My own journey through competitive gaming was bumpy, but it informs my current attitude on the subject in ways I’ve found difficult to articulate. Of all the games I played it was Quake 3 that I was best at and Quake 3 that gave me the best chance to compete. When I started playing online, venturing outside of my circle of real life friends and acquaintances, I stumbled upon the Threewave CTF mod, which was released fairly late in the game’s life, well after Rocket Arena 3, OSP, and CPMA were established. That was perfect for me because it meant everyone I knew was already busy with one of those mods, leaving Threewave wide open. I quickly made a name for myself on the main pub servers and the official board, and decided it was high time I took the next step. I was approached by a two guys who openly admitted that they had just bought copies of Quake 3 and had no idea how to even work the console, and with them I became an original member of clan Coldfire, which they told me was named after some series of books one of them liked. I thought this setup was perfect: everyone I knew was somehow much worse than I was and would even listen to what I told them. It wasn’t till we had our first “official” match that I realized things would have to change. We entered a small roster into the now-defunct WorldOGL CTFS ladder, which was basically the bottom rung on the competitive ladder, but just about all Threewave CTFS had at the time outside of scrims. I still remember our first match, which was against some West Coast (supposedly) all-girls clan who called them themselves Girls of Destruction (GoD).
I say West Coast now, but at the time I had no idea. The OGL site was a hands-off automated system where one team challenged another, that team accepted, and it spit out a date and time for the games to be played. That I had never actually played with anyone in that clan should have been an obvious clue, since players tended to stay as local as possible when choosing servers because everyone was an LPB. So of course I showed up for our 9pm match 3 hours early and wondering why nobody was around. An hour later I got a response on IRC laying out the facts, and even worse news: we would have to play on some garbage Central server to even approach balanced pings. Our first game I had upwards of 200 ping and as much packet loss as I could ever want. Things got ugly, and fast. My usual tactic of just whoring the lightning gun wasn’t going to work, and the match was only 3v3, and the other 2 players barely knew how to strafe jump let alone compensate for an extra 160 ping. Fortunately for us, I had other skills to fall back on when brute force failed. I dug my heels in and did the only other thing I was ever any good at: running like a little bitch. The combination of atrocious pings, my speed, and whole lot of spam to cover my tracks, allowed me to consistently capture flags during our attacking rounds, and though I didn’t put much damage on the scoreboard, we eventually won through points. After that win, something that should have been insignificant even at the time, I felt that I’d somehow made it through my trial by fire. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Understand that OGL was just a ranking ladder, not a tournament or even a league. It was automated and most teams didn’t even care. Since the team sizes were small, with games being either 2v2s or 3v3s, players would regularly split and reform new teams, leaving the ladder littered with their old, slowly decaying moultings. I played a few more OGL matches, but they barely mattered. I think people would have cared more about scrim results by then. This was Threewave’s biggest problem, that it had no formal competitive structures like the other mods did. As well, CTFS–the game type I was most interested in–was much more popular in North America than it was in Europe, where they were clinging to the last desperate gasps of CCTF. Everything changed when an enterprising clan put together the Avalanche Invitational, a solid tournament that invited all the established clans and gave them a place to finally really compete.
We were lucky enough to get invited, but were seeded low, which wasn’t much of a surprise. Half the people on our team were still learning how to play, and we didn’t even scrim. On top of that, the day our first match, there was yet another one of our clan’s frequent internal squabbles (something that seemed to happen whenever I wasn’t around), forcing us to use a ringer for the first game, some kid that had always wanted to join, but who we had never formally played with. That first game was my first experience with real tournament nerves. There were official tournament moderators watching, the replays would be posted online afterwards for everyone to see. All my status as a pubstar was on the line, and I suddenly knew that nothing I had done had prepared anyone for the game. I still felt like it was my job to take on the greater responsibility for our results, and during the 1st map of our best of 3 everything came crashing down. My mouth dried up, my muscles froze. By the 3rd round both my hands had actually gone numb and fallen asleep. Not only was nothing I was doing working, but I couldn’t even do what I wanted to begin with. I could feel my heart pounding, reverberating through my headphones. I kept my eyes open and stumbled through the game, which we lost handily, with me at the bottom of the scoreboard.
