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This Is Your Brain on ESports

Inside the neuroscience of competitive gaming.

by Basim Usmani
Feb 24 2014, 5:15pm
M2K, right, battles Armada in the finals at the recent Apex gaming tournament. Image: Basim Usmani 

Jason Zimmerman sat behind a raffle ticket desk at Apex, one of the most streamed fighting game tournaments outside of Las Vegas. Over a recent February weekend, the largest Smash Brothers Tournament of all time took place at a hotel in Somerset, New Jersey.

Zimmerman, 24, is known in the Smash community as Mew2King, or M2K. Players from Brazil, and Finland came by to pay respects. Zimmerman has just been deftly dispatched in his grand finals against the “Swedish Sniper”, Adam “Armada” Lindgren, in Project M. Project M is a tournament-ready Smash Bros. Brawl mod created by programmers and artists in the community. For someone like him, it's a chance to bond, and to outwit. 

“I have Asperger’s they say, but I know that I’m smart," Zimmerman told me. "I just happen to put my time into something I enjoy, which is Smash Bros.”

The grand finals took place in the hotel’s ballroom, which is typically the preserve of fundraisers and corporate galas. White screens were pulled down on every wall. Matches streamed to as many as 40,000 viewers joining Apex via Twitch. There were commentator booths, and about 50 CRT TVs (worth, I imagine, a combined $100), all crammed into rows. The players sat in silence, clicking away on Gamecube controllers.

Both the controllers and the game are 12 years old, and long out of print. But the scene for Super Smash Bros. Melee is still somehow growing.

For M2K, competing in Super Smash Bros tournaments is a fulltime gig. His playful fiddling with an orange, unplugged Gamecube controller seemed casual, but he has spent nearly the last decade competing at whatever tournament he can get a ride to. It’s been said that if there's money to win, M2K will hitch a ride to even the smallest tournament. Entrants cheekily refer to the entry fees as “contributions to the Zimmerman foundation.” 

It’s been trial and error for him. Before the tournament, M2K practiced alone. But to sharpen truly his chops, he's had to push himself to socialize at tournaments.

“I developed my social skills over the past nine years,” Zimmerman explained. “I wasn’t exposed to situations as much as most people. When I do something different or weird people assume I’m dumb, but then I play them in Smash and they realize I’m way smarter than they think.”

Like M2K, the game he plays is slowly gaining acceptance. The Super Smash Bros series never had online play, a requirement in most eSports. It wasn’t an arcade title, so it didn’t have cabinets in laundromats.

“Never mind arcades,” said Wynton “Prog” Smith, a frequent personality and commentator on official Smash Bros tournament streams. “All we had was an online forum and trust that you could visit another person and get some games in at no cost.”

It’s taken a while for the Fighting Game Community to warm up to players of Nintendo's Smash Bros. At Apex 2014, however, the FGC’s most fashionable and fearsome—characters like Yipes (a former Marvel vs Capcom contender with a clothing line), Justin Wong (one of the undisputed greats), and Sanford Kelly, a former Marvel vs. Capcom World Champion making a comeback in Street Fighter 4—were all present.

The fighting game community was redefined back in 2000 by Marvel Vs Capcom 2, which was embraced by streetwise kids who grew up with arcades in New York City or Jersey. “Back then, a tournament was a few hundred people crammed into [legendary NY arcade] Chinatown Fair, what we lacked in organization we made up for in enthusiasm,” Yipes told me.

It’s been said that if there's money to win, M2K will hitch a ride to even the smallest tournament. Entrants cheekily refer to the entry fees as “contributions to the Zimmerman foundation.” 

M2K, in a way, conforms to the basement-dwelling, skinny white-boy stereotype the FGC has long tried to avoid. In old tournament videos, he visibly struggles to find motivation when the crowd cheers his competitor. There was a certain helplessness you could detect, watching him choose to self-destruct rather than fight.

But M2K has unlearned a lot of the things that may have held him back. His character has seemingly been balanced.

