I love how Ping Pong the Animation, an anime about high school ping pong tournaments, cares so deeply about its subject matter. It introduces characters by their grip and style, even their paddle rubber. Makoto Tsukimoto: right shakehand grip, pips-in/long pips-out, attacking chopper. Kong Wenge: right Chinese penhold grip, pips-in rubber on both sides, counter driver.
Standing outside of my first ever fighting game tournament—a little promotional jam for Rising Thunder—I’m imagining the anime splash screens of the players mulling about with their sticker-covered fight sticks. HORI Real Arcade Pro VX, left pinky/ring finger joystick grip, default Chel, Kinetic Advance. Mine would give me away as a scrub: Cherry MX Reds, custom keyboard layout, default Vlad, Kinetic Advance.
My keyboard looks silly among all these fight sticks. I’m starting to regret putting my name down. But a keyboard is what I’m comfortable with, and I remind myself that Seth Killian, one of Rising Thunder’s creators, plays on a keyboard. I’ve been taking his advice since I started playing. If this were an anime, Killian would probably be a retired pro who runs an unconventional dojo, always at odds with his old rival from the authoritarian dojo down the street.
He does give me a pointer as I practice at one of the rigs set up for the event, but it’s another flick to my nerves. I didn’t even know you could cancel Vlad’s Clobbering Rush into his super, and that this is new information to me settles it: I am going to lose. I knew that going in, but now I really know it.
Before the tournament starts, I turn around to see Killian following a dog that has wandered to the back of the event space at the Folsom Street Foundry. So I also know that this definitely is an anime.
Vlad's a tough character
Showdown at the foundry
It’s a double elimination tournament—casual, no entry fee—and my first match will be the first on the livestream. This doesn’t help my nerves. “I am going to lose,” I tell my opponent, who has a friend behind him for encouragement. “Don’t worry.”
I immediately regret the thought. I recall the sports I played as a kid and all the pithy motivational sayings. Believe in yourself. I’m surprised that, even though I expect to lose, I want to win. I’m sweating and there’s a lump in my chest. I’m full of some agitator, but it’s weirdly pleasant. “I’m nervous,” says Ping Pong’s Wenge. “I kind of like the feeling, actually.”
I go down in two games to mostly brutal defeats, winning only one round.
I shake hands with my opponent and we share the kind of talk sensitive and non-confrontational people have when one has just embarrassed the other. “Vlad’s a tough character” and “Has the meta changed at all? I didn't check the latest patch notes” and “Oh, yeah, and I haven’t played in a couple weeks, but you’re good, yeah, I’m so bad against Edge.”
I should have said, “You beat me, you are better, congratulations!” Or maybe hung my head for a quick anime monologue. “His power… his speed… how is this possible?!”
I lose my second match just as quickly and switch to watching the progress of my first opponent, cheering him on quietly. He makes it pretty far, but eventually falls, too. There were some damn good players at this thing: Ryan “Filipino Champ” Ramirez won the whole tourney, and he’s one of the best fighting game players in the world. Back when the tournament was announced, he tweeted “thanks for the paycheck.” I imagine he followed it up with a menacing laugh and lightning bolts.
I’ve never wanted to beat anyone at a video game as much as I want to beat Ryan Ramirez at Rising Thunder. In a friendly way.
Ever since my last soccer game as a kid, I’ve avoided real competition. My whole adult life I don’t think I’ve ever seriously competed at anything—I just try to do a good job, and shrug it off when I lose, because it was ‘just for fun’ and I’m ‘not really taking it seriously.’ I didn’t think I ever wanted to feel the pain of really sincerely trying and losing.
Banish that thinking and play in a tournament if you can, in whatever competitive game you like, online or in person. It was some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game. Everyone was friendly and I got to dig into technical stuff, to belong to a club with its own language and its own anime splash screens—and internal monologues, mentors, and heroes. I loved having people watch and consider my play, bad as it was, with genuine interest, and doing the same for their play. It was a casual competition, but everyone took the game seriously because it’s fun to take it seriously.
“This isn’t a sport for guys dicking around without caring if they win,” says Ping Pong’s coach Koizumi. Maybe I am still dicking around a little bit—I know I’ll probably never beat the champ—but at least if I play to win, and lose, I’ve done something. My meager effort this time was enough to wake up my competitive spirit. I want to practice, to go again, to chase that pleasant nervousness. Though I think I'll need a hell of a training montage if I'm ever going to beat anyone.
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