We took a 10 minute break before the 2nd map, and during that time I forced myself calm. I felt the pressure lift: what they had said was right. We were a bottom seeded team, only invited because we were established and they needed to fill out the ranks. We were not meant to win this match. On IRC we worked our differences out, letting the ringer go so we could at least play with our intended full roster. The next map was one I liked, while the one before (q3wcp15) was an open railgun festival, something that I had never been comfortable with. This new map (q3wcp5) was smaller, full of tighter corridors and choke points. Plenty of opportunities to put my speed to good use, and a lot more of the fighting that I enjoyed.
I have three distinct memories about that game. The first was one of the admins, after having zoned out during the first map and assuming that the 2nd map would be more of the same stomping, coming back into the game and accidentally announcing in all chat that “they’re doing way better than I thought they would.” The second was that I was finally, and maybe for the first time, living up to whatever potential I may have had. I was relaxed, and I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. This team that was surely expecting another free win suddenly found themselves fighting to stay even. At around 18 minutes out of the 20 minute game timer they were the attacking team, and only down by 2 points. At the time the most points an attacking team could get in a round was 3, 1 for touching the flag and another 2 for either killing the enemy team or completing the flag capture (Later on I would suggest a rule to either take away the flag capture point if the player holding the flag died, or grant an additional point if they survived the entire round. This was to put breaks on the propensity for teams to just suicide zerg rush the flag at the beginning of every round in order to get a free point without having to worry about teamwork or the aftermath.). What might have been the last round in the game started, and I led my team on a mad, desperate rush for the middle of the map, from where a team could easily control both the high and low exits from the other team’s base. My intention was for us to just keep them back with spam, running out the final minutes on the clock. But they saw the writing on the wall and rushed just as hard. When I made it to the middle of the map I may have outpaced every other player, but I wasn’t running faster than their rockets. I died instantly, hit by multiple rockets and going up in a fountain of blood and mixed body parts. The rest of my team was on my heels and that was just about the shortest round in the entire tournament. Then we heard the sound. Because they had killed us so fast they couldn’t get to our flag, so they only earned 2 points, which tied the game up with about a minute to go on the clock. This was overtime. This was it. And my last memory was reality decided to intrude.
I was playing at a net cafe downtown, because my computer at home could barely run Quake 3. This was rarely an issue because I rarely did more than pub, and generally the connection there was stable and actually better than what most people could afford for a home connection at the time. However, a shared connection is a shared connection, and obviously someone started to do something, because during that last round, during our final defence, where all we needed to do was survive long enough to break even and at least force another overtime, I started to lag. Suddenly, when we were that close, my connection froze up. They were coming in from bellow, and I couldn’t stay out of sight. My team was being picked off, and I couldn’t help them. One moment I was popping out from around a pillar to fire some rockets at the flag room’s entrance, the next I had lost half my health and armour from a shot that I didn’t even appear on my client. There was nothing I could do, and though my team dug in with all they had, we ended up losing that final round, and the map, and the series. I was made MVP for that game, even though I was on the losing team. The game’s official write up made special mention of my play, and how I helped my team fight back against overwhelming odds and certain defeat. I was ambivalent about the whole thing, and mark that as the exact moment I began my decline as a competitive player.
That doesn’t say as much about me as it does about the game itself and the players involved. Prior to the first Avalanche Invitational I was the star player of a tiny clan full of brand new players, only known for pub prowess. Soon after I was just a top player in a growing clan, in a growing scene (as tournaments became more organized players from other mods started to take an interest), and with increasingly smaller chunks of time on my hands to play and practice. I’d already reached my plateau, and wasn’t putting in the effort to get to the next level. Other players began to catch up, which was a relief for me at the time, because I never wanted to be in a situation where I felt I had to carry everyone else again. After that I was content to fade out a bit, becoming another player on the team, or so I thought. By the time of the next Avalanche Invitational things were different enough that I found myself with a new set of problems. My inability to stick to team play was starting to show. I was often out on my own, hoping to disrupt the other team, playing like I was in a pub where I could run in and as long as my damage/time ratio was high enough everyone was happy. Instead, I was being ambushed by 2 or 3 players at a time, muting my contributions. I could feel my desire to play the game I wanted to play coming up against cold truths. I was no longer good enough, and they were no longer bad enough, that I could do whatever I felt like doing and still come out ahead. So I did my best to swallow my pride and adjust my play to taking on roles.
Which is where playing at net cafes was starting to hurt again. I tried to reserve regular computers for regular times, hoping to keep things consistent and comfortable, but more than once I found that I was being suddenly moved to a different machine mere minutes before a match was starting, forcing my team to delay while I hastily cobbled together a new config file, downloaded mouse drivers, and installed map packs. This is the sort of thing that can put a player out of sorts, and I wasn’t confident enough for even small changes to not throw me off in some way.