“Various games change the brain itself. There’s a possibility that the games he plays are making neurological changes,” said Dr. Jolene Ross, director of Advanced Neurotherapy, a wellness clinic in Massachusetts that experiments with neurofeedback and brain computer interfacing.

“Someone who is different will get picked on,” Ross continued. “You may become withdrawn, you may become angry. [M2K] is a young man who instead became very, very good at something that in a segment of the culture is valued extraordinarily, and now he doesn’t get picked on. He’s a rockstar.”

Crowds watch the Projet M finals at Apex 2014.

The US recognized the free-to-play Internet game, League of Legends, as a sport last October to allow foreign players to more easily obtain visas. The move helped elevate its status from a computer game to an “e-sport”. For older generations, the idea of video games being any sort of "sport", let alone a profession is a jarring proposition.

“Cultural context is an important part, if you will, of diagnoses,” says Dr. Ross.

The first studies into computer addiction took place at McLean Hospital 30 years ago. Ever since, the “bad” about video games has been examined a lot longer than the “good”, and Dr. Ross thinks the new status being afforded them is still problematic.

“What we typically see is people get so into video games they neglect the impact of social interactions. They are not developing those skills. If you then pay them for it, you’re saying this isn’t an addiction. This is a vocation.”

Justin Wong is one of the earliest people in the scene to make a job of fighting games. He’s 28, completely sober, and takes the money he makes very seriously.

“I just save all the money, man. I’m supporting my parents, and after I pay for rent and try to support my girlfriend since she supports my career. I just save it," Wong admits. “It’s that Asian gene, man. Asians are cheap.”

Justin had arched his eyebrows. I could hardly tell if he was being sarcastic, or matter of fact. “Something humans can’t stop is greed,” he went on. “I was born in a rent controlled apartment in Union Square, and usually started at tournaments with negative dollars so now I’m very happy.”

eSports reporter and former Smash Brothers contender, Jake Kulinski, or Solid Jake, notices differences between the FGC and established eSports.

“It’s never clear if the professional Starcraft players are really enjoying themselves. The atmosphere of interviewing people at big SC tournaments, like Blizzcon, is totally different than Apex,” he explained. “You’re talking about an industry where the expectation is that you need to practice ten, fifteen hours a day. At fighting game tournaments, there’s always a crowd of friends around every player. The fact that they’re giving interviews is still amazing to them.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Twitch, a gaming portal that live streams tournaments, now commands 1.8 percent of peak Internet traffic in the US. This puts Twitch ahead of Hulu, Facebook, Valve, and Amazon. The site has previously averaged 45 million viewers per month, but if there isn’t a major tournament, fighting games rarely crack the Top Ten. Twitch’s official FGC specialist, Victor “Victheslik” Denchartphan, thinks that’s about to change. He thinks the myriad characters in the FGC scene are far more interesting than players of other eSports. It’s just a matter of them getting out there.

A cursory search on Twitch reveals the sort of characters he’s talking about. Take Lil Pimp, a 13-year old from Michigan who plays Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3. Really, who wouldn’t want to watch a 13-year-old burn up competitors twice his age?

Denchartphan explains that “while broadcast models for computer-oriented esports, such as Starcraft or Counterstrike, had to go through phases to get to where they are today, the FGC already had an identity. Fighting games were born in the arcade era, when your opponent had to sit next to you and if you lost, you had to hear the trash talk.” He added, “ You couldn't just disconnect. The FGC has retained a lot of that raw competitive emotion.”

That competitive emotion has a lot to do with the nature of fighting games, which according to Ross may be teaching players how to use their right brain. That's the part of the brain that is creative, handles conversations and art and, apparently, opponents in Street Fighter. Fighting games were some of the first that forced people to outwit each other.

“What’s important is that they are addicted to a certain type of game,” Ross said. “There are people who will be learning these type of behaviors by virtue of their simulation. It sounds like he’s playing a psyche-out game.”

