So, you want to become a competitive gamer. Whether it be watching a special on 60 Minutes, hearing about the community, or being unfortunate enough to have a real clan come pub stomp you, you've figured out that there are people that take the games you play seriously. And now you're here. Let's begin with step one.
1. Understand what competitive gaming is.
In order to join the club, you need to know what the club
represents. Call it electronic sports, eSports, professional gaming,
cyberathletics, or competitive gaming, it's all the same (note:
professional gaming refers strictly to competition involving money).
It's about doing what you do, and doing it well. There are a lot of
things you need to have in order to "do gaming well," but fortunately, most of it can be learned, and all of it is addressed in
this guide. Competitive gamers are from all backgrounds, ages, races
and sexes, and except for a few certain circumstances, always begin
on a level playing field. Competitive gaming is a combination of
manual dexterity, reflexes, communication, intelligence, and finesse. Once you
accept this, we can really start.
2. Know the leagues and history.
This step depends on who you talk to. If you don't really care about the history of competitive gaming, and want to focus on the now, by all means, skip to step three. Lets highlight some of the major competitions and leagues, first. I'll reference these later. Parentheses show how the community references these ladders.
- Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) - This used to be considered by many to be the "big dog." Closed on March 13, 2008.
- Cyberathlete Amateur League (CAL, usually with a letter after, ex: CAL-O) - Supports many different games, is free to play, and will most likely be the first league you participate in, depending on the game.
- CyberEvolution (CEVO) - Not where you want to start. Costs money, competition is pretty strong.
- Major League Gaming (MLG) - Strictly console gaming. Has been growing recently, and has become the largest competition scene for consoles.
- World Cyber Games (WCG) - Huge gaming event. Annual, really strong competitions. A good place to end up after a couple years.
- Electronic Sports League (ESL) - Like CAL, but much more focused inside Europe.
There are many others you'll want to be familiar with, but you must know these. These have all been going on for a few years, and in most cases, are growing. MLG has recently been televised on the USA network, and having competed in that league, I have to say they did a fairly good job showing some of the intricacies. The CPL closing was a major news story, as it, in its prime, was considered one of the flagship competitions.
3. Know the game you want to play, or, pick a game you want to play.
This is huge. Competitive gaming isn't about being a great "gamer" and winning at every game. You will rarely see the same name at the top leagues for different games. Much of competitive gaming is muscle memory and reflex, and playing more than one game seriously can ruin your concentration at both. Start out with one game. Pick a game that you think you would be good at, and like to play, and make sure that it has a "competitive future," a competitive future being that people will be playing it at a competitive level. There are no professional tetris players. For the sake of this guide, I'll assume you know the difference between a first-person shooter (FPS), a real-time strategy game (RTS), and a fighter. Assume all games to be for the PC, unless otherwise noted.
- Counter-strike (FPS) - The biggest FPS. Comes in two variants; Counter-strike 1.6 (referred to as simply "CS", or "1.6"), and Counter-strike: Source (Referred to as CSS, CS:S, or "Source"). 1.6 has been played at a competitive level for years, and Source is essentially a "Counter-strike 2." Getting started in 1.6 at this point would be difficult, if you want to play this game, I would start as a Source player.
- Starcraft (RTS) - The Counter-strike of RTS. Referred to as "Starcraft" or "SC." Huge competitions, mostly in Korea. This game came out in 1998, and still has major competitions being played today. A word of warning- the competition level in this game is ridiculously high, as people have nearly mastered this game after a decade of play. I would pick another RTS, or wait for the upcoming Starcraft 2.
- Halo 3 (FPS) - The flagship game of MLG, played on the XBOX 360.
- Super Smash Brothers (Fighter) - Super Smash Brothers: Melee (SSBM, or "Melee") is played on the Gamecube, and Super Smash Brothers: Brawl (SSBB, or "Brawl") is played on the Wii. Competition, at the time of this writing, exists for both of these games, but it is believed one of them is going to die out in the future. Most likely, Brawl will phase Melee out, but it is really hard to say that with certainty at the time of this writing.
- Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne (RTS) - Referred to as "WC3," or "TFT." A safe choice if you want to play a real time strategy game.
- Defense of the Ancients (RTS) - Referred to as "DotA" or "DOTA." A modification of Warcraft III: TFT, in which you control a single unit in 5 on 5 play. No other game plays like this game does.
- Unreal Tournament (FPS), and Quake III (FPS) - Shooters that require high amounts of reflexes and finesse. Very fast play. Unreal is referred to as "UT," and Quake III is often "Quake."
Note that there are many other games, but this is a good list to start from.
4. Have the equipment to play the game.
This is a quick step, and it should mostly be obvious. If you're playing a PC game, have a computer that can handle playing the game smoothly. In most cases, playing on the lowest settings is alright, but you need the game to be smooth running, or you have no chance. Play on a wired optical or laser mouse, and buy a headset (Headsets have an attached microphone). There is some initial investment to this (a large initial investment if you want to play some of the newer PC games without having a gaming-quality machine), but the equipment you buy is important. Do some research. Your equipment doesn't have to be expensive, but it can't be cheap. Expect to spend about $150 on the mouse, headset, and game. For consoles, you just need the console, game, and a wired, first-party controller. Some competitions accept third-party controllers, but be safe.
