Old Gamers, New e-Sports

This week I’m at Gamescom participating as a finalist in the Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (MRKB) Grand Championship e-Sports tournament. I thought it would be both appropriate and interesting to discuss my experiences. But I don’t want this post to be about Gamescom as a whole. I plan on doing a post for that after the show has concluded. It will hopefully be published next week or the following week at the latest. What I want this post to be about is specifically my experiences as a participant in this specific e-Sports event for this specific game.

This is my first real foray into competitive e-Sports. I’ve never really been fond of or even that interested in the e-Sports industry as a whole. I’ve said many times that I hate the culture, management, and general style of modern e-Sports. Just a few weeks ago I published a post about how much I dislike the mostly repetitive and limited genres often synonymous with the professional e-Sports community. And as I’ve said before without hesitation, I also find the idea of giving a minor millions of dollars for playing video games a detriment to society for more than one reason. So I sort of entered into this whole endeavor kind of ambivalent.

Gamescom-2018I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the inside of the competitive e-Sports community. I’m still not exactly sure if it’s accurate to even compare competitive MRKB to the rest of the e-Sports community. It’s a much different game that anything else we’ve seen taken seriously in the internet era of e-Sports. I’m still shocked that I was invited to play it competitively at Gamescom on stage. There may not be a $3M prize, but just the fact that it’s being featured at such an important annual event legitimizes it as a part of the ever growing, but rarely evolving, pantheon of e-Sports titles. So while I do consider this tournament a legitimate part of e-Sports and by extension this game, I acknowledge that many people won’t. At least not until some real money is offered for winning events involving this game.

What I like about competitive MRKB is that it functions the way I believe competitive gaming should function on a number of levels. For starters, age. Gaming was supposed to be a mental task. Games were supposed to provoke your mind the way sports provoke your body. As technology has developed, the physical aspects of gaming have evolved but only to increase the fulfillment and challenge of the experience on your mind. When games become all about physical performance rather than mental challenges, I think something has gone wrong. Most younger gamers would probably disagree with this opinion because they were raised in the era of fast paced, reflex driven gameplay experiences. The fact that it’s called e-Sports was a topic of debate for a long time. I always focused on the “e” portion of the name. But today too many people seem to focus on the “Sports”.

mlgThe average professional gamer ranges from 18 – 25 in age. This is because the games commonly played are more about performance speed than tactical thinking and strategic implementation. This is why e-Sports consists more of FPS titles and fighters than tactical ones. These genres are much more about speed of implementation than anything else. Whoever can push the correct buttons fastest or aim the crosshair accurately first tends to be the winner. So of course the youngest, most agile gamers in the population would be the best. But put those same kids up against a 40 year old man whose been playing Chess for 30 years in a turn based tactical game and I’d be shocked if any of those kids win a single round once that man understood the ends and outs of the game being played. That’s the kind of e-Sports I want to see. That’s the kind of e-Sports I want to participate in.

I’ve had opportunities in the past to play games competitively. Never anything as big as my current steps into competitive MRKB, but there have been moments where I could play games like Smash Bros. in a local competitive setting. But I’ve never really been interested. And as a now 30 year old man, I would have little chance of winning at competitive level in most of those games. That’s exactly what makes this MRKB competition so special. In a group of eight finalists, I’m one of the youngest at 30 years old. We are all adults with real responsibilities, burdens, and normal life experiences. We all have real jobs. We’ve all graduated from college already. Some of us have wives, children, and mortgages. Every one of us has been gaming longer than the term e-Sports has existed. In my opinion, we’re the types of people that should be given opportunities to win large sums of money for playing video games. We’re the type of people who best represent the gaming community as a whole. Especially when you consider that the current average age of gamers, as reported by the ESA, is 32 – 34. This is why I think it’s really special that Ubisoft has created and invested in an e-Sports event that caters more to the thinking aspect of gaming rather than the reflexive physical aspects; and even more so the fact that they have given actual gamers with realistic lives the chance to be recognized for the achievement of mastering a game while also having to deal with the burdens of adulthood at the same time.

