The Opportunity Cost of Smite

Welcome to the second edition of my column entitled Hells to the Noes in which I discuss things whose absence from my life causes me no loss of sleep. Google tells me that opportunity cost is defined as “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.” I just uninstalled Smite for the second time and I need to let off some steam while pondering the last three months I’ve spent playing this fine MOBA.

That’s not sarcastic at all, by the way. Smite is an excellent game. It has elements of MMOs, FPSs, and even Street Fighter wrapped up into a neat little package. It receives regular updates, balance patches, new Gods, skins galore, rewards – pretty much everything anyone who likes Shiny Stuff and a level playing field would ever want.

I’ve come to a point, however, where I’m thinking that it might not be the game for me. Central to this statement is the notion of opportunity cost and why doing other things with my time may very well prove to be more productive and satisfying. Forthwith, a brief review of the pros and cons of my time with Smite:

Pros

  • You jump in and fight other people without prerequisites.
  • There is a large god pool (currently 76) to choose from. All play styles are accommodated.
  • It is fun, fast-paced, and skillshot based.
  • It costs nothing if you don’t want it to. All purchases are optional. The Ultimate God Pack offers maximum bang for your buck.
  • There are lots and lots of shinies to collect.

Cons

  • It is primarily the domain of young men in their teens and twenties. I am none of those things.
  • It is Serious Business competitive. This has inspired unparalleled toxicity on my part.
  • While playing this game, time elapses at triple its normal rate.
  • A large time investment is required (150+ hours) to achieve quality matches.
  • Competitive matches are 25-50 minutes long. Penalties for leaving are substantial.

The last match I played before uninstalling for the second time was a blowout and not in our favor. I was playing a god I did not like in the hunter (ADC) role. The warrior rotated from the solo lane. Three enemy gods were in our lane. I landed a kill with a long-range ability and the warrior stopped playing long enough to type in the chat box to tell me not to ks (kill steal).

I went ballistic.

I’ll spare you the details of my rage. Suffice it to say that I was not a nice person. The warrior ending up leaving the 30-minute match early. Every surrender vote failed because I voted no so that I could get the maximum amount of worshipers out of the loss. That would mean getting to Rank 1 on that god as quickly as possible so that I would never have to play him again. I would only need to have him available for ranked play in order to hold him for another player before the enemy team had a chance to ban that god from that match.

In other words, I wasn’t playing that god because it was fun. I was playing it as a prerequisite for ranked play.

One hundred hours invested and I’ve mastered half of the god pool. If you really want to be a player in ranked, you need to have 100% of them mastered and therefore available for play. I’m at account level 30 and I have far more than 18 gods mastered – the minimum requirements for participating in ranked play – so why not just jump right into ranked?

Oh, hey, look, it’s that cognitive dissonance thing Jeromai was talking about. I want to be maximally effective and prepared – no, I must be maximally effective and prepared – before I start playing at a competitive level. At the same time, I’m not having fun. I’m generating large amounts of drama in-game. I’m encountering things that make my pulse race (good) and my blood pressure rise (bad). I want to have a nicely made bed with freshly laundered sheets while shitting in said bed.

Conflicting goals, conflicting desires.

What to do? There are other activities that offer rewards without the emotional roller coaster: writing, Secret Worlding (very low key), WvW in GW2. I joined a WvW guild and we run around getting points and fighting and defending. Time flows at its normal rate; it’s a positive social experience with what you would call a more “mature” crowd. Why not pursue that avenue for a while and shoo off the drama llamas?

It’s stubbornness in the face of those final two options for resolving cognitive dissonance. The solution I’ve proffered above is 2a) Changing the Belief or Actions. In this case, actions: I stop playing Smite. But there’s that 2b) Integration lingering there, looking me over and saying “You could be a more moderate person. You could play 1-2 games of Smite a day until you’ve mastered all the gods and then go play your favorites in ranked like you said you wanted to. Right? Your temper flares up, but you’re better than that. Just learn to control it.”

I don’t know. I only know binary solutions for these things. The house needs to be cleaned and there are weeds growing out on the front lawn. There are keeps to defend and siege, messed up stories to be found in the dark corners of Tokyo. All kinds of stuff that could be done with the time I would otherwise spend on improving my reflexes, mechanics, situational awareness, composure, shotcalling – the types of things that transfer positively to other games. Leadership characteristics. I feel like a bit of a failure for not persevering.

