The Game Mechanic – Star-cracked

Ladder anxiety is definitely a thing.

This blog is largely inspired by my recent experiences with the laddering system of Starcraft 2, the system that Blizzard uses to decide who faces off against who that dumps players in specific leagues depending on their decided skill-level.  It has spawned a phenomenon known only as “ladder anxiety” among the Starcraft community; something so ridiculous it’s hard to believe it exists.

Ladder anxiety is almost exactly what it sounds like except more extreme.  A state of caring so much about your place on the ladder that you’re afraid to play any more games because if you lose you’ll suffer a hit to your ladder placement and even your ego.  In some cases it makes pressing the ‘find game’ button a daunting idea, in others it sounds eerily close to a panic attack.  Thankfully my only experience is with the former, so far.

It came after such a boost, too.  I’ve been in bronze league for the vast majority of my time with the game and even in this season I got rushed in my placement match (the match that decides your league each season) and there I was dumped back into bronze.  Eventually I clawed my way up, worked a lot on my play-style, watched my replays and took advice on the forums.  It wasn’t long before I got a lovely little notification telling me I’d been bumped up to silver league!  Imagine, Johnny the bronze league Protoss finally gets to swing it with the guys who are only SECOND least terrible on the entire system.

Right, I’m off to MLG!

It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s the other side of a complex and demanding system like this: any progress you make at all feels like you’ve landed yourself with a gold medal or some other prestigious award.  I’d been promoted to silver, the game was saying “you’re not QUITE as terrible as you were a few months ago” but to me, and no doubt to other players, it felt like I could’ve gone pro right there and then.

That’s the beauty of employing something so brutal as Starcraft 2’s ladder system, and, I think, the key to Starcraft 2’s success.  It grips you by the ego and makes you truly care what this automated system thinks of you.  Play enough and your placing on the ladders becomes linked to your worth as a gamer, or even the level of your intelligence.  Suffering a loss after the game has told you you’re the favourite in a match can be crushing to your self-confidence.  Maybe the system is wrong; maybe I’m even worse than I ever was.  Maybe I got ranked up out of sheer, moronic luck.  Starcraft 2 is laughing at me.  I just got beaten by someone called W33dKillz0r?!  Shoot me now.

It’s at this stage I find myself preferring to spend time watching Starcraft 2 rather than playing it, even if it’s just watching my own replays and looking out for little mistakes.  I’m 18th in my Silver league division right now and my win/loss is something along the lines of 1.0, which isn’t terrible, but it’s not good enough.  It will never be good enough; Starcraft has seen to that.  On one hand this ladder system, one of the game’s core mechanics, encourages self-improvement and perseverance but on the other hand it seems to breed strange psychological issues that make clicking on certain buttons literally scary.


Maybe the entire internet should just come with that warning instead.


One response to “The Game Mechanic – Star-cracked”

  1. Branstar avatar

    Ironic isn’t it that when the game devs get the rating system right and make it relevant that that itself can be a problem!

    I doubt you could ever get rid of the anxiety completely, but maybe periodic resets would make people less attached to their ranking. Not sure if that’s a viable strategy with the Starcraft 2 ranking system – I guess it would place massive emphasis instead on the initial 10 matches that choose your initial standing.


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