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Virtual Virtuosos: The Athletes of the Digital Age

Exploring the talent and artistry of professional gaming

By Ben UlanseyPublished 4 months ago 7 min read
Virtual Virtuosos: The Athletes of the Digital Age
Photo by Sean Do on Unsplash

In hopes of understanding the essence of expertise, psychologist Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at the University of Berlin embarked on a pioneering study involving violin students at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. The researchers divided the students into three groups: those who were outstanding, those who were good, and those who were likely to become music teachers.

Interestingly, though the age they started playing the violin was almost identical across the groups, a significant divergence was observed in the amount of time each dedicated to their craft.

By the age of 20, the best performers had averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the good performers had about 8,000 hours, and the future music teachers, had 4,000 hours. This led to the formulation of the “10,000 hours rule,” which suggests that the key to achieving a high level of performance in any field lies not necessarily in inherent talent but in dedicating approximately 10,000 hours to practice.

Though this concept can be applied to almost any skill, it’s not often that people appreciate some of the less obvious places that it manifests. We watch our athletes and musicians and actors and plainly see the colossal amounts of practice that went into establishing their careers. But it’s easily missed so often when that same concept is at play in our custodians, teachers, and doctors.

One of the least respected avenues in life may be that of professional gaming. To even say the words “professional” and “gaming” together in a sentence might trigger raised eyebrows from some readers. “What could possibly be professional about becoming an expert sniper in Call of Duty?” some of you might be asking.

Though realistic war simulators may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s a level of talent that goes into professionalism in any game, even those that society largely scoffs at. There’s a level of commitment that goes into being the fastest speed runner for a video game that’s tantamount to the time our world’s most famed athletes put into their respective sports. It’s just not one that’s as easily understood.

So often, as with sports, we need to try an activity before we can truly understand its nuances. When watching Olympic gymnastics, the competitors can often make their prowess look effortless. But for those who’ve spent any real time in the world of gymnastics, respect for the level of skill that goes into soaring, rotating, and flipping with such mechanical feats of precision comes far more fluidly. Violinists, too, can often make their strokes look as smooth sailing and breezy as swans on a lake, but that hardly means that it wouldn’t take years of committed practice to earn a seat in any orchestra.

In this digital world, video games have become an inseparable part of our culture. Following the arrival of the coronavirus and ensuing lockdowns, the interest only grew. And with the arrival of shows and movies like “The Last of Us,” “Uncharted” and “The Mario Brothers Movie,” the reach of video games has grown harder and harder to avoid. As the selection of games has expanded, and the scope of nearly every game has soared exponentially, more and more people have devoted significant chunks of their lives to these online experiences.

There are video game streamers and reviewers and creators. There are speed runners and glitch finders and YouTubers. It’s a truly expansive community that’s still largely misunderstood. The most talented gamers aren’t household names, and it certainly isn’t because they aren’t putting in the same amount of time to their craft as the most skilled workers, players, and performers in any other field.

As a casual gamer myself, it’s hard not to be simply floored by some of what I’ve seen achieved in these virtual worlds. In many cases, the accomplishments I’ve seen within games parallel those made by so many of society’s more known heroes. To become the greatest speed runner in a Mario game involves learning every virtual square inch of each stage played, and learning to traverse them with a frame-perfect level of precision. So often, there’s less room left for error within these runs than we’d expect in any professional sporting match.

As in track and field, the world of speedrunning is divided into categories for every game. And as in almost any sport, it’s a world that’s often so encased in an unfamiliar vernacular that it can be a little difficult to penetrate.

In a given leaderboard, there will often be a category for those who beat the game under normal circumstances, those who beat the game 100%, completing every task and collecting each item, and those who beat the game by any means necessary, making use of any available exploits. These runs are known as “any %” speed runs.

As games go through various updates and are released with slight distinctions between different geographic regions, categories will typically emerge accordingly. And for each category, there will be moderators meticulously monitoring the leaderboards tallying the constantly fluctuating records. It’s a shockingly well-established system that many don’t even realize exists. It’s niche and jargon-centered, but the knowledge, skill, and commitment it takes to reach mastery is no different than anywhere else.

To do a 100% speedrun of the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example, requires the memorization of well over a thousand locations, the solutions to a thousand puzzles, and the most efficient travel routes between each item, objective, and quest of every sort. And the world is absolutely sprawling. To do all of it in record-breaking time would require nearly error-less 24 hours to be spent at a computer desk. It’s not for the faint of heart, and its recently released sequel offers a more gargantuan test, still.

In Breath of the Wild, the gamer needs to employ glitches that require levels of hand-eye coordination exceeding what many in the psych industry say is even possible. Athletes, pilots, and musicians, too, have been found in various studies to perform in ways that seem to stretch beyond a normal human’s perceptive capabilities. So perhaps a gamer’s ability to tap into this same almost-supernatural exceptionalism shouldn’t be so surprising.

The speed run for the original Super Mario Brothers game, one of the most famous video games of all time, offers a particularly telling glimpse into the bounds that gamers so often push. The record for completing the game now stands at 4 minutes 54.798 seconds. It was achieved by a gamer by the name of “Niftski,” breaking his own previously set world record by only 83 milliseconds, or 5 frames. To truly understand the achievement that this represents, though, it might be important to understand what happens when a computer is tasked with completing the same game.

Because the computer can process the game inside and out, it can determine what the most perfect run would look like. It can input the buttons that need to be pressed every millisecond for the entire duration of the game, leaving no possible room for improvement. The time that the computer could achieve was 4:54.260. That means that the minimum time that could possibly be attained if absolutely no mistake is made at all, hovers only milliseconds beneath what humans have already mustered.

In a game that contains 60 frames per second, there are only a few remaining frames at which Niftski could have improved his performance. Said a little differently, when given 17,700 frames to work with in his mad dash of a play-through, over 17,650 of those frames involved him pressing the exact right configuration of buttons without error.

The Super Mario Brothers record stands as a truly Olympian feat of achievement. But when these achievements so often take place in darkened basements, and in arm’s reach of Mountain Dew bottles, the novelty of the accomplishments can be easily missed.

The effort that goes into perfecting a video game, whether on the performance or the production end, is rarely given the respect that it deserves. These games are artwork; they take us to other worlds. The violent direction that some of the more popular gaming franchises have taken doesn’t negate the artistic work that goes into each, and it certainly doesn’t detract from the sheer versatility of games that are out there. From the sound design to the animation and plot, games are timeless, interactive pieces of art, and those who take them to competitive extremes are practiced performers.

While a stigma may linger around the basement dwellers and Doritos consumers who comprise this community, it may be beginning to fall. As more and more people discover the world of video games, some of these circles are slowly starting to see some of the recognition that they’ve earned.

We’re still a far cry away from gamers seeing the acclaim that professional athletes so often celebrate, but E-Sports may eventually see its long-overdue day in the limelight. Whether that will come before or after our teachers, janitors, and doctors is unclear. What’s certain, though, is that more people could stand to consider the talent that exists all around them.

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About the Creator

Ben Ulansey

Ben is a word enthusiast who writes about everything from politics, religion, film, AI and videogames to dreams, drones, drugs, dogs, memoirs, and terrorizing Floridians with dinosaur costumes.

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