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Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion Paperback – 24 Apr 2006
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From the Publisher
I wrote those articles in order to share the lessons of competition I learned from tournaments in fighting games like Street Fighter. Although I used examples from fighting games, I wrote the articles to be applicable to all gamers with examples from many different kinds of games.
Even within the realm of fighting games, each game has its own community. There are distinct communities for old-school Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Capcom vs. SNK 2, Guilty Gear XX, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Virtua Fighter, and Super Smash Brothers Melee. Furthermore, I've peeked into communities of many other games such as Magic: The Gathering, chess, Counter-Strike, Puzzle Fighter, poker, Scrabble, and more. Each community tends to value its own game above all others and tends to ignore and be generally ignorant of the other communities. And yet I saw that all these communities were so similar at their core: they were all wrestling with the concepts of what "playing to win" really means. They all struggled over deciding which moves to ban from play and how to ban them. They struggled with concepts of "cheapness" and "honor."
The same arguments raged across the forums and online chats for every game, and even the same personalities were repeated in each community. These arguments stemmed from the basic problem that there are a few different worldviews about how to play competitive games, and no one was clearly voicing the worldview of the most powerful type of player: he who wields the power to win. Those who try to win are wildly misunderstood by the masses, and all sorts of negative things are ascribed to them. In fact, the journey of continual self-improvement that a winner must walk is good and right and true--but it's not for everyone, nor should it be.
The response to these articles was amazing. I've been contacted by hundreds of players of all sorts of games I've barely heard of. Links to the articles are posted all over the internet, often in forums of various gaming websites. Although the ideas always spark debate, almost every e-mail I've ever received on the subject has been of the form, "You've changed the way I think about games, thank you Sirlin." After the constant barrage of thanks I've gotten for years now, I finally decided to extend the material, flesh it out more fully, and organize it into one guide for all competitive gamers.
I start with the very basics of choosing a game and how to get familiar with it. I stress the importance of getting connected to the player community and building an environment for yourself that sets you up to succeed. I then give some advice on how to build up basic proficiency in a game.
Next is the tough section that's hard for people to swallow. The #1 thing holding back most players is purely mental. You must shed all the rules and limitations that exist in your head about how to play, and instead start using all legal moves available to you to win. You must also give up the ridiculous notion that other players should abide by the made-up rules in your head.
I then give my complete retelling of Sun Tzu's book, Art of War.e shifted his chapters around, omitted some, added a couple, and boiled it down to a few key concepts that apply to most competitive games. It's difficult to give actual strategy and tactics advice that would apply to almost any game, but there are valuable fundamentals here.
The next section is about formal competition and tournaments. Finally, I close with a discussion of the ethical issues that the very best players face. The power to win is fleeting, but when you have it you can do a fair amount with it. I can't tell you how exactly to handle the power, but I can lay out your options.
I've also noticed some massive misunderstandings about how to apply the lessons of competitive games to life in general. Some of these lessons do apply and some do not. That's not a topic I can rigorously define, but I do give some good pointers along the way.
I hope this guide will help you to walk the path of continuous self-improvement.
About the Author
David Sirlin is a multiple-time national tournament champion in video games. Part of Street Fighter Team USA, he represented America in an annual international fighting game tournament held in Japan. He's also a main character in Bang the Machine (a documentary film about the Street Fighter community) and a co-organizer of the annual Evolution Fighting Game Championships series. Professionally, he has been a video game designer and producer since graduating from MIT’s Sloan Business School in 1998.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
This book didn't talk solely about SF; it also discussed Magic: The Gathering, Chess, and several other games. The book itself is focused on the idea of "playing to win" and what it means for your mindset and how you approach the game (any game). But it was clear from the reading that SF was Sirlin's first love. I'd like to give a little personal background to explain why it resonated for me so much.
I'm 35 now, but I've been playing SF in all its various iterations since I was 15 if not earlier. I think since my first Shoryuken, I've been in love with this game. I had friends to play it with, but I was WAY more into it than all of them and most of them grew tired of it long before I did. I had a couple local arcades, but for whatever reason, there were never many people at the SF machines. Certainly, as far as I know, there were no local tournaments. In fact, when I was in my teens I don't think I even knew SF tournaments could happen.
When I did happen to see someone at the local machines, I'd always be chomping at the bit to play them. But since all my experience with the game was on my SNES or Playstation, they'd usually beat me. I was too unfamiliar with the stick.
When online gaming started to become a thing, I remember basically hoping and praying that it would one day become reliable enough to play SF online. I'd been wanting to play other people (instead of the computer) for as long as I could remember - and not just any other people, but people who were INTO it, who would know stuff I'd never figured out, who'd knock me flat on my butt and force me to improve. When SF4 finally came out, I got my chance. Even though I had two kids and a full time job by then, I drilled a hole in my wall to get my XBox wired, and finally (FINALLY) started getting whupped by some real players. I know it's not the same as the old arcade scene or the tournament scene, but for me it's been a long-awaited dream come true.
