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Gut Reactions, Winners, and Losers

"One team wins and one team loses -- such is the law of our sport."

There are only two outcomes to any game of League of Legends. One team wins and one team loses — such is the law of our sport. No matter how many minions a Sivir’s boomerang might rattle through, even those ninety minute odysseys come to an end. One team manages to shoot the arrow through all 12 loops, and from the ordeal we might place value markers on the competitors. This team is good. That team is bad. Both teams are bad. This region is bad. This player is bad. I am bad for liking them.

I am an aggressively competitive person. For example, I always choose to ally with the person I think will be easiest to backstab in board games (please continue to trust me, friends). So I am not about to tell us to gather hands and always sing holy gospels about the players (even if there are times where that’s exactly what I want). But still there is part of me that is sad when I read knee-jerk reactions to teams or players after a game or two.

Ultimately, what good is there in being right or wrong about whether your team is actually good or not? Which individual wins and losses do you remember? And is it the win or the loss part that you remember, or is it the significance of the moment? Like, without looking it up, I don’t think very many people can tell me what the general consensus was on Counter Logic Gaming after Week 3 of the 2015 Summer Split. Probably, though, you can tell me they won that split, and that it was their first, and maybe you even remember Doublelift racing around Madison Square Garden with a massive smile on his face.

When I think about winning and losing in relation to video games, I find that I actually have a very difficult time remembering outcomes from childhood. There is the part of me that insists, of course, that I must have won everything or the vast majority of it at least — I was the oldest of three brothers, and given how competitive I am, of course I exercised my birthright and won. And, of course, memory is a fleeting and unreliable thing, like trying to count how many raindrops fall into your palms.

I don’t remember specific outcomes of times we’d play 99-stock Super Smash Brothers on Hyrule Temple, but I remember getting stuck in the pillar of death (if you’ve played this map, then you know exactly what I am talking about) and doing everything I can to get back up to more solid ground. I remember landing sticky grenades on James Bond, and I remember stretching out Bowser’s face on Mario Party.

I remember using my shirt to lessen the friction between the A and the B button on the N64 controller. This was done, of course, to help me win. I remember camping my brother’s nest on the dinosaur egg level in Diddy Kong racing after it was clear I wasn’t going to win (because of him), and so I’d take him down with me. This was done, of course, entirely out of spite, and so it was entirely about losing.

But much like regular season games in regional play, it is super hard for me to remember winners and losers. Or what matchups even must have happened. My point really is that we invest so much into these weekly matches — and this is true in any single sport — but the emotion is a fleeting thing that resets by the next week. And then some undetermined time later, you forget about it entirely.

I can tell you already that I’m not going to remember very much about the cluster of teams sitting at 3-3 or 2-4 in the standings right now, but given how the season pans out, I might end up remembering this as the moment Froggen really burst back onto the scene. Or I might remember it as part of an undefeated season by Team Liquid or the split TSM finally redefined itself. 2-4 or 2-5 doesn’t matter until that’s the opening to a bigger run — like Cloud9’s run last year or their run in 2015 Summer. And if it doesn’t become the exposition to a story, then we forget about it. What we remember is stories.

The nature of fandom is that we are compelled to talk about matches because we aren’t actually playing them. Winning and losing, though, doesn’t translate the same way for fans. For teams, there’s a clearcut result and path tied to whether you win or lose, and while there are a multitude of other things that color that experience, your time is often diffused down to whether or not you won.

For fans, it’s different — it’s more like those experiences we had playing games. You’ll remember who was with you or who wasn’t for any number of games or times. I still remember crawling out of bed in the wee hours of night to watch Fruitdealer win the first ever GSL in Starcraft2 — just me and probably a blanket in a pre-Twitter existence with no one to talk about it with. There are any number of food items or drinks or friends or seats you’ve sat on that color these memories, and yeah, you may even remember being so invested in a team that you took to an internet outlet to argue for them. No one asked you to do it — you just did. And maybe at the time, you were livid, but as time goes by that rage becomes a much duller and even forgotten emotion.

