Teammates (Amongst Other Excuses)

“My crappy teammates are holding me back!”  Nope, you are, dummy.  But this was to be expected from the first generation of Western players who never lived a day where the arcades mattered, never lived a day where skillful single-player games (arena shooters, real-time strategy, fighting games, shoot ’em ups) commanded more than secondary interest.  The end result is a legion of idiots large enough to drive game development towards team games that focus entirely on team play, but insist the only thing holding back their pro gaming career are their “noob allies”.

Yes, most of these players are just making excuses, and they did that the second they decided to invest their individual ego in a team game mode.  They’ll complain that these players are infringing on their chances of winning.  But in reality, this is the reason they’re playing team games in the first place.  Team games decrease your accountability in the outcome of the game.  Which, of course, is what makes them ideal to new players, weaker players, and players who have no actual interest in getting better, because they can coattail the efforts of stronger players in the pursuit of more favorable outcomes.  This is easier than putting your limited efforts against other individuals, where very often, you have to learn how to lose before you can learn how to win.

It’s easier to belittle and destroy those players as you come across them in the game, and mock their mothers for poor parenting.  (Who, of course, gave them away to be adopted.)  But I think there’s a percentage of players who can see the error of their ways, and I’m writing this for them.  It’s more important to ask what we can do about the days where all of our teammates are being shipped in from the Valdosta Elementary Gifted Learning Center.  It’s more important to analyze and discuss the root cause of “noob allies”.  Which, of course, is “matchmaking”, whether the teams generated by the inflow of players into custom games and dedicated servers or the teams crafted by algorithms for use on the developer’s online service.

So, the scrub is sick of crappy teammates and he wants the developer to do something about it!  Well, right there, that was his first mistake.  He wants the developer of the game to fix the fact that he can’t win, and that’s a waste of time.  A chief tenet of game design (at least in the games worth playing) is that those who wield skill control power, which can be used to shape the outcome of the game.  The better the player, the more power they wield in that virtual universe.  If your desire is to win, the time invested in pushing your voice on the company forums is better spent taking action in the game.  Putting your efforts towards “getting better” will create more power for your own interests than any fifty-page discussion thread.  But let’s honor the player’s wish.  Since we’ve centralized the entire modern multiplayer experience around the developer’s game servers, let’s go ahead and give the player perfect matchmaking.  Every single game offers you a matchup that is perfectly tailored to your skill set.

Sound good, right?  Now, for those of you who aren’t aware, when Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos codified and popularized anonymous matchmaking, the matchmaking was pretty loose and came with some caveats.  As with most of the online games of the nineties and leading into the next decade, you could create a new account, wipe your stats clean, and start anew.  “Smurfing”, they called it.  Whelp, bad players complained.  “It’s not fair that I have to play smurfs!  It’s not fair that I only win forty percent of my games!”  No, they wanted to win fifty percent of their games.  They wanted the system to be “fair”.  If only there was something that these players could do to improve their win percentage…oh, I remember now!  Rather than take advantage of these matchups against stronger players, they complained that smurfs were ruining the game experience!  Blizzard agreed, and this set off a series of matchmaking changes that are widely credited with destabilizing the Warcraft III ladder.  (The crappy Warcraft III players stopped playing the game anyway.  And mysteriously, around this same time, the Defense of the Ancients genre got really popular.)

Predictably enough, more accurate matchmaking came around not because of a desire to “get it right”, but because the weaker players complained.  That should be your first hint that something is screwy here.  And yeah, developers made a mistake.  What players don’t realize is that these systems can actually pose a detriment to player improvement.  By losing the right to play stronger players, you’re losing the right to explore outcomes that you have never previously engaged.  By losing the right to play weaker players, you’re losing to the right to experiment with unconventional strategies and tactics.  Certainly, there are some obvious benefits from getting a consistent range of matches within your nebulously defined skill range, particularly for honing your mechanical skills at a steady rate.  But you are actually losing flexibility, because you’re only being exposed to the tactics, strategies, and playstyles within that specific skill range.

Whoops!  So even if “perfect matchmaking” creates a great comfort zone for most players, even if bad matchmaking exposes players to the occasional dud matchup, turned out that this was a pretty lousy idea.  In reality, it’s preferable that you get exposure to a wider range of skill levels, even if those games may occasionally result in a “complete waste of time”.  (Though it is worth noting that if you’re paying active attention, very few games are a waste of time.  The “dud” usually comes when the stronger player is exploring the weaker player’s Fisher Price version of the game.)  And since video games are probably not going to have artificial intelligence that can present a full range of skill levels and playstyles at any time in the near-future, ala computer chess programs, we should probably just accept that we want imperfect matchmaking, and the imperfect matchmaking that leads to “shitty teammates” are an inevitably and a necessity.

So, instead of asking “Why are my teammates so bad?”, you need to ask yourself, “How should I adjust my skill set in order to compensate for my weaker teammates?”  Assuming you’re in this to actually overcome challenges (i.e. “what makes video games great”), then we need to figure out a plan.  But first, before we do that, we need to address a certain thing.  The matter of luck in “competitive video game” circles is a very contentious one, but most players seem to agree that any random chance or luck has no place in the communities which are using video games as a vehicle for human competition.  Which, of course, is silly.  Because there are excellent, excellent games (particularly Civilization IV and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings) which use randomly generated content as the backbone for their entire game model.  The debate should be whether or not these games have random elements worth exploring and can hold to the scrutiny of skilled players.