ESA-Essential-Facts-average gamer ageAlong with my general joy at being given the opportunity to participate in any legitimate e-Sports event at my age for playing games I actually enjoy, I also have really enjoyed this particular group of players, both in the finals and the Summer Games seasonal qualifier. I’ll be honest in saying that I don’t follow e-Sports too closely. I only hear about the big headlines like “16 Year Old Wins $3M Playing Fortnite”. I know some of the teams like Fnatic, but that’s more a byproduct of my job than personal interest. From what I’ve seen, most e-Sports pros aren’t people I’d like to be friends with. Like many popular YouTubers, a number of which I have personally met, again through my job, pro gamers seem disconnected from reality, fairly arrogant, and unapproachable. To be honest, those all seem like qualities that would make you exceptional at games but not at life.

I’m willing to admit that I haven’t actually met any top tier pro gamers personally so it’s quite possible I’m reading them wrong. But if they’re anything like top tier tech YouTubers then I think I have them pegged fairly well. So I wasn’t actually sure what to expect from the competitors in the MRKB Grand Championship. But I’m happy to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Episode - Screenshot 2019-07-30 02-25-22This group of gamers is great. Though they all come from different countries across the world, these are some of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve ever met in the gaming community. They are down to earth, humble, and thankful just to be included. Though they’re all 30 or older, they took to the experience of attending Gamescom and competing on stage with the whimsy and excitement of children. We were all scared, nervous about embarrassing ourselves on stage by playing terribly, and unassuming about our abilities compared to each other. Some of the players didn’t even really care about the tournament and were just excited to be able to meet other people who also enjoy playing the same game they like. It’s the gaming community everyone wishes the gaming community actually was like all the time. While we were all there to compete against each other, we didn’t meet and become adversaries. We became friends. A week before the event we were put into a Discord group and little was said about the competition or the games. The bulk of the conversation was eight guys genuinely interested in learning about each other’s lives. None of this was what I expected.

Like with the seasonal finals, I probably took this Grand Championship more seriously than anyone else. I put in several hours of practice time. I developed strategies for each map. I honed my skills. I have to admit that I was extremely guarded in how I interacted with the other players on the Discord for fear of giving them an edge in some way. I wanted to win more than anything else. But I was the outlier. The rest of the players just wanted to have fun. They hoped to win. But none of them needed to win and really that’s the way gaming should be. The gaming community and the world at large are better with more people like them, who just want to enjoy themselves and make friends, than more people like me, who focused on obtaining victory above obtaining friendship.

gamer friendsI am truly thankful to have been invited to participate in this event. I’m grateful that I was finally able to attend Gamescom after years of not being able to go due to financial limitations. I’m glad that I was finally recognized in some way for the more than 20 years of gaming I’ve put in. But in the grand scheme of life none of that matters as much as having made new friends. And because of Ubisoft and the MRKB Grand Championship I made new friends. If this is what e-Sports is like in general, then I need to get more involved in e-Sports. If this isn’t what e-Sports is usually like and my original thoughts are more accurate, then e-Sports really needs to change.

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From Milan to Gamescom!

Last week, I was granted the privilege of attending the Mario + Rabidds: Kingdom Battle (MRKB) Summer Games Community Competition finals tournament. This event pitted four finalists against each other in the MRKB Vs. Mode live and in person at the Ubisoft Milan studio in Italy. Ubisoft paid to fly me to Italy from my home in Taiwan and paid for everything while I was there. This was an amazing opportunity and really my first legitimate entry into the world of competitive e-Sports.

This was a great experience. While at the studio I was able to try a prototype for a currently unannounced project from Ubisoft, which I can’t go into details about now for legal reasons. I also got to meet a number of different members of the MRKB development team and pitch my own ideas and feedback about what I’d like to see for the future of the franchise. It was especially informative and inspiring to meet the narrative director of MRKB. He gave me newfound hope that it’s not too late to achieve my goal of writing for a AAA studio. I also got to experience Italian food straight from the source as an added bonus.