5. Play the game. A lot.
This one should be simple. Find servers with good people. Clan servers with competitive clans are a good place to begin looking. Find communities online- communities for all of the above games, and many, many more exist. If you can't find one, you aren't looking hard enough. If you think you're looking hard enough and you still can't find one, check the references at the bottom, or send me a message. The point of all of this is to play with people that are better than you. If you're picking up a new game, prepare to be shit on. Accept it. Understand that by losing, you're getting better. Watch how other people (who know what they're doing more than you do) play. Use their techniques. Ask for help. If you ask, people will almost always help you. Don't pretend you're better than you are, or you will never get help, and most likely be kicked. This step is the most important: you have to become proficient at your game in this step. Not wonderful, but at least above average. Expect this step to take at least a month, maybe much more, depending on the time spent and the game. Now is the time to get voice communication software, if you are playing a multiplayer, PC game (the current standard is the free program Ventrilo).
Optional: Find a clan.
This really depends on the game. Clans often have tags in front of their name, and play with people with the same tag. These are groups of gamers that work together, and in many of the above games, compete together. To play the majority of competitive games, you have to have a clan to play with. When looking, find a clan that is active, friendly, and competes in leagues. They don't have to be really, really good. You can jump clans later.
6. Start competing.
Once you know about your game, start playing it for real. Join online leagues for your game, either by yourself in individual competitions, or with your clan. Good places to start are the ESL, CAL-O (the O is for open), and MLG (through GameBattles). If you're in a clan, you should be on their starting roster, and playing with them frequently. Organize practices. Be proactive. This is where competitive gaming becomes difficult. In the beginning, you are competing with thousands of other teams and people, who are all trying to get to step 7. Step 7 is hard to get to. You most likely won't do very well your first season. Maybe not your second season, either. I promise you, if you play any game for two seasons in a league, you will be much, much better than when you started. You have to keep playing, and you have to keep playing with people who are better than you. You'll get to the level you want to if you play.
Clan-hopping is important here. At these levels, you should never be the best player on your team. Unless you have found a group of people that you really, really like, and you see the potential and desire that you possess to grow, be prepared to jump ship. Playing at this level is where you want to get noticed by other clans, and if you see a better one that will let you play with them, it very well might be appropriate to join them. Be considerate to the clan you're leaving, and thank them for the experience. Be careful when you do this, as many competitions do not allow competitors to switch teams mid-season.
7. Move past step 6.
This is when you can consider yourself a real "competitive gamer." Make the playoffs (and do well) in leagues that you have been playing in. Win some tournaments. Get your name out there. Don't expect prizes before this step, but do expect victories, no matter how small. At this point, continuing playing is more important than ever- but a key aspect changes. You should always (and in many cases, only) be playing with your clan, and continue getting comfortable with each other. At this point, you should be invited into the next level of CAL play (CAL-IM, intermediate, or CAL-I, invite, depending on the game). You should recognize that a large part of your play is becoming muscle memory. In most games, the actual skill of the players will begin to even out here. The mental aspect becomes much more important: communication, tactics, and decision making are what are going to make you excel at this stage. If you have gotten to this step, be very proud of yourself; most people never will. Continue playing with your clan, and continue trying to play people that are better than you. This step is a good place to be, but there is one last one after this.
Note on clan hopping:
At this point, be very, very wary of changing clans. Play with the clan you're looking to switch to a lot before making the decision (trust me, they will want you to play with them a lot too). Do not switch to a clan in a league lower the one you are currently in. Make sure they know what your expectations are (scheduled practices, commitment, that you will be a starter). These decisions can make or break your competitive career.
8. Become the best.
Yeah, that's right. You. The best. The highest tier of competitive play at your game. You know you're at this point when you're competing against some of the names you heard when you were researching this game, and winning. Traveling will become a part of your lifestyle. You will have to travel, because you'll be better than everyone around you. Start winning major prizes at this step, and attending tournament as much as you can. Never stop practicing. If you are this far, congratulate yourself. Help people understand how you got to where you are, and help your community. You're who the community is looking at for guidance.
Thats about it. Becoming a competitive gamer is difficult, and requires as much dedication as becoming competitive in anything else requires. Have a good attitude, and you'll go far. An added aspect of competitive gaming is that games phase out. You will find that as you get good at one game, you'll be better at other games as well. Playing more than one game seriously is acceptable, once you've made it to late step 6, and step 7. Be aware that eventually, whether it be months, years, or over a decade, your game will phase out, and you will have to make the step to another game, and begin competing at that. Please message me if you have any questions, or if you aren't sure about specifics of games. I have played all of the games I have listed at at least the "step 6" level, and some of them higher than that. Below are some references and links to get you started. Play hard, and remember to have a little fun.
- Cyberathlete Amateur League: www.caleague.com
- Major League Gaming: www.mlgpro.com
- CEVO: www.cevo.com
- World Cyber Games: www.worldcybergames.com
- Electronic Sports League: www.esl.com
- Ventrilo: www.ventrilo.com