Which is not to say this doesn’t matter. I think whether it “matters” or not is a thing that you decide months or years later. In the moment, though, the fan in us is only responding to our need for control. You can’t fix your team or re-do the game or play it for them, but you can argue for them, and in a way those morsels will make it seem like everything is better. Or worse for everyone else I guess if you are that kind of fan.

Knee-jerk reactions are always prevalent at the start of different splits (and at the start of international events). People are eager to see how new rosters will perform — there is desire to map out who is good and who is bad so that we can have some sort of order to the league. Of course an 0-3 start from 100 had people blasting them for being bad or overrated, and of course the 3-0 run since has quieted that down. Three weeks is a very minute amount of time to come to any sort of real conclusion on teams or players, but most of it is rooted in prejudices we have for or against teams and players already.

For example, by most metrics, Huni is not the best top laner in the league right now. He has the most deaths and every time the camera pans to him, he’s being ganked again like a carrot his team continues to dangle on a string. Only no one is there to reel him in when the hungry rabbit stops by. The truth is he leads the league in deaths. His teams finished in the middle of the pack both splits last year, and this year they’re struggling out of the gate. There is nothing that suggests he is one of the best top laners in the league right now, and yet if you were to ask me who the best top laner is in the league, do you know the first person that comes to my mind?

It’s Huni.

And if you catch me in the right mood — maybe in a post-lunch delight — I might even defend that gut reaction. This sample size is small. He draws so much pressure. It’s his team not him! I might point at the guts he’s had in picking Lucian top or the Teleport flank that followed on the pick. I might point at him picking Yasuo as SKT were backed into a corner in the Worlds Finals.

There are few players who are more entertaining than Huni, which is a thing that is much harder to contest. But ultimately that’s not the same thing as being “good” or “the best.” And yet I don’t think I’m alone in having this kind of reaction. You can still find my corpse on the hill where the last of Hai’s most ardent fans defended not just his shotcalling, but his actual in-game mechanics.

It’s super hard to objectively approach a conversation of who is better or worse, but that’s exactly what makes fandom exciting. I don’t want conversations to devolve into a bunch of statistics — there’s no warmth in that. I do want some fans to be more considerate in how they choose to vocalize this passion, but that’s different from wanting them to stop. The whole reason the CLG vs. TSM rivalry was exciting was because there was no shortage of passion. People loved to hate each other in small spurts — if there’s an “enemy,” then surely there is an “ally,” and in that moment you belong to something bigger.

It didn’t even matter how many times TSM beat CLG in a row — always a CLG fan would find a way to justify their team. For them, it was often what was next. Fandom is distilled into two directions for you to focus your gaze. The first is forward, towards a future where your team is everything you imagine them to be. They are the myth you build in your head every night before you sleep, but they are also the knot that swells your heart into a whale-kind-of-creature right as the champions load onto the Rift like action heroes.

The second is the look back. It is here that we are rooted in reactions and overreactions and under-reactions. It is here that hindsight sprouts legs in your brain and tells you that you knew more than you possibly could have. There is a weird kind of shame tied to rooting for a team that eventually loses, and it stings when other fans kick at your team after you lose. But in these moments we feel a similar pang of regret that hits teams when they lose — we might say there’s nothing we could have done differently, and teams might say that, too, but the reality is that’s a kind of projection. They did what they could at the time.

I think back on my gaming moments as a kid with a lot of fondness. They are very loud memories — both in sound and in color — and the esports experience is similar. Maybe what it symbolizes is the entirety of the digital age — the push and pull against how much of your life you are willing to document. How much time you spend in a physical space interacting with physical objects, and how much you spend in an ethereal one, where a small screen has enough seating for millions of people. It is an experience of community and it is lonely all at once.

Our gut reactions to winners and losers has always been tied to our understanding of community — it is my team or their team, and with esports, it is often difficult to get an accurate gauge for how large my team is. You don’t know what they look like. Or sound like. You only know that we are in the middle of the story at this moment, and the best stories are full of grandiose reactions. There are heroes and there are enemies, and so you proclaim, “This player is the best! This team is unbeatable! We’ve never had a team like this before!” This is a story, you must believe, will not be forgotten.

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