Treatise on Competitive Philosophy – Chapter 1

Johnny LiContents

Book 1: Reasoning Like a Competitor
Book 2: Fighting Like a Competitor
Book 3: Persisting Like a Competitor


Book 1: Reasoning Like a Competitor

In this chapter, I introduce the book and its general contents, touch on the peculiarity of competition, and share the history of my involvement in competitive play.

Chapter 1: To Live and To Compete

“Being a fine chef, a good mother, a doctor, a political activist, or a musician are all noble pursuits that may, due to your finite time and effort, prevent you from focusing on something as trivial as winning games. I am not advising you to play to win, but I am here for you if you do.” -David Sirlin, Playing to Win

The spirit of competition is a peculiar byproduct of higher reasoning.  Man differs from beast in a number of ways, most of which relate to thought processing.  We think differently than animals think, we process and experience emotions differently than animals do, and we even play differently than animals play.  We are competitive creatures.  One might argue that competition is patently evolutionary.  After all, only the fittest survive in the age-old competition we call life.  But it is not that kind of competition I speak of.

In fact, this odd, human-contrived form of competition is rather different, at times even at ends with the principles of survival.  People have died due to bodily negligence while playing online games.  People have sacrificed income, security, spouses, relations, social status, and the chance at a “normal” life in the pursuit of competition.  Again, the naysayer may reduce this behavior to biological needs, citing that competition helps an individual to achieve prominence and recognition, thereby increasing his chances at surviving, finding a mate, and reproducing.  But is the fire of competition not so much more?  In fact, competition is often at odds with the natural need to survive and reproduce.  What is it about a warrior who courageously makes his last stand on the battlefield, or an athlete who forsakes all-including finding a mate-to perfect his talent?  What is it about such champions that stabs us to our core, invoking within us an admiration that none would deny is wired into our very being?


The desire to compete surpasses survival instinct; it is a part of our nature, but of a higher order.  It is so strong that it has spawned an endless array of games and sports.  The very definition of “sport” is no longer even clear due to the evolving forms of competition in the technological age.  As long as there is society, there will be competition.  Oddly enough, competition has its own set of principles, almost like a moral compass of sorts.  And stranger still: these principles apply regardless of the form of competition.  Occasionally they vary, as they must since not all games are created equal.  However, these principles are so enduring that even to this day an age-old work on competition such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is still synthesized in all sorts of relevant ways in the world of sports, gaming, and business.

Some people dedicate their lives to their particular competition.  For the lucky few, a competition may even be popular enough to support a person financially.  For the majority, competition is recreational.  The needs of day-to-day living demand that most people spend their time doing more practical things, and that’s ok.  To echo Mr. Sirlin’s words, “I am not advising you to play to win, but I am here for you if you do.”  In this work, I hope to help readers on their climb toward that nirvana peak of competitive understanding.  For those who share my fascination with competitive philosophy and who share my desire to grow in knowledge and sharpen in skill, these words are for you.

The ascension toward the competitive peak takes place in three broad domains.  In Book 1, we will examine the fundamental reasoning behind competition, games, sports, and war.  My purpose here is to direct your attention to logical modes of thinking.  In Book 2, the theoretical will transition into the practical.  Here, I will draw heavily from The Art of War to discuss how theory is executed in practice, in the actual arena where competition takes place.  In Book 3, I will discuss some of the elements that comprise the game outside of the game.  War is more than soldiers fighting; there are politics and proceedings that take place off the battlefield.  It is the same in games as well.

As a young teenager, I encountered an online book titled “Playing to Win” by David Sirlin.  Its message resonated with me in a profound way, and showed me that I wasn’t alone in my odd obsession with competition.  In his book, Sirlin, himself a prominent Street Fighter player, demonstrates that philosophy has a very real and practical relevance to competitive games.  Astonishingly, he goes further by demonstrating that there is a universal philosophy which binds all competitive games, and even all forms of competition.

