I’m 90th on the Virtua Tennis 4 rankings, and while that might not hold the same cachet of gamer cool as being 90th at Twitch Shooter 3 or having 400 actions per second in Micromanagement Sim 2, I’m still ahead of thousands of other players.
I consider even being in the top 100 an achievement. The last time I paid attention to online rankings was when I was 15 and deeply immersed in the manifold charms of Soldier of Fortune II. Competing on a popular server called Altered Realms, I was frequently near the top spots and was, for a brief spell, top of the knife kills chart. This was the only time in my life when my arrival in a deathmatch might cause players to gulp in dread.
In the long years following that zenith of my gaming success, I’ve never played anything online with competitive zeal. In Battlefield, Team Fortress 2, and other shooters, I’ve never achieved much more than mediocrity, and beating the GamingDaily staff at Supreme Commander 2 is hardly noteworthy.
Relaxation and entertainment are my priorities, not white knuckle tension or the lizard-brain satisfaction of dominating my opponent. The time required to become genuinely competent at Starcraft 2, Street Fighter 4, or any other well-balanced, but ultimately soulless e-sports title doesn’t fit well with my idea of effort and reward. From an intellectual perspective, I can understand how people can find it rewarding to learn the intricacies and follow the culture that surrounds the actual play, yet it has never clicked with me on a visceral level.
Virtua Tennis 4 is different. Driven online by the terrible AI, I found myself picking the ranked match option, absolutely certain that I’d get thrashed. The encounter was an easy win, and soon I was on a 10 match spree. These contests are described as matches, but they’re really best-of-3 duels that will only last a maximum of 4 games before going to a tie-breaker. Opponents and courts are randomised and the system only caters for singles. I can understand why Sega might want to keep the rankings simple, but limiting variety so strictly doesn’t do justice to the game engine and the sport.
The randomisation of opponents does have its appeal, however. I never know whether I’m going to get a seasoned pro with a specific style, or a newbie who’ll constantly miss the flight of the ball. Since the servers aren’t always jam-packed, I usually have to wait a while for an opponent, playing the singleplayer arcade mode until NEW CHALLENGER pops up. This never fails to give me a little thrill. Playercards appear before the match begins so I can eyeball my foe’s number of wins, rank, and other data that I’ll hastily try and assimilate into my gameplan before the first serve.
Suddenly I’m not interested in relaxation. I want to win. Jimmy Courier is the battering ram of my will against their defences; Gaël Monfils the rain that erodes the wall. I lose myself in the rhythm of rallies. The objective is simple: hit the ball in such a way that it isn’t returned, but winning isn’t always simple. Every serve and return is a question that needs to be answered. When I started playing, my strategy was just to whack the ball as far away from my opponent as possible. Now I play mind games and change up my strategy, knowing full well how an unexpected drop shot or slice can unsettle a player in the middle of a long baseline rally. Of course, competent players can do the same to me and it leads to an exciting tactical ebb and flow.
If I lose, I can usually see where I went wrong, work to correct my play, and hope that they’ll stick around for a rematch. Acquiring a repertoire of shots and tactics to use is like levelling up in an RPG. The first time I played against a serve and volley specialist, he destroyed me on his service game until I noticed he always went to the same spot in his rush to the net. When I finally won after smashing his desperate, looping return into the crowd behind him I couldn’t help but shout “ye fuckin’ dancer!” and thrust my fist into the air.
Virtua Tennis 4 generally plays things straight, if somewhat fast paced. The exception is the super shot, which can be unleashed once you fill the style bar up by playing specific strokes, such as backhands in the case of Andy Murray, or simply returning the ball if you’re playing as Monfils. The super shot is just that: a hard and flat shot that is practically guaranteed not to go out and can be hit from the most desperate positions. It isn’t infallible and it doesn’t violate the laws of physics: the super shot is frequently returnable, particularly if you’ve been saving your own to defend against one. Knowing when and where to use this weapon can create the sliver of advantage you need to decide a tight contest.
A few days ago, I received a message from a defeated opponent. In broken English, he accused me of cheating. Thrashed fair and square, there had been no foul play involved. I grinned. When was the last time I’d been decent enough at a game to be considered a cheater?
I’m a long way from becoming #1. There are people out there who’d wipe me out like Djokovic eliminated gluten from his diet. I might not have time to play as often as I’d like, and I might lose my passion for climbing up the ranks. For the moment, though, it’s nice to actually care about winning. Bring it on.