A few weeks ago, you most likely missed the most exciting moments in Microsoft Excel history. Allow me to stage that: The Excel World Cup semifinals were streamed live on YouTube and ESPN3. Defending champion Andrew Ngai had rolled over his previous three opponents, but now he trailed unseeded newcomer Brittany Deaton by 316-390 – a not inconsiderable margin, but by no means insurmountable. “Andrew is lost,” commented GolferMike1 in the YouTube chat. “He’s shaken.” The game clock ticked under four minutes.
To be perfectly clear, yes, we’re talking about people competing with Microsoft Excel, the famous (and notoriously boring) spreadsheet software you might have used at school, at work, or to keep track of your finances. In Competitive Excel, players compete in quiz showdowns, earning points for each correct answer to a question. Players’ screens are a whirlwind of columns, keystrokes and formulas; if the conditions XREFERENCE, EDGE BETWEENand dynamic array doesn’t mean anything to you, you probably won’t understand what’s going on. The commenters help, but only up to a point. Despite this, you can always follow the scoreboard, which changes 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 reconsider his earlier assessment: “Uh oh. We have a game.”
This is where it got really wild. As the clock approached one minute, Deaton submitted a series of correct answers and shot up to 610 points. Seconds later, Ngai jumped to 603. Then Deaton accidentally changed several correct answers and dropped to 566 and handed the lead to Ngai… who immediately started bleeding himself – 592…581…570…559. The fans went mad. “Cancel!” admonished one commenter. “Control Z!” They both did, and suddenly we were back at Deaton 610, Ngai 603. “Ave Maria!” cried another commenter. Hail Maria indeed: with five seconds remaining, Ngai walked to the Hail Mary, inputting what he would later admit was a random guess and miraculously correct. A buzzer beater! Ngai 615, Deaton 610. The chat went into a full blown collapse:
Hardcore internet communities are generally not known for their grace and charity. Even the most seemingly harmless things can sometimes become deeply uncomfortable. But so far, very little of that inconvenience seems to have made its way into the secluded, absurd world of competitive Excel. At least that’s how it seemed in the championship. Here, