Select video games can create a community knit so tightly that it feels like a surrogate family. These communities pop up all over, from intense MMORPGs and silly MOBAs to intense futuristic shooters and monster-collecting movie titles. For some players, turning on their favorite game is like coming home.
I found one of those communities within the unstable and unsupported servers of Team Fortress 2 on the PlayStation 3. Shortly after the late 2007 release of Valve's The Orange Box, a compilation featuring the multiplayer shooter alongside Portal and Half-Life 2, a few hundred people came together to play competitively, creating their own online forum to organize tournaments. I was amongst those people. It was the beginning of something wonderful.
My friends and I escaped boring nine-to-five jobs, home stresses and school bullies by taking control of colorful troublemakers in what's gone down as one of video gaming's greatest-ever team-based shooters. But while Team Fortress 2 still enjoys a sizable player base on Steam, that popularity never extended to the PS3 community. The console versions of the game—it came out for Xbox 360, too (and is now backwards compatible with Xbox One)—always seemed like an afterthought for Valve and distributor/server manager EA.
"We knew that TF2 wasn't meant for us," PS3 player George "GeoBxYanks" Ramos tells me. "It wasn't designed with the PS3 in mind, and Valve and EA made it clear that they didn't care."
Team Fortress 2 for PS3 didn't receive any of the updates, patches, or additional content that the PC and 360 versions did. Thus, glitches remained—more for worse than better, as players learned to manipulate the game's quirks to cheat their way to better performances, building turrets in the sky, underground and inside of walls. Fun for a while, sure, but this effectively ruined a majority of active servers for people wanting to play the game as it was supposed to be played, and left clans in search of genuinely competitive matches floundering.
As things grew worse, players migrated to other platforms carrying the updates. But a few hundred of us stood firm and remained PS3 loyal, in the hope of change. "We'd make new PSN usernames, like 'EA_FIX_TF2', to try to bring some attention to it," Ramos says. "But those fixes never came—and I really doubt they're coming now."
Ramie 'Indoe420' Villar also stuck to the PS3 version, despite its crippling lag, constant bugs and lack of balance. He, just as I did, put up with all of those shortcomings, and more, which players of other online shooters simply wouldn't stand for.
"Honestly, all of that didn't affect us," says Villar. "We didn't care. We just loved the game."
So much so that we were willing to put in the extra effort in to make the game work for us, effort that wouldn't have been necessary if we'd received the same updates elsewhere. It was that extra work that brought us PS3 players closer together.
"We tried to do everything and anything we could to keep this game going, and we did pretty well with the little we had." — Ramie 'Indoe420' Villar
We created an introductions page and went out of our way to invite players we met in-game to our forum. We created guides to help new players get acclimated to the PS3's shortcomings, and provided a community of support that was active almost all the time.
In most cases, we spent more time working our way around PS3 TF2's lack of clan support, custom matches, and reliable servers than playing. In order for us to actually play competitively, we had to dedicate significant chunks of time to get matches set up, make sure everyone was in game, and hope they all had a secure connection to EA's wobbly servers.
Game days started out by establishing rules on our community forum, as the PS3 version of the game never received buffs or nerfs to rebalance the characters after release. A good example was the incredibly overpowered Demoman. He could clear a whole room with a handful of explosive sticky bombs, making a skilled user nearly impossible to counter.
"We brought over the PC rules, even though we had no way to officially enforce them," Villar says. "We limited matches to one Soldier and Demoman, with two of everything else to create an equal playing field." Once the tournament rules were set—including what happens if a match ends in a stalemate or if class restrictions were broken—we'd begin the process of actually getting the match underway.
A typical match consisted of a few of us scouting out possible servers for us to join. We had a very limited range of servers to choose from, especially since the majority came riddled with lag.
"No matter where you were, if you created a server it would almost always be labeled 'East Coast'," says Ramos. "But we'd keep trying until someone happened onto a West Coast one, as they were the most reliable." Once we settled on a server to join, we'd communicate that to everyone through our website's chat, and everyone would rush to join the game.
We didn't have the capability to boot players from matches, so we had little recourse if a random player joined the server we had planned to scrimmage in. Most times those players didn't have a mic and rarely responded to direct messages, so we did whatever we could to urge them to leave. This included trapping them in the spawn with five Demoman, and setting elaborate traps with sentry guns in the most bizarre hiding spots on the map.
"We tried to do everything and anything we could to keep this game going," Villar says. "And we did pretty well with the little we had."
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Some competitive skirmishes we'd planned never happened due to one of a hundred different reasons. But even when we couldn't play properly, we'd spend the day chatting with each other on our forum, and goofing around in the game. In some ways, the PS3's lack of network features brought us far closer together than we would have been if TF2 had been easier to play on Sony's last-gen platform. The flaws forced us to spend more time interacting, albeit with different means than headshots and healing.
And small though it is, given there's no way to meaningfully play competitively on the PS3's TF2—that lag is just too crippling—the community still remains.
"We knew TF2 [on PS3] was always destined to die," Villar says. "But the most beautiful thing about the community is that it didn't, and still hasn't. If you log on now, you'll see some of the same players from a decade ago."
Painfully laggy though the matches are, that community is still playing games of capture the flag on 2Fort and control point on Dustbowl—for nothing more than fun, for the joy of sharing play with other people. You rarely need up-to-the-moment network features for that, whatever your game of choice.