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Winning Without Winning – Succeeding at Failure in Online Games

It’s the last round; the bomb is planted and nobody has a kit.

There’s just one tower left; before long the base will fall.

Pushed back to the final point and already down a player; it’s time for the defenders to take their last fight.

Sadly, none of these are the enemy team tonight. They’re yours and man, losing is just the worst, isn’t it?

It’s the dual nature of team-based competitive games. When the only difference in whether you win or lose is whether or not your team of players can play better than theirs, the rush of a well-earned win is irreplaceable. Equally though, the competitive drive is just as much a curse as it is a blessing when the semi-random nature of online matchmaking is allowed to poke and prod at your ever-dwindling patience. You can’t pick your teammates without putting a party together, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. You sure as heck can’t pick your opponents, and what are you supposed to do about getting matched against amazing players when your own teams seem to consist mostly of orangutans, Tamagotchis and bags of hammers that have somehow been trained to use a mouse and keyboard? It’s so dangerously easy to become apathetic, frustrated, and downright mad at a loss.

Well, you shouldn’t. Harder than it sounds? Absolutely, but I’m here to show you why a hard-fought loss is actually one of the best things that can possibly happen to you in online gaming… as long as you know what to do with it. Winning is great, but only by analysing your mistakes can you improve and those are much easier to spot in a loss than in a victory. You just need to know how to self-analyse, so here are some pointers to help get you started on winning your losses.

The Sliding Scale of Overcome to Overwhelmed

The first step in making the most of a loss is also the most intuitive, because it’s often the first thing that will naturally come to mind anyway. “Wow, that sure was a close game!” and “Wow, we sure got a mudhole stomped in us that would bring a 30% alcohol-by-volume tear to the eye of Stone Cold Steve Austin!” are two very different beasts which have to be approached differently. It’s not always a totally clear immediate distinction, either, because frustrated annoyance can make a close loss feel like getting stomped, while frustrated apathy can make a stomp feel like a close loss. Before asking yourself what went wrong, it’s important to sit back, take a breath and ask yourself: how close, realistically, was that game? This can be done from memory or, if you’re serious about improvement, it’s often worth skimming through the demo/replay, assuming your game of choice has that feature. Identifying how close you came to winning is hugely important in putting everything else about a loss into context.

The Three Points of Focus – Us, Them and Me

To make a productive start on analysing your losses, there are three questions you can ask yourself after a match. The way you look at answering them will change from game to game, since different games have different formats. For some games, like MOBAs, these may apply to entire matches. For others, like CS:GO, individual rounds. However, the concepts can be applied to any player-vs-player competitive game, even 1v1 games with a little tweaking.

The first question: What was our win condition and how did we fail to achieve it?

A win condition is exactly what it sounds like. Within the context of the match you just played, what specifically did you have to do in order to beat their team with your team? This can be tricky to pin down in games with random matchmaking as often everyone on the team has a different idea of what the win condition is, but it’s not impossible. In CS:GO, it may be that their AWPer on B site was getting the vast bulk of their team’s kills, therefore keeping them pressured above all others or, conversely, avoiding and killing their team around them may have left them outmatched in firepower, allowing you to take more fights and win more rounds. In Dota 2 it may be that their heroes were weak in the early-game and strong late-game while yours were the opposite, meaning that your window of opportunity would have been to get aggressive as soon as possible, turn that into tower kills, control the map with wards and presence and never allow them to make a comeback. In Overwatch it may be that the enemy were using far more ultimates than you to secure fights and leaving themselves at what the competitive community often calls an ultimate economy disadvantage and your team could have taken points by capitalizing on that more effectively, or perhaps their supports were frequently out of position and could have been killed early to win fights. To wrap everything together, as well as figuring out the things you didn’t do which could have led to a win, identify any things which you did do which were unnecessary for your win condition. Did you spend that extra 5 minutes farming your next item when you should have been looking for kills? Did you spend 30 seconds looking for solo kills while your team was preparing to push a vulnerable area, and by the time you grouped up with them that area was no longer vulnerable? Identify these and you’re well on your way towards improvement.

The second question: What was their win condition and how could we have stopped them from achieving it?

