One of the biggest tenets of (commercialized) self-care is relaxation. Taking time for ourselves and resting for the sake of our physical and mental health traditionally involves performing slow, easygoing activities like reading, taking a long bath or shower, or watching a low-key TV show. For gamers, it might involve playing a chill game like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing that has no real objectives. The idea is to give yourself a break from the fast-paced nature of everyday life. These are all well and good, but what if your idea of relaxation is something a little more…intense?
Don’t get me wrong: I love relaxing, cozy games. I wrote about how nice it was to see a break from all the death and decay during the Wholesome Games show at E3 earlier this year. I grew up playing Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, the spiritual predecessor to Stardew Valley, and those are still games that I return to when I need a break from everything. However, in the last several years, I’ve discovered a new self-care pastime: competitive games.
I know that sounds really strange. Competitive games like FPSes and MOBAs are designed to get your blood pumping and get you riled up, which seems like the opposite of self-care. We’ve all seen videos of people breaking their keyboards or controllers out of rage or sending rude messages to the opposing team when they lose a close match. Games like Overwatch and League of Legends don’t seem conducive to self-care or relaxation, yet somehow, I’m at my happiest when I’m white-knuckled on my keyboard, praying that my teammate lands the shot that wins us the game.
I’ve always been a competitive person. When I was in high school, I perfected Mario Kart and destroyed all of my friends to the point where they refuse to play with me to this day. I was in college when Overwatch came out, and while the characters were what drew me in, the fast and furious combat was what got me addicted. From there, I went on to play far too much Heroes of the Storm, which was my first experience with MOBAs as well as my first experience playing with a coordinated team. I never thought I’d be good enough to play in an organized tournament setting for any game–Mario Kart doesn’t have much of a competitive scene–but the good people of my team were willing to take me in. Years later, I’m not playing with that team anymore, but I am still playing in the same tournament series. In the wake of the pandemic, I fell in love with Apex Legends and poured all my energy into it, putting in 400 hours of play over the course of eight months. It included everything I loved about Overwatch—the ensemble cast, the team fights, the colorful worlds—and added a new layer of strategy with weapon and item choices.
My point is, over the years that I’ve been playing competitive games, they’ve become quite a home for me. I’ve met friends through these games and strengthened the friendships I already have. I’ve gone from freely admitting that I can’t aim to maining snipers in two different games. While there have been some undeniably frustrating moments mixed in, the majority of my experiences with competitive games have been memorable in a very positive way.
So what is it about competitive games that make them so calming for me? Part of self-care is all about finding what makes you relaxed and happy. I’m normally the most impatient person in the world, but when it comes to games, I somehow gain a new layer of patience (No, I can’t explain it). Sure, I complain about my teammates and my own play, but I almost never get outright angry or frustrated when I’m playing. The fast nature of matches, particularly when it comes to ARAM-style games in MOBAs and Apex‘s quick queue system, make it easy for me to forget the last game and focus on the next one. After all, you never know when you’ll win—and experience the elation that comes with it.
Competitive games, particularly team-based ones, also allow me to plan. A lot of people use self-care to take a break from the planning they do during the work day, but I find planning, organizing, and strategizing to be really fun and engaging. I can’t think about the rough day I had at work or the job rejection I got if I’m head-deep in deciding where my team should drop or what character composition we should try. Self-care should be a way to disengage from the problems of normal life and tend to yourself, and managing my team is what helps me do that.
Find your zen
Just because I love playing competitive games for self-care doesn’t mean I want to play them all the time. Sometimes I do opt for Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley pick, mostly because those games also let me plan my actions and grant a definitive outcome. Sometimes I pick a management sim like RollerCoaster Tycoon and spend a few hours attending to the whims of my little park visitors to forget about all the emails and work DMs I had to answer. I’ve been playing Ring Fit Adventure for the last few months, which doubles as physical self-care. I don’t always choose competitive games, but they’re an important part of my self-care repertoire and I consider them to be one of my favorite ways to relax.
I’ve said this before in a number of other articles, but the most important thing to do is to find what works for you. Don’t force yourself to play a competitive game if it’s not what you enjoy. My partner would much rather play Final Fantasy XIV after work than Apex Legends because he loves the chill MMO grind (It bores me to tears. Oops!). Different people find joy in different things, and gamers find joy in different kinds of games. That’s what makes the world of gaming so diverse and interesting! If we all liked the same games and played the same way, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.
As it feels like the world is coming to pieces and our physical and mental resources are being stretched thinner and thinner, it’s more important than ever to find an activity that brings us joy, relaxation, and calm. Though I might be in the minority, competitive games are what bring me that relaxation, and I’ll be forever grateful for the effect they’ve had on my life. There’s a game out there waiting to do for you what Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm, and Apex Legends have done for me. You just need to find it!