Review: Playing to Win by David Sirlin

Book: Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion
Author: David Sirlin, Street Fighter champion and game designer
Year: 2005

Summary: A guide for players who want to win at competitive games, revealing specific thought process behind how to play in order to win. Not a designer’s manual, but good for insight into competitive play.

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First off, before you pick up this book in hardcopy format (which I did and recommend), you can read the whole thing for free online on David Sirlin’s website. The book itself is relatively short at 131 pages and divided into sections aimed at player experience level (Novice through Elite Players) with the idea that your knowledge would stack and grow over time and creating a natural progression through the book that would mirror a person’s mental progression as they become more serious about winning. Sirlin has a very matter-of-fact, easy to read writing style full of anecdotes and specific examples, with short chapters and even shorter sections covering an array of topics.

From the very start Sirlin tells the reader that Playing to Win is aimed for people who want to win seriously in competitive games. It’s not intended for anyone else – and he draws a distinction between those who play to have fun and those who play to win. If you are looking to have fun, this book is not for you (or for me, even). I am reviewing this book not as the intended audience but rather as a designer looking for insight into competitive players, especially the ultra-competitive environment of esports. As a player, “playing to win” is not at all my style, and as a designer competitive play is probably my biggest weak spot, so I picked up this book to fill in some of those gaps and I feel it did a wonderful job. If you are in the same boat as me – not particularly competitive or relatively unfamiliar with tournament-style competitive play – then I do recommend it.

Playing to Win progresses steadily, starting out by speaking to the general masses who may or may not be serious about winning games and eventually unfolding more detailed and complex thought processes about strategy, tournaments, finding the right game, finding the right players to compete against, and so on. A large portion of the book is his own adaptation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War applied to competitive gaming, followed by a breakdown of types of competitive players by comparing individual styles among world champions in both Chess and Street Fighter.

The author brings up examples from lots of games but the key ones you should be familiar with are Street Fighter (or any 2D fighting game), Starcraft, and Chess. If you understand the rules and cadence of those games then you should be able to follow along with all the specific examples and anecdotes Sirlin draws from to illustrate his points. Without that prior knowledge I would have been a little lost.

The true value I gained are how competitive players think and engage with games. I feel very much like a visitor at zoo when I read about tournament play, so Playing to Win helped break down some of that thought process into an easily digestible manner. Not only does Sirlin explain yomi (an important concept that goes roughly like “I know that you know that I know that…”) but he gives really excellent specific examples of yomi in action in competitive play in a way that I had one of those “ah ha!” moments that I’ll treasure for a long time.

There’s lots of other details sprinkled around in this book that have had a big impact on me. The one that stands out most is a short section on studios that rebalance their game and nerf abilities with patches and how that affects serious competitive play. Sirlin argues – and very well – that seemingly dominant tactics actually have their own counters in almost all cases and it might just take time to discover and effectively use those counters. By nerfing those tactics prematurely, you arrest development of the competitive players and prevent strategies at a higher level from forming. (This may be obvious to some people. It was definitely not obvious to me.)

The only thing that rubs me wrong is a competitive tone that I can’t quite put my finger on – a sense of superiority that you can’t really escape when you are writing a book about winning and dominating your opponents. I felt that some of his adaptation of The Art of War was a bit of a stretch but not excessively, and like most books there’s plenty of content that I didn’t find particularly interesting in between those moments of discovery sprinkled throughout.

That aside, this book was quite good. I would consider it an introductory book on competitive gaming – with little prior knowledge needed, and obviously written with gamers (not developers) in mind. Follow it up with something meatier and with a design focus if you want to develop competitive games, but for someone like me who is just interested in dipping my toes Playing to Win was perfect.