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While I can’t say much about the things I saw during my visit to the studio, I can talk about the tournament. As I said previously, four finalists, including myself, were invited to compete in a Vs. Mode tournament. It’s important to note that the qualifying challenges were in single player mode and up until I was informed that the finals were a PVP Vs. Mode tournament, I had never played a single round of the Vs. Mode. Luckily for me this was true for the other three finalists as well. At the time I was informed about the tournament, I had played 65+ hours of the single player mode and zero minutes of the Vs. Mode. By the day of the tournament, I had practiced the Vs. Mode for about 20 hours.

Training for/in Vs. Mode was very difficult because it’s a local only PVP mode and I had no one to practice with. This meant playing 30 hours of PVP matches against myself. But thanks to my dedication I was able to use this time productively. I learned all the maps, mastered all the items, and developed a number of strategies for different scenarios. I also came up with what I consider to be the best possible three man squad in the game. According to what the other competitors reported going into the event, I put in more training hours than the three of them combined. And my hard work payed off.

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The tournament consisted of six preliminary rounds. Each competitor went up against each other competitor in a single match. Each victory scored you a single point plus they kept track of how many remaining characters you had in case of a tie. The top two scores would go up against each other one more time in the final round for one more single match. Of the four competitors, I was the only one to win all my preliminary rounds, of course taking me to the final round. The second place combatant that I had to battle again was the only one of the three to almost beat me. And if I’m honest he should have beaten me in our first match. I won by a single move. All the preliminary rounds were viewed by a limited number of team members from Ubisoft Milan but for the final round they had the entire staff watch. This added to the pressure considerably. I went on to win the final round and was declared champion of the Summer Games tournament.

Upon winning this tournament, I was informed that I was now invited to Gamescom, all expenses paid, to compete in the Grand Championship. Going into this tournament, I did not know such a prize was even on the line. I was shocked to find out that I would be taking another trip to Europe less than a month later to compete on a stage in front of hundreds to thousands of people for the grand prize. I still don’t actually know what the grand prize is, but going to Gamescom has always been a dream of mine so that’s a prize in and of itself.

Gamescom-2018

This final tournament to decide the MRKB Grand Champion will consist of the first and second place winner from each of the three Community Championship seasons and two community leaders with a new set of match parameters, which have not yet been disclosed to me. To the best of my knowledge, they have not released the match footage of any of the seasonal tournaments so I have no way of knowing how good the competition is going into the tournament other than the second place winner from my season. All I can do is continue training alone for this tournament and hope for the best. I really want to win this. If winning a tournament at Gamescom on stage doesn’t make you a legitimate e-Sports champion then I don’t know what does. So next week I’m off to Germany to compete in this tournament as well as experience everything Gamescom has to offer.

Important Note: Not only am I traveling to Germany to attend Gamescom next week, but I am also getting married exactly one month from the day this post was published. As you can imagine, I am extremely busy both at work and in my personal life. Between all the traveling, planning, and time away from home, I’m barely able to handle all my usual content creation endeavors. I’ve streamed less than five times in the last two weeks and it’s a miracle I haven’t missed any blog posts. That being said, I cannot say if I’ll be able to keep up with everything for the next couple months between Gamescom, my wedding, my honeymoon, and all the work I have to make up from traveling for these tournaments. So while I will do my best to continue posting weekly, as my record has gone untarnished for years, I ask you to please bear with me during this very busy time in my life in the event that I miss a few posts. As always, thank you for your understanding and support.

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UbE-Sports (I’m Going to Milan!)