Essentially, fighting through the fires of matchmaking is a form of managing luck.  Bad teammates will make up a random sample size within a game.  Not only will they be on your team, they will also be on the other team.  It’s your goal to take advantage of the relative strengths presented by these situations.  Being able to react to radically different skill levels, playstyles, strategies, and tactics as they’re laid in front of you on a game-to-game basis is a skill in itself.  And it’s one that has good overlap with other skill sets, because it forces you to constantly re-evaluate the battlefield and make flash judgments based on extremely limited information.  Players will be good, they’ll be bad, they’ll be right in your skill range, they’ll use cheat programs, they’ll teamkill, they’ll do things you’ve never ever seen before.  Being able to react to these situations is very valuable, regardless of the game mode, the game, or the genre.

Most of this will sound familiar to those who watch professional basketball, where the best players tend to pace their abilities relative to the score, the time left in the game, who is on the floor, and what the other players are doing.  But this isn’t a skill which is exclusive to top athletes or even top video game players.  If I perceive that my teammates have no chance of winning the game on their own, I completely change the way that I play, opt for strategies and tactics that allow me to force individual engagements and discourage large teamfights.  I may not win, but I’ll probably get a more competitive match.  If I get a really damn good set of teammates, I take the opportunities that they give me, I focus my strategies and tactics around them, and I only try to force winning outcomes if I really have to make something happen.  I adjust my strengths and skills for the strengths and skills of my own teammates.  You can do the same.  But just like mouse speed, just like aim accuracy, just like valuation, this is a skill that takes time to learn.

And yes, you’ll just come across odds that are simply impossible.  One of your teammates just picked up the game, another doesn’t know where he is, the third guy is shooting his teammates in the head.  Meanwhile, the Third Reich is marching down the south side of the map and you’re about to get Hitler’ed.  You’re fucked.  You know what?  Shit happens.  You accept those kinds of matches as the scrapes that come with playing video games in a team format and move on.  You accept this as a necessary evil for being exposed to a wide, divergent range of skills and play levels, a necessary evil for improvement.  But of course, you’ll never hear scrubs complain when the overwhelming odds stack in their favor, and that it ruined any chance to have a fun, engaging match.  (Only if a significant string of easy victories are followed by a significant string of “unwinnable” games.  Then this proves the system needs to be fixed.)

So let’s just make this clear: The price you pay for playing a team multiplayer game (whether co-operative or versus) is that you are reducing your own stake in the outcome of the game in order to explore different genres and concepts in video games.  You accept the fact that you will play with human opponents who either have skill sets that don’t mesh with your own or simply drag down the process.  Likewise, you accept the fact that you more-than-likely drag down your own teammates from time to time.  When this happens, rather than lashing out at the other players in your group, all you have to do is say…”I probably could have played better.”  And then you try to figure out what went wrong, and the learning process continues.  You treat these challenges precisely like what they are: Obstacles.  You try to overcome these obstacles.  And “I played a bad game” isn’t exclusive to the lower- and middle-tier video game player.  This even happens to the best players.  The difference is that these players developed the skill sets to overcome their occasionally sloppy play.

No, I’m not using this as a blanket response to the idea that anyone who gets upset with their teammates under any circumstances is an idiot.  It would be too simple and basic to do this.  We’re human.  Part of being human is getting pissed off at other human beings.  We’re the only species who gets sick of our own shit and tries to off ourselves en masse.  But if your true desire is to win, then you need to realize that managing your own emotions, just like managing your own teammates, just like managing luck, is a skill.   If your desire is to win, there will actually be times where laying into a player or your team can actually provide benefit, because sometimes, that’s what has to be done to make it obvious that the winning move is right in front of your team.  But in the world of video games, where we mingle with people we have never met and will never talk to again, yelling at other people tends to be a bad idea.  So most of the time, it’s just better to keep your cool.

If you can’t come to terms with the rules of engagement, then take your efforts and invest them in other game modes.  Invest your effort in places where those horrible, icky teammates won’t be able to interfere with your god-given talents.  Hell, if you’re constantly upset with the outcomes created in games centered around team multiplayer, it may be a hint that the game you’re playing simply isn’t that good.  Or, at-best, there’s something out there better for you.  But if you want a video game that unlocks your individual potential, then I give you games like StarCraft: Brood War, Supreme Commander, Unreal Tournament, Quake III Arena, The King of Fighters ’98, Guilty Gear XX, and Super Street Fighter II Turbo.  All of these games have been validated by a good percentage of the players who played them, all of these games have highly skilled and active user bases to this day.  (“But what about e-Sports?”  The games I listed are actually good.  Don’t sacrifice the quality of the game to chase “competition”.)  Until then, if you’re playing alongside teammates and you’re not the best player in the world, then you will always be worse than someone else, and you will be holding them down.  Just keep that in mind when someone else is holding you down.

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