In the fall of 2011, I was haunted by a videogame. It wasn't the kind of game that's supposed to haunt you, nor was this the "figurative" variety of haunting. I mean that when I turned on my 360, opened up NHL 12 and stepped into an online ranked match, I was attacked by a malevolent force whose origins are impossible to explain.
I'd just graduated from university into joblessness, leaving me marooned at my parents' place in a suburban development called "Birdland." There were hard life questions to be answered, but I was sitting around watching hockey games. As it happened, my Vancouver Canucks were enjoying their best season in history. I watched them finish first in the league, then face Boston for the championship, only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat. The night the Canucks lost Game Seven, I watched fans light a whole bunch of dumpsters on fire (I did not partake in the rioting myself, of course, because I was stuck in fucking Birdland).
My mechanism for avoiding disappointment had itself become a wellspring of disappointment, and I wanted to prove something, anything, to myself. That's why every Tuesday and Thursday I'd take a skytrain to my old neighborhood. There, at my friend Sonny's house, we'd play NHL 12 until the first buses ran the following morning. We always played cooperatively, and we only played in ranked mode. Our collective goal was simple: climb all the way up the ladder to earn a spot on the hallowed "Top 100 Players" screen. It was no coincidence that this collective goal aligned perfectly with my personal ones: Cling to my few remaining friendships, hide from the specter of career failure, and find something to feel good at again.
If you've ever played a sports sim before, you'll be familiar with the most popular strategy. First you select whichever team's got the best hockey player in the world. Get the puck to this player as soon as you possibly can. Abuse their sky-high skill ratings.
But to get into the loftier part of the leaderboard, we needed more advanced tactics. Gradually we developed a playstyle that matched our personalities. My contribution was my pessimism, planning for things to go wrong. If I saw a chance to chase after a risky play, I'd just let it pass; I knew five seconds later I'd have my defense perfectly positioned, obstructing every inch of open space and leaving our opponent stuck in place, looking for an opening that wasn't there. That was Sonny's cue.
Sonny was the true star of our operation. He lived for the flashy power move. When he saw the opponent slow down he would pull one of our wingers out of formation, and start mashing hard on the "speed burst" button. As the opponent stopped, Sonny's winger was streaking-in unnoticed. And as the opponent pivoted towards center, searching desperately for a scrap of empty space, Sonny would flatten them like a freight train hitting a stalled car. I would hear his controller vibrate from across the back suite, signalling our opponent's decimation. "Lie down and think about what you did," Sonny would shout towards the television. The little virtual hockey man had no choice in the matter; he wasn't getting up for a while.
On offense we took after the Canucks' Daniel and Henrik Sedin: telepathic wonder twins whose trickery left opponents both amazed and infuriated. The competition sought big muscles and fast skates so they could force pucks in the simple way. Us? We didn't need that stuff, because like the Sedins, all we ever did was pass. We passed it through their legs. We passed it between their hockey sticks and their skates. We passed it back, and forth, and back again until the other team made a mistake, and then we punished them for it mercilessly.
As we climbed towards the top 500 we encountered fewer of the "stat abusers;" instead we started meeting folks who actually knew what they were doing. There was a top 50 player named Markquish, for example, whom we believed to be some kind of robot. Their style was cruel and mechanical. Any small mistake left us trapped within a tightly-choreographed, extremely effective set play. It was like trying to dance the tango with a bench vise.
NHL's matchmaking system was quirky in that it revealed our opponent's name before we agreed to play the match, but didn't reveal their rank until after we'd completed it. This was great for up-and-comers like Sonny and I because we knew there was no downside to a Markquish match: even if we only beat them half the time, each win jumped us 10–15 ladder spots while the losses only dropped us one or two. For Markquish, of course, the situation was reversed—tiny rewards for victory, massive penalties for defeat—so by the time we made Top 200 they'd come to recognize our gamertag, and usually declined to play the match.
It became a 'passing ships in the night' sort of thing: if we spotted an unfavourable matchup we'd quit (or they'd quit) and restart the whole process from scratch. The higher we climbed, the rarer good matches became; and so gradually, the system would start widening its search criteria beyond the usual range. This, dear reader, is when things started to get weird.
