In the world of gaming, playing against friends in a multiplayer setting is not a new concept. However, the ability to enter into competition with some of the best gamers in the world—no $10,000 prizes, no new cars, no requirements to survive a 35-seed national tournament—has also begun to appear at the 5Cs more than one might think.
After all, competitive gaming was not always as simple an affair. Take the Nintendo World Championships held in 1990, for instance: Besides producing 26 of the rarest collectible cartridges in history (try an $18,000 value), this massive tournament was one of the first of its kind to bring gamers together in a serious competitive setting. Not to mention that the winners received $10,000 in savings bonds, brand new cars, 40” televisions, and 24-carat gold Mario-shaped trophies, in additional to their own copy of the game cartridge (which, ironically, would out-value all other prizes 20 years later)—clearly any gamer’s dream, regardless of age. For a time, Nintendo even seemed to realize that the competitive gaming demographic was not limited to just kids, as evidenced by their “Campus Challenge” tournaments in ’91 and ’92, with another tantalizing $10,000 prize awaiting 35 lucky finalists in a heart-pounding final round played out at Disney World on New Year’s Eve. Clearly, competitive gaming had become just as impressive in the college world as it had been to kids a year or two earlier.
Nowadays, however, the 5Cs have their own “Campus Challenges” of sorts every few weeks. Dining halls are often adorned with posters advertising local tournaments in Halo Reach, Super Smash Brothers, FIFA ’11, Madden, etc. Pomona’s Smith Campus Center rents out a Wii for just such purposes. Tournaments have become easy for anyone to organize, both because of the increased portability of consoles and TVs and because the gaming industry wills it. Games today have special built-in allowances for competition—Call of Duty, Halo, and every good first-person shooter (FPS) include tournament modes across multiple styles of gameplay. Some of these FPSes are so focused on competitive play that they completely omit a single-player campaign (I’m thinking of Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and Counterstrike). But it’s not just FPSes. Street Fighter, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Super Smash Brothers, and almost all other so-called “tournament fighters” now contain all the infrastructure one needs to run a simple tournament right on the disk—no need to bring 20 arcades into the same room anymore. Even less likely competition candidates like Donkey Kong Country Returns and New Super Mario Bros Wii have begun including a “co-op” mode which blurs the line a bit: all players must work together to achieve a common goal but at the same time compete against each other for the highest score. Such widespread competitive features are a far cry from the convoluted standards used to gauge the competitive strength of the Nintendo World Championship contestants as they played isolated single-player games.
Gamers at the 5Cs, it would seem, have embraced the new challenge. Online matches happen fairly regularly; one can often hear people bragging about the latest “fragfest” they were part of last night. However, amongst a small elite, competitive gaming flourishes on a much higher level. The only two groups I have had any exposure to are Super Smash Bros and StarCraft, but even amongst those groups, the competition level feels professional. In some cases the feeling is justified, as Day, a revered StarCraft pro player, graduated from Harvey Mudd only last year. But even amongst the Super Smash Bros group, where the players are only what I would call “semi-professional,” gaming—while still primarily a social experience—is serious business. A whole separate vocabulary exists to describe elite strategies which players may or may not have mastered but which have been invented and used by the “pros” of the modern era (“pros” in quotation marks because professional Smash Bros players exist essentially in isolation on the internet). “Wave dashing,” “crouch cancelling,” “tippers,” “sweet spots,” “wave shining,” and other such esoteric terms have come to describe glitches in the game that players have to exploit in order to maintain their competitive edge.
In contrast to the glitz of Nintendo gaming in the ’90s, there is no official title of “Smash Bros World Champion,” and although the Pound 5 and Genesis annual tournaments are generally considered to have the best showing of players, there is no officially-sanctioned “Smash Bros World Championship.” Perhaps that’s for the best: Now anyone can compete with these semi-professional players right in their backyard, and although they might not win a new car at the end of the process, they will gain a new and more complex love for the games they already play. So if you hear of a tournament for your favorite game, check it out! It’s a slice of 5C life that has to be seen to be believed!