Finally, mainstream esports acceptance: ESPN airs Microsoft Excel All-Star Battle

Esports aren't just for shooters, MOBAs, and real-time strategy games. As we've seen over the past several years, just about anything can be an esport, from Farming Simulator League to Geoguessr competitions to Wikipedia speedruns. If it's a program that runs on a computer, no matter what it is, someone will find a way to make it competitive. So of course there are Microsoft Excel esports.

As reported by TechRadar, this past weekend Excel esports got a lot of new fans when ESPN aired a replay of the Excel All-Star Battle that took place back in May. The event was organized by the Financial Modeling World Cup, "a leading financial modeling competition for everyone interested in finance," and was shown as part of ESPN's "The Ocho" on August 4, a 24-hour celebration of weird sports that included corgi racing, axe throwing, and stone skipping.

The more I see offbeat esports competitions, the less surprised I feel having to say this: Excel esports are great fun to watch. I really don't know what's going on in most of the Excel All-Star Battle—the highlight of my own professional Excel career was when I worked in construction management and figured out how to make a pivot table—but then again I don't understand what's happening in a typical Dota 2 or League of Legends match, either. It doesn't mean they're not fun to watch.

Over three rounds, the competitors were given extremely complicated tasks to accomplish on their spreadsheets with a 30-minute time limit. Half the contestants were eliminated in each round. Appropriately enough, each round is a "case study" problem involving a different game of some sort. In round one, the eight cyber athletes are challenged to create a slot-machine game with eight different symbols and a complicated point scoring system. Round two is a yacht regatta game with a complex wind-speed and directional simulation, and round three is a platformer with six different levels. Yes, these games are all being created in spreadsheets. Somehow.

Commentary is provided by the enthusiastic duo of Bill Jelen (Mr. Excel), author of over 40 Excel books, and Oz Du Soleil, who has co-authored a number of Excel books and runs the Excel On Fire YouTube channel. They're a great team, erupting at one point during the competition when a player accidentally opens Excel's help dialogue. "Oh no, the F1 key! The dreaded F1 key," says Jelen while Oz laughs. "Right there next to F2. You accidentally press help and it pops up the help argument. Certainly no one here is going to press help on purpose!"

And it really does feel like watching a sport, as Jelen and Oz shift focus from desktop to desktop, discuss the methods the competitors are using, and occasionally drift into topics like the challenges of importing emojis into other programs. "I moved a pretzel emoji into Power Query and it bombed out," Oz says at one point during a discussion about using symbols in Excel forumlas. "The poop emoji showed up, but the pretzel didn't."

Add another weird esport to my must-watch list, I guess. And like many esports, if you feel like you've got the skills to compete, why not enter a competition yourself? You can sign up for the FMWC Open yourself here. The top 128 competitors will be selected in October, with the finals happening on November 12. The prize last year was $10,000, and you can watch the 2021 spreadsheet showdown here

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.