Designing Competition

Taylor’s book provided a useful and in-depth look at the emergence and evolution of e-sports. Her discussion of the culture likely helped a lot of people (or at least some people) begin to recognize the potential, or at least the significance, of e-sports. It was interesting reading about the divide between higher and lower skilled players and their attitudes, especially in terms of trash-talking, ego, etc. Having a solid deal of experience with this, I can anecdotally attest to that divide being the reality of things. This, to me, is often the result of people having something to prove, as a lot of would-be competitors place a lot of their personal value in their performance. However, I think this issue is often perpetuated and potentially exacerbated by structural issues within games themselves.

How to compare people competitively has always been a huge issue with games. While tournaments have always been a solid measure, the fact that they are costly and often exclusive to specific regions means that a lot of any given games’ community have been bereft that particular measuring device. In ye olden days of pre-internet gaming, people would garner notoriety for their ability to compete locally, but that often has it’s pitfalls. One of the most common tales you’ll here about in the Smash Bros. community is someone showing up to a venue claiming they are ‘super good’ and that they can ‘beat all their friends’, only to get 4 stocked (getting beaten without taking a single life) and having their delusions of grandeur crushed. This was an issue for a while, but now things are changing.

With the emergence of online gaming, games began offering leaderboards if the game had some competitive aspect. This soon proved to be an inadequate way of measuring head to head competition (it worked fine for things like Tetris) because it disproportionately benefited those with the free time be always playing. The next iteration of competitive scaling was ranks or levels, perform well enough and you get a big number and compete against those with big numbers. This hasn’t quite gone away yet, and is still the standard for a lot of shooters, but this was found to only be effective in that it created a powerful reward cycle; levels are often poor indicators of skill as well because they don’t effectively measure one’s contribution to a team or you’re comparative ability against those of the same level. Next came ELO, a numeric ranking system derived from a system used to rank chess players. ELO functions like a cross between levels and leaderboards, providing a more nuanced comparison than levels, but it still greatly favors those with a lot of time on their hands. One of the more recent, popular trends has been to use a divisions system, where players are placed in a pool of (ideally) similarly skilled players and must win enough times in a row to move up.

The point of all this is that how players are judged and compared against one another is a huge force in the culture, and is an aspect that is constantly being expanded and iterated upon. While I wish Taylor talked about it in her book, it’s a more difficult thing to analyze than e-sports culture on a whole due to it’s case by case nature. I hope that either she, or one of her contemporaries, will take a look at how that aspect of competitive design functions in the future.

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