On Learning & Esports:

Constructing an individual learning model adapted to competitive gaming

September 29th, 2017


“These young guys are playing checkers. I’m out there playing chess.”

-Kobe Bryant


In modern Western society, education is a government responsibility: a standard to be maintained. The institutional realization of No Child Left Behind policies in the United States have propagated the norm, for better or worse, that learning is a process of development to conformity. Perhaps this norm is efficient in that it accomplishes ultra-broad acquisition of a certain educational attainment (imo, we as a society can absolutely do better in education). This model of learning, however, is fundamentally based on the notion of memorization via repetition. These are natural foundations for education when the desired outcome of the learning process is ≥%70 score on a multiple choice test. Such a goal in the context of Esports is, of course, laughable. Different goals demand different processes, and as such the learning model of standardized education fails in Esports.

Another common model for learning has been built in traditional sports. This model is founded in rigorous competition and so mirrors the motivation and connection that many feel in competitive Esports. The standard established by top traditional sports professionals is laudable and should inspire anyone who dreams of the very hard work that is fundamental to success in any competitive arena. At the highest levels of traditional sports, peak physical condition is the expectation. The work will be hard, and generally speaking the harder the better. The conditioning realities inherent to traditional sports should be instructive for aspiring Esports professionals, but building a model of learning adapted to Esports will demand that its unique characteristics be taken into account.

My contention is that success in Esports demands not necessarily that the work be hard, but rather that the work be mindful. The work is a prerequisite, yet there will be no automated reward dispensed as ‘Total Time Played’ ticks over ten thousand hours. In my experience, I have found that real improvement is achieved not in the 16th hour of a marathon practice session, but rather in the subtleties of a key moment dissected. My model of learning is something more akin to that of craftsmanship than those of traditional sports or education. It’s contents are as follows:


  1. Perfect play is possible.
  2. Perfect play is never realized.
  3. Improvement lies in a Sisyphean will to thrive under the contradiction.

I use ‘Perfect play’ here to indicate the optimal strategy for victory from the perspective of an individual. It is important to make a distinction here between optimal individual decisions and an optimal team strategy. The latter is infinitely more complex and is my current pursuit. Maybe in a decade or two I’ll feel qualified to discuss it.

When a player loses a fight in which a teammate (or 5) made obvious and significant mistakes he or she is liable to experience anger and perhaps a sense of dispossession of control over the outcome of the game. The ‘perfect player’ finds such an experience alien. They experience only two moments: that of past failure and that of future success. The perfect player understands that every death is an inflection point; each offers a valuable moment of reflection in which one might uncover some personal imperfection. In Overwatch, there will rarely be a death that was impossible for one’s teammates to prevent. The perfect player, however, does not expect that their teammates will perform perfectly (or even exceptionally). The perfect player creates layers of redundancy, their play is carefully structured so that every ally has the easiest possible time in the contexts in which their roles intersect. If a teammate stumbles, the perfect player reacts instantly to bring the battle back under their control. Asking as little as possible from their teammates while delivering more than the team would ever expect are hallmarks of perfect play. Future unforeseen, reactionary missteps: these are the mistakes that the perfect player eliminates. The perfect player recognizes that every millisecond on a movement key is a decision, every flick of the mouse is a choice. The perfect player is, ironically, open always to the possibility of their own imperfection.

Perhaps item 1. is false. It might be the case that a system with 11 other irrational decision makers has no ‘optimal strategy’ in the game-theoretic sense, yet I doubt that there isn’t something very close for practical purposes. The realization of the possible is not vital, though. We are each and every one of us so radically far from perfect play that, lo and behold, gaming is actually fun. For some, though, the possibilities in our mind’s eye demand that we seek to empirically prove item 1 to ourselves and to the world. I think very few successful players lack the humility to see that they can always do better and accomplish more. Even the best in the world must recognize that such status is inherently ephemeral.

Regardless of whether or not item 1 is false in theory, we can be certain that the perfect player does not exist in our world. The crucial insight necessary to achieving competitive success is that the perfect player does not need to exist in order to inspire us. For every player on the planet there is another who, in at least one aspect of their game, is in some way superior. The perfect player can exist as an amalgam of all of those real players who best us in some absurdly specific category. It is only when we become as Sisyphus, giving the entirety of our will and dedication to a task that cannot ever be completed (the pursuit of superlative greatness) that our potential is unlocked. The player who has relaxed a relentless cross-examination of their own play is the same who has experienced a plateau in skill. When we accept our decisions, our movements, or our plays as ‘good enough’ and choose instead to cast aspersions on mistakes of others that we see on our spectating screens, we undermine our own goals and refuse our own potential.

I am not the perfect player, in case that wasn’t obvious. Neither am I the perfect learner. I fail to implement this rigorous self-critical framework constantly. The process of actively seeking out personal failure is both extremely effective and very challenging to maintain. If my responsibility for a loss could be valued at even one tenth of one percent, the entirety of my conscious focus ought to be on that exact fraction of the game. The reality is that we can only be responsible for our own improvement. This is the essential idea that I think is perhaps valuable to the improvement of others. Internalization thereof is much more difficult than understanding, however. On that front, perhaps traditional sports have figured something out about this ‘hard work’ stuff.



P.S. I can’t speak to a ‘formula’ for creating Esports greatness. I can only speak to my own experience of learning and adaptation that has borne fruit. Relentless pursuit of improvement via deep self-analysis and critique is probably not for everyone, just as the vast majority of people who seek success in Esports will fail. At the most charitable, this process is but one meager component on a long recipe that includes a healthy dose of luck. I wish any Esports hopefuls the best in that latter category.

2 thoughts on “On Learning & Esports:”

  1. Nice essay! I’ll be thinking about your core points for some time. The idea of focusing on your weaknesses, vs. basking in the glory of your strengths, is key, I think, to any kind of improvement. One thing I’ve noticed in successful endurance athletes is a pure love for suffering–they are at their best when things are going sideways, precisely because they recognize the opportunity for highly productive training in the toughest moments, and they revel in it, just as competitors motivated by accolades are wallowing shame-faced in an internal dialog that is a lot less motivating: “You are a fraud!”

    “Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.” This quote has been attributed to advertising creative Paul Arden.

    One thing that’s always amazed me about your learning style is you try your best, but you don’t freak out when you lose. I wonder if that’s because you see the loss simply as useful data in your quest to get better. This leads to a genuine appreciation for your competitor, and shows you can reach a high level of skill without becoming an @$$hole.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Here’s a cleaner phrasing: are you motivated by greatness, or by love for the work? By being, or by becoming? I think either can lead to high levels of skill, but I would assert that the latter is a lot more durable, because eventually the shit will most definitely go sideways, leaving the great player questioning his identity while the lover of work is in his element.

    Liked by 1 person

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