Just as you and your team have a win condition, so do the opponents. The easiest way to stop them from achieving their win condition is, of course, to reach your own first, but often when push comes to shove that’s not a viable option and you’re left to identify what they have to do to win and stop them from doing it. Let’s take our earlier Dota 2 example. If your team has failed to dominate the early-game, the enemy are now free to work towards their own win condition of avoiding fights and farming until their heroes hit their main power spikes and suddenly they can throw you so far across the map that you land in a Heroes of the Storm match. In this situation it’s often productive to focus on their win condition and anything you can do to mess with it. Stealing their jungle camps, forcing their attention with split pushes which spread them around the map where they can be picked off, doing anything possible to prevent them from comfortably preparing for a late-game win. Being able to look back at a loss and recognize times where the enemy were doing something to work towards their win condition which you could have prevented can prepare you for those improbable, clawed-back-from-the-brink games where you win by leaving the opponents unable to close out the match and slowly neutralising their advantage.

The third question: What could I, individually, have done better?

In team games, by far the most common trap I see people falling into is blaming their team for everything, not taking full responsibility for their personal screw-ups. This is rarely conscious and almost everyone falls victim to it at some point. This can boil over into becoming frustrated in-game and giving your teammates grief which, for the record, never helps. If someone’s being counter-productive, mute them. If you’re considering communicating in a way which is counter-productive, follow the system of Stay Targeted, Focused and Understanding.

In other words, if you’re considering giving people grief, remember to S.T.F.U. and keep playing.

But I digress. The final and arguably most important question to ask yourself following a loss. Disregard your teammates’ mistakes – it’s good to recognize them so that you don’t make the same ones yourself but – and I cannot possibly stress this enough – you can’t control or change what other players do. Ask yourself, simply, what you could have done better. Look at the shots you missed, the kills you could have gotten by acting just two seconds faster, the teammates you could have saved by healing them instead of someone already close to full health. Don’t focus on how your teammate let you die that time, focus on how you died and shouldn’t have been in that position. Don’t focus on how your teammate couldn’t finish that important kill, focus on how you also missed the shot in the first place. It’s especially important not to forget this in games where you felt like you carried your team. Even if you did, you did not play a perfect game, because in pretty much any modern competitive game that’s impossible when you account for human error. No matter how hard you carried, there’s always something you could have done something better. That goes for every player of every skill level and any successful professional gamer will tell you the same.

Applying the theory

All of this, of course, is just a set of pointers and guidelines, something to point you in the right direction. The most important part – and if you only take one thing away from this, it should be this – is that winning isn’t everything. A loss can be just as valuable as a win, if not more, if you take the time to look at how and why they happen and for that reason, why be upset by them? Losses are a necessity, and a beautiful one. Competitive games are all about the rush of competition, about proving your skill, about the satisfaction of being the better player. Without the sting of losing, winning wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet. So, embrace it. You’ll get that win back sooner or later.

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8 responses

  1. Murray

    Great article :)

    Liked by 2 people

    April 19, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    • Strong topic, very interesting from a competitive players perspective! *Continues to walk into jungles without the proper characters*

      Like

      April 19, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    • Thank you very much Murray, glad that people have been so receptive of competitively-oriented content like this.

      Like

      April 19, 2017 at 8:16 pm

  2. This is so interesting – reminds me of a book I was reading, Reality Is a Broken by Jane McGonigal that reports findings of several studies that show that in many circumstances gamers prefer losing if it’s done in a satisfying way (funny animations or responsive feedback) and also because it means there’s still more of the game to experience – there’s evidence to suggest that it’s only when you stop losing that you stop playing, you get bored by the lack of challenge

    Liked by 1 person

    April 19, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    • It’s definitely a concept which makes up the very core of competitive gaming. Without losers there can’t be winners, after all – the satisfaction of winning and the motivation-boosting frustration of losing are two sides of the same coin and feed into each-other perfectly. Losing makes you stronger, getting stronger leads to winning, winning a lot leads to stronger opponents which leads back to losing. The entire competitive mindset would collapse on itself if the players never lost.

      Thanks very much for the comment, I may just pick up a copy of that book.

      Like

      April 19, 2017 at 8:38 pm

      • It’s a really good read – all about how games set up more fulfilling modes of existence than reality does at the moment and how we can start implementing game structures in our lives to make reality more exciting!

        Liked by 1 person

        April 19, 2017 at 8:45 pm

  3. I HATE when I get stuck with Bag Of Hammers. That guy never knows what’s going on…

    Seriously though, I think it’s important to realize what is realistically in your control. It’s difficult, but I’ve realized that I can’t be in complete control.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 19, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    • Absolutely – over-focusing on factors outside of their control is one of the easiest-to-make but also most hindering mistakes I see in competitive players, even at high levels of play.

      Reminding someone that the only person they have any direct control over is themself is one of the quickest and most effective things you can do to help someone improve, I’ve seen it more times than I can remember.

      Thank you for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      April 19, 2017 at 8:15 pm

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