It’s a cold night in the frozen hell of Icecrown, but high atop the Citadel, the players are ready. They stand shoulder to shoulder on the large circular platform, away from the edge. There’s no returning from out of bounds in this arena, if a player steps out, they fall to their demise from the high tower. Dressed in protective gear, the players wait for their opponent, the Lich King, to finish his opening speech. Standing over eight feet tall, the Lich King is a well-armored knight who commands armies of the undead. Defeating him will take some serious zombie-handling, plague pool avoidance and Valkyrie denial. Whether or not the young Shock team, my team, is up to it remains to be seen.
Yes, it’s the World of Warcraft, a computer game set in a fantasy world where players battle the forces of evil, but if the fantasy part bothers you consider the hype surrounding the upcoming football season and the inherent fantasies involved. Sports are symbolic conflicts. Even though you may not be familiar with the symbols used in a fantasy game, like a spell-casting wizard or a soul-capturing rune blade, doesn’t mean they’re not viable subjects for regulated, strategic play. They’re just not possible in analog sports, yet.
Despite the unreal nature of digital gaming, the camaraderie of my teammates is a palpable, driving force. Playing together for over a year, which is a long time in Internet years, team Shock has cohered itself into a band of brothers, and sisters. Of course the fact that most of us grew up within a few blocks or a few minutes drive from one another helps too. We’ve used online voice communication to talk nearly every day making it seem like we’re all in the same locker room, minus the smell. We’ve already defeated many challenges leading up to tonight’s match with the Lich King, but this will prove our ultimate test. Our championship.
The fight of our virtual lives.
The game is played a bit like a boxing match. In one corner stands the Boss, our opponent, an artificial intelligence programmed to win. In the other corner, the Players, who are not exactly boxers themselves as much as they are parts of a single boxer, metaphorically speaking. Each player fulfills one of three roles, and a team must have some combination of all three to succeed.
The first position is the Tank. The Tank is the boxer’s body, designed to withstand great punishment, and it is their job to keep the Boss from striking down the other players. The second position is the Healer. Healers are the trainers in the corner, patching up the boxer to keep them on their feet. The last position is Damage. Damage players are the boxer’s fists, delivering the brutal beat-down to the opponent. Alone, the Boss could crush any one of us, we’re fighting far above our weight class. But by working together, the tanking, damaging and healing players can deliver a knockout performance, winning the match (also called an encounter).
Of course, it’s not that simple. Since we’re dealing with a digital game, the element of physical danger is removed which allows things to get a little more interesting. Not only do the players face an unfair monster of an opponent, they must also contend with hazards on the field and other minions of the enemy. Where you stand, where your team stands, and how you react to the ever-changing field are essential decisions. Returning to the boxing analogy, it would be as if parts of the ring could catch on fire and supporters of the opposing fighter could join in too.
There. That’s the best I can do right now to explain how this sport works. Like any fan, I could elaborate further, but the Lich King (the Boss) has finished his opening words. The referee, who is another AI controlled character, blows the figurative whistle and the match begins!
On the opening play, The Lich King does what all sports fans have wanted to do at one point or another. He freezes the referee in a block of ice. If you thought this was going to be a fair fight, think again.
Full of fury, Bear, our team’s tank who in-game looks like an actual bear, grabs the Lich King’s attention with a roar, keeping him from striking down the rest of the team. Our team’s healers, including me, immediately begin triage to repair the damage the Lich King is dishing out. Deciding who to save, thus keep in the game, and who to let fend for themselves relies on wisdom and a little luck. The rest of our team runs to the edge of the platform where the undead minions (AI controlled zombies) of the Lich King spawn. These gnawing monsters must be stopped swiftly or they will overrun us. Just as we settle in to the expected patterns of the fight, the field of battle changes.
There’s a cry from the edge, the outer ring of the platform is crumbling!
Chunks of what was solid, reliable playing surface fall away. We rush from the tumbling edge to the relative safety of the center, but one of us doesn’t make it. His colorful words lament his wretched fate as he falls. He’s out of the game.
Dance partners study every step. Bobsled teams memorize every curve. The Lich King is one hell of a twisty track to tango down.
