A few weeks ago, you most likely missed the most exciting times in the history of Microsoft Excel. Let me set the scene: the Excel World Championship semi-final was broadcast live on YouTube and ESPN3. Defending champion Andrew Ngai had crushed his previous three opponents, but he was now trailing unranked newcomer Brittany Deaton 316-390 – a sizable, but by no means insurmountable margin. “Andrew is lost,” GolferMike1 commented in the YouTube chat. “He is shaken. The game clock ticked less than four minutes.
To be crystal clear: Yes, we’re talking about people competing in Microsoft Excel, the famous (and notoriously boring) spreadsheet software you may have used at school or work or to keep track of your finances. In Competitive Excel, players compete in test showdowns, earning points each time they answer a question correctly. Player screens are a whirlwind of columns, strikes, and formulas; if the terms XSEARCH, EDGE BETWEENand dynamic array mean nothing to you, you are unlikely to understand what is going on. Commentators help, but only up to a point. Even so, you can still follow the dashboard, which tends to change suddenly and drastically. With just over three minutes to play, Ngai answered a series of questions and took a 416-390 lead. GolferMike1 began to rethink his previous assessment: “Oh oh. We have a game.
That’s when things really got crazy. As the clock approached one minute, Deaton submitted a batch of correct answers and reached 610 points. Seconds later, Ngai jumped to 603. Then Deaton accidentally changed several correct answers and fall at 566, ceding the lead to Ngai…who quickly began hemorrhaging himself points-592…581…570…559. The fans were losing their minds. “To cancel!” one commenter urged. “Z-control!” They both did, and suddenly we were back at Deaton 610, Ngai 603. “Ave Maria!” shouted another commenter. Ave Maria indeed: Still late with five seconds left, Ngai went for the Ave Maria, entering what he would later admit was a random guess and, miraculously, guessing right. A buzzer-drummer! Ngai 615, Deaton 610. The cat completely collapsed:
What is happening!
Hardcore Internet communities are generally not known for their grace and charity. Even the most seemingly benign can sometimes become deeply unpleasant. But so far, very little of that annoyance seems to have seeped into the isolated, nonsensical world of competitive Excel. At least that’s what it looked like watching the championship. Here, in a time when much of the internet is unstable or controversial or just plain dark, it was a good, clean, absolute fun time.
Competitive Excel is clearly not the NFL, but it has the beginnings of a fanbase. It was only the World Championship’s second year, but it’s already airing on ESPN3. This year’s edition has 30,000 views on YouTube. Supporters of Michael Jarman, the No. 3 seed in this year’s competition, call themselves the “Jarmy Army.” A few months ago, an all-star game of sorts aired on ESPN2, and this month ESPNU will be televising the college championship.
The tournament starts with a field of 128 players and is played in March Madness style, in individual knockout competitions. The format lends itself to frequent upheavals: this year, the No. 2 seed was eliminated in the third round. In each match, players work as fast as they can – they’re usually given around 30 minutes – to answer a series of increasingly difficult questions that test both their puzzle-solving skills and their proficiency in Excel. . The questions all revolve around the same scenario. In the quarter-finals, for example, the questions were all about a fictional country transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. The first and simplest question asked players to calculate the number of votes cast for the purple party. The championship case, which was much more difficult, centered on a 100×100 chessboard. This year’s total prize was $10,000.
Naturally, a large portion of Excel’s competitors work in Excel-heavy jobs; the field included many finance bros, data analysts, mathematicians, actuaries, and engineers. In their lifetime, all but one of the eight finalists have spent thousands of hours working in Excel (the other is a Google Sheets guy), and half of them have spent over 10,000. The tournament is not particularly diverse. Of the eight finalists, Deaton was the only woman. In the field of 128, she told me, there were no more than a dozen, which did not surprise her, given the strong masculinity of the professions involved.
In this regard, Competitive Excel is similar to other online gaming communities, many of which are known for their abject sexism and abusive behavior. All of this came into grotesque and memorable fashion in Gamergate, a misogynistic harassment campaign in 2014 and 2015 that targeted women in the gaming industry. But that wasn’t the end. In 2020, The New York Times reported dozens of allegations of gender-based discrimination, harassment and sexual assault among competitive gamers and streamers.
Culturally, however, Competitive Excel has nothing to do with these other online gaming communities. The whole thing is almost incredibly healthy. Despite its gender imbalance, Deaton told me that the community is “very positive on all levels.” During the semi-final, the YouTube chat was flooded with “GO BRITTANY!!!” and “#welovebrittany” and “Brittany a queen”. At one point, one of the more active commenters announced his impending departure from how you could apologize for leaving a party early: “Unfortunately, I have to pick up my kids from the corn maze, so I can’t watch the rest of this tower… it was great to watch this with such friendly and smart Excel enthusiasts!”
In the rare cases where new entrants made obnoxious comments (“They’re just not that good at it…I could do it in my sophomore year of college”), they quickly realized it wasn’t. not the mood and formed. On one occasion, several people firmly but respectfully chided a newcomer who, rather than dig or keep quiet, apologized: “Guys, I would like to personally apologize for all my nonsense. Deep down I am a true lover of excellence and I will never disrespect these brave competitors. »
But Excel’s esports scene is still young and extremely small compared to online communities focused on, say, basketball or football. But it may not be small forever. “I really have a big vision for this thing,” Andrew Grigolyunovich, the competition’s founder, told me. “I see this being produced and staged in an esports arena somewhere in Las Vegas…with prize checks in the millions for the winners.”
If competitive Excel really takes off as Grigolyunovich hopes, civility could be the price to pay. This is perhaps the inevitable fate of niche online subcultures becoming (a little more) mainstream. It’s not hard to imagine how much growth could strain a community’s ability to self-regulate. Look at Facebook. Or pretty much any social media platform, really. It may just be a brief moment of prelapse bliss, doomed to give way to mundane internet toxicity. “I’m sure it will eventually take over,” Deaton told me. “But for now!”
For now, Competitive Excel is a small vision of the Internet as we would like it to be, rather than as it is. Minutes after the obnoxious newcomer apologized for his bad behavior, he supported Deaton: “I’m part of Brittany’s little freak team!”
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