A comment on my blog here got me thinking back to my Counter Strike days. For those unfamiliar, Counter Strike is/was a free multiplayer mod to the video game Half Life released in late 1999. Since then Counter Strike has undergone several evolutions; most of which I’ve ignored out of disinterest. The core of the game is that there are two competing groups, Terrorists and Counter Terrorists. Each round you can buy weapons (anything from pistols up to sniper rifles and machine guns) in order to better defend yourself against the other team and complete the objectives. Generally for any given map there were two objectives. 1) Kill everyone on the other team. 2) Complete a secondary objective (such as rescuing hostages, planting a bomb, etc). Most of the time the secondary objective was ignored unless the round was drawing out.

Back in my early College days, when classes were largely core requirements taught by Masters students who graded on a curve, I had a fair amount of free time; at least far more than I do now that I’ve got a toddler, a house, and a 9-5 job. Anyway, the game du jour for all college students at that time was Counter Strike. It was fairly new, modestly violent, and could be picked up and played quickly since one round of play lasted only a few minutes. You could play anywhere from 1v1 to 16v16; so it as a great way to play with friends. On the floor of my dormitory (full of geeky engineers) we played it constantly. To the point where many of us knew each other only by our game handles (I was TacoMagic… go figure). Playing it as much as we did, we got good at the game… very good in fact.

One of the reasons we got so good was because one of the guys on the floor was nationally ranked as the number 2 player (via the tournaments he participated in). He routinely destroyed us. He could square off against the entire floor and win easily… at first. But, playing with him raised the bar for all of us. By going in against somebody so out of our league, we had to evolve quickly in order to stay in the game. Eventually a small group of us started doing something even more difficult: what is called “going pistols”. “Going Pistols” is deciding to play the game using only pistols; which is difficult because they tend to be less powerful than rifles and are less accurate at longer distance. The upside is that a character using a pistol is more maneuverable, faster, and deadly up close. It’s a trade off that takes some time getting used to, but makes the game way more fun (for us at least). After a while the small group of us became pistol specialists and were a terror on the battlefield. To a point where some of the guys on the floor requested that we stop “going pistol” on certain maps.

But the point is: we got very good by practicing with somebody who was very good. Eventually we formed a “Guild Breaker” guild that was dedicated to beating down uppity guilds who were getting a little too snooty. We did pretty well at that. One of us set up a stat tracker for all our team members, and we all sported a kill:death ratio of about 2 or 3 : 1. In the counter strike world that was pretty low, but remember we were regularly practicing with a guy who destroyed us all and we were pretty equal when playing against each other. The only thing that kept us from going below 1:1 ratios was probably playing online against the guilds.

I told you all that to tell you the following:

One day I was playing casually online by myself. I think it was a holiday weekend or something and I was pretty well alone in the dorm. I figured I’d get a little fun in by dinking around in random games. Anyway, in my online wanderings I happened upon a small guild-hosted game, a 3 vs. 3 affair on a small map. I joined and went pistols.

The first thing the guildies (there were 2 of them) asked me was, “What’s your kill ratio, Taco?” I happily informed them it was about 2.4:1. Their response was something to the effect of, “Bleh! You SUCK! You can be on the counter terrorist team and be with our training meat.” That was fine by me, the counter terrorists have better pistols and I just wanted to have some pistol fun. I was teamed up with 2 other fairly new players who’d stumbled in looking to make a name for themselves and join the guild. The next 10 rounds consisted of my team (mostly me and one of the “newbies” who I think might have been a fellow guild buster) destroying the guilded players; and the ten rounds after that were spent listening to them whining that I lied about my kill ratio and that I should switch over to the terrorist team so their kill ratios weren’t harmed by my performance. Frankly, they weren’t very good; certainly not good enough to merit their attitude toward the game. Having played many times against numerous guilds full of skilled players, I knew these guys weren’t anything to write home about.

My response to their whining was along this line: “Boys, the reason why you’re loosing so badly has nothing to do with our arbitrary kill ratios and everything to do with how you’re practicing. I play against my equals and betters while you’re playing against newbies who you refer to as “meat.” Padding your kill ratio makes you look great on paper, but when it actually comes down to performance, it means nothing. If you boys want to be good at this game, practice against people who are better than you at it. Like me.” Pretty snide, but I was tired of the whining.

The game continued to about round 25 before they kicked me out and banned me from their host. I’ve always wondered how long it took them to repair the damage I did to their precious kill ratios that day. Most likely they just reset their stats to a daily backup or something to preserve their image.

The take home message of all this is: If you want to be good at something competitive, you have to practice with people who are at least as good as, if not better than, you. Otherwise you’ll get little to no improvement in whatever it is you’re doing. When you finally get to a situation where your performance does matter, you’ll find a rude awakening waiting for you if you’ve always been more concerned about how often you win the game than with who you’ve been playing against. A Major League Baseball team can strut about all they want when preaching their 10 year perfect record against little league teams, but it’s a fairly meaningless metric when they find themselves playing against other MLB teams.

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?