The burden of creativity has been an intimate part of our existence since we first developed thought. We as a species created art in order to express more than we could ever hope to say. With the creative process being as mysterious and illogical as it sometimes is, the notion of creativity was once widely accepted as being divine instead of human. It was not until recently that there was a shift in thought about where the creative genius came from and the divine was erased from the equation, leaving the responsibility sitting heavy on the shoulders of artists, and, perhaps, brilliant e-sports players like Mango and Westballz.
This concept is explored in the TED talk “Your Elusive Creative Genius” by Elizabeth Gilbert. Back in ancient Greek and Roman times, the muse was external, a being guiding the artist to success. During Medieval times, this tradition continued, though instead of a muse there was God, silently working in the background. Success was shared and failure was not personal. Divinity could be blamed just as easily as it could be thanked.
Then the Renaissance happened and Humanism (which ironically looked towards Greek and Roman societies for inspiration) caused man to be put at the center of everything and given primacy over the divine. Gilbert claims that was the point when everything changed. From then on, the Artists became utterly alone. The muse disappeared and this, Gilbert suggests, was a “huge error.” No longer could the weight of creativity, success or failure, be shared between the artist and muse. The result? The too-common image of the depressed “tortured artist” - which Gilbert asserts has contributed in large part to “the tragic deaths of artists for the last 500 years.”
It seems that, despite all we can accomplish, the fragile human psyche is often ill-equipped to deal with the incredible psychological burden that comes with bearing the weight of the creative genius all by itself.
The Player as Artist
So how does this abstract concept apply to Smash? Old-school player and legendary commentator Wynton “Prog” Smith once famously said that Smash is “like jazz.” That unlike traditional fighting games, which are more rigid in structure not unlike a classical piece, Smash as a game is all improv. "Sometimes it’s not about the notes that you play, it’s the notes that you miss, and that’s really important in smash.” Sometimes true creativity shines out, a particularly flashy combo or creative setup that has never before been seen in the history of the game transpires, something that would only ever work in that brief moment and never again.
This feeling of perfect control, of having all of your technical skill be perfect time after time again, shares a lot of similarities to the “moment of divine inspiration” that artists experience. It is in those moments that timeless works of art are created. It is in those moments that some of the most impressive smash is played. Even Mango, when talking about his own playstyle, has compared it to art, humbly stating: “when I’m on…it’s like poetry.” Watching his games, or those of any other Gods, makes it a hard claim to dismiss. The sheer skill, fluidity and creativity involved in their mix-ups and punishes makes them able to be appreciated time and time again. Smash players write beautiful eulogies with their controllers, they create artworks housed forever by Youtube and they paint in DI, wavedashes and sick combos.
The Psychological Precipice
Unfortunately, that is not where the comparison ends. Successful creative individuals experience emotional stress every day, like Gilbert, who after the success of her book “Eat,Pray, Love” found herself repeatedly facing the question “Are you scared that you are never going to be able to top that?” The social pressure, the pressure of upholding your reputation, of continuously proving over and over again that you are the best, and you're not washed up, that you've still got plenty of fire in you left, can be incredibly taxing for those at the top.
Likewise, the burden of being the best can put a huge psychological and emotional load on the player. The consequences of placing outside of top 8 at a regional tournament could mean financial troubles for the next few months. Worst still, even after a player wins a huge tournament and proves that he or she is the best of the best (at least in that moment), an existential fear can still set in. Is this it? Is their peak? Will they never again play as well as they just did? Those questions are dangerous. They can break a player not equipped to deal with the pressures of being in the top.
It's not just top players who suffer, too. The climb to the top can be just as devastating as the pressures of maintaining your place there. How do you handle the stress of losing continuously and falling short of your goal? How do you overcome competition anxiety? When self-doubt, self-hatred, and resentment set in, who do you turn to? Playing any game on a competitive level requires the proper mindset and though there are people built to handle more of those pressures, there is always room to improve. But what if all that stress could be shared? What if there was someone to channel all that pent-up potential inside of each of us in?
Enter the Coach
Like the mythological muse of ancient artists, coaches are there as an outside factor, an extra line of defense to help shoulder the equally strenuous burdens of both victory and defeat. In Gilbert’s Ted talk, she refers to this muse, this entity, as “a psychological construct there to protect the artist from their own ego.” So if we consider the Smash player in this paradigm as the artist, then the coach is there to act as both a barrier to the psychological precipice of failure (or defeat), and a buffer to the excessive, and just as damaging, amounts of narcissism from success. The coach is there, above all, to save players from themselves.
Coaches are already starting to become commonplace for some of the bigger league of legends teams, but for non-team based e-sports the coach is arguably even more important. With team based games, even without a coach the players at least have their teammates to help them through the low points. The practice of large e-sports teams picking up fighting game competitors like Mang0 with Cloud9, or Hungrybox with Team Liquid, is great for giving these solo players a sort of safety net, but having someone on the team specifically there to cater to these players would do wonders to these players’ mindset. Hungrybox winning EVO 2016 is the best example to understand the benefits of this safety net. Throughout the tournament, Hungrybox repeatedly got himself out of dangerous situations, pulling out clutch wins in moments when everything seemed lost. Such strong play under duress takes inhuman levels of mental focus and fortitude – to do it multiple times is nothing short of godly. So how did he do it? Hungrybox himself has sung high praises for his coach many times, even attributing his win over top player Shroomed in Evo 2016 top 32 almost entirely to Captain Crunch’s advice, saying “after getting destroyed in the first game (by Shroomed), listening to Crunch’s advice literally won me the match.”
What’s more interesting is the road that led Hbox to where he is now. If there is one player that has had it rough, it’s Hungrybox. Though he is now celebrated and more universally recognized for his skill, it wasn’t always like that. After years and years of always falling short of victory, being humiliated, bearing the cross of potentially ruining the game (666XX, 20ZZ), and receiving more hate in one tournament than one typically receives in a lifetime, it is a miracle that Hbox maintained the composure to persevere beneath that psychological strain. Most would have quit or spiraled off the deep end. Having a coach (and a friend) without a doubt played a key role in Hungrybox’s ability to hang on. Now that he’s on top, it has also helped him remain humble yet determined enough to bring home more victories.
For those who’ve never had to experience anxiety or depression, these concepts could understandably be hard to relate to. In theory, it might seem unfair to attribute any of a player’s (or artist’s) success to anyone or anything other than themselves but the human mind is a very peculiar thing. With the human ego being as fragile as it is, even achieving success can sometimes be too much to handle alone. Everyone loves the tale of the Self Made Man, the hero who saves the day using nothing but his determination and wit. Although such a character no doubt exists in real life, that isolationist line of thinking can often be as dangerous as it idealist, forcing the goal of perfection onto an imperfect soul.