I’ll have to think on it.

 

If Numbers Are a Metric, I Give Zero Fucks

A recent thread in the Smite section of Reddit on the topic of player skill rating visibility prompted me to ponder the usefulness of being able to see the hidden personal performance numbers that HiRez, the studio responsible for Smite, associates with players in casual and ranked play. This led me to a broader consideration of the numbers associated with personal achievement in different game types.

Members of the Smite community have taken to referring to such officially invisible numbers as Elo, short for “Elo rating,” rather than MMR (matchmaking rating) or other alternatives. Typically, “Elo” by itself refers to a rating system for calculating the relative skill levels of players in competitive games, most notably chess. The system is named after its creator, American physics professor Arpad Elo. Smite uses the Elo system to track player performance, determine division placement in ranked play, and select suitable co-players during the matchmaking process.

Different games espouse different ideals and cultivate particular cultures when it comes to the quantification of personal achievement and ability. There is a tendency in competitive communities, for example, to channel one’s desire to win and perform at the highest levels into toxicity when other players are observed to have, in their estimation, underperformed. It may also occur when other players are not playing in the way that the player in question would have. Any material that can be used to further one’s argument or vitriol is sought after and wielded.

One of these items is a player’s personal numeric skill rating. Some competitive games make this information publicly available through official means. Other games, such as Smite, do not, and players are left to rely on third-party calculations in order to obtain this information. We see in other games that there is, perhaps, a certain art to being selective about what information to offer to players and what information to withhold. Enemy hit points are not displayed numerically in Guild Wars 2, for example, but via the length of a red bar. Classic EverQuest did not tell you a hostile creature’s level, only how deadly it appeared to be. Similarly, HiRez does not make official Elo ratings available to players. They must go to a site like SmiteGuru in order to view approximations thereof – that is, if the player has not chosen to hide their profile. Most players do not.

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Normally these numbers are hidden from the world.

I am an exception. Like HiRez, I hide certain aspects of my information. I keep my profile hidden which means that other players cannot look up my information. When I am listed in official matches, only the god I played is listed – my account name is not. Additionally, hidden profiles do not feed data to SmiteGuru. This means that not only can other players not see my account-level kill-death-assist and win-loss statistics, they also cannot see my approximated skill rating. By the same token, neither can I. It may sound rather odd when you think about it. Shouldn’t I want to know how I’m doing? Why would I hide this information, especially from myself?

In the case of HiRez, there is a culture that is cultivated by not making certain information public. Hiding a player’s Elo rating implicitly tells the community that HiRez does not encourage the use of numbers as an exclusive means of determining the worth of other players. More specifically, it does not provide players material to be used for bad-mouthing / bad manners (“BM”) or ranking other players internally based on numbers. What is implicitly encouraged – that is to say, not structurally discouraged by official, public ratings information – is determining how good you think a player is by watching them play.

This is exactly what I do when evaluating my own performance in games. My metrics are generally based on subjective observations. Did we win? Did anyone die? Was I out of position? Did I utilize my abilities effectively? I rarely use healing or damage meters when they are available. My flirtations with them are always very brief. It doesn’t particularly matter to me exactly how much damage any of my abilities are doing or what my Heals Per Second output is. I’m a Feeler as opposed to a Thinker according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. My preferred mode of interacting with game worlds is intuitive in nature rather than analytical. It’s not that I eschew numbers – I simply don’t worship them.

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These gods, on the other hand, have 50+ worshipers and are therefore mastered which makes them available for ranked play. It doesn’t mean I’ve actually “mastered” them, though.

Psychologically speaking, I think everyone likes to have a convenient metric that tells them roughly where they’re at. This is fine and dandy. We like to know what we’ve accomplished. How frustrating it must have been for numbers-driven players of classic EverQuest to approximate their experience gains with orange and blue bubbles. Numbers give us a tangible, definite quantity that represents, somehow, our investment, our dedication, our accomplishments, our time and effort. It’s reassuring, on some level, to have that definite, immediately recognizable reference point. It may even drive us to continue, as there are some of us who are motivated by such things. (I won’t stop playing tonight until I’ve achieved item level 170 on my Paladin. Ahem.)

Numbers tell us what we’ve done. They quantify our deeds, our ambitions, the totality of our play sessions. We have UI screens filled with numbers that tell us how powerful and experienced we are as a function of the adventures we’ve undertaken. There is a certain fascination to poring over the myriad statistics associated with our characters and our play sessions. We may wish to quantify them using tools such as spreadsheets, combat parsers, and simulations. This can be a game in and of itself. Numbers are great fun if that’s your sort of thing.

Meters and numbers are indeed quite useful as pointers: if you have mana issues and your meters tell you that you’re overhealing quite a bit on a class that does not feature overhealing as part of their ability set, it may lead you to investigate your ability usage patterns in order to solve the problem. The act of overhealing, however, does not make you a bad player – if other healers were to send you private messages telling you that you should delete your character and uninstall because you’re an overhealing noobmonster, how would that make you feel?

You’re not a bad player because the numbers say you’re suboptimal. And the numbers aren’t bad because they tell you things you may not like. Neither the player nor the meters are unwelcome. Why? Because the numbers aren’t even saying you’re suboptimal. Certain people looking at the numbers are saying you’re suboptimal. (It might even be you saying it!)

And so as useful as numbers are in describing damage done, achievements unlocked, and power-ups acquired, we must keep in perspective that they are only one part of the comprehensive picture that we must consider when determining our own progress in and contributions to any given game. That is, if we aspire to be something more than barbaric when it comes to sizing up our fellow players, teammates and opponents alike.

This, in a nutshell, is why I refuse to look at my own rating numbers or the numbers of others. This is a personal choice, not a philosophical approach that I demand everyone adhere to. When it comes to evaluating my personal progress and performance, I’d rather have fellow players use the same metrics that I would use for them. I can’t force them to, of course. I can’t even say that this is what they should do. They can do whatever the hell they want. However, I’m of the opinion that one’s Elo rating does not present the entire picture when it comes to a player’s effectiveness and contributions, nor do other associated numbers which may be pinned to mastery.

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A somewhat more useful description of player performance.

Let’s consider an example from Smite. For those who are not familiar with the game, Smite is a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) in which players control gods from different historical pantheons and fight each other over strategic objectives. There’s nothing that tells you definitively whether a player is good at playing the god they’ve chosen. They may have a god mastery rank on the player card which is displayed to everyone prior to the beginning of the match. For example, I have Artemis at Rank I which means a small “I” will appear on my pre-match player card if I have chosen not to hide that information. What does this signify? It reflects the fact that I’ve played enough matches to acquire 50 “worshippers” on Artemis. In unranked play, players gain 0.2 worshippers per minute and an additional 4 worshippers for a win. A long win (30 minutes) will therefore grant 10 worshippers, while a short loss (15 minutes) will grant 3 worshippers. The “I” thus describes how much I’ve played that god without really telling anyone how many matches I’ve won. Other players are free to interpret this as they see fit, just as they may size up the “golden” skin which can be purchased for that god at mastery rank I using in-game currency.

At mastery rank X, which requires 1,000 worshippers, players may purchase a “diamond” skin for that god using in-game currency. Does this mean that an “X” indicates a good player? Well, there’s a correlation, perhaps one that we could only describe as “not strong” at best. But what if, for example, you were to encounter a diamond Geb, the Egyptian god of earth, who was using abilities seemingly randomly and not contributing to team fights? Well, perhaps their 1,000 worshippers and many, many hours of play wouldn’t be terribly useful as a barometer of skill. It could be that the person who put in those hours is part of a family that shares the account (so naughty!) or the account could belong to a player who is letting a friend try the game for the first time.

So it might not be that you’re using the numbers as a basis for making assumptions or statements that aren’t necessarily accurate. It could be that the numbers are lying to you because you don’t have the entire context available.

Let me put it this way: if the thermometer says it’s 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside, it’s probably pretty brisk, right? We know that objectively. But if someone who’s had a bottle and a half of whisky goes out in that weather, it’s 60 degrees Fahrenheit to them. We have to take into account the person’s inner circumstances in addition to any objective description of their environment that we may have at hand.

Smite Login Screen
Skadi, the Norse goddess of winter and Smite’s newest addition, is also unaffected by the cold.