We ceased encountering the master NHL players we'd hoped to find when we started up the ladder; somehow, opponents like Markquish were nowhere to be found. Instead there was an unending stream of randos. Their rank ranged from 300th down to a disastrous 16,000th, but we didn't have this information while setting up a match. And the other thing we didn't know—what we could not possibly know—is that within this stream of randos lurked a terrifying presence.
We couldn't tell when it was approaching, because we never recognized the gamertag. Maybe it was xxX_WeedLorde_Xxx; maybe it was STAMKOS92. There were hundreds of different accounts, all belonging to different people. Yet when we played them it didn't feel like they were different. It felt like they'd been possessed, somehow, by the spirit of this one particular guy we called The Man Who Does Nothing.
Like a nightmare, every game against him begins the same. I win the faceoff, because he doesn't appear to know how faceoffs work. I shovel the puck back towards our defenseman as always, except it doesn't travel as swiftly as it should.
I turn to chase the puck, and our opponent is chasing it too. But where usually I'd block his body with my body and get to that puck first, maybe instead I just sort of get bumped out of the way. Who was that player who bumped me? Was it someone with a high strength rating, like Boston's Milan Lucic? No, in fact. It was his diminutive goblin of a teammate, Brad Marchand (seriously, even among his teammates Marchand is known as the "little ball of hate," a term that even President Obama seemed to find disconcerting).
Sonny, being Sonny, is already guiding his weapon of choice into action: the 6'4" defenseman Alexander Edler, who's a full head taller than Marchand in both physical and moral terms.
I pivot Henrik Sedin back onto offense, anticipating the stretch pass that will follow Marchand's destruction. I hear the 'click click click' of Sonny's speed burst button; I watch from the corner of my eye to see which way the puck will dribble, and...
Alex Edler bounces off, falling to his knees as if struck by lightning.
Sonny and I shout "What the fuck?" in unison, because never in a thousand games have we endured an insult quite like that. Marchand, meanwhile, has earned himself a partial breakaway. If he wanted to he could speed burst forward, sheltering the puck from us while cutting to the middle of the ice, then deke to his backhand and shoot it. That's what I or Markquish would have done; Sonny would have done it best of all.
But our opponent isn't skilled enough to recognize this; he doesn't move with any strategy or purpose. He just sort of trickles off into the corner and eventually loses the puck. He does nothing. That's all he ever does.
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The ensuing twenty minutes devolve into a cavalcade of bullshit. Henrik watches an easy pass sail past him as if he were a blind old basset hound. Our bodychecks no longer crush our opponent so much as mildly jostle them. The Man Who Does Nothing trips me at a critical moment, triggering the game's special "Hey, I was tripped!" stumbling animation, but the AI referee decides not to call a penalty. In NHL it's common to suffer a few bad breaks. But for this one game, we are racking up 20, 30, then 40 bad breaks in a row. Laws of physics and probability both lie shattered before us.
Eventually, a special type of misplay occurs. Sonny calls it 'The Vancian'. He named it after me.
When, after an eternity of fumbling, we finally align the high-slot shooting opportunity in which I specialize: The puck goes wide. And I don't mean just a little wide. It goes, like, 15 feet to the right of the net. And it goes that way at 10 miles per hour, blooping off the blade of my hockey stick as if I'd chipped the damn thing with a sand wedge. There is no controller input that permits me to execute this shot on purpose. In thousands and thousands of Online Versus games we've only ever seen it happen to me (and only when I've lined up a perfect shooting chance against The Man Who Does Nothing). It makes for an amazing cosmic joke.
Maybe I had a string of bad breaks and started to psych myself out; maybe The Man Who Does Nothing was me the whole time, using magic and superstition to account for my own failures?
After Sonny announces that "The Vancian has occurred" we know with certainty that the hockey gods are laughing at us. We finish the period tied at zero, despite outshooting The Man Who Does Nothing by a ratio of five to one. Later he scores one solitary goal—a goal so bad and immemorable that I could not possibly describe it to you.
