“Don’t look down.”
That’s the phrase people say when you’re at high altitudes. If you look down, the sense of vertigo can overwhelm you. Once you realize how far up you’ve gone, the sight can freeze a person to a spot and paralyze them with indecision, unable to move forward or back. So, the saying goes: Don’t look down.
The pressure in competition is a bit like that. It is always there in the background. Buzzing at the edge of your sense, ready to consume you when you turn around and take a look. It is why analysts are so adamant about experience in clutch situations. It is because everyone deals with it differently. There is no single answer, and the only thing players and people can do against pressure is to learn to deal with it, again and again, until it is something you get used to.
Except part of it never goes away. Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz is a superstar-level Counter-Strike player for Astralis whose name has been synonymous with choking. He has slowly grown out of it with experience and a psychologist. In fact, throughout his entire tenure during Astralis, I’ve almost never seen him choke. Almost. He did once against SK at the IEM Oakland semifinals and again at ELEAGUE finals against OpTic. In the rematch against OpTic the following week at ECS Season 2 finals, he destroyed OpTic and performed at his full level to help Astralis win its first LAN of the year.
Even for legendary players, the pressure can get to them at unexpected times. Lee Jaedong is likely the second greatest Brood War player of all time after Lee ‘Flash’ Young Ho. He has won four Starleagues, a WCG and 2 GomTV tournaments and lost three Starleagues to Flash. If Flash didn’t exist, there is a high chance he could have gone down as the greatest player to have ever touched Brood War.
When he transitioned over to StarCraft 2, he had one very successful year in the game (2013), in which he made it to six finals, but he only won once. Each final was against a different opponent and each time, Jaedong was favored to win the finals or was at least 50/50. And nearly every time, he fell to pressure. It was strange to watch because he had all of the experience in high-pressure matches but was unable to perform to his best level in nearly all of his finals.
Flash himself had this problem, but in his case, he never even got to finals. Multiple times in the round-of-16 in GSL, he was a favorite to make it out of his group. He failed nearly every time. The most memorable was his loss to Park “DongRaeGu” Soo Ho. In that particular matchup, Flash had just won IEM Toronto. He had gone on a huge winning streak in Proleague and his best matchup was TvZ. He had everything going for him, but in the key elimination game, he simcitied his base wrong. DongRaeGu noticed and used it to steal the game away and eliminate Flash from the GSL. It was a huge blunder and one completely uncharacteristic of Flash’s career in both Brood War and SC2. In Brood War he had proven he could handle high stakes situations with composure. In SC2, it was entirely different. He continued to show great games in the early rounds of GSL and Proleague but was never able to show that level of play in later rounds.
The latest and most recent example of failure under pressure is Ninjas in Pyjamas’ loss to Vega Squadron last week at the ELEAGUE Major Qualifier. NiP was the huge favorite to win against Vega, an unknown CIS squad that fans disparaged as unworthy of even having a qualifier spot. The core of NiP was the only team to have won two major LAN events in the “Parity Era” of the last few months. Among all of the teams at the qualifier, NiP was considered the surefire team to make it out.
Vega did play great CS, especially Nikolay “Mir” Bityukov, but NiP never showed up to the server. After losing a few rounds, the crowds cheered that the underdogs were going to make a show of it. That cheer turned into mute horror as they watched NiP get slaughtered round after round with their tournament lives on the line. It was one of the worst performances in the entire tournament and one of the worst we’ve ever seen from NiP. They failed to adapt, failed to be decisive, failed to timeout, failed to recover mentally.
By the end of it, NiP lost 16-2. As Mobb Deep would say, NiP was, “scared to death, scared to look. They shook.”
Pressure is eternal for all competitors. You can never take a break from it even when you’re a 500-to-1 underdog because if that miracle chance comes at elimination point, that’s the end of you. There is no second chance. Even one of the greatest and most experienced lineups CS:GO has ever seen fell to that.
One of the best lines I ever heard was from an Australian Street Fighter player whose name I forget, but he said, “There was no round before this. There is no round after this. There is only this round.”
You cannot worry about how you failed in the past; you can’t think about what might happen in the future. Round after round, minute after minute, moment to moment, the only thing that matters is the game. Nothing else exists. Almost all the greatest players under pressure give the same response when asked how they manage to keep their cool: Focus on your game, and play it like you would have any day of the week.
Whoever thinks about the situation, whoever decides to look into the brink, whoever remembers what it is they’re playing for will be distracted for one moment. And one moment is all it takes to falter. Whatever you do, don’t look down.
Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE