RTS101 – Ladder Anxiety

This article has been reposted from RTSGuru.com, which appears to have been recently decommissioned. I’ll be periodically reposting some of my best writing from that site, in the efforts to preserve it. Thanks for your patience if you’ve already read this!

I love real time strategy games. To me, nothing in gaming is quite as fulfilling as going “mano-a –mano” against another human being in a 1v1 match in StarCraft (or plenty of other titles, to be honest). The thrill of executing a strategy and in so doing outsmarting my opponent can be a huge thrill. But, of course, there’s a flip side to this. There’s the fear. Literally, when I queue for a match in a game that I am trying to master, I can end up shivering, keyed up and full of adrenaline as the matchmaker searches or the match itself loads. It can crush my will to queue up and obliterate my confidence going into a match. I’ve told myself before that it’s excitement, but really, it’s fear.

Ladder anxiety is an affliction of many gamers, but there are methods for combatting it. This is the story of how I developed mine. Read on to see how it has affected me and how I’ve attempted to gain control of myself when playing competitive games.

Silencing the Critic


In college, I took a course in creative writing. I’m not sure how well it’s served me since, but that’s not really the point. During the class, I was introduced to the concept of the “inner critic” – that part of you that’s never really content with the story you’re writing. If you’ve ever written a story, perhaps you’ll be familiar with this: you have a great idea in your head, and at first you can’t wait to write it down. But then, maybe as little as a paragraph in, you stop to re-read your work. Maybe you think it’s terrible, or maybe you just notice one or two little things that need fixing… that’s the start of a slippery slope. Before you know it, you might end up deleting everything in disgust and browsing Reddit for the rest of the night. And, then you never do end up making progress on that story.

In that writing class, we were taught to not heed that internal critic. Our advice was just to write. To get everything out of our heads and onto the page, in its entirety, before anything else. Getting a terrible story on paper, we were told, was better than writing nothing at all. Terrible stories, after all, can be fixed. But you can’t do anything with an unwritten story. Get it over with, and then let the critic do their work. Once they have something to edit, they can be made productive.

Learning that was kind of a revolution for me. I mean, it sounds so simple and straightforward, but it really was an eye-opener at the time. At the time, my philosophy for most things was “if I can’t be perfect at this, I won’t do it.” As can be imagined, I missed out on a lot of good things that way, including much of the wonderful world of competitive gaming. For some reason, it completely passed me by that to get good, I’d have to write some bad stories, to use the parlance I’ve outlined above. That is, not only would I need to research and watch gameplay to understand the game, but I’d need to actually play it, to get my hands dirty, to actually feel the pacing and the mechanics, and to see how other people did the same.

You see, in so many parts of my life, I was so afraid of failing that I was actually robbing myself of the opportunity to succeed.

StarCraft 2

Once I picked up StarCraft 2, I knew it was time to try and break the cycle of fear that kept me from playing RTS games as they were meant to be played. Oh, I’d played WarCraft 3, Universe at War, Supreme Commander, Command and Conquer 3, and Dawn of War 2 a little, but always to the same end. I’d win a couple games, then go on a massive losing streak which would crush my confidence and would have me heading for the hills. I’d always end up playing a couple of hours, and then letting fear keep me from actually doing the right thing, and learning how to play.

So, when StarCraft 2 launched in 2010, I made the commitment to overcome this fear. But it was bad. It was so hard in SC2. Blizzard gave you so many things to care about: your league, your win to loss ratio, even your APM were all sitting there in the open for me to be concerned about. Perhaps I was lucky – I originally placed into the Bronze league, so there was nowhere to go but up in the ranks.

I don’t know if you watched the clip there, but in it, Husky says something that I tend to agree with: StarCraft 2 is one of the most (if not actually the most) mechanically exacting games out there. It’s one of the only games I’ve ever found that I actually have to practice to remain good at, to say nothing about improving upon. This can be incredibly stressful, even for someone who’s only in the Silver or Gold league.

Losing in StarCraft 2, or any RTS is bad enough, but those who suffer from ladder anxiety might agree with me when I say that it can often feel like being ranked by any game’s Elo can feel like an objective measure of their overall competence or intelligence. It is skill, knowledge, execution, and ability to capitalize on the mistakes or weaknesses of one’s opponent that often is the determining factor of a StarCraft 2 match, after all. Losing in StarCraft, and seeing a permanent record of your skill as compared to the skill of everyone else in the community can be maddening or even depressing.

The Journey


There are many resources for learning to play StarCraft 2. In fact, you probably know more of them than I do. I’ve always stuck with a couple of the more popular streamers and commentators, and have only dipped my toe into the tournaments scene.

But as for understanding and overcoming ladder anxiety, that’s a personal journey. Day[9] and TeamLiquid have some great mechanical resources for understanding the psychology and working with the symptoms. But ultimately, it’s a personal journey you have to make. Like I said, it’s not just about knowing what to do: for me, it was about actually screwing up the courage to step up and actually play the game, come what may. And for me, that was not easy.

