Watch and Learn
Every day after school, we flocked to the Street Fighter House in twos and threes. The first few to arrive would be tentative and polite, fishing for an invitation inside. As the tiny living room filled up with players, kids became more brazen with the Filipino mother who played gatekeeper to this never-ending tournament. She was jovial about these home invasions, perhaps proud of her child’s newfound popularity. But if Street Fighter II lived somewhere else, we would’ve chased it there.
Winner stays. Loser passes their controller. These were the only rules that mattered.
The bouts were quick and brutal, which is why arriving early was important. Losing a match wasn’t a big deal within a small group but, at peak capacity, getting knocked out meant an excruciating wait before the controller circled the room and returned.
Everyone lost eventually. But it was here that the wheat began to separate from the chaff.
The kids who didn’t care much about Street Fighter tossed aside the controller and returned to trading basketball cards and hitting each other for real. They would become the button-mashers, feared for their unpredictability. It was a button-masher who first pulled off Zangief’s Spinning Piledriver, much to the chagrin of everyone who knew how to do it and yet, somehow, could not.
The kids who cared took their spectatorship more seriously. Someone had printed off a list of special moves, and these worn and torn pages were passed around as often as the controllers. Characters and players were analyzed. Can he throw a fireball whenever he wants? That’s trouble. Did she mean to flip off the wall there, or did it just happen? How’d you do that? Look at that cheap-ass: All he does is sweep kick. Block low, man. Block low, and he’s got nothing.
Pretty soon the button-mashers were being defeated on a regular basis, their jumping rushes pushed back by calculated barrages of Hadouken. The skill gap widened and, frustrated and bored by their dwindling relevancy, the players who never trained their thumbs to roll from down to forward on the D-pad simply stopped showing up at the Street Fighter House.
Those who remained got better and better.
University residences are a risky place to be generous with one’s stuff, especially in an all-male dorm where drunken, 4 a.m. bravado often results in wanton acts of smashery. The PlayStation 2 in the floor’s common room was permitted to survive only because everyone loved Grand Theft Auto III.
As a collective, we unlocked all the places we wanted to blow up and the guns to blow them up with. That was as far as we got with the intended narrative. From then on, playing Grand Theft Auto III meant one thing and one thing only: constructing a series of hilarious moments for the amusement of onlookers, a cycle of anarchy that everyone could enjoy.
Pedestrian bashing. Sweet jumps. Exciting police chases with shrieking hookers in the passenger seat. These were all basic building blocks in the aspiring psychopath’s toolkit. If anyone managed to survive for more than ten minutes, the room would get antsy and the player knew it was time to aggressively pursue a climactic demise. Getting arrested was a scornful alternative, because the next guy would have to waste time rearming at the gun shop.
While skilled players thrilled the room, it was agonizing to watch the people who didn’t really know how to play. They didn’t know the controls. They were arrested for mere misdemeanors and argued that it didn’t count as a ‘real turn.’ They got cars stuck in alleyways and performed the mother of all Austin Powers three-point turns to get out. It was always awkward.
We survived the tedium by offering maliciously misleading advice, hoping to get these guys killed as soon as possible. Jump off the bridge! Punch those gangsters right in the face! Press the triangle button while driving! Rocket-jump up to the roof!
In time, this was generally accepted as an amusing pursuit in and of itself. Puppeteering the unskilled to their deaths was really just an additional layer in the game’s open-ended choreography, a way for spectators to fake agency until they could once again direct the madness with their own fingers and thumbs.
The best players knew the game inside and out. They used camera angles to add a cinematic quality to their rampages: slow-motion reverse shots of the protagonist bursting through a car windshield, ping-ponging between narrow alley walls before crashing, lifeless, into a pile of garbage. Witnessing these sequences was inspiring. Our hands ached for the controller, eager to incorporate a missed jump into our own great escapes. We saw grenades dropped in the middle of busy intersections and wondered what might happen if we pulled the pin and held on juuuuust a little bit longer. Would we launch into outer space? We couldn't wait to find out.
Watching was planning.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “What is he so excited about? Those little bug things?”
Seated in a dingy corner of a drinking establishment in Seoul, South Korea, an ESL coworker and I were watching Starleague on TV—professional StarCraft. The announcer was having an apocalyptic fit. He was screaming in Korean, apparently in response to a small group of units trundling across the screen. I caught the occasional word I knew, “Zerg-uh” being one.
“It looks like one of the players is trying an early rush,” I said. “He’s attacking right away. I think.”
A crew of slightly bigger bugs popped out of the earth and began savaging the first group. The announcer redoubled his volume.
“Now what happened?” asked the coworker.
“An ambush. Oh man, look at that micro.”
The bugs were maneuvering around each other in an intricate dance, lunging into combat at opportune moments.
“Yeah, micro-management. See how they’re darting back and forth like that? Looks like nothing special, but each time they move is a mouse click. These guys can click the mouse in a meaningful way, like, three hundred times a minute.”
A group of Overlords—fat, flying brain-things—appeared on the outskirts of the battle. The announcer liked this very much. “OVERLORDU!”
She sighed. “What now?”
“Uh …” I honestly had no idea. The screen descended into chaos, the nuances of the fight no longer perceivable to my untrained eye. Stuff was blowing up. “I think you have to actually play this game to understand its complexities.”
Build-order, upgrades, rushes, micro, macro, resources, expansions, APM … it’s one hell of a prerequisite education. Without experience playing StarCraft, or a game very much like it, the most ordered of military tactics just appear to be miniature ant mayhem.
Basically, you need to be a player to be an appreciative spectator.
So we got up to leave.