In many cases, we simply don’t have access to this information, so our picture is incomplete. We can, of course, derive the most reasonable and plausible conclusions possible based on the existing information. We must know, however, that these hypotheses will be imperfect – something that every scientist worth their salt uses as the foundation of their endeavors. If the player is a streamer and we can see what they are doing in real time – both inside the game and outside the game (do they have a cold? are they tired?) – our available base of information is more comprehensive and we can come to a more informed, less imperfect conclusion.

So why in the world would we think that the use of a single metric or even a single source of information accurately represents the worth, value, and contributions of a player?

Because it’s convenient. It lets us be lazy. We can pin our losses, deaths, and situations with less than perfect outcomes on others. And we’re assholes, too, so why not?

Well, except those of us that aren’t assholes.

My level of experience when playing in matches against other players shows through in my ability to battle other players, make a difference in team fights, and in whether we win the game or not. I have no need to reference a mathemagical number called “Elo” to tell me whether I’m valuable or not. And I certainly don’t need to make it available to others so that they can use it as a marker of judgement with regard to my relative worth as a player.

Take your favorite MMO. Your level doesn’t tell people how many sights you’ve seen, air balloons you’ve ridden, horses you’ve tamed, or warehouses you’ve constructed. It simply doesn’t reflect all of those things. Certainly there are numbers that do reflect those things, and those numbers must be incorporated into a comprehensive overview of a person-player if we want to understand their contributions to the world they inhabit, even if those contributions are mostly solo endeavors.

It’s just that I have little use for those numbers. Yesterday evening, I played three matches in which I underperformed. My team still won every time. Does my Elo rating reflect how I did in those matches? Nope. It reflects the superiority of my team’s mechanical ability to play their chosen gods and score kills. My part in this whole shebang was minimal at best. I felt bad about it because I’ve played much better. Perhaps I was just having an off night?

And there it is. You wouldn’t know unless you talked to me or saw inside me. You can analyze replays of my matches and point out weaknesses and flaws and from this gain insight into my level of ability and my contributions to our wins. My Elo rating tells you about my win-loss history and how I’m expected to perform. From this, you can’t reasonably extrapolate anything about my character, personality, play style, or any of that. What you have is a number whose usefulness does not extend to all domains.

Which is why I agree with HiRez’s philosophical stance on this matter. Not making those scores available is a clear signal to players that they will not provide ammunition for toxic behavior. Those who are determined to be asshats to their fellow players will, of course, make use of whatever they can find in doing so. The fact that they will do so whether Elo ratings are publicly available or not does not mean that HiRez should go ahead and make them visible. It’s about the principle of the thing. By cultivating a set of principles – an ethos – via what they do and do not do, they send a message to the community of people who play their game: evaluate others as players, not numbers.

Smite Fight Night

I’m three weeks into this MOBA business with few signs of slowing down. I’m assuming since I’ve the presence of mind to pop out and write this piece that I’ve at least hit an initial saturation point. I don’t remember the last time I played The Secret World or any other MMO for that matter. That’s not to say that I’ve given up the massively multiplayer genre for good by any means; I’m simply taking time off from familiar faces, places, and biomes for as long as the intoxicating euphoria of newfound love holds sway over me. Those worlds aren’t going anywhere and I’m not missing out on anything while I’m not there that can’t be recreated in a different fashion later.

Besides, if you’re reading the right blogs you can live out a hundred different lives in a hundred different worlds vicariously. The only thing better than doing something well is having someone else do it for you.

What Smite does well enough to draw me away from my usual haunts is give me the opportunity to meet interesting players and kill them in different ways. The environs range from straight-up deathmatch Arena brawling to the NPC-oriented, dual lane-encircled jungle of the 4v4 Siege map to the three-lane objective minefield of 5v5 Conquest’s interstitial jungle. Conquest is Smite’s premiere competitive mode and offers substantial cash prizes to tournament-level teams in a maturing eSports scene whose followers number in the millions. It’s Conquest that I’m mostly interested in with some Joust on the side, an abbreviated, linear 3v3 map with a smattering of objectives that emphasizes team skirmishes.

I am partial to the Conquest mode due its emphasis on objectives and strategic team play. There are three phases to the game just like in any chess match: beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of the game is called the laning phase in which designated roles go to designated positions on the map and farm the waves of minions that periodically stream forth toward their tower. Enemy players will be doing the same opposite you and there is a dance to be learned if one wishes to gain experience, gold, and a greater appreciation for not being dead. There are no set criteria for when the midgame starts: it may occur when towers are destroyed on one side or the other; it may also occur when players reach a certain power point and begin to move around the map more freely. During this time the gold and damage buff objectives may be taken or fought over, towers may crumble, and the phoenixes which sit behind the towers may also come under attack.

The endgame often comes somewhere at the 30-40 minute mark in a good game. At this point teams are generally engaged in a tug-of-war over map control. The respawn timer for dying at this point is significant (60-70 seconds). Tier 1 towers must be killed before tier 2 towers can be damaged, tier 2 towers must be destroyed before phoenixes can be damaged, and at least one phoenix must have been killed before the ultimate objective, the enemy titan, will take damage. Once the titan falls, the match is complete. It is through and through a team effort. The ADC role (attack damage carry) is designed to “carry” one’s team to victory, but it generally proves to be an affair that does not center around one player’s performance.

For those who are so inclined to pay overbearing amounts of attention to their own personal performance, there is a ranked version of Dueling which is a 1v1 matchup that takes place on the Joust map. I have never been fond of dueling other players individually – it absolutely does not interest me. I hold this to be the domain of the young men in their teens and twenties who are ever present in the game’s chat box, Curse voice communications, YouTube videos, and Twitch streams. I have no love for the dank 420 hype memes that float about in their specialized lingo, but I’m willing to endure the linguistic environment to improve my player combat skills, kappa.

My ultimate objective is to be a contributing member of a team full of people who know what they’re doing and are playing their best game. This entails meeting the minimum requirements for ranked Conquest play by achieving an account level of 30 and having mastered 18 gods. This involves playing the game extensively; realistically this occurs over the course of several months. Both of these targets therefore say more about the amount of time a player has spent playing than it does about the quality of their play. I find that I am at my personal best when I am surrounded by people who are better than me. It elevates my play.

It seems I’ve found the appropriate game mode in which to nurture my latent desire to be the best that I can be. I never cared to become a grandmaster in the domain of hitting rats with sticks or having jumped on the most rooftops in the local city center. Certainly, I wanted to be good at what I did, but I never felt a burning desire to excel. Above average was quite all right.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time absorbing knowledge and putting what I’ve learned and observed into practice. As far as I can tell, things are coming along quite nicely. Once I regain my senses I’ll pop right back into the sands of Egypt where I left off. Until then, this cloud is quite comfy.

Artemis

Ever since I started playing Smite, I’ve been taken with Artemis, one of the game’s “hunters.” Hunters are what you would call ADCs in League of Legends, which refers to “Attack Damage Carry,” i.e. a character that becomes physically powerful during the end game and can “carry” their team to victory by dint of their large damage numbers. The tradeoff in pretty much every glass cannon build ever, however, is that if you are focused by the opposing team, you are not terribly difficult to take down. Compounding this issue in the case of Artemis is her relative lack of mobility compared to someone like Neith, the Egyptian Weaver of Fate, who has the ability to backflip out of tough situations and whose Ultimate (powerful ability on a long cooldown) is the ability to snipe anyone on the map she can see with shots that do more damage the longer the ability is “charged” up. Artemis, in contrast, relies on traps and stuns; her Ultimate calls forth a Calydonian Boar with an uptime of six seconds which stuns itself and its target for two seconds (hence, maximum three targets). Artemis is therefore generally ranked as mid-tier whereas Neith, due to her mobility, utility, and moderate self-healing abilities, is usually ranked in one of the top tiers.

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Neith, Weaver of Fate.

