The Killer Instinct

A long time ago a friend, giving an assessment of my Quake skills, told me that while my aim was decent, my reflexes were fine, and my movement was adequate, I lacked a killer instinct. Looking back, I’m not sure how serious he was being–or if this conversation had really been about fighting games instead–but I never forgot the point being made.

That point is that I’ve never been able to commit those last percentages needed to move from good to great. This is not a factor of time, nor even effort in a broad sense, but simply a tendency to hold something back. I tried out for track once in school and was told by the coach that my times weren’t as good as they should have been for someone of my height because I would peter out when I saw the finish line. Apparently it wasn’t that uncommon, but I didn’t stick around long enough to work through it.

When I talk to people that don’t know me, that don’t know competitive gaming, I used to tell them that I am not a competitive person, but I enjoy playing games competitively (or at least playing competitive games). Often this confuses them, because it seems like there’s a contradiction in there, when there really isn’t. There is a difference between action and intention, which is what it comes down to for me. If I am going to play a game that can be taken seriously then I want to play it with people  who will take it seriously, because anything less means I’m not getting my time and money’s worth. The idea of putting 100 hours into a fighting game to unlock all the extra stages and concept art, and get all the achievements, but after that time still having only the meanest idea of how the game works and how it should be played makes as much sense to me as buying a wonderful loaf of artisan bread and then topping it with American cheese slices and throwing it in a microwave for 45 seconds to make a “grilled cheese” sandwich. Not only is it a waste, but it seems to betray the true purpose of the product.

I gained my appreciation for competitive games through the simple means of playing games in competitive environments. The local kids were always more interested in passing the controller back and forth during games of Super Mario Bros. 3 or Sonic the Hedgehog 2 than in playing fighting games, and the only thing I was using a PC for was playing Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Populace. When I discovered arcades it was a boon, but it wasn’t till I found the LAN centres (most of them didn’t have internet access) being opened up in the back of PC software shops that I realized the social potential of competitive gaming. The problem I’d been having at arcades was that I didn’t smoke, and the curb outside was the only place players could communicate without screaming at each other. These LAN centres, without arcade machines running looping attraction demos at maximum volume, perpetuated an environment in which people could actually talk to each other. Though I spent almost as much time in arcades I made more friends at LAN centres: I only began to identify fighting game players with actual names, not just the clothes they wore, the characters they played, or their strange mannerisms (that guy who talks to himself, that guy who bows before each game, that guy who threatens players with violence if they throw him) after I started going to console gatherings and tournaments.

Because of the way these LAN centres were set up, with most of them having less than a dozen machines, people tended to play whatever everyone else was playing. This is where I learned my place in the world. If it was Quake then I’d be fighting everyone else for second place as long as kuku (placed 4th at QuakeCon 2002), Menace, or LSV (well known CPMA players) were around, if it was Counter-Strike then I’d probably be headed for a loss if I didn’t end up on shaGuar‘s team. When I went to my first Soulcalibur tournament I ended up in mirror matches with players who placed at EVO. This has been the through-line  of my gaming experiences, with the only inconsistency being that I learned to play DotA with a team that was good enough to get signed, even if they broke up immediately afterwards, but that took place entirely online.

It wasn’t until I moved out into the wider world and started playing games online without my friends that I realized I was, to stretch a metaphor, a barracuda in a pond full of sharks. In the context of people who were actually very good, I saw myself as mediocre, when I stepped out of their shadows I realized that most players were even worse. This is when I first took competition seriously, when I first actually bound all my weapons in my Quake config and join a clan with the intent of entering tournaments and actually winning games.

The online nature of my competition was, I think, not an accident. That extra level of disconnect between me and my opponents allowed me to finally go all-in and do what I needed to do in order to win. I found that I was suddenly favouring the lightning gun where before I wouldn’t use it even if it was the only weapon I had ammo for. I used it because it was a good weapon and I was good enough with it to make that matter, and without my friends around I wasn’t just fighting for 2nd place anymore.

Eventually I did compete, in various games, and at various levels. I found out what the killer instinct was and what it meant to me.

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