There are many suggestions that people will give you to fight ladder anxiety: one of the main one’s I’ve heard is (if you’re not willing to purchase another copy of the game) to throw a long series of matches and get yourself placed a league back. This way, your WLR will already be ruined, and your precious league standing won’t be an issue any more. This, in turn, is supposed to put you up against a series of easier opponents, helping build your confidence and have some less stressful games to boot.

I was never able to do this, as sensible as it might sound. Even at my best, I was still pretty firmly tied to my win ratio, and the idea of falling back into the Silver League was uncomfortable, to say the least.

But, here’s what I did: essentially, I put myself on a training regimen, like I would at a gym. First, I committed to playing 3-5 games at a time. At my worst, I’d sometimes jump on and play a single game. If I lost, I would move on to something that would improve my mood. If I won, I’d take it as a mood booster and get out, again in favor of another title. But, this wasn’t helping me learn the game. It wasn’t really a productive or even terribly enjoyable use of my gaming time. So, every time I sat down, win or loss, I’d take the lumps and just play it out. This was my version of thwarting the inner critic, from my writing class.

Also, despite my shame from some of my more embarrassing losses, I watched the replays of every loss I had. In fact, often I made it a habit to watch 3 times: first, from my opponent’s perspective, to see what they did right, then, from my perspective, to see what I could have done differently (lack of upgrades, poor timing, poor scouting, et cetera). Finally, I would watch it all together, for the gestalt picture. This served the dual purpose of forcing myself to confront my mistakes and my unwillingness to face them, and to actually review how my opponent could have been bested; it was good from a psychological and a mechanical standpoint.

It took a long while, but I finally got to a place where learning was the most important thing. But, just like with writing a short story or novel, losing weight (something I still struggle with) or sleep training a baby, I found that controlling your ladder anxiety was a matter of discipline and time. Just like with learning to play the game, I had to practice playing it for the right reasons. And just like with sleep training my son or dieting, I had to realize that a loss isn’t an excuse to give up. It’s something that has to be taken as a bump on the road to a better state.

Relearning…

I spent much of 2012 playing games other than StarCraft. From learning the very basics of the MOBA/ARTS genre to participating in End of Nations Beta weekends, to a brief foray into Guild Wars 2, to an intense nostalgia dive that saw me reinstalling Red Alert 2 and Dawn of War: Soulstorm, I had a busy year as a gamer from the perspective of a married father of a young child.

But, as intimidating as StarCraft 2 is, it can be rewarding to the same degree. More rewarding, certainly, than single player RTS gaming, and more rewarding in some ways than victory in MOBAs (this is personal, your mileage is sure to vary on this one). So, I came back, and quickly realized that control over anxiety could slip from me just as easily as timing my expansions or executing decent Warp Prism harass. Now, I’m more or less back where I started from that respect. It’s been frustrating, feeling like I should be more collected and more in control of myself (as well as my units).

I’m once again on the journey to conquering my inner critic as a StarCraft 2 gamer. I’ve fallen from Gold to Silver again, which is frustrating, and mechanically I’m far behind where I was. I once again get jittery before pressing that Find Match button, and make excuses to play other games. But I’m on the road again. Join me won’t you? You can’t rid yourself of ladder anxiety, but with discipline and dedication, you’ll be able to better enjoy StarCraft 2 and any other competitive game you might play.

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10 thoughts on “RTS101 – Ladder Anxiety

  1. I used to struggle with the speed in some of the MP RTS games. I’d find myself interested in building the best base and loved setting up defences when obviously other were just interested in going for the throat and a quick win. Give me a large map and an opponent that wants to wait before rushing in and I’m a happy bunny. Base building, scouting and keeping an eye on the enamy and even toying with each other without dealing a killer blow perfect! Getting a new rig later from my 2004 build PC so will try and get back into RTS games but they have to offer more than the few recently released that have been a disappoint from following them to understanding they are mere reflections of the greats I used to play.

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  2. Ladder anxiety is an odd beast. As a kid I played Starcraft, Red Alert 2 and Warcraft 2 online and had no anxiety at all. Maybe it was because I was too young to know that I SHOULD be nervous but I had no real issues playing games as a young man. I stopped playing RTS games online for about a decade or so as I got into high school, university and then marriage. I just didn’t have time, in my mind, to practice and if I didn’t practice it wasn’t worth playing.

    This didn’t stop me from still playing RTS games, just didn’t venture online much. The period between 2006 and 2010 saw three of my favorite RTS releases in Company of Heroes, World in Conflict and the first part of the Starcraft 2 trilogy. I also started watching Day9 a lot trying to better understand the theory of the game as I was lacking in the time to improve my mechanics. during this time I really felt the stress of playing online when I’d try. Your description, from Husky, is very accurate when describing Starcraft 2. The mental tax you put on yourself when trying to ladder and improve creates the greatest highs I’ve ever experienced in a game but also soul crushing lows. With so much on my plate at the time I felt I didn’t have time or energy to expend in these peaks and valleys so I just avoided the ladder in general.

