Soon, I became acquainted with a couple of players who weren't particularly good but were keen to learn. I had rapidly picked up tricks of the game and spent all day browsing forums and reading advice on gaming websites (instead of doing my work at the financial consultancy). I began to train my friendly newbies in the art in which I myself was only just beginning to excel. They, too, progressed quickly. Each night, we searched for empty game servers on which to practice together.
Then, one night, I dueled a player I had never met before. He was a far better player than I, which was no surprise, but it was the first time I had played a genuinely talented player who wasn't already in a clan. Did he want to join us? "Sure. ... When do we start?" And so the team was born.
Suddenly, we were contenders. From being just a few people messing around in the casual space, we transformed ourselves into a practiced team. We played systematically for four hours, three times a week. We registered with the now-defunct "Barrysworld" (a non-profit player-run gaming organization) and entered into competitive gaming. We were able to book servers on which to play privately, and our time gaming on open servers meant that we were quickly acquainted with other teams - many of these wanted sparring partners with whom to practice. After a few trial runs, we signed up to the leagues, entering at a fairly low rung, as befitted our obvious inexperience.
By this time, I was obsessed. I was a player-coach, unable to focus on anything beyond making my team stronger, faster and more efficient. In those early days, there was almost no broadband internet in the U.K., and most of the team played via dial-up modem. I meticulously researched the ways in which modems could be tuned for better response and greater signal stability. I rebuilt the Quake III configurations of the team, fine-tuning the setups as one might fine-tune a race car. Visual embellishments were stripped away, leaving a flat, polygonal caricature of the original game - all the better to see our enemies.
Dial-up modems also meant that for the first few months of play, voice over IP communications (now standard in online gaming) were impossible to use. The team developed a huge array of "binds" - messages sent to the team at the touch of a key. For instance: "I HAVE THE FLAG, WILL GO LOW." The team responded with a practiced defense of the low route on a capture the flag map. Our best players dove headlong into enemy blockers, splattering them across the level as the flag carrier sprinted for the enemy base.
It was frenetic. Adrenaline was limitless. I was ecstatic.
Technical issues dogged us constantly, but they were nothing compared to the time I had to put into people. We had to play on public servers constantly to look out for new talent. We were competing against dozens of other clans to recruit decent players, but we were also competing internally. If the best players got too good, they would want to move on to a more proficient team, and many did. It was my task to balance egos in a way that made sure everyone was happy. If I didn't field less talented players regularly enough, they would not feel valued and end up leaving for other teams that needed them or would quit the game entirely. We had to make sure we had practice partners we could beat at least 50 percent of the time or morale would collapse. I was, in effect, running a sports team.