We lose this game 0-1. The menu screen confirms for us what we already suspected: We've awarded BTOWN_DANGLEKING their first win in a month. They were so alarmingly terrible at hockey, and of such astonishingly low rank, that victory would have earned us literally zero points. Our defeat, meanwhile, has knocked us from 170th all the way out of the Top 200. The evening is officially a wash. We'll try again next week and the week after that, but it's like a nightmare version of Chutes and Ladders. The Man Who Does Nothing is always lurking. And when he comes, he always wins.
Sonny and I never did crack the top 100 in NHL 12, nor did we in 13 through 14. The first installment to come out for the Xbox One ( NHL 15) didn't even include a couch co-op feature—we discovered this upon bringing a brand new console home on the day of the game's release—and that, I'm sad to say, was the final straw for us.
That haunted back suite where The Man Who Does Nothing tormented us is now my living room (I rent it from Sonny's family these days), but no copy of NHL resides within. Instead we're playing Overwatch. Sonny, ever the competitor, has climbed from Platinum rank through Diamond into Master; me, I mostly stick to quickplay. My hunger for competition has dissipated.
As I look back in wonder at those dreadful matches against The Man Who Does Nothing, I find myself confused as ever. Surely this character I've described to you does not really exist, does he? Surely nothing can actually "haunt" the multiplier lobbies of a videogame. Surely, I hear you thinking to yourself, there is a rational explanation for all of this. Well, dear reader, I've thought about that too.
The most obvious explanation is that I was imagining the whole thing. Maybe I had a string of bad breaks and started to psych myself out; maybe The Man Who Does Nothing was me the whole time, using magic and superstition to account for my own failures?
But remember, Sonny was with me the whole time. And he isn't just a Master Overwatch player: He's also been Global Elite in Counter-Strike: GO (that spells "top 0.7%"). He's not some esports superstar; he's never won $100,000 at an international tournament. But you don't reach the levels of play he does by constantly getting psyched out. And like me, Sonny's always insisted something was just... off about these NHL matches.
Nor are we alone in our suspicions. Over the years there have been hundreds of forum threads, YouTube videos and reddit posts accusing EA of putting "ice tilting" in their games. EA has insisted that there is not (and was never) anything in their software that favours players of lower rank, or randomly awards people some hidden advantage, or does anything of that nature. Since I see no reason for EA to be coy about this (and am not any kind of conspiracy theorist), I accept that they believe they're telling the truth.
There's only one theory I find credible, though it's more of a vague intuition. There was this specific moment from game six of that Vancouver-Boston series I mentioned earlier. The game is nearly over, and Boston is going to win. There's been a brief stoppage in play, so most of the players are up to their usual 'tough guy' push-and-shove. Yet in one corner of frame there's something amazing: It's our boy Brad Marchand, punching Daniel Sedin in the face over and over again.
It's not a "fight", per se, because Daniel is not fighting back. He's just sort of standing there, repeatedly getting punched in the face. And why not? Both he and Marchand knew there was nothing to be done about it. For 105 games preceding this one, the Sedins' unique brand of wizardry had disrupted hockey's "gritty" status quo. They were not the strongest or the fastest, but they might have been the cleverest. This was why, in 2011, they'd led the league in scoring.
Yet it was a fragile sort of magic to maintain, depending as it did on the protection of a few ruthless teammates to suppress the more general violence and combative play of the NHL at large. And in the 106th game of that season—riddled with injuries and physically outmatched by the Boston Bruins—it was like the spell finally broke. I felt, with each blow to Daniel's chin, that the dominion of grit was reasserting itself. Suddenly it didn't seem like we could win.
That was how it felt losing against The Man Who Does Nothing. It was as if the game's natural order were snapping violently back into place: as if some force was punishing Sonny and I for daring to practice Sedinery within its borders. I don't think there were any "flaws" in EA's simulation. If anything it was too perfect for its own good. It understood, on some level deeper than code, all the universal constants of hockey. Toughness trumps cleverness. No act of style goes unpunished. And Vancouver never wins the Stanley Cup.