-respect to build this guy up. Blizzard had rolled out the dungeon finder, which grouped random folks together looking to complete the same dungeon. Most of the time, this was awesome, and eliminated the need for begging.
One night, however, I found myself randomly grouped with Serious Players. Equipment checks were being carried out before we began. Roles were assigned. A plan was made. There was no time for idle chatter and thus no one appreciated my joke about Jim Belushi being the end boss. So in we went. And within 2 minutes, the "leader" was yelling at me. "WTF EGGBERTT MORE DPS!" "DO U FUCKIN NO HOW TO PLAY?" And so on. I assured him that I did in fact know how to play and that he could calm down because honestly it was just a videogame and not worth the aneurism and, plus, we were just starting. I'd get my game on in due time. Except my time was already up. By the time we'd hit the next group of trash mobs, I suddenly, without warning, found myself warped back outside of the dungeon. I'd been kicked. He'd taken a quick vote with the rest of the team, and they agreed that I was out. And I honestly was infuriated. It was an outrage. I felt wrongly accused. I knew how to play this game! But, that was that, and due to the anonymity of the thing and the millions of players, I knew I'd never find them again to plead my case. But what stuck with me was how serious these players were. How there was no tolerance for error. How the slightest perception of weakness was enough to get booted. And while I blew it off and jumped right back in, because, really, who gives a shit, this is the stuff I try to avoid online. Playing with players who are more intent on winning than anything else - like being civil or tolerant of others - is of no appeal to me. None. Because once you're yelling at people online and getting a busted vein in your forehead because someone isn't tanking correctly, you are beginning to miss the whole point of this entire pastime. (Unless you are a pro, which is another story entirely.)
All of which is a humongous, rambling preamble to what I really wanted to talk about, which is my reluctance to dive into either of the super-popular MOBAs these days - DOTA 2 or League of Legends. I've played through the tutorial levels in both games, and they are super fun. I get it. I totally see the appeal. As someone who also used to have a blast with real-time strategy, I can see that, in time, I might not completely suck. The problem is the "in time" part. Because, from everything I've seen and read, from the little I've dabbled in it, I can see that these are hardcore, serious games. Obviously. And stepping into one of these games unprepared is like stepping onto the track of a horse race right as the gates are being opened. You are going to be trampled, spun around, and dumped in a ditch within two minutes if you don't know what you're doing, with your teammates yelling at you the whole time. These are deep, deep games requiring a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill -which is their appeal - but which make them near impossible for the curious to dabble in. Dabbling isn't even really possible. You either commit for the long haul, or don't play. Yesterday on Twitter I quoted from a Giant Bomb tutorial on DOTA 2: "The first initial 100 hours will be tough." Is that an investment I'm willing to make? Do I want to slog through 100 hours of abuse and humiliation, just to get to the point where I can start competing? Don't I have a novel to finish? Oh, right--and a family?
So, I don't know. Maybe the sad fact is that these games are for the young and unencumbered. Back in college, I easily could've devoted 100s of hours to a game, because that's what I did, one quarter at a time, in the arcades.
Or maybe I just have to care about winning more.
To me, the gameplay is the thing. Doing well, and getting better, and having fun doing it. I've learned, slowly, over time, that once I hit a point of any frustration or anger, to stop a game immediately. Because I know, right then, that I have lost the plot. If I want to get frustrated or angry, there are a million other ways to do it rather than ruining an experience I otherwise enjoy.
Which is not to say that I've given up on the idea of DOTA or League of Legends. I have not. I actively look forward to possibly being convinced to try. That's about as strong as a commitment you're gonna get from me. But I'm telling you now, once you start yelling at me, I'm out. And once you start yelling at me, you should maybe think twice about what you're doing in the first place.