I am a psychology student and a SC2 player (have played prize level in other games). My psych degree is soon done, and I see the problem with ladder anxiety as a real challenge for SC2 in competition with more casual platforms (like Dota/LoL).
Blizzard have introduced a rather brutal league-system that directly connects your identity and ego with a league. This is probably part of the cause of the ladder anxiety phenomenon in SC2. Another factor is SC2’s focus on 1v1s, which is by far the most emotionally intense form of competition (eliminated in LoL/Dota/CS/etc by focusing on team play), and much of the reason why SC2 has relatively few casual gamers.
Reducing ladder (and tournament) anxiety in general is the main focus of this article. It also touches on related subjects; getting demoted and general lack of enjoyment with the game due to performance pressure.
The approach below is based on affect research and the cognitive-behavioral approach. First is a detailed scientific discussion aimed at those with high ladder/tournament anxiety, who have simply stopped playing - and at the bottom is a TL;DR for everyone. There will be tips to improve, but the main goal of this article is to A) decrease irrational anxiety and B) increase real enjoyment.
Off we go!
Why do we get ladder anxiety?
In psychology, emotions (anxiety) are thought to come from automatic evaluations of consequences, called “appraisals”.
The problem with appraisals is just that - they are automatic. So - when evaluating the concept of ladder play, if the consequences of a "ladder loss" is uncertain in your brain, the appraisals are forced to make something up. For survival reasons, appraisals usually want to be on the safe side. This can result in an "appraisal of doom" - for instance when you think about a ladder loss as a potential disaster. It works the same way with public speeches or exams.
Secondly, we not only expect negative consequences of laddering, but also positive effects (winning and glory) and “cost” effects like exhaustion. All these expectations can combine to create high adrenaline activation before games - especially when you play rarely.
A final irrational factor affecting us, is misunderstanding what emotion you are experiencing - something humans do surprisingly often, especially in combination with adrenaline. We will address this below.
For most people, the combination of doom appraisals and adrenaline activation is probably what constitutes "ladder anxiety". The good news is that these effects are quite normal and quite fixable.
How do we remove these irrational fears?
In 1962, Schachter-Singer in an experiment injected two groups of people with adrenaline - the first group was told that they would be injected with adrenaline and how it would feel. The other group were told nothing. The result: The informed group simply reported the expected body sensations, while the un-informed group reported strong fear. In other words, reducing fear can be as simple as *knowing about adrenaline*!
Adrenaline is a normal part of life, but it is common for people who are new at competitive activities, to be disturbed by it. As seen above, it is not only triggered by expectation of failure, but also by expecting success and effort. However, the adrenaline rush is not supposed to be a bad feeling.
So as an anxious player, before you start up SC2, prepare for that adrenaline injection. Pay attention to your adrenaline level as it is rising. Remember: That is **not fear** you’re feeling - it is **adrenaline**. Here's how it is supposed to feel: Faster heartrate and breathing, intense visual focus, strong “tunnel attention", increased reactivity (strengthened startle response).
There are also more bodily effects like dry mouth, sweaty palms etc.
Accept that the adrenaline rush is there, and that it is not the same as "fear". If you are caught off guard by adrenaline - realize that your mind is still alive and working beneath the adrenaline noise! Adrenaline won’t make you a worse player - as long as you are aware of it.
So - accept adrenaline! Welcome adrenaline as an awkward guest - why, wear adrenaline as a silly hat! You will find that your real state of mind is **separate** from the adrenaline. The adrenaline rush will soon stabilize and maybe even start helping you.
Remove unrealistic appraisals
As mentioned above, if the outcome of playing a ladder game is uncertain, appraisals can create emotions from a hypothetical, extrapolated situation and create an "appraisal of doom" that will keep generating fear in your brain. The cure here is quite simple - take some time to think realistically about what could happen after a loss.
"What's the worst that could happen?". Will I be demoted? Will my opponent mock me when I am most vulnerable? Etc. This is the time to be cold and realistic, and use statistics and facts. Pick "boring" conclusions - do not allow any feelings to affect your reappraisal, but make it solid and real. And keep in mind the fact that an SC2 ladder loss is just numbers in a Blizzard database. It does not represent a tendency. It does not have to rely on skill. Your account is not You, and You can always get a new account.
