Between the training sequences and, perhaps most importantly, the Mind Games, Ender's Game takes gaming and turns it into training for real-life battle. While professional gamers may not be training to save the human race from destruction, they are certainly playing with high-stakes. But how does the sci-fi depiction of gaming in the film compare to the real life battles of Major League Gaming?
Matt "Mr. X" Morello has been a professional gamer for nearly a decade. After winning eleven events between 2005 and 2008, he decided to use his First Person Shooter expertise to groom young gamers, coaching his Call of Duty team to becoming one of the top teams in the world. Mr. X hadn't seen Ender's Game yet, so I asked him to watch the film and chat with me about how the fantasy gaming in the film measured up to his real-life experience.
Ender Wiggin (played by Asa Butterfield), is taken into an elite fold, and trained to save the world by Colonel Graff (played by Harrison Ford). In the film, we see young Ender train to save his world in a series of FPS-like battles, where sometimes, [*SPOILER ALERT*] the stakes are much higher than even he is aware. How does the relationship between Ender and Graff mirror that of a MLG coach and his team?: Mr. X explains that the two are actually not too far removed from one another. I caught up with him over the phone, the morning after he watched Ender's Game for the first time.
Q: First of all, what was your fantasy of professional gaming before you got into it?
Mr. X: When I first heard of professional gaming I thought I was going to go in and it would be full of nerds who I don't get along with or don't associate with. I actually found it to be the opposite — everyone is extremely nice and extremely cool.
Q: What is the most important thing that you try to instill in your team when you start coaching them?
Mr. X: I really like to stress that we shouldn't waste time. People will say, "Oh I played for six hours today," but how many hours did you actually play, you know? You messed around then maybe got something to eat, but it's better to put in three straight good hours than five or six so-so hours.
Q: Ok onto the movie. Did you relate to the Battle School teachers in Ender's Game?
Mr. X: You know, I related to Harrison Ford's character a little bit. Just because he's under — not really pressure from people above him, but pressure to get all these young kids to succeed — I kind of related there.
Q: Did any of the teaching methods translate to professional gaming?
Mr. X: When they're at the Command School and they're doing a lot of e-strategy work, that's a lot of what we do you know — we look at the maps and the way people move around them. Then you figure out how to maneuver around them and strategize the best advantages for yourself.
Q: Was there anything else that really resonated with you while you watched the film?
Mr. X: A lot of what goes into competitive gaming now is about your mindset. Ender's mindset was such a huge focus — throughout the whole movie they were trying to mold his mind — he needed to be ruthless and a killer but he also needed to have feeling on the other side to keep everything balanced. We do that too because you can't get too hyped up when you're playing because you'll play recklessly but at the same time being hyped up keeps your momentum going so there are a lot of similarities there.
Q: Did you relate to any of the team dynamics in the film?
Mr. X: The strategies used in preparation for the battle reflected a lot of what we do. We'll sit around for hours and watch videos of other teams, of ourselves, and try to figure out what the best strategy is. ANd then we go out there and try and test it — just like they did.
Q: When you're strategizing, is it like creating plays in football where you'll think of scenarios and come up with plays to react to those scenarios?
Mr. X: We'll watch a team and we'll see that they, say, throw grenades more than other teams, so we'll focus on that. Or we'll watch to see where in the game they tend to go. Usually the most important part of the game is in the first 30 seconds — where they like to go on the map — so we'll study that and figure out where to go from there. We'll try to make a special strategy to counter each team. Everybody plays differently, so if we can counter everybody — whether it's that we know you like to go to a certain spot so we'll figure out a way to get you out of that spot — it all comes down to strategy.
Q: It seems that Ender is born with a gift — do you think gaming is a natural ability or can a great gamer be taught?
Mr. X: A lot of it is natural talent. A lot of these players' hand-eye coordination is unreal. For most games, especially when you're shooting, hand-eye coordination is really important. But you're also making a series of decisions at such a rapid pace that a split-second decision to move one way or another can be the difference between a few hundred points. You get a lot of gamers who make extremely quick decisions because they can come up with strategies really fast.
Q:Do you think people aspiring to be professional gamers can cultivate those skills or are they all instinctual?
Mr. X: Yes. A lot of people learn by watching other people play. They watch people get into certain situations, and then get out of those spots, so they learn to react just from watching others.
Q: How would you feel if you found out the game were real and you were actually killing your opponents, the way Ender did?
Mr. X: When I saw that part of the movie I actually thought about that immediately. I think it definitely changes the way I even think about the game. When you play professionally on a team there's a lot of aggression. It's fast-paced, and you're talking trash. But if you put us in the same first person situation we would react completely differently. But that's the reason they did that in the film — they needed him to win the war and they knew that he would feel compassion in any other format besides a game. If you were to put gamers in the same situation. I don't think there would be any of the aggression that you see. They would feel a ton of compassion and wouldn't be able to do the things they do in the game.
It's not just the plot of Ender's Game that relates to pro-gaming. Ender's Game on Blu-ray will be sponsoring the first ever bracket-style Starcraft tournament between MLG and Twitch.tv. The Twitch tournament will run February 5 to February 9, while the MLG Tournament will run from February 11 to February 16. The winner of each bracket will compete in a Grand Tournament on February 22, and the overall winner will receive a $10,000 grand prize.
Maud Deitch is a Senior Content Producer at Studio@Gawker. She has written in SPIN, The FADER, MTV.com and other publications.