Playing to Win (At Life)

| patrick

I am known among some circles as The Guy Who Is Good At Street Fighter and/or Starcraft 2. (These are invariably the circles that don’t play much of either. When I hang out with my friends that do play either one, I’m usually The Guy Who Isn’t Very Good.)

“It’s so competitive when you play against another person.”

“It’s too hard.”

“You have to practice so much.”

“There are just so many good players out there.”

I hear these things a lot. The person I am talking to–let’s call him Johnny Doughnuts–is making an excuse, even if he doesn’t realize it, for why he isn’t as good at Starcraft 2 as I am. Why he chooses to spend his time doing something else. And really, I don’t care. Some people want to get good at Starcraft 2, others want to get good at skiing or whatever.

But I do find it interesting that Johnny Doughnuts describes Starcraft 2 as an anomaly. As though it is practically the only thing challenging–in life, in video games, whatever.

I have, in the past, described Starcraft 2 and Street Fighter as “one of the finest things a young man can devote himself to” with only the slightest bit of hyperbole. Before I unpack that, though, I want you to read this excerpt from Daniel Pinkwater’s The Education of Robert Nifkin, which I was one of those books I read long before I ever imagined it could actually have been useful.


I spent a solid year and a half of my life more or less playing Starcraft 2. I would wake up in the morning and play a few ladder games to start my day, watch live streams and replays during my lunch break, watch the Day[9] Daily on the commute home, play a few games before going to the gym, come home and watch some more streams and go to sleep thinking of how I could have avoided losing the games I lost that day. I stopped playing with any reasonable frequency probably about six months ago, and I’ve been happier and healthier since–yet I still recommend the experience to anyone and everyone else.

It’s a beautiful thing, really.

Starcraft 2 is just a game. To a very special few, it is also a livelihood, but for the most part, no one plays Starcraft 2 with the illusions that it will provide them with food or shelter. Yet people take it seriously–seriously enough to devote all their free time to learning new openings, memorizing matchups, and playing playing playing playing playing. Playing even though the game itself is full of negative emotions like panic, anxiety, fear, frustration, and even loss.

Starcraft 2 is brutally honest. You open it up, log on to, click Find Match, and you’re almost instantly paired up with someone deemed to be within your skill level. Then you play, you win or you lose, and eventually it’s over. You can study the graphs and the replays, you can watch professional streams and the Day[9] Daily and read all the forum threads you want–at pretty much no point does the game not reward you for doing an infinite amount of homework–but at the end of the day, you have to click that Find Match button again, play another game, and inevitably lose if you want to get better. As professional player Aleksey “White-Ra” Krupnik puts it, “More GG, more skill.”

There are plenty of games that are competitive. You can play Call of Duty online and get your balls e-stomped by lots of folks. The difference is that Starcraft 2 don’t fuck around. There are no teammates or lucky shots. There is no respawning. There are no unlockables or pay-to-win mechanics. The only difference between you and the guy who won is that the guy who won has trained harder and worked more so he was capable of outplaying you and sending you back to the Lose screen that helpfully reminds you that you’re ranked in the bottom 20th percentile in the world. It is cruel, almost.

So now let’s return to Johnny Doughnuts and his excuses. I’ve heard them a thousand times, and I don’t care, because those are the excuses that reveal everything I need to know about you.

Robert Nifkin discovered chess, became obsessed, and (perhaps wisely) decided to cop out–but he came out of it wanting to think he was willing to make a sacrifice that big, just not for chess. That right there is The Point.

When Johnny Doughnuts tells me Starcraft 2 is hard, I nod my head and say “There are two kinds of people in this world. Most people play Starcraft 2, lose, feel crushed, think to themselves ‘I never want that to happen again,’ and walk away. Some people play Starcraft 2, lose, feel crushed, think ‘I never want that to happen again,’ and decide to get good at it.” Then I give a polite smile and change the subject.

Getting Good at Starcraft 2 isn’t the goal in and of itself. Everyone has their own line to draw–the point at which they decide they’re not willing to make that sacrifice for what is, ultimately, just a game. The point is that you have found an activity that you are willing to sacrifice your time, your money, your health/relationships/happiness/whatever else you value in order to improve your skill. You are willing to go further and harder than the Johnny Doughnutses in your life so you can be better than them at this.

Not to get good at Starcraft 2–I said this already–but to learn how to get good at something. To be able to practice a skill in a place which isn’t affected by your connections, your charisma, your good looks, your pedigree, your reputation, your education. To see that number that tells you how you stack up against the rest of the world slowly climb.

Why? Because everything worth doing in this world requires a skill to do it, and if you’re going to spend some of your finite time on this world doing something, damn it, you might as well be good.

I recently got a new job. Kind of a dream job, as far as jobs go. Definitely the kind of thing that I could see myself doing for a long, long time. Decent pay bump, too, though I’m not making big money or anything. I got it in part because I was good at my old job, and in part because I was eager, available, knew the right people, and wasn’t as expensive as the caliber of guy they really wanted to do the job, I’m sure. I consider it both a recognition of the good work I was doing at my old job, and an opportunity to step up my game and prove I’m worthy of more responsibility.

But after I finished being congratulated and patted on the back, I realized that this was a wakeup call–that if I wanted to be good at my job, I needed to examine the skills I employ in that job (editing and writing) with the same importance that I treated my Terran vs. Zerg build order, because I care about doing well in that job. And really, if I didn’t care about my job enough to be at least as good at it as I am at Starcraft 2, then honestly, why the fuck should I be spending 40+ hours a week doing it?

If I could sit down and compare my skills to a list of people across the world and ascertain where I fell on the Great Editing Ladder, I’m sure I’d find a few hundred thousand people better than I for the job I’m doing. That’s a pretty awful feeling. But it is also an honest one, I think, and a good one. So I am trying to write more, and edit more, and find all kinds of creative ways to stretch my appreciation for the English language.

If you can get good at Starcraft 2, you can get good at anything. Not because it means you’re smart or naturally talented, but because the dedication, hard work, smart work, and effort required to get good at Starcraft 2 are equal to or greater than what you need to get good at pretty much anything in life–work, play, happiness, romance, relationships, whatever. What Starcraft 2 is particularly good at doing is reminding you that, well, you ain’t shit at what you do in life, Johnny Doughnuts. And if you don’t want to get good at the things you’re doing in life, Johnny Doughnuts, then you’re just wasting your time.

patrick miller is taking care of business


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