Recently OS had a poll about how often our community plays online. The results -- surprising to some -- were that more than half "rarely" do. However, I didn’t raise a brow, because I’m one of them.
I missed out on being in the social-media generation by a few years -- I know there is no official demarcation for this sort of thing, but while people two years younger than I are all plugged in, I’m still trying to figure out if the official term is tweeting or twittering. So I am what you would call a very "old school" offline gamer. Single player, franchise mode and the occasional exhibition game with a visiting friend. My game world is in the very same room I am, and it does not venture anywhere beyond it.
Party for Two
To me, a two-player match is a personal experience involving a certain amount of camaraderie and/or trash talking -- an emotional investment, if you will. To put it simply, online gaming lacks intimacy. A big part of what makes two-player matches so fun is that comfortable mix of friendly competitiveness. It’s more a social thing than a gaming thing, really. But when I’m playing against a stranger whose face I can’t see, and the only thing I can deduce from his Xbox Live gamertag is that he’s an Asian lover boy most likely born in 1969, I just don’t care. I don’t care enough to, win or lose, engage in some friendly chirping, or in any conversation, for that matter.
That lack of intimacy extends beyond strangers. You can, and I do, play online with long-distance friends. But there is still a difference between playing against a friend who is sitting beside you and playing against a friend a thousand miles away, only connected by buried cables. It’s hard to explain, but everything just feels more organic when you’re in the same room. There’s no need to make conversation, but a conversation will make itself available if need be. On the other hand, the nature of online gaming feels inherently awkward. It forces you to actively engage. Every few minutes or so I feel compelled to say something to break the silence, which exists because you really can’t talk about the weather for a prolonged period of time if you’re in two different places -- and also because I live in Toronto, and there are only so many euphemisms for the phrase “depressingly gray day.”
Hidden camera still frame grab of Kelvin playing 'his' Wii at 'home'.
Stilton or Whiz?
Cheesers are an interesting lot. We’ve all heard their rap sheet before: exploiting the game’s engine to their advantage by creating superhero-like players and playing in a way that’s utterly unrealistic. Fair enough. But in their defense, whose idea of realism are we going by here? To some hardcore, uber-realistic player, constantly scoring off cross-crease one-timers in NHL 11 is also unrealistic, and yet that’s what a lot of us do and consider acceptable. I had a chat with a friend about that, and his response was “well, that’s my only good way to score," and that’s my point. If we’re all suspending our disbelief somewhat and finding that happy medium between practicality and reality, then maybe to some that medium is a bit further down the spectrum. And therein lies the problem. With the hodgepodge of players online, who draws the line in the sand?
While some may enjoy the unpredictability of playing online players with vastly different styles and qualities, and even rejoice in beating a cheeser by playing a smart game, others don’t. This is perhaps the biggest difference between offline and online gamers. Online players revel in the competition. The challenge motivates them. Offline players like me, on the other hand, are content with playing the AI because it’s the devil they know.
I have to admit, when the EA NHL series came out with EASHL, and other games followed suit with their own online team play (OTP) modes, I was intrigued. But I overlooked one thing: human nature. Or in this case, an online gamer’s nature. Not to paint them with too broad a brush, but from what I’ve encountered, a good number of players who play these OTP modes are maniacally averse to losing. While they are not all cheesers, they do have a lightning-fast tendency to bail when the going gets tough, so teams dismantle and new ones pop up every week. It’s not like there’s an abundance of smart players out there, either, so the quality of teammates that you’ll inevitably encounter is a crapshoot at best.
Yes, I know I can organize a regular team. But this is the appointment nature of online gaming that makes it tedious. In an ironic way, I can relate to the people who bail, though, it's not because I’m losing. It’s because I can’t commit to these games. Again, it’s probably a generational thing, but with jobs, relationships and the general uncertainty of life, I just don’t know when I will be playing. I know I will at some point, but to set a predetermined time -- even just a few hours beforehand to just one or two people -- is something I can’t commit to.
So when our (admittedly informal) poll reveals that OSers mostly play offline, does this mean companies are misguided by focussing their efforts on online modes? Probably not. As much as I want OS to be the voice of all sports gamers, we probably do have a greater concentration of sim and franchise players (especially on the forums), and I doubt they’re the ones game companies are exclusively targeting.
So whether you play online is very much down to what type of gamer you are. If you’re a "young’un" who enjoys the competition with other users, all the while making some friends along the way, knock yourself out. But if you’re like me, who is slightly older, and likes to escape to your own little world when you turn your PS3 on, stick to going online for updates.
Kelvin Mak is the soccer writer here at Operation Sports. Residing in Toronto, Canada, his favo(u)rite sport is -- surprise -- soccer, and he religiously follows the Premier League. You can find him on OS under the username kelvinmak, or in a bar in Toronto, usually after 2 p.m., under the name Pukey.