Major League Halo

As promised, I stopped by the big Halo 2 tournament sponsored by Major League Gaming this past Sunday. Some general interest cultural anthropology tidbits follow, with Halo-specific observations (for fellow players) under the fold.

The tournament took place in one of the big conference rooms at the local Sheraton. The room was filled with pairs of long tables, each with four TV monitors, so that teams of four players could sit next to each other in a row, facing their opponents. A big poster at the front of the room showed the double-elimination bracket for the day; near it, spectators could watch the top-ranked match on four big projection screens.

At first, the demographic represented there seemed quite familiar to someone like me, who has attended more than their share of collectible card game tournaments. But I gradually became aware of the differences—chief among them, that of age. I had assumed that, since competing here meant flying in from around the country and shelling out for a hotel room, the competitors would skew a little older than what you find on Xbox Live. But the vast majority of the players were evenly split between teenagers and college-age guys. There were a handful of mid-twenties types, but no one there my age. There were a fair number of females present but none of them actually competing that I saw.

When I arrived, a match was underway to clinch the winner’s bracket. All the players on one side had ‘StK’ in their usernames—an indication that that’s the clan they belonged to. StK (Shoot to Kill) is probably the most famous Halo 2 clan; most of its members dominated the tournament circuit for the original Halo. Knowing that, I thought that maybe at least they would be a little older, but no—they were kids. One of them even had pimples.

So how did all these kids get here? My first theory came about while sitting near the StK guys after their match. They were talking shop when a middle-aged woman walked up and addressed the pimply one.

“Danny, did you want to get something to eat?”

“No,” he replied sullenly.

“But you haven’t had any lunch yet!”

“NO, mom . . .”

“All right, well, I’m going to Subway with your sister.”

Danny managed to roll his eyes without rolling them, and went back to the post-game analysis with his friends.

After that I looked around and realized that Danny was by no means the only one with a parent in the room. That was it, I thought—the college guys are cramming into cars and driving across the country, and the teenagers are convincing their families to take a vacation in Washington D.C. on the weekend that coincides with the tournament.

But I didn’t really understand what was going on until I talked to a couple of the college-age guys for a while. One of them, you see, had made $80,000 on the MLG circuit the previous year, and so had dropped out of school to play video games competitively full-time. He explained that most of the people at the tournament had gained their slots at regional qualifiers, and so enjoyed free hotel accommodations and registration. Factor those out and the airfare isn’t as big an obstacle. So Danny’s not leeching off his parents at all—if anything, his hotel room is what’s making their D.C. vacation possible in the first place. (Mr. $80k commented that the StK guys were playing at a “completely different level” than what he was capable of—so how much money are they making?!)

That’s when I realized: this is a sport. Professionally speaking, it’s very small—the number of people making a living at it number in the dozens, or hundreds if you count PC gaming in there as well. The physical knack for playing seems to peak in the 18-20 year range—nothing unusual there, sports-wise. If the number of spectators are small, it’s because everyone who has an interest can easily play instead of watching—it’s easy to participate, and the training regimen isn’t very rigorous. There’s athleticism involved, but it’s all in fine motor skills. When you get to the tournament level, the strategy, the team dynamics, and the mental game all come into play, just like in other sports. The popular conception of events like this lags behind reality, and will probably continue to do so for a few more years. The culture at large still don’t have a handle on just how many people play and video games, and how much complexity and depth is involved in doing so. But we’ll get eventually.

Keep reading for all the Halo-specific stuff . . .
The MLG tournaments have their own rules, which differ in some important ways from the Live playlists. Radar is turned off for a lot of games, including Team Slayer and Team CTF. Most importantly, the starting weapon is always Battle Rifle instead of SMG. I’ve tried this on Live a few times and I actually like it a lot. The BR is more of a finesse weapon, and it makes the dual-weapon combos rarer and thus more significant.

Those StK guys really were amazing. The speed and accuracy with which they’d pull off head shots didn’t seem quite human. And they were clearly on track to dominate the whole tournament. But they were the only ones who seemed a cut apart—everyone else, though they were clearly way better than I was, were at least playing with familiar strategies and making familiar moves, familiar mistakes. (That is, sometimes they shot and missed, unlike the StK guys.)

One thing that surprised me was how heavy the grenade use was. Partly this was due to the difficulty in dual-wielding, but I saw plenty of people pass up opportunities to dual-wield so they’d have the grenade option. Picking up extra grenades at the right spots on the map was key, because they’d toss grenades around corners or behind them or whereever just as a matter of course—known around here as the Tom Berger school of Halo strategy.

Weapon-switching, too, was frequent and often frenetic. Plasma Pistol + Battle Rifle was a very popular combo. Guys who had the sword would almost never run around with it drawn, but would whip it out, attack with it, and switch back to BR so quickly that sometimes it took a second to register that the sword had been there at all. Between this and the grenades, the top players just seemed a whole lot busier—always, always doing something.

But, for all that, their strategy was surprisingly conservative. Best example was watching StK dominate in a Crazy King match. I was constantly surprised at how many times they left the flag zone neutral even when they had somebody nearby. If someone got to an empty flag zone, and there were enemies on his radar, he would hunt them down before stepping in. They generally waited for backup before occupying the zone—and always had only one guy do so, while the others defended the area. I don’t think I ever saw them clumped so that they could be hit by the same grenade. Crazy King aside, these guys were careful, never charging wildly around a corner when they thought someone might be there—even if they had the firepower to manage it. Instead they’d slow, sometimes crouch, and then peek around the corner long enough to head-shot somebody with a BR or sniper rifle. What made it so amazing with the StK guys is that they’d peek around the corner for a fraction of a second, and still manage to zero in on somebody’s head and pull back again. Freaky.

In Capture the Flag, with touch return turned off, flag carriers would never hold on to the flag for very long. They’d run and throw, run and throw—partly to get some extra distance on the flag, but mainly I think so that if they got shot it was less likely that the flag would go flying at an inconvenient angle. And they’d drop the flag at a drop of a hat if there was a pursuer that needed to be engaged. I saw a very cool toss used all the time on Beaver Creek—the flag stealer would run up the ramp above the flag spot and toss it through the whole in the roof. If they were really on, someone would be there to grab it and hop right through the teleporter. But they’d do it even if that wasn’t the case, just to get the flag clear in a relatively hard-to-defend place.

The weapon combos I saw were definitely influenced by the whole starting-with-BR thing. Sniper rifle and rocket launcher were obviously very popular. BR+PP was common. For dual combos, I saw SMG+Magnum, SMG+Plasma Rifle (my favorite), and occasionaly dual Magnums, but no others. Never saw anyone fighting with Needlers, and I didn’t see very much Shotgun use, either.

I asked Mr. $80k what he thought of Halo 2 compared to Halo:CE. He said that they were so different, it was hard to compare—that the only thing they had in common was Master Chief. The main things he noted were that the weapons were powered down, and that the physics engine was different—more cartoony and less realistic in Halo 2. He wasn’t being judgmental about it—it wasn’t that he liked one more than the other, just that they were different. Which, I think, is a bit of myopia—the games are very similar, even obviously so, and you’d have to have your nose pretty deep into the nitty gritty to think of them as significantly different. Which, of course, these guys obviously do.

He also said that almost all the top-ranked, non-cheating Live players were at the tournament. But many of their ranks had been slipping simply because they’d been training with custom games using MLG rules instead of using the playlists.

I meant to ask them whether being level 10 in Rumble Pit and Team Skirmish made me respectable in their eyes or a total noob, but didn’t get around to it. 🙂