I’ve never been that fond of e-Sports. I do have a number of issues with the way they’re generally run and some ethical concerns about leading kids to believe that rather than focusing on school they should be playing Fortnite because maybe they can win $3M, but those aren’t the actual reasons I tend to dislike the concept/industry as a whole. Really my biggest complaint is that it’s the most repetitive, bland assortment of games, most of which I never had an interest in even before the term e-Sports existed. 9/10 times an e-Sports event/competition will feature an FPS, usually COD, CSGO, or Overwatch, a Battle Royale, usually Fortnite or PUBG, a 2D fighter, usually Steet Fighter, Smash Bros, or some junk title like BlazBlue (yeah I said it), some MOBA like LoL, or sports games, specifically Madden or FIFA. Of the literal thousands of games in existence and the countless types of multiplayer scenarios, 90% of e-Sports can be summed up with a handful of games in four genres. I find this appalling and disappointing.

E-Sports could and should be much more diverse and creative. There are lots of PVP scenarios that would be great in professional competitive spaces but the industry is chained to a lackluster list of mostly mediocre games in a few overplayed genres. I have very little experience in e-Sports for the simple fact that they rarely feature a game I even want to play enough to get good at. The last legitimate live gaming competition I participated in was a Smash Bros. Melee tournament in college. Not because there haven’t been other events since then. Just that there haven’t been any I was interested in. But it’s not that there are no competitive games I enjoy playing. I consider myself a single player gamer at heart, but there are lots of PVP games from over the years that I very much enjoyed and would have attempted to compete in at professional level. And I am not alone. The fact that events like Tetris 99 online cups and Splatoon 2 Splatfests are so popular prove this statement.

Tetris 99 cup

There’s also this modern conception that e-Sports means PVP. I don’t know why that is. When I was a kid we competed for high score. The Nintendo World Championships used to focus on single player games like Tetris and Super Mario Bros. That’s the entire premise of the movie The Wizard (1989). This was always my preferred form of gaming competition. Be the best at the game. Not the luckiest in a given randomized PVP scenario. In my opinion, there is a huge void in the big budget e-Sports industry as far as games included and types of competition.

One company that I respect immensely for their constant innovation in the PVP space is Ubisoft. More than any other large publisher, Ubisoft creates PVP and potential e-Sports scenarios that stray so far from the beaten path that they usually don’t even get the proper chances they deserve in the e-Sports industry. The best example of this is Assassin’s Creed multiplayer PVP. To this day I still would say that the PVP in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood through III is the most innovative, original, and creative PVP gameplay I have ever experienced in more than 20 years of gaming. And it was so fun. Brotherhood was my favorite iteration of this system, and I took it seriously. I was so good at it by the time I stopped playing because I devoted so many hours to mastering it. Not because I wanted to get famous playing competitive video games, but because I actually enjoyed playing the game.

AC MP

While I would say Nintendo built the foundation of off the beaten path competitive multiplayer gaming, in the modern era Ubisoft is at the forefront of innovation on this matter. All the most creative and original PVP scenarios seem to be coming from Ubisoft these days. The recently announced Roller Champions is a great example of this. It should have been obvious to make a roller derby game in the style of Rocket League and yet no one developed a properly working one until 2019? And it’s really good too. I only played like 10 hours of it during the E3 demo but I was sold fairly quickly. It’s free to play and has great e-Sports potential. But honestly I don’t see it taking off and that’s because it’s not the standard aforementioned overdone crap so common to the e-Sports industry. Which is a real shame. It’s pretty depressing that the only way a new type of e-Sports concept can make any headway is if the company funds such events themselves. Rocket League is the exception not the rule. That makes it really difficult for indie projects that aren’t copy and paste FPS games to take off in e-Sports. Which not surprisingly is why you see so many clones.

Thankfully though, Ubisoft is quite flush with cash and they do fund many of their own e-Sports endeavors, big and small. This includes games like Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (MRKB). I have written in the past about MRKB and how much I enjoy the game. One of the things I really respect about Ubisoft and the way they’ve handled this game is their dedication to community focused events. Recently they completed the third and sadly final season of community challenges.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle Summer Games 2019 Cover

The community challenges were online events where the community was given specific tasks to complete by following defined in game parameters within a time limit. This was actually really fun and added a lot to my enjoyment of the game after I completed the campaign. The most impressive part was that at the end of each season winners were selected from those who completed the online challenges to fly to Ubisoft’s studio to compete in a tournament and meet the developers.

There are a few aspects of this that are really important and that the rest of the gaming and e-Sports industry really should take note of. First, MRKB is not a super popular game. It’s highly acclaimed but it’s ultimately a niche Nintendo Switch exclusive. The fact that Ubisoft continued to support this game and invest into the community with competitive events and impressive prizes for the winners is spectacular. Second, the community events were for the single player mode. Ubisoft took a single player game and used it to create competition between players in an e-Sports like manner. That needs to happen more often like in the days of the high score. Single player games should not be ignored by the e-Sports industry and community simply because they don’t include direct conflict between players. Bowling, golf, and darts are just a few of many examples of actual sports that have professional levels of competition, are televised, and don’t include direct PVP style competition. Single player games can and should have a place in e-Sports. Finally MRKB is not fast paced. It’s a turn based tactical RPG. Because of years of programming, people who watch e-Sports have been misled into believing that only fast paced games have a place in e-Sports. This is sad and shouldn’t be true. People watch chess and poker. Neither of those are fast paced games.

ark pvpThe current e-Sports landscape is for the most part built on a foundation of lies instituted by companies like Activision and EA because they needed to convince people that there was inherent value in copy and paste annual releases. By tying them to e-Sports they were able to solidify this type of thinking into the very core of the industry. Ubisoft is one the few influential companies actually working towards some form of change, with the money and power to really accomplish something.

The thing that led to me writing this post is that I was actually chosen as one of the winners for the final season of the MRKB community challenge event. I’ve been invited to Milan to meet the developers of the game and participate in a VS Mode tournament. I can’t believe I was chosen for this. It’s truly a privilege to be able to participate in a competitive e-Sports event organized/hosted by a legitimate company. This may not be a $3M Fortnite tournament but it is an honor just to be able to participate in an exclusive gaming related event that almost no people in the world will ever get to based on my in game performance. Obviously I hope I win the tournament but just being able to participate is something I didn’t think would ever happen to me. I will definitely write a post about the experience once the event has concluded and I’ve returned home.

 

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How I Learned to Love the Rabbids

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past five or so years, Rabbids are these stupid rabbit like creatures that appear to be sentient but never seem to do anything other than make funny noises and cause trouble. They originally appeared in Rayman 4 (2013) but were so popular that Ubisoft decided to give them their own game series. I hate Rabbids. I think they’re annoying and add very little to no value to gaming history. I have gone out of my way not to play any game featuring them, including Rayman 4. But technically I haven’t played any of the Rayman games, outside of demos, so that doesn’t necessarily mean anything special. In any case, Rabbids irritate me.

It was my distaste for Rabbids that made me very unhappy when they first announced Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle for the Nintendo Switch. I actually really liked the idea of them making a Mario strategy game with a Banner Saga style grid battle system. While it isn’t canon, pun not intended, I was fine with them giving Mario and friends guns. The game seemed very interesting. But I could not stomach a Rabbids game. It felt so odd to see Nintendo allow Rabbids to enter the Mario universe. It was very out of character for the company and I’m still not entirely sure how it happened. It was the presence of Rabbids in the game that made me ignore it initially.

Mario Rabbids Combat

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was released just a few months before I finally purchased my Switch. I knew I was going to purchase a Switch and I knew when I was going to purchase it. What I didn’t know was that I was going to end up purchasing a Rabbids game on the same day. I had sworn the game off but then people started talking about it. So many people on Twitter were praising the game for its amazing gameplay mechanics. I didn’t have any particular reason to think the gameplay would be bad but my bias against Rabbids made me assume everyone was over exaggerating. They have in the past on multiple occasions. So I was still not planning on buying the game. Then the awards season hit.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, to my surprise, won four awards for best strategy game and was nominated for several other awards from multiple game awards shows. I was shocked it did so well. It seemed like people weren’t exaggerating and that it really was that good. I have owned every console Mario game since Super Mario 64, and many from before that as well. Part of me was devastated to be skipping this Switch Mario game. And the promise of amazing gameplay in a genre I hadn’t really experienced in a Mario game before was also very alluring. But I still said I wouldn’t buy a Rabbids game.