The most notorious psyche out had to have been at the Evo 2004 grand finals, between Justin Wong and the Japanese player Daigo. Behind on health and in danger of handing Justin the match, Daigo did the unthinkable: For approximately six seconds, he did nothing. This baited Wong into going in for a flashy finish, which Daigo successfully parry’s and punishes for the win.

In FGC speak, Wong thought he was about to go pringles: an all-out offensive and inability to stop once he attempted to pry open his opponent’s defense. If anything, playing the game has taught Justin how to read people better.

“I can read people’s patterns and human nature after playing them for a while,” Wong said. “Depending on their personality, it reflects on their play style. If you are a very open person you are aggressive and if you are very secretive and shy you will play more cautious, and if you are just a person who doesn’t like to open up you are a defensive player.”

People were initially drawn to fighting games to face a human opponent, instead of a high score. The majority are in it for the rush of psyching someone out; reading their habits, and cracking their defenses. It’s a highly adversarial way to get to know somebody, but it seems to work.

The implications intrigue Dr. Ross. “Much of our research has more to do with how to normalize and enhance brain functioning,” Ross said. She disagrees, however, about money being the primary incentive behind competitive gaming. The real thing being exchanged is a brainwave, called the alpha-burst, at between eight and 12 Hz per second.

“As they are playing, the brain has an interesting thing that it does. After each move that connects, after that frame if you will, the brain releases a particular thing called the alpha-burst,” she said. “This is basically the brain’s way of saying, ‘Ahh that was good’. It happens in the brains of pilots when they land a plane, as soon as those wheels touch the ground.”

When Barry Sterman, the esteemed voice on neuroscience from UCLA, famously described the alpha-burst as “the way the brain spells relief," he meant that we all have a desire for mastery, because mastery activates certain neurotransmitters associated with good feelings, or dopamine. And while the brain is looking for relief, the body is craving that adrenaline rush.

To hear Dr. Ross tell it, what drives players to fighting games is a “very complex chemical, electrical, blood-flow story." If you play fighting games, that’s the complex set of temporary changes you’re inducing in your body when you’re wrecking your opponent. It’s why the community relishes in the so-called dragon punch, a move designed to punish sloppy approaches. Fighting games can be reduced to reading and baiting your opponent; beyond that, it’s just a heated version of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

This is basically the brain’s way of saying, ‘Ahh that was good’. It happens in the brains of pilots when they land a plane, as soon as those wheels touch the ground.

It brings folks together. Indeed, a few pieces published recently in major gaming sites lauded the FGC for being the most diverse of American eSports. But the real reasons for this have yet to be addressed: It has to do with people of color and access. Arcades are in cities.

Professional players like Justin Wong, Mew2King, Sanford Kelly, and Dieminion were all trained at the Arc. The Arc is a living space/talent farm set up by Jamaican native, and Bronx-raised Isaiah "Triforce" Johnson. Many names that have come to dominate the FGC in different games have at one point lived at the Arc. Many were also employed at Triforce's games shop in the city.

“As in the Bible, as Iron sharpens Iron, so does one man sharpen another,” he says, explaining how he’s quarantined and trained some of the best and most promising. Triforce is the CEO of Empire Arcadia, but he thrives on being something of a coach, and in eSports he sees an opportunity of a lifetime. “As soon as someone in corporate sees the numbers in eSports, it’s a wrap.”

Ten years ago, Triforce set out to make the most successful videogame team of all time. In 2012, the Guinness Book of World Records adjudicated that his team, Empire Arcadia, as having won the most tournaments out of any single team in the world. For Triforce, the 1,411 recorded tournaments they’ve won are only the beginning.

“Where other players are playing like, you know, like it’s their job, we play for passion and desire. Whenever you play for something other than yourself, you will always play greater,” Triforce said. He went on about the power of leaving a lasting mark on something, and the potential of being remembered through eSports. His desire is in no small way inspired by his parent’s experiences in NYC as Jamaican immigrants.

“My father was a taxi driver for 30 long years, and his muscles are atrophying. I don’t want to do anything thankless. We’re looking to make our names and establish the profession behind us. It is a profession for all of us, and we have gotten this far. It is just about the next step.”

Triforce's passport.

Dr. Ross thinks that some of the drive to dominate the roost in the FGC may be sociological. “If you’re talking about first- and second-generation immigrants, your job is to be a success,” she told me. “It doesnt matter what your success is, but your job is to be a success as you know it. Most don’t have that drive that most second-generation immigrants have.”

Justin Wong’s parents never liked him playing video games. He finished school with a degree in business administration, and told them he was working at a company. He said he didn’t want to lie to them, but he that he had to.

“It took them six years to find out I was playing video games for a living, and they got mad at me," Wong said. "But I had a stack of money on me, so boom, I threw it at them.”

His parents found out when they saw Justin on the SciFi channel reality show, Ultimate Gamer, and they put two and two together. “They still have that concept though, that a B+ is not as good as an A. You can’t please everyone,” he admitted. “So I just do what I can do.” 

It took them six years to find out I was playing video games for a living, and they got mad at me. But I had a stack of money on me, so boom, I threw it at them.

For other second-gen immigrants in the scene, it’s the familial orientation of the Fighting Game scene, and being a part of that community which holds the appeal.

Jin-Hong “Jinny” Chou, a Smash Bros. contender and speed runner from Sweden, found his future family over streaming sites. "My early years were rough," he began:

If you’re the only Asian in the area you get bullied, it's just what it is. Over the years you learn about life, and if you learn about life the hard way. It’s hard to socialize. Smash gave me a community. If you don’t grow up with a family, you don’t have that. I like to call it that Chinese wall, you don’t have that security in your heart. Through Smash and streams I made so many friends. I didn’t have friends as a kid but now I have friends all over the world.

Back in the Apex trenches, Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma seemed aloof. A Jigglypuff player—and arguably one of the Gods of Smash—Debiedma got knocked out of a Top 4 standing at the tournament. He came off a little disappointed.

“I had a weird moment,” he said. “I was looking around the hotel ballroom watching the best Smash Bros. players in the world play Smash, and I’m about to play them. I was thinking, How did it come to this? I could have been a tennis player, a soccer player. I could have been a writer. I could have been a good opera singer. The time I’ve devoted to anything besides school is Smash Bros. I have so many friends now. I owe a lot to this game.”

He stammered to complete his thought, “I couldn’t think of a way to repay it.”

At the other end of the ballroom. Justin Wong was enjoying the finals of Smash Bros. He did something funny—he registered as a player in the ancient, 1999 classic, Super Smash Bros 64. Now that he’s older, he’s appreciating the finer things in life.

“I was really bad at it,” he laughed. “I got destroyed today at Smash 64, but honestly, it was very fun.” I asked the could’ve-been Olympian if fighting games were his favorite genre: “Honestly, nobody knows this, but my favorite genre is puzzle games. I feel like they make you smarter.”

There is more pruning that is happening in the brain than the field of neuroscience can detect. With this era of brain mapping, we might fruitfully conclude what we set out to do during the first “Decade of the Brain”, the 1980s. That decade left a lot of unfinished businesses, least of all detecting or diagnosing Autism.

During the early 80s, the Autism incidence rate was one in 10,000. Today, it hovers between one in 35 or one in 75, depending on where you are. Thirty years ago, Mew2King would have been institutionalized as schizophrenic, as was procedure for those considered to be on the spectrum. Today, however, he is nearly an athlete. Normalizing brain function is one way to put it; in some ways, video games helped Mew2King reach his full potential.

"I think it's crazy that we take doctors at their word," Zimmerman said, bluntly. "What they say now will change in maybe ten to fifteen years. Who are they to say I have Asperger's? Are they God? I'm just different, and it'll take them time to catch up."

This is true of everyone, regardless of grey matter. As we map the brain in greater detail, we will have not only front row seats to eSports contenders, but also be able to understand what’s happening in their heads. Then we’ll see that eSports are just sports—and that it's all about flexing the right muscle.

@BasimBTW

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