The first video game I ever played was Freddi Fish, on my mom's old iMac G3. Sitting in a sunlit room, bathed in golden light, I would prop myself up on some decorative pillows in a faded yellow wicker chair that was far too large for me, and explore the hidden mysteries of a digital world. I had no idea that something so simple would develop into one of the biggest influences on my life as a whole.
Growing up I didn’t have a lot of friends, I had difficulty talking to people and I had a lot of social anxieties. While other people were going to summer camp or whatever stereotypical sport you do in a middle-class suburban upbringing, I was going to Martial Arts, or sitting on the floor, playing PlayStation with my brother. My brother and I didn’t exactly get along growing up, but we found common ground playing video games together. Being two overtly competitive brothers, inevitably we learned how to beat each other, which meant learning each other's habits. When we learned all each other's habits we turned to the games themselves, to learn their quirks and gimmicks to get even more of an edge on the other. This dissection of game mechanics became subconscious to me, and I found soon I was beating him consistently, and even his friends sometimes.
After a while, I found that my brother didn’t want to play games with me anymore because I just got way too competitive for it to be fun. So I turned to the internet. I would play on my own, against people on the internet to challenge my skills. Eventually, I met a group of people through a friend of mine who played Counter-Strike, which is where we begin our deep dive.
See, my obsession with learning the ins and outs of every game I play, finally had a nut I couldn’t crack. Counter-Strike for those of you who don’t know is an online competitive first-person shooter. The rules are very simple, 5 attackers try to arm and explode a bomb at 2 locations on a specific playing field. The 5 defenders are trying to stop them from setting that bomb off. To win a round you have to either eliminate everyone on the other team, blow up the bomb, or keep the bomb from being armed for 4 minutes. After 15 rounds you switch sides, and the attacking team becomes the defending team. Out of 30 rounds, the first team to 16 wins.
Where it gets interesting, is that the skill ceiling in Counter-Strike is incredibly high. On a competitive ranking system, there are 18 ranks, starting all the way down at Silver one going up to the fabled “Global Elite”. Out of the 24 million active players in Counter-Strike, only .68% of those players achieve the rank of “Global Elite”. For an approximate number, that is 163,200 players out of 24 million. It seems like a lot but the difficult thing is once you achieve a higher rank, you aren’t guaranteed that spot. Lose enough matches and you de-rank. This constant threat forces players to perfect their craft and put countless hours in just to even dream of having a shot at a global elite match.
The number of things you have to learn to get on the level of a global elite player is nuts. Learning the exact pixel on your screen to throw a grenade at, to block a sightline, to allow your teammates to push up through a critical chokepoint can mean the difference between winning a game or losing one, and that’s just one grenade. Over countless hours of my own time, I’ve learned the different recoil patterns of each weapon, so I can be laser-accurate. I’ve learned the timing of player movement to accurately predict where and when someone will walk out from behind a wall. One of the most obsessive things I’ve spent sleepless nights practicing is the movement within Counter-Strike.
Being built on the 2008 source engine, with proper keyboard inputs players are able to bend the game's physics to improve their speed and agility within the game. Technique’s like Long Jumping, air strafing, and Bunny Hopping, are used to reduce the amount of friction on your character while increasing your velocity far beyond the limit of just running. Video’s of people abusing these game mechanics like Phoon Too Much For Zblock, go viral as players are seen practically flying across the game at inhuman speeds. Known as KZ’ing, this new language of movement practically became its own game within the game itself.
See while I spent countless hours winning and failing, learning to KZ, and getting frustrated beyond belief, I found a community around me. My sleepless nights jumping around, learning to Bunnyhop, and properly shoot each gun, I had people next to me doing the same thing. These people have spent more time with me online in a digital phone call than most of my friends from school have. Most of them I have never met, but I know their names and faces, and I consider some of them my closest friends.
I had the privilege to meet some of my online friends a few years ago. My friends Stephen and Eric flew out from the east coast and stayed with me for a week. Picking them up from the airport was surreal because now our friendship was tangible, it was solidified. From spending endless hours playing our hearts out over years and years to sharing drinks in Santa Monica, our growth from teenagers into adults culminated in a trip that I’ll never forget. To this day we still talk about that trip, jokes and memories get brought up almost weekly. To think that some of my closest friends are people I’ve seen once in my life, it’s kind of crazy. All of it started with me sitting in a sunlit room clicking on a yellow colorful Fish when I was 5 years old.