There’s a point before every competitive SpyParty match where my brain comes up with reasons not to play.
I don’t ask it to do this, but it does it anyway. Maybe something will come up and I’ll have to reschedule or drop out. Maybe there’ll be some kind of emergency. Maybe I’ll just faint. My brain does this whether I’m an underdog or a favorite, whether I’m confident or pessimistic. My brain does this even though everything is fine and I have no intention of deferring the match. In fact, I’ve never failed to show for a scheduled match, for any reason. But I still involuntarily imagine excuses I can use to avoid it, every time.
When this effort fails my brain recruits my stomach as an accomplice, which tries to convince me I’ve just returned from an all-you-can-eat butterfly buffet. It happens often enough that bismuth subsalicylate has become an unofficial part of my match preparation.
There was a show, years ago, called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It’s about a character who takes over a Saturday Night Live-style comedy show. He has a giant clock on his office wall counting down to the premiere and struggles all week to write enough to fill it. He just makes it, and as his first show wraps up he smiles and relaxes, satisfied and content. Then the clock resets.
The match preparation process is a couple of days long. 48 hours before a match, I try to eliminate distractions, which is easy because it becomes increasingly hard to think about anything else. I make my final decisions about what to pick and ban and how to play, almost always changing one part of the game plan the day before. I don’t make a point to do this, but for whatever reason I almost always notice something new, or change my mind about something, just as I’m finishing up my prep. I stop eating anything resembling junk food. Sometimes I deliberately wake up too early the day before to ensure I’ll fall asleep earlier the following night, because I’ve decided sleep is the single most important factor in my performance.
The day of the match, I don’t play SpyParty, and when possible refrain from anything mentally taxing. They say the brain is a muscle, meaning that you shouldn’t let it atrophy. But few people note the other implication: the brain can tire the way a muscle can, too. It’s stronger when it’s well-rested.
About 45 minutes before the match is set to start, I have coffee. I read somewhere that this is roughly the amount of time it takes for caffeine to be properly dispersed through your bloodstream. That rings true enough and seems to help. Into the routine it goes.
Sometimes I’m nervous days before. Sometimes just the night before. It varies. But the hours leading up to a match are always the worst. The match itself is considerably less upsetting. Frustrating, perhaps, and sometimes taxing, but the fact that it’s finally happening is a relief, and the process of playing at the highest levels requires so much of your attention that you forget to be nervous.
When the match ends, there’s a feeling of elation. If I won, it’s extended. If I lost, it’s brief, but still there. Because at that point I’m as far away from the next match as I can be.
Then the clock resets.
As I game plan in my mind, I find I can’t comprehend the match actually happening. I think about what my opponent might do, and what I might do, and how each might be countered, and yet the prospect of any one possibility taking place seems impossible. There are so many variables and possibilities, and yet when we play the match all those possibilities will collapse into one reality, and that will simply be what happened.
Something about this has always bothered me, first as a sports fan, and now as an esports competitor. When the outcome finally comes out, people will write narratives and draw conclusions about both me and my opponent, and our skill, and our mental fortitude, based on the countless marginal things that the match will turn on. And nearly all of them will be post-hoc rationalizations:
- If you were focused and you win, you were alert.
- If you were focused and you lose, you were nervous.
- If you were relaxed and you win, you were loose.
- If you were relaxed and you lose, you were unprepared.
SpyParty is all about process, and yet, like any public competition, judgments center around results. Results are transcribed into narratives, and narratives are transferred onto personalities. Entire reputations turning on a pixel.
As a quote is passed around, the probability that it will be erroneously attributed to Mark Twain approaches 1; he’s a catch-all attribution for anything clever and old, since he’s both. Here’s something he may not have said:
Playing competitive SpyParty feels like that. It’s a thing I don’t want to do but want to have done. An unpleasant experience that transforms into a satisfying memory. It’s a check my ego writes that my stomach has to cash.
As each match approaches, part of me thinks “how did you get yourself into this?” The me who committed to doing it seems like a different person entirely. He was the drinker, and I’m the one stuck with the hangover. But the high comes after, when all the preparation and palpitation combine to produce a result you didn’t know if you could achieve when you started. Accomplishment means uncertainty, and uncertainty means stress.
So I commit to play, again and again. Knowing each time I’ll wish I hadn’t, and then be glad I did. Better an upset stomach than a timid soul.