As far as I’m concerned, chaste, proud, fully accoutered Artemis with her flowing red locks is top tier when it comes to presence. Scantily clad Neith in her stilettos is rather disappointing, aesthetically. I don’t mind playing her (her bow has a pleasant, distinctive sound) as long as she isn’t doing that silly sidestepping animation. No, it’s Artemis whose strength and radiance have so impressed themselves upon me that I decided to make a fire sale out of the year’s worth of materials I had stockpiled and convert the resulting gold to gems with reckless abandon in an attempt to recreate her in Guild Wars 2. The following items were acquired for this purpose:

  • One Identity Repair Kit (Name Change Contract + Total Makeover Kit)
  • One Wreath of Cooperation
  • One Medium set of Stalker’s Armor

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I’m not altogether satisfied with this first attempt. (When I say “first” I mean that spending more real money is a possibility, although it’s a bad habit I typically endeavor to keep firmly within grasp.) There’s no “flowing locks” hairdo for human females that matches what I’m looking for; additionally, the narrow contours of Artemis’s face simply don’t carry over well due to the fact that Tyrian human females, by and large, seem to suffer from Puffy Face Syndrome. I’ve found that you can mask the effect by using darker skin tones which wouldn’t exactly match Artemis’s rather pale looks in Smite but would be more appealing than running around looking like I have pudding in my cheeks. I may darken her skin when I have enough gems for another makeover kit. Rox’s Quiver will certainly make an appearance at some point.

One of the effects that “cross-training” in Smite has had is that I’ve gained a newfound appreciation of Guild Wars 2’s Ranger profession as well as profession abilities in general. Gods in Smite run around with four active abilities, up to two consumable items, up to two active items, and up to six passive equipment items (gear). Knowledge of those four situational abilities on a per-God basis allows for rather rapid and intuitive play and counter-play. Understanding this within the context of a MOBA has made it much easier for me to spot the situational use of many more of the generally somewhat more complex profession abilities within Guild Wars 2, although it does still suffer from the same PvE/PvP ability split found in games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic wherein you may not use and/or grasp the use of half of the abilities available to you until you play your first Warzone (PvP).

I’ve now taken my Tyrian Artemis version 1.0 through six or so of the starting zones using a world completion overlay that was linked in the reddit forums and have decided that I am motivated enough by her appearance and the relative ease of playing a Ranger who uses bows exclusively (much to the chagrin of those who insist that Rangers be played “like Aragorn” from Lord of the Rings, i.e. using swords and such) that I am willing to do world completion on a second character whom I will level “manually” (as opposed to “passively” using Tomes of Knowledge from daily login rewards) just so I can use the exotic-quality “Eir’s Short Bow” that was a random drop from a chest in some open world event which may or may not have been a world boss.

Motivated by cosmetics. Well, then. That’s a refreshing change of pace.

The “default card” images of Artemis and Neith used in this post were taken from smite.gamepedia.com.

Smitten

David Bowie is a man whom I respect, as is Alan Rickman. I am not acquainted with the particulars of their lives and deeds beyond a general understanding of what it is they did. Severus Snape’s existence was entirely delicious, as was Mr. Bowie’s in whatever persona he chose to don. Fucking fabulous is what that’s called if you’re curious about the technical term for such things.

Such performers and creative geniuses are muses to the rest of us. There are no muses that abide lastingly in this house, however. Somewhere the magic has died. When our favorites return to the Realm of Dreams and we are left here in the humdrum of the real world it’s rather upsetting. The escapes that I’ve talked about here – MMOs, by and large – are, one by one, losing their appeal.

This isn’t an “I’m quitting MMOs” post. It’s more like an “I’m moving on, mostly” post. The Secret World is just dark enough to stir my heart. Guild Wars 2’s charm has faded. My interest in WildStar has evaporated entirely. There was a time when I’d just let it sit on my hard drive through the seasons of life, but meh. There is nothing else in the MMO arena that looks appealing to me, at the moment.

I’ve joined the masses in the world of MOBAs in search of a satisfying player combat experience. My first candidate is Smite, which is played in third-person and uses WASD movement, so it’s perfect for an MMO-head like me. There are currently 72 gods and I own them all having purchased the Ultimate God Pack only two days after installing the game. I also own all future gods. I’m currently watching select videos from Drybear’s Smite playlist in YouTube to familiarize myself with them in competitive play. I don’t need to strive toward ranked play – I played Quake 2 against bots 95% of the time – but it’s what I’m looking for: account-level cosmetic progression, a level playing field which is shaped by one’s personal skill progression, and a per-game leveling and item/skill acquisition system which yields a high-speed power progression experience in a microcosm.

I’m smitten, just as any of us have been by people and things that entertain us and speak to our hearts, our minds, our souls. Without pretense, without reservation.