So why does this mean I loved Sirlin's book? Well, two reasons.
First - My game has improved about a thousand-fold since I started playing online. I'm still no master, but I'm far, far better than I was. Occasionally I'll run into someone who actually fears me a bit, which is fantastic, and I've started having these insights. These little whispers in my brain. Like, "He's playing the game where he has to block the cross-up. I'm going to play a game where I just jump without a cross-up, and then throw." Because we're playing different games, and my opponent doesn't know the rules of my game, I win.
Sirlin captures a similar concept here, and when I read it I was ecstatic. I'm not a pro SF gamer and never will be, but I DO want to be better at it. I always have. When I read that the good players develop a similar mindset to the one I was starting to feel out, it thrilled me. It made me feel like I was on the right track. There were some great nuggets in this book: a fantastic definition of "scrub," a great summary of the correct attitude toward losing (again, one I've been adopting prior to reading), an analysis of the "fear aura," and all kinds of other things my wife always looks at me like I'm nuts for talking about when I try to explain them to her. Just reading that I wasn't the only person on the planet who'd thought about all this stuff was incredibly vindicating.
Second - Sirlin relates some stories from his time in tournaments that allowed me to live vicariously through him. I did passing well in some M:TG tournaments back in the 90s, and used to do policy debate in high school, so I'm familiar with the tension and excitement of the tournament format. It was pretty easy to slide that layer of tension over the stories he was telling and imagine what it must've been like. Odds are I'm never getting to an SF tournament now, no matter how much I'd love to give it a try, because I just don't have the time any more. But the few stories that were in here allowed me a precious glimpse into a life I would've loved to have taken a shot at, given the opportunity.
Bottom line: the book was a blast. I plowed through it in a couple days. It let me imagine a world, not too much different from this one, where I was allowed to let my SF neurosis run completely rampant and become the champion I always wanted to be.
Thanks, Mr. Sirlin. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The book itself is, I think, a little generous in even calling it a book. It's more like a dissertation or essay on competitive gaming and the different avenues people can take in whatever game they choose to reach the top of competition. I say it's more like an essay in how it is laid out in print. There are large spaces between paragraphs and the headings divide sections of paragraphs with their respective points. It's not a bad thing, as it makes reading sections easier because you know what's in them, but at the same time, I wished there were more the construction of the book, a little bit more to it rather than just spacing.
Getting into the actual writing, Sirlin has an interesting way of writing his point to you that will, I think, turn you on to his writing or make you close it and stop. I would definitely suggest trying to read a little demo and see because it could really sound silly to people who are expecting, again, more of a book. I say this because the subject matter that Sirlin is basing his thinking and point of view off of are video games, and competitive ones at that. He makes reference to games like Starcraft, Street Fighter, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, etc., games that are all 1v1, super competitive games. Sirlin himself has played Street Fighter at a high level, so he uses his own experiences as well. Because the thinking is based off of video games, you'll see references to 'Noobs', 'Scrubs', etc. which is terminology commonly used in video game circles. Now, after seeing that, are you turned off by the book using this kind of language? If yes, then you're gonna want to check out the book before buying, but if you're okay, then you may even enjoy the references with these words.
The actual methodology Sirlin advocates in book focuses on several different areas which range from finding and meeting like minded people in the game you want to play, understanding the rules of the game and not being hampered by made up rules you place on yourself, and going through different ways of thinking and relating players in video games to Chess players. That is a very broad overview, but Sirlin does a good job of going into each point and fleshing it out, so there is no question as to what he meant by what he is writing. He also makes reference to Sun Tsu's Art of War in the book, which is kinda hit and miss for me after reading. I understand the comparison Sirlin is going for, but Art of War is a book that needs a lot of discussion or interpretation to be meaningful and having such a loaded book included is a little much to understand points completely.
To summarize (hopefully adequately) the points of playing to win, practice, practice, practice, find others to practice and talk strategy with, don't be intimidated by 'cheap' moves or call others cheap when they are playing by the rules of the game, and find a play style that works for you like turtling, being aggressive, etc. Again, very broad, but hopefully that gives you an idea of what to look for. There is no magic sentence or word of thinking you'll find in the book that will instantly make you champion in a game. It does bring to light the need to find others like you and to work with them, not to be a lone wolf, and it is a fun, short book to read, so you can pick it up after you have read it and go back to it.
Be careful of the kind of language Sirlin is using in his writing, but if you're fine with that and want some interesting points to think about in your own game/skill, then check it out. I believe you can even find it for free (online version) if you search for it.