    Last year I started having a bit more time. While I have two children I was finished with school, working from home and my kids were at the age where they would take long naps and sleep through the night so I had spots during the day and night where I could really start practicing Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. During 2014 I went from Bronze to Gold fairly quickly but my inconsistent play schedule led me to fluctuate between Silver and Gold.

    During this time though I started introducing others to the game with the preparation for the release of the final game in the series, Legacy of the Void. As I watched my friends play online I noticed they didn’t really have any anxiety or frustration despite being in Bronze league and losing a lot. I didn’t understand why and their explanations didn’t make sense to me. That was until I got into the Legacy of the Void (LotV) beta. Now in LotV the game’s developers are working to change a number of things, adding 6 new units, altering the economy and testing other changes. When I first got into the beta I went into the ladder and in my first game and just casually typed the regular “gl hf” and then I typed a sentence that changed my paradigm on ladder “Just got in, don’t expect any sweet builds, just fiddling with new units and having fun.” I lost that first game but it went by fast and I was smiling the whole time. I didn’t think anything of it till I kept typing that sentence for the next 3-5 games. I was still stressed as my APM was flying (at a Gold level of 105 haha) but I was having fun, my goal wasn’t to perfectly execute my two base Immortal +1 while taking an expansion behind as I transition into the late game. Instead my goal was to have fun and learn, and I was actually playing better. While I stopped typing my “just got in…” comment at the start of each game I’ve now put myself in that mindset every game.

    What I’m finding out through relearning a game is what my friends were experience and likely what my childhood self already knew, I’ll never be Grand Master in Starcraft 2 so why treat myself to that stress, just have fun. As a kid I just wanted to play, same with my friends, they were learning a new game and were losing but it was fun to learn and grow. I forgot about that until I had gotten into Legacy of the Void. This new take on a game I loved and knew very well helped me learn the real goal of playing online (at least at my skill level) is to have fun. Had I read this article when it was originally published my response would have been totally different than it is due to my views changing so much over the past two months.

    I still get stressed, I still get nervous when I click that ladder button and I am still addicted to the highs and lows only an RTS can bring, but they are a little less extreme, I may be experiencing that same flurry of micro and macro but because I now have a different goal while playing online, my anxiety is largely gone. Not everyone will have the same solution and I would love to see a psychological study on the topic, it’s a very interesting topic.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

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  3. In my experience as an SC2 player, one of the best ways to deal with ladder is simply to focus on improvement, rather than winning. How much pride you should take in a win is a very nebulous thing. What if you played badly, but your opponent failed to exploit your mistakes and lost anyways? Or what if your opponent in general is better than you, but you happened to go for the one strategy they really struggle against? It’s hard to gauge your success purely on the basis of winrate. If you go into laddering with the mind to improve, even at the cost of defeat, you’ll end up being less nervous, and winning more in the long run.

    For example, back when I was in gold league I did a training regimen called The Staircase. Basically, you start off cutting out everything but worker production and spending money, and then add more and more gameplay elements as you progress. So, for a bunch of games all I could build was zealots. Obviously, it’s hard to win on zealots alone. But, I put winning and losing out of my mind, and just focused on spending money well and constantly making probes. Sure, I lost a lot of games, but the figt was against my poor macro, not my opponents. Once I plugged my replays into ggtracker and saw me meeting my benchmarks, I didn’t care about losing rank. The improvement gained by this exercisehas carried me all the way to diamond league.

    So in general, it’s best to play with the mindset that certain flaws in your play are your real enemy. Better that you lose a game because you focused too much on your macro, than win one by focusing too much on the fights, and letting your mechanics stagnate.

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  4. I think ladder anxiety existed in one way or another before SC2 but I do believe that SC2 confounded the issue by focusing the multiplayer on absolutely nothing but Ranked Mode. By doing that, Blizzard forces everyone to improve, even those players who only wants to play for fun. No one wants to suck, and having a constant reminder that they do affects mentality, hence: ladder anxiety. Blizzard should really revamp the system for LotV to have alternatives rewards for players who do not want to improve and wants to just play.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 1. I never claimed that ladder anxiety began with StarCraft 2, just that I personally decided to try to combat my own ladder anxiety once I got into SC2 and wanted to try to improve at the game.

      2. I do not personally understand the desire to perform any action and not improve at it. Real time strategy games are competitive. Players need to get this into their heads and be OK with competing in online spaces. Learning (improving) should always be a part of competitive play, as it should be a part of one’s career and in all aspects of life.

      But, that’s just me, I guess.

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  5. Hm, I’m confused as to why you’ve responded like that seeing as I’m just adding to the discussion. I’m just going to assume that you misunderstood my post because I never said anything about you or your gaming habits. Although I’m going to respond to your point #2.

    Personally, I feel like SC2 forced you to improve by constantly showing you how bad you are. This creates a very harsh environment for the player and place unneeded stress to perform well. Yes improving is fun, and in most RTS games, is the central core of gameplay and should therefore be encouraged, but the way SC2 handled it is too alienating imo, which is what my point is all about.

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