Episode - Screenshot 2018-07-11 01-37-15

It has always been a ritual for me to buy a stack of games when I first purchase a console. I’m not one of those people who buys a new system just to play one game. It needs to already have several games I want to play before I even consider buying it. On the day I went to buy my Nintendo Switch, multiple limiting factors came into play. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Explorer’s Edition hadn’t been released yet and wouldn’t be for a few more months. Super Bomberman R was sold out in all the stores I went to because it had just recently been brought to Taiwan. I did eventually get it though. Snipper Clips was a game I was buying specifically to play with my girlfriend so it didn’t count in my stack of games to play with purchase. I would kind of say the same about Just Dance 2018 but less so. This meant that the only games I was buying for my new Switch to be played for myself at this point were Super Mario Odyssey, obviously, ARMS, Sonic Forces, and Splatoon 2. Two of those games aren’t even real single player games. It was at this moment that the clerk, who I actually know very well and trust his recommendations, suggested Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.

With only two legitimate single player games, the great reviews, and the awards, I ended up buying my first Rabbids game. It hurt even when I was making the purchase but I did it. I bought Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. I felt dirty. I felt like I had betrayed my morals. I did not feel happy about the purchase. But it was already done. And in Taiwan you can’t actually make returns for games so even if I wanted to change my mind, I couldn’t.

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It took me seven months to finally start playing Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. By that point I had beaten Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Sonic Forces, the Splatoon 2 single player campaign, gotten bored with both ARMS and Super BomberMan R, and had beaten other games on my PS4. It was time to give this game I had purchased a try. The start of the game was not promising. An annoying video that features the Rabbids prominently for several minutes before Mario even appears. I had to stomach through it and get to the actual gameplay.

Once you make it through the necessarily long tutorial and actually get to battle on your own, you realize right away that Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle really does have amazing gameplay. It’s different from any other Mario game I’ve ever played and it’s extremely well done. I was hooked so quickly. The other thing that’s really nice about it is that it has text based dialog and turn based gameplay. Meaning you can play it with no sound while doing other things and you don’t miss out on the experience much at all. I love to play it undocked while watching Netflix. It’s great. I don’t even have to hear the Rabbids making all their annoying sounds. The gameplay is creative, addictive, and convenient. And it’s easy to play just one battle and then step away. Jumping back in is fairly easy with the Switch’s sleep mode function.

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So let’s actually talk about the Rabbids. It took me quite some time but I will admit that the Rabbids in this specific game have grown on me. This is due largely to the dynamic Ubisoft has created by making copies of the Mario characters as Rabbids. Rabbid Peach is one of the funniest characters I’ve seen in a long time because of the dynamic she has with Peach and Mario. Alone she is just a ridiculous character that spends too much time taking selfies. But when interacting with Mario and constantly competing with Peach, I find the character hysterical. Other Rabbids in the game are funny too. Rabbid Donkey Kong looks so awkward that you can’t help but laugh. Rabbid Mario’s mustache looks ridiculous. I haven’t gotten Rabbid Yoshi yet but I’m sure that’s going to be hilarious as well.

It seems I’ve learned to tolerate the Rabbids in the context of this game and they actually make me laugh. I really have to commend Ubisoft for creating such an excellent game and tip my hat to Nintendo for taking such a large risk with their most important franchise. I’m usually very good about gaming predictions but have to admit that I did not see this coming out nearly as well as it did. I enjoy Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle so much that it will be the first Nintendo Switch game that I actually purchase DLC for. I regret that I didn’t wait for the Gold edition originally because I really want all the content for this one. Maybe one day I’ll even buy a second Rabbids game.

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