What is the difference in the experience of “water” between a man like Michael Phelps and a child splashing along the shores of a beach?  How does the feeling of dunking compare between the perspective of Michael Jordan and a toddler jamming a bouncy ball into a Fisher Price hoop?  How does the experience of Super Smash Bros. differ between Jason Zimmerman, when he’s playing a match with $1,000 at stake, and a group of friends dusting off a Gamecube to nostalgically regale themselves at a birthday party?  All of these are certainly fun activities.  You don’t need to learn any strokes to have fun on a beach, you don’t need a regulation hoop to enjoy playing with a ball, and you certainly don’t need to know any frame data to enjoy Smash Bros.  Yet, there is this peculiar satisfaction we derive from a hobby once we’ve explored its depths, a satisfaction that is quite unlike the initial infatuation we feel from first trying something new and exciting.  The excitement of any game will wear off with time, and infatuation dies out, but a quiet, more mature love takes its place – a passion built on intimate familiarity with our art.  This passion inspires me to go further, and is what enables me to practice the same matchup repeatedly in a desire to improve, and to not get bored even if the format is one single matchup.

Johnny and Sampras

About myself.  My name is Johnny Li.  I first became competitive in card games at age 11.  I was at a card shop buying Pokemon cards, and the owner informed me there were tournaments.  I attended my first one, placed 2nd (losing to a more experienced player in the mirror in the finals), and instantly became hooked on competitive play.  Through tournaments, I was able to meet some of my best friends as well as pay for all the cards I needed with tournament winnings.  At my first regional, I placed top 2, which won me a paid trip to worlds (only top 2 received this prize).  At worlds, I had a blast meeting lots of personalities I previously knew only online, including Julia Hedberg, who was more commonly known as Purity at the time.  I placed 9th at worlds, and while I regret not going further, I’m thankful for the experience.

Not long after, my friends bandwagonned onto Yugioh.  I didn’t like it, but I played because they did.  I became more interested when I learned that Yugioh had a competitive scene, too.  I played in my first tournament, and just like my first Pokemon tournament, I got 2nd place, again losing the mirror to a more experienced player.  I really didn’t like Yugioh because it was so expensive; the tournament winnings couldn’t cover the cost of cards at the time.  I quit the tournament scene and instead improved through hours of practice on YVD (it’s like DN except infinitely faster and better).  Meanwhile, I took up competitive Melee, got all my friends into it, and we helped to create the smash scene in our state.  Through Melee, I read Playing to Win, the work that inspired me to write this book.  Years later, I took up competitive tennis, largely attracted due to the vast amount of similarities I observed between Melee and one-on-one sports. After playing in tournaments in both games, I shelved those hobbies into the casual category because my time and attention was too divided. I still very much enjoy playing and talking about both activities, but no longer seek to actively develop my ability in them.

I returned to Yugioh at an awkward time – DSF format, largely considered the most luck-dependent format in the history of the game.  I bought a complete Blackwing deck online by sniping an auction in the last 5 seconds, then took it to locals and top 4’d the same week.  The very next week, I earned my invite at a regional.  In almost any other format, this would not have been possible for a player returning to the game cold.  I enjoyed Yugioh a lot more upon my return because I was older and could thus afford the cards I wanted as well as drive to the places I wanted to play – both things I couldn’t do in my YVD days.  I kept practicing and improving, reaching various little milestones.  One of those milestones was when I wound up judging at a YCS one spring.  And who of all people was there managing the judges?  None other than Julia, whom I hadn’t seen in over 10 years since Pokemon worlds!

Johnny banana

After judging a premier event, I decided to try my hand at actually playing in one.  I started strong, but went on tilt after a misplay, and dropped after my third loss.  I decided to keep trying.  Meanwhile, ARG took me and Tyler on as writers.  The established writers liked my work, and it means the world to me that they took the time to read my first submissions and decide my writing was a good fit for the brand.  Following this, I achieved my goal to top my first YCS, and then the NAWCQ.  Afterward, I finally won a regional.  If this seems backwards to you, look at Sam, who has gone to worlds and won a YCS, but still has not gotten the elusive regional top.  (Regionals are weird)  While I may never win a championship, that’s ok, because I’ve come to understand that the goal is not to win them all – the goal is to play perfectly.  I would rather continue placing 2nd for the rest of my life through correct play than win the championship because I lucked out.  If you share this sentiment, then I hope to have some words to offer you in the coming chapters.  While I write this for a Yugioh audience, I will draw examples from other games as well.  I am not advising you to play to win, but I am here for you if you do.


Until next time,

Play Hard or Go Home.





Johnny Li

Johnny Li

Houston, TX
Johnny Li

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