It’s fair to say most of us don’t like spreadsheets, but the people who do like them, like them a lot. And while many of us use Microsoft Excel in our day-to-day work, an elite few have adapted the world’s most popular spreadsheet software into an eSports phenomenon.
The Excel World Championship
In 2022, the Excel World Championship debuted as part of ESPN’s The Ocho, an annual showcase of lower profile sports like axe throwing, corgi racing, and of course, the slippery stair climb. The vast majority of viewers had never even conceived of competitive Excel before, because there are some levels of nerdy that are simply beyond mere mortal ken.
But the sport was popular enough that it was renewed for the 2023 Ocho and will be holding its finale in the Las Vegas HyperX eSports Arena this December with a prize pool of $10,000 across the competition.
The Origins of Competitive Excel
But Excel as an eSport didn’t appear out of nowhere fully formed in 2022. It came out of an existing culture of financial modeling competitions. Basically, these are tournaments where participants must create a financial forecast for a fictional company based on a provided data set in, what else, Excel.
The organizers of the Financial Modeling World Championship were looking for a way to turn these competitions into a spectator sport, because apparently the cultural mainstream is unenthusiastic about debt service coverage ratios, which is a real shame. They gradually adapted the format to make the contests more exciting and accessible, and in mid-2021, they went viral, because, you know, pandemic. Finally, ESPN expressed an interest, and the FMWC Open was streamed on ESPN3 in December 2021. The next year, Microsoft sponsored the competition, lending it their own name and making it the Microsoft Excel World Championship.
But what does a round of competitive Excel actually look like? Each round of an Excel tournament has a unique challenge, like tabulating the results of a series of hypothetical elections, or projecting the outcome of a game of Whack-A-Mole. Participants have to answer a series of 100 increasingly difficult questions about the puzzle in only 30 minutes.
Questions are typically organized into five batches of 20 questions, and the dominant strategy by experienced players is to create a single formula that will solve an entire batch. This means that a player’s score can stagnate for long periods, then jump rapidly. It can even go down, which means it’s time for a quick undo. But that might not save novice players who get stuck and wind up with a big fat zero out of 1,000.
The winner is whoever answers all the questions correctly first, or whoever has the most points when the 30 minutes are up. The puzzles can vary a lot in terms of difficulty, so the points players receive are typically adjusted to normalize scores across games.
The Skills and Strategies
Familiarity with keyboard shortcuts is obviously a necessary skill, to the point that player bios will list their favorite shortcut. And there’s some hot controversy in the meta over whether competitive players should ever use a mouse to navigate. Advanced players with a fluency in visual basic might even code on the fly. Unsurprisingly, the game tends to be dominated by accountants, actuaries, mathematicians, and engineers.
The format of games can vary as well, with tournaments sometimes featuring one V one elimination matches, and other times eight player battle royales. It’s brutal. A panel of commentators narrate the game, dissect the outcome, and introduce and interview the players before and after the fact. And at in-person events, there’s often an electric crowd, excited to see their favorite Excel battler perform the spreadsheet equivalent of a mounted elbow drop off the top rope.
The Excel Community
The Microsoft Excel World Championship isn’t the only gaming arena where you’ll find Excel. It’s had a long if eccentric history in gaming, usually acting as an external supplementary tool for complex RPGs that require advanced data management. EVE Online, the game sometimes called Spreadsheets in Space, actually got an official Excel plugin earlier this year, much to the excitement of its player base.
Not to mention that people have been programming games directly into Excel for decades, like Snake, Minesweeper, and even Battleship. If there’s anything we can learn from a sweaty crowd cheering on their favorite Excel champion as they formulate their way to victory, it’s that human beings can find joy in literally anything.