No matter how you do it, for most people, the chances are that even the most gruesome realism, is a lot more relaxing and controllable than a blind "appraisal of doom".
So - essentially, a “worst case” approach can reduce fear, it can also give you more realism about what exactly bothers you with losses. However, there are some cases where re-appraising the consequences is not enough to calm you down. Say, if you have 10 diamond league buddies, or you bragged about being Gold at work, or you got yourself a "pLaTiNum LeAgUe tOSs" tribal tattoo on your ass - what happens if you get demoted? Could this change “who you are”? We will address these more ego-related issues in the section "Current Skill level".
Exposure to the fear-situation.
Playing games is the most obvious way to get rid of ladder anxiety. Playing will, on it’s own, lower the adrenaline levels without any "psychology tricks", and it will generate more realistic, and statistically correct, appraisals based on actual losses. This part is quite simple in theory - if you manage to play that first game, you will find that the second and third usually come with little effort.
But in some cases of ladder anxiety, we need to be more methodical and scientific. Normally for playing games, you listen to your feelings. What if your feelings are anxiety and fear, when do you even sit down to play? Here’s one approach you can use as “homework”:
First, look at a sample of five games from your game history. You will find that five random games from your game history will contain any combination of W/L/L/W/L, L/W/L/L/L, etc. (There are 32 possible combinations).
Decide to play five games in a row, say, twice a week, and calmly note on a piece of paper the sequence of W/Ls. The point here is to observe a random set of wins/losses, to feel how each "sequence" feels different and affects you differently, and to observe how the five matches don’t represent a tendency.
The losses (not the wins) are the most important part of this. Try to predict your fear and adrenaline level before each game. Realize that the first match will be worst. Some people may note, for instance, that a loss in the first game, will create the most relaxing configurations of 5 games - by automatically lowering expectations.
Reduce social tension
1v1-best-of-one is a tense competitive setting. But for certain people, there could be a feeling of "mutual hatred" or other types of perceived social threat. They may see themselves as just an anxious ladder victim trying to do his/her best, while their opponent is seen as a cruel figure out to hurt them emotionally.
This contrasts what most of us know from RL meetups: 1) Most SC2-players are friendly, and often have a lot in common with you. In real life, they will credit you on your wins and comfort you in your losses. 2) There's really not that much on the line - it's just a BO1. You wouldn't care much about a GSL BO1, so why does a ladder BO1 feel like a duel to the death?
A good way to approach this perceived social threat, is (as recommended by Mr. Black in this thread); Talk to your opponent. Experiment with good manners (especially after the game), the results could be surprising. While some people simply hate other people, humans are genetically social, and most are likely to want to be friendly.
Finding your Current Skill level - minimize ego effects and start your climbing
The "rat race" of SC2
In the beginning of SC2, lets admit it, we all hoped to be champions. It is a scientific fact that humans usually over-estimate our expected performance. Males do this the most, and as for male gaming nerds - we are all alpha males inside our heads, and we probably over-expect success more than anyone else.
High expectations are generally bad. They will amplify the adrenaline before matches, and will amplify the feeling of punishment after a loss. It is fair to assume that over-expectation of performance has resulted in a general high tension all across Battle.Net for the first year of SC2 laddering - all those matches with two adrenaline-pumped players trying to reach the top, giving 130% performance and shouting at each other. (I'm guilty of all of the above)
How fun has this been, really? For many of us - not very. Some of us stayed hooked on SC2 ladder by being stubborn, or by dismissing our losses as bullshit. Still, the over-expectations of our skill has kept giving us a sense of disappointment when faced with our actual skill. In some cases, it has resulted in rage. Rage and disappointment, excellent way to spend your sparetime, right?
Dealing with unrealistic expectations
I personally know several people who just stopped playing based on not wanting to get demoted. Others keep their unrealistic placements alive by cheesing, and some play only when they are at 130% performance, staying alive by overperforming every time. These people would rather keep an “undeserved” gold league placement, than to give up their fantasy - their over-estimatated perception of skill.
Postponing realism like this, keeps them from enjoying, and more importantly - playing, ladder.
To contrast these unrealistic self-views, split your expectations into two:
* "Current skill" - this is your temporary skill, at the current point of time, that you have in SC2. Be brutally honest (and if you are a typical man, maybe even a bit humble). Realize that changes in the metagame can reduce your Current Skill temporarily. The more honest you are about this, the more effective it is!
