Richard and I sat on opposite sides of a huge mahogany desk. In his world, he was a success. He had been the vice president of a large international bank, and now he owned his own financial consultancy group, of which I was an employee. His manner suggested he had some serious news.
“We’re going to have to let you go,” he said. “I don’t feel there’s really a place for you here. I’m sorry.”
And that was the end of my unpromising career in finance. In Richard’s world, I was a failure. But I didn’t care. I had been sacked because my attention was focused elsewhere: Quake III Arena.
id Software’s Quake III was honed to a special kind of perfection over years of patching and layer after layer of mod coding. It was transformed from the basic idea of people running around in an arena blasting each other with outlandish weapons into a competitive experience which has yet to be paralleled by gaming science.
I was happy to be fired, because I clearly had better things to do. I might have been an unemployed bum with an ever-decreasing bank balance, but I had a Quake team to run. In that, at least, I was determined to be a success.
Yet, I hadn’t started out all that seriously. At the time Quake III landed, I was playing the deathmatch version of hoodlum-shooter Kingpin and explaining to my Dad that yes, these were real people in the game and no, he couldn’t use the telephone tonight. I joined a team, a “clan,” and was happy to irregularly play in matches on Tuesday nights.
Soon, I was the top scorer in our team, and I was pretty pleased to leave my online gaming at that. As other games came out, though, the Kingpin scene began to disperse. Just to support my weekly habit, I found myself looking beyond Kingpin for the first time. I decided I liked the techno-goth horror look of Quake III. I hadn’t enjoyed Quake II all that much, but hey, maybe this would be different.
It was. While Quake II‘s deathmatch had been oddly ponderous, with rockets that strolled along like pedestrian bricks, Quake III was twitchy, precise, faster. I was suddenly presented with a different order of challenge. I was hugely excited and asked the remaining Kingpin players to try this incredible new game.
They did, but for various reasons, they were uninterested or uninspired. I continued to play organized competitive games of Kingpin, but I soon realized that the older game was small potatoes compared to what was going on in Quake III.
In Quake III, I had been on a server where one player had killed 20 others before my map had even loaded. He was talking about high-end clan play to other gamers on the server. He killed multiple assailants at will. He was showing off. I was in awe.
Soon, I became acquainted with a couple of players who weren’t particularly good but were keen to learn. I had rapidly picked up tricks of the game and spent all day browsing forums and reading advice on gaming websites (instead of doing my work at the financial consultancy). I began to train my friendly newbies in the art in which I myself was only just beginning to excel. They, too, progressed quickly. Each night, we searched for empty game servers on which to practice together.
Then, one night, I dueled a player I had never met before. He was a far better player than I, which was no surprise, but it was the first time I had played a genuinely talented player who wasn’t already in a clan. Did he want to join us? “Sure. … When do we start?” And so the team was born.
Suddenly, we were contenders. From being just a few people messing around in the casual space, we transformed ourselves into a practiced team. We played systematically for four hours, three times a week. We registered with the now-defunct “Barrysworld” (a non-profit player-run gaming organization) and entered into competitive gaming. We were able to book servers on which to play privately, and our time gaming on open servers meant that we were quickly acquainted with other teams – many of these wanted sparring partners with whom to practice. After a few trial runs, we signed up to the leagues, entering at a fairly low rung, as befitted our obvious inexperience.
By this time, I was obsessed. I was a player-coach, unable to focus on anything beyond making my team stronger, faster and more efficient. In those early days, there was almost no broadband internet in the U.K., and most of the team played via dial-up modem. I meticulously researched the ways in which modems could be tuned for better response and greater signal stability. I rebuilt the Quake III configurations of the team, fine-tuning the setups as one might fine-tune a race car. Visual embellishments were stripped away, leaving a flat, polygonal caricature of the original game – all the better to see our enemies.
Dial-up modems also meant that for the first few months of play, voice over IP communications (now standard in online gaming) were impossible to use. The team developed a huge array of “binds” – messages sent to the team at the touch of a key. For instance: “I HAVE THE FLAG, WILL GO LOW.” The team responded with a practiced defense of the low route on a capture the flag map. Our best players dove headlong into enemy blockers, splattering them across the level as the flag carrier sprinted for the enemy base.
It was frenetic. Adrenaline was limitless. I was ecstatic.
Technical issues dogged us constantly, but they were nothing compared to the time I had to put into people. We had to play on public servers constantly to look out for new talent. We were competing against dozens of other clans to recruit decent players, but we were also competing internally. If the best players got too good, they would want to move on to a more proficient team, and many did. It was my task to balance egos in a way that made sure everyone was happy. If I didn’t field less talented players regularly enough, they would not feel valued and end up leaving for other teams that needed them or would quit the game entirely. We had to make sure we had practice partners we could beat at least 50 percent of the time or morale would collapse. I was, in effect, running a sports team.
We lost players, we recruited more, we upgraded to broadband, we mastered new maps and new techniques. We won Razer mice and GeForce graphics cards – we even designed our own tournament-level map.
Eventually, we elected one player to be a full-time in-game coach. Inventive modders had created the possibility for one player to spectate four or five other gamers’ views on his screen at any one time. Immediately, all pro Quake teams adopted it, and we had to have a coach to compete. Adapting to a constant stream of verbal information from a single player who could see it all was bizarre and to this day unparalleled in my gaming experience. It was also the moment when I realized just how far we had come: Nothing else was like this, anywhere in history, and we were at the heart of it.
After many months of gaming, we eventually found our highest achievements in the second division of the European leagues. We were, perhaps, in the top 1,000 players in Western Europe. It was almost too much for us, and each match was a 40-minute ordeal of split-second timing and agonizing combat management. Every victory was a triumph and every loss a disaster. Exhausted, we took a voluntary drop in league placing in the next season and never quite recovered. People slowly dispersed into other games, and, eventually, I closed the books.
And all this lost me my job.
Was it worth it? Giving up gainful employment to not even be a significant success in a gaming scene that would dissolve into nothing with the passing years? Hard to say, but I eventually told this story to stubble-faced men in a room full of gaming paraphernalia in the west of England. A week later, they called to offer me a job as a game journalist. Not everyone would call that a happy ending, but it was good enough for me.
Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.