The second Avalanche Invitational went much better for us. We were a solid mid-tier team now, and won matches we were supposed to win. Eventually we were battling for a playoff spot against clan Vindication, who were probably the next rung above us. Our final game was on another long, open, rail fest map, which I hated (q3wcp6). The large central courtyard between the bases made rushing impractical, as even the fastest players would be caught out in the open once defenders reached their top entrances, leaving them easy railgun targets. It was possible to quickly rocket jump across and fall into the lower part of the base, but that was even easier for defenders to get to. Every offence round was a relentless march through railgun and plasma spam trying to get a foothold at one of the top base entrances, forcing the defenders to fall back to their open flag room where the situation could be reversed, with the attackers hiding in the corridors and peaking out to take rail shots (if they still had ammo) until there was finally an opening to rush the flag, or more likely all the defenders were dead.
As the game became more popular so did the Avalanche Invitational, and this second tournament was even broadcasting games through QuakeTV, which allowed for the game to be shown live to many more observers than could ever fit on the server. Because of scheduling conflicts this series was the first of ours that was being broadcast live, since it was a battle for a playoff spot and one of the last games on the non-playoff schedule. Mostly I didn’t care. I wasn’t playing well enough that the observers would follow me, but there were times when I was keenly aware of the extra audience. But not as aware of them as I was of what had happened last time I’d been in a clutch situation for my team. On that last map I found that I was always playing 10% more aggressive than I needed to, and not just because I found the rail portions of every round to be tedious. I knew that I wasn’t the reason we were there anymore, and I was trying to be fine with the rest of my team doing the job while I got to do what I thought I needed to do. It tried to fit into a role of making space for the rest of them to work in, which I did well enough.
The map was hard fought on both sides, and it came down to the wire again. It was overtime, and this time we were the attackers, down by 1 point. I held back. I went in carefully. It was important for my own peace of mind that, in this case, I didn’t blow it by doing something reckless and stupid. Win or lose, I didn’t want regrets. Unfortunately, the inertia of indecision is a powerful force, and something that can creep up without notice. We successfully breached their base, but with heavy losses. We were down to 2 players against their 4, and both of us were hurting for both health and ammo. I was on the right side of the map, my teammate was on the left. If either of us could create enough of an opening all we needed was a flag touch to get a point and push the game into another round. I felt the nerves kicking in, and I started to sweat. I turned off all my music. In Quake 3 there two guns that make noises even when they’re not being fired: the lightning gun and the rail gun. Sound is a very important part of the game, as it was nearly impossible to sneak into a position with the rail gun already out, and if I did manage to get there I’d have to switch to it anyway and the weapon switching sound is even louder. I could hear them on the other side of the wall, all 4 of them were top, covering both top entrances equally. I walked back and fell to the lower level in a place I thought they wouldn’t hear me from. I then had to walk back toward the flag room because any strafe jumping would broadcast my new route. I got there, I saw where one of them was taking turns firing rockets at the top entrance and the bottom entrance. I waited. I timed it out in my head. I stepped forward and took my shot. The rail hit him and he died without gibbing. Now there were 3. I immediately started taking suppressive rocket fire at my new location. All 3 of them could track the trail of my railgun fire. This was a chance for my partner, who stepped out and put 2 mid ranged rockets into another defender. Now it was 2 on 2. It was 2 on 2 and I had completely run out of ideas. I crouched there, near the bottom entrance to the flag room, and my mind blanked. I couldn’t charge into the rockets, I couldn’t go off the jump pad to the high ground without letting them know exactly where I was, and I didn’t have enough health and armour to trade a railgun shot and survive.
This was worse than what I’d imagined. This was worse than last time, where at least I had the excuse of lag and the score to back it up. I wasn’t leading anyone in anything this game, and I wasn’t lagging either. And everyone was watching. So I sat there trying to think of something to do. I sat there the entire time while the round timer ran out. I heard the error beep and I exploded into another flower of gibs and that was the end of the game. As far as I was concerned I did nothing and we lost. Everyone else took it in stride. We’d done much better than we had last time, making it almost to the playoffs, and losing a close game to a better team. I said sorry and then went home. I didn’t know what else to do.
