Up until recently, the most competitive I’ve been whilst playing Team Fortress 2 was crushing my mouse in a furious vice-grip, growling “Motherfucker!” at my new nemesis as he or she painted the walls with what used to be my organs for the third time with a carpet of glowing sticky bombs.
Now, I’ve played it competitively. A certain well-known TF2 league is hosting a massive Highlander (nine players per team, one player per class) tournament, and I’m one-ninth of an entered team. The focus is on community teams – players without any ‘proper’ league experience, meaning even skill-deprived simpletons such as myself can sample the highs and lows of organised tournament shenanigans. Hurrah!
It turns out, however, that competitive Team Fortressing is anything but shenanigans. In an arena where there’s more at stake than whether the Announcer plays a “Success!” or “You failed!” sound clip, everything about the game that’s tense, stressful, breathtaking or rage-inducing is amplified tenfold. This wasn’t helped by my assigned class, which was decided after vague and numerous back-and-forths with the guys in charge.
“What class is everyone best at?”
“I’m a pretty good Pyro.”
“Can you be Spy?”
He’s my second most-played, but jeez – between sapping sentries, backstabbing Medics and calling out information while cloaked behind enemy lines, the Spy is complicated enough without the pressure of every round being a must-win against what is probably a communicative and calculating enemy team. For added fun, before my first game (I sat out the one before due to technical difficulties) I was offered a pep talk: “You’ll die, and you’ll die a lot”. Ace.
Sure enough, I died, and I died a lot. Nowhere else in gaming does Murphy’s Law ring more true than Spying in TF2: Pyros constantly appearing round corners as you decloak, Heavies abruptly spinning around as you raise your knife to gank him in the spine, obscenely lucky blindfired pipe bombs exploding close enough to blow your cover (in addition to your legs off)…it was terrifying, and I was often too busy mingling with the enemy to get backup. When time not spent respawning is as precious as it is in competitive play, wandering from the rest of the group will usually net you as much dismal failure and voice-chat scorn as a game of Left 4 Dead. And yet, when you’re in the Spy’s black gloves, trying to put in a convincing performance as someone on the other team, hiding behind your own isn’t an option.
Despite my embarrassing number of deaths, my team were winning, and by the third round things started to pick up. Fatigue began to set in. Backs were watched less. Sentry guns were left alone. As my team (who were either nice enough to not mind me languishing at the bottom of the scoreboard or pretended not to notice) ploughed through the bulk of resistance, I finally began picking off stragglers. After that came the Sentry nests. After that came the groups of foes too preoccupied to see their friends get skewered right next to them. If failing as the lip-curling spook is the low point of TF2, landing a successful chain of unnoticed murders is the euphoric high. Deserving of a special mention is the backstab itself – it’s magnificent, a fast, brutal and satisfying way to end a fight before it even begins.
After a combination of panicked shouting over Mumble and my suicide charge to electro-sap a Sentry (getting perforated from multiple angles in the process), we’d captured the final control point and the game was over. Of the hundreds of wins and losses I’d experienced in this game, there are only a handful I remember with any clarity; this was now sitting proudly atop that list. Maybe because it felt like I’d just survived a mild heart attack. Fun as casual vanilla mode is, there’s no way of emulating the same degree of frustration and jubilance, the camaraderie, the triumphant cheers and Darth Vader-influenced cries of “NOOOOO!” without upping the ante and putting in the effort to set up a truly competitive game. It’s almost saddening that the likelihood of reliving that kind of gut-wrenching, brain-frying emotional investment in a single match on a random public server is so slim, and strangers are more likely to point out my dismal performances to boot.
The many, many free updates that have expanded TF2’s content to several times what it was at launch have been great – yet few of them have made playing this nearly three-year-old game feel as dramatic, hilarious and downright exciting as a few rounds in a competitive setting. Partaking in nothing but would be maddening, of course, but as a refresher course in what makes TF2 great it’s damned hard to beat.