Competitive gaming, by its very nature is a strange beast. It’s all about coming out on top. Sure, there’s a whole ton of fun to be had along the way as you learn the ins and outs of your characters and those of your opponents. Not to mention that engaging in high octane tournaments is stuff that I personally live for. The thrill of the chase, the exhilarating highs of combat, the atmosphere it creates; everything! It all comes together to make something a little bit magical.
The cast of characters is usually quite large and varied. Traditionally you’ll have fast but weak characters, strong but slow characters, and set-up heavy characters. This goes for most games, from League of Legends to Street Fighter. Will you choose HP over aggression? Do you like to keep your distance or do you prefer a good old fashioned bout of gentlemanly fisticuffs with extra fisti and turbo cuffs? Do you like to strategies like playing the game for time or would you rather obliterate you opponent swiftly so you can move on to the next victim? These are just some of the choices you have to make when approaching competitive games. However behind the scenes, hidden behind the reptilian ninjas, giant mutants and gun tooting cowboys displayed on screen, what it all boils down to is statistics. Regardless of the number of playable characters on the roster, there can technically only be one that is the best in the game. One that’s power is to have all the powers. It takes a long time and entire communities of dedicated players to break the game down and discover who this character is, but sooner or later each title’s Eric Cartman will raise its fat head.
2011’s reboot of the classic fighting game franchise, Mortal Kombat, is a fine example of this, and one I experienced firsthand. Although my first ever gaming tournament was a Super Street Fighter IV event, MK9 (as it’s incorrectly referred to) was my first real tournament game. It was the first time that I began to learn the game within the game. The metagame, as it’s commonly known. I began to understand the gameplay on an entirely different level to what I had known before.
It had been an incredible learning experience, and ultimately changed how I see video games as a whole. However, I couldn’t help but notice a pattern forming along the way. In today’s gaming environment where the built-in statistics of the games themselves can easily be changed through the use of online patches, it seems that players became somewhat less loyal to their characters. In order to guarantee a win and slap the polygon shaped shite out of their rivals, players seemed to home in on whichever character was currently the strongest. Some characters would lose certain skills or have the damage output increased on certain moves, changing the very fundamentals of the character’s fighting style. The race for one to become Mortal Kombat’s Eric Cartman became a revolving doors scenario for a while. A lot of players would chase after the best fighters, discarding their previous personal favourites along the way. This happened to such an extreme that the tournament scene pretty much boiled down to just two characters- Cyrax and Kabal, each of whom was miles above the other members of the cast. For the final days of MK9 things simply became fucking boring as everyone and their mama played these guys. Top 8 brackets at tournaments featured an unhealthy mix of Cyrax vs Kabal, Cyrax vs Cyrax and Kabal mirror matches.
Another example of people only being satisfied while using top tier characters could be seen recently at the Pokémon World Championships 2015. Although there were some absolutely amazing strategies and incredible plays to be witnessed during the tournament, the finals really let it all down. The two current best pokémon trainers in the world, Shoma Honami and Hideyuki Taida played teams that were almost mirror images of each other. Each of these finalists’ teams featured a Kangaskhan, a Landorous, a Thunderous and a Cresselia. Out of the six creatures on a team, these lads brought four identical top tier pokémon. Again, this made things incredibly boring. So much so that I was just waiting for a pokéball to pop open revealing Cyrax and Kabal to fill the remaining slots.
Then again, perhaps I’m looking at this from the wrong perspective. The game doesn’t give a damn who you choose or what moves you make along the way, it simply cares about displaying a winner and a loser at the end of the match, and everyone is battling to be on the same side of that decision. With money on the line, people will fight even harder and take fewer risks. The unfortunate truth is that to eliminate the risk element with maximum efficiency, choosing only top tier characters brings with it the best opportunities to secure that sought after win. Therefore, Eric Cartman is the way to go. Second best means the difference between winning and losing. The difference between going home with the most money available or getting a few quid and a pat on the back and maybe a t-shirt that says “I didn’t quite win!”
The world of competitive gaming can be as bizarre as it is fierce. On the one hand you have completely over powered characters being exploited to such a degree that the metagame itself becomes a one or two horse race. These Cartmans could be seen as fodder for the soulless masses who always follow trends, but that’s not entirely true either. Nobody wants to play a game to lose. Everyone wants to be the best they could be and top tier characters are a gateway which allows people to do this. There is no shame in picking a good fighter. In fact, some would say you’d be crazy not to use every tool at your exposal. If you’re given the chance to hold all the cards, why wouldn’t you take it? On the other hand, I can’t help but tip my hat and admire those who pick a character and stick with them regardless of their placing on the current tier list or their usage during professional tournaments. People who simply play the characters they like through thick and thin, getting damn good at them and holding their own amongst the greats. I tip my hat to the Dans of the world, and the players in between that refuse to bend to the metagame’s ever changing rules. The ones who set trends instead of following them and become a force to be reckoned even though their preferred selection was never designed to be played in that nature. Where there’s a will, there is a way. So just remember, not matter how good your character is, no matter how many tournaments you’ve won playing as the best of the best, there’s always a chance that you’ll be knocked off your perch by a crazy pain obsessed squirrel.
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