The next phase of the encounter begins. Now, besides throwing everything we have at the Lich King, we face threats from above too. Master of the undead, the Lich King calls upon his winged Valkyries to aid him in battle. Swiftly, one of those beautiful, deadly angels snatches up another of our number. She carries him towards the edge intent on dropping him over. It’s a long drop to the bottom. We struggle to free him from her grasp, barely managing it this time. Meanwhile, on the ground, large pools of poisonous oil spread beneath our feet. The longer we stand in the vile murk, the larger it spreads. The remaining safe places to stand are disappearing by the second. Another player goes down, then another, and another.
We’re losing and we know it.
Five of us are left as we enter the penultimate phase of the encounter. If you’re taking bets, the odds are very much against us.
In the center, Bear stands firm, somehow doing the job of two tanks. Our other tank is one of the fallen. The Lich King wails on Bear, each strike another close call. If Bear falls, it’s over. Watching the pair duke it out is like watching the last round of a close boxing match. As a healer, I can only do so much to keep Bear in the game. Even though this digital world is based on cold calculating numbers, I swear there’s a spirit involved, a rise to the occasion and when one is witnessing such an event, reality no longer applies.
Another Valkyrie appears, she grabs our Wizard, one of the last damage players alive. Without our fists to bash the Lich King, we won’t make it to the end, but we do not have the strength to save our Wizard. The Valkyrie drops him over the edge. He quietly falls to his doom.
The outer edge of the platform crumbles away for the final time. With only four players left alive, we enter the homestretch. The Lich King is nearing his end but our progress is slowing to a fatal halt. For us, the writing is on the wall. We have no time to read it.
WHAM! Bear takes a near fatal hit. He teeters between life and lights out, but somehow stays up on his paws, his claws lashing at the Lich King’s face. WHAM! Another blow. We’re so close. WHAM! Almost there. WHAM! What?! No!!!
Eventually reality catches up. In one colossal strike, the Lich King kills us all.
The dream is dead. Undead, to be exact.
For a moment there’s silence. No one wants to say it, but we’re all feeling it. To have come this close and lost- there may be no words to describe it. Because this is a game with a virtual opponent, there’s always the option of trying again, but for our team, due to real life obligations, the chance of that happening is slim. This was our last attempt of the night, and our season. All I can think is yet again, we simply fell short. I believe I was born to do great things, but these moments, no matter how silly, remind me that everyone feels this way about themselves.
We can’t all be champions.
I think about how the Soviets must have felt after losing the Olympic hockey game to the Americans. The opposite of a miracle for them. One must remember sports are only symbolic conflicts. It’s just a game, right? Although the Soviets no longer exist, so maybe there’s more to it. Like the earlier explanation of the rules, my elaborations on this point will have to be cut short because, strangely enough, my team has begun to cheer.
In the parlance of every die-hard fan everywhere, the game’s not over yet!
When the Lich King is about to taste defeat, he breaks the rules for a second time. Our team has never made it this far in the encounter and even though I knew what was coming, I had forgotten all about it. As per the mechanics of this particular match, when the Lich King nears death, he commits the most personal of fouls and wipes the entire team. You’re supposed to get killed at end. We didn’t fail. In fact, we just scored the game winning goal.
Remember the referee frozen in a block of ice? He thaws out, and with a lifting of his hands, he brings our entire team back to life.
Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme! Get ready, get set, it’s King-slaying time!
The Lich King cannot stop us now. The thumping of our hearts drowns out the roars of the imaginary crowd as we land the final blows. Waves of euphoria cascade over us, our words unintelligible, our yells filling the air. We snatch victory from the undead jaws of defeat and nothing else in this world can quite compare. For a boy who never won a baseball game, for a man who never cared about a Superbowl, this triumph is everything I imagine those experiences feel like. Call it a sport, call it a game, call it whatever you want. I’ve found my acceptance. I’ve won my fight.
Later that year, many of us got together in the backroom of a bar in our hometown over the holidays. We raised our glasses, toasting to the games we played and the ones to come. Walking back to the car in the cold air, I see the empty stadium across the street. I can almost hear the crowd.