After that things got weird. I played less frequently, and in less games that mattered, though I scrimmed more with other teams and often did well. I remember a scrim against that same team, Vindication, where I was untouchable, playing so well that even people at the net cafe stopped to watch and comment. I didn’t care because I was just listening to music and running in circles. That’s all I ever wanted to do those days. The idea of real competition was having strange effects on me. For a while every time I was in a match where I thought something other than my own free time was on the line my left eye would start to leak tears as if I was crying. I got no other symptoms, and didn’t feel sad, and it was only ever my left eye, but it did make playing awkward. That persisted when I took up Warsow, in which I was compelled to start duelling for the first time as the only other option was clan arena, and clan arena is awful. I’ve never enjoyed duelling, and even though I did reasonably well at it in Warsow I still didn’t like it very much. I kept at it, though, until I finally got over my spontaneous tears. By then I’d long since decided that whatever damage there was to be done had already been done, and when circumstances arose that forced me to take upwards of 6 months long breaks from Quake and Threewave the only things I missed were my friends and random pubbing with my music on. I’d enjoyed playing in competitive games, but I felt no desire to get back into it, even when I could play more regularly again and had opportunities.
I’ve known plenty of people who take up competitive gaming to different degrees. I learned early on that everyone has their own reactions to the stress. I saw smashed keyboards and mice being thrown at walls. I saw the look of serenity on the face of a good player playing up to their potential and getting exactly the results they wanted. I saw the hours and hours of restless practice that drove them to start trolling worse players (and I laughed a lot at the results). I saw people burn out on the games they loved. I’d told myself that I would never become like that. I would never grow to resent doing something that I liked. But I found that the more rigid competition had that effect on me.
It took me a long, long time to get comfortable with not playing anymore. There was this idea that I could just do a few things, talk to some people, and get back on the horse. I was comfortable pubbing, I enjoyed pubbing, but it always felt like settling when I could be striving. My competition was just names on a scoreboard. They weren’t actually good. They weren’t the people I knew. I could be on top again if I really tried. But my distance from the game in the real world started messing with my time spent in game. Every time I came back it was like starting again. New players, old players with different names, new clans, new tags. The only things that stayed the same were the servers, and even they would rename and add new maps to the rotations. Eventually even my social reasons for coming back started to disappear, and I stopped playing altogether. That also took getting used to. I never unistalled Quake 3 from any computer I owned. I still have it to this day, with both the config I made sure to email to myself and the one I had built into the mod (/exec page for that old thing, excised of all my “secret” settings, which were a decent zoom script and a couple of rocket jump scripts). I even tried moving on, both with Warsow and with other FPS games, but that was a hopeless endeavour. I only bought 1 multiplayer FPS game after Quake 3, and that was the travesty of a game Brink. I tried a few others, but a combination of Quake’s mechanics (nothing else delivers) and an odd feeling stopped me from ever getting into another FPS. Which seems like an anomaly, since I didn’t stop playing other games during that time. I went from years of playing almost exclusively FPS games–and I’m quite sure I’ve played more Quake than I played Diablo 2, and I played whole lot of Diablo 2–to going the better part of a decade not playing any FPS games at all.
I did figure out what the odd feeling keeping me away was. It was a feeling akin to completeness. I eventually realized that when I thought about playing FPS games again I couldn’t see what I’d get out of them that I hadn’t already experienced. My time playing Quake competitively was the most fulfilling and complete competitive experience I had. I’d learned a lot, and it changed how I thought about games. I didn’t need any more.
I was not born with the killer instinct, and I never learned it while playing Quake. I can recognize it in others, but it’s something I can’t even emulate. My time playing Quake taught me that competition doesn’t have to be about being the best. Playing games competitively is a moment to moment experience, and in the end all I have are memories (even if those are few, because my memory is quite bad). I don’t regret not being #1. I don’t regret the games I lost (at least the few that I can remember). And I certainly don’t feel like not coming in first place invalidates the time I spent with the game.
There is one concrete bit of nostalgia for me. When I stopped playing as much and stopped competing as much I began to lament all of my old, lost demos. Playing mostly at net cafes meant that very few of my games lasted anywhere (would that I had the foresight to burn some of those Avalanche Invitational demos onto a CD when I had the chance), so I decided it was high time I made myself a little highlight movie. As is always the way, all the stuff I really wanted had already been deleted, but I still had a few demos left, and I was still capable of occasionally making a decent shot, so I cobbled together a series of kills using no editing techniques and the worst video processing options available. It is all of my Quake experience that I can leave to posterity.