* "Future skill" - what you can become in the future. This is where you let the cocky, optimistic, over-estimating part of your personality loose. Just keep in mind that it can’t be applied to your next game.
Separate Current and Future skill.
These are two different realities, make sure they stay separate. Yes, your specific brand of awesomeness may realistically place you in Masters in the future, but face it - today and tomorrow, you are Gold. In this case: "Current skill" = Gold. "Future skill" = Masters. To realize this distinction, is a very very healthy thing.
Keep in mind that "Current Skill" is temporary - there’s really not that much to lose from accepting it. But there’s a lot to gain! If you don't want to put your account on the line to explore your “Current Skill”, a good compromise is to buy an additional SC2 “smurfing” account. Could be worth it - your smurf copy of SC2 might be a lot more fun than the first.
Demotion can be good
Finding your "Current Skill" is a goldmine. It’s the fundament of improvement, and of having fun. In other words, if you are ranked above ability in Plat, it is good for you to lose and get demoted and have your MMR reduced:
* First and foremost, it's more relaxing - at your Current Skill, you will be able to play at a lower effort level, less concentration and alertness, which will decrease any adrenaline issues.
* It will decrease your treshold for pressing “Find game”, which will lead to more games played.
* If you accept the new position and take it as a challenge, you will experience less losses and more positive emotions, which will promote a "creative" approach to playing. Testing things out is fundamental to getting better.
* You will get a higher expectation of control and mastery, leading to "self-efficacy". Self-efficacy is proven to be strongly performance-enhancing and is connected to the delicious feeling of "flow". On the other hand - playing at a higher level than you should, which many SC2ers probably do, will give a low sense of self-efficacy, and worse performance.
Once you have established your “Current Skill”, play around with it. Cheese a little, try out wonky builds, play while talking to people in the room, or other challenges - see how far you can stretch your “Current Skill”. In short: Establish a safe, relaxed platform for your Current Skill. Make a cozy little SC2 house for your ego.
Another important step in finding your "Current Skill" and estimating a realistic "Future Skill", is to watch your loss replays.
To increase learning, watch the loss as soon after the match as possible. Fast-forward through replays if you must, but note three (3) most important things you could have done better. Also, note at least one thing that your opponent did right - even if it was something as stupid as gambling for a 7pool.
Analyzing losses is the most performance-enhancing thing you can do in any competitive setting, and acknowledging your opponent's correct choices, will make accepting losses easier, which will in turn modify appraisals and reduce fear, anger and disappointment.
There is no balance
Introducing balance terms into your interpretation of SC2 losses, could certainly be interesting from a "moral", and intellectual point of view. I mean, SC2 is a complex equation of battle math, of course this attracts our geeky minds. Not to mention to put those low-riding fuckers playing “race X” in place!
But blaming balance will cause a confusing overestimation of "Current Skill" and "Future Skill”. This will make SC2 a shitty experience, give “low self-efficacy”, and stop your progress. Balance grudges can cause ladder anxiety, frequent disappointments, and get in the way of improvement and enjoyment. It needs to be thrown out.
I'm not saying that SC2 is balanced, but I am saying that people who can ignore balance issues will probably be better and happier players. We can discuss balance occasionally, but keep it far away from ladder games. Does it really matter if a player of "race X" get undeserved wins? Or are his wins even undeserved? The best antidote against balance grudges, if you really can’t ignore them, is to try out other races (also more doable with a test account)
* You have ladder anxiety, and you are a human. Try to be analytic, and eliminate emotions in your thoughts about gaming. They’re not informative or helping.
* Don't let your "ladder anxiety" choose when you play SC2. Then you will never play again! To start up, rather than playing "when you feel like it", try to schedule in advance when to play, and when to stop playing. (I used 5 games as an example)
* Consider buying a smurf account to reduce ego issues.
* Get used to adrenaline. Realize that adrenaline is not fear. Realize that adrenaline does not control your consciousness unless you insist on letting it.
* Analyze losses before they happen.
* Analyze losses after they happen.
And finally, establish your real, Current Skill level. Embrace that knowledge. Grow from there. Is it better to play several times a day, with creativeness and self-confidence, in Platinum - or to be stressed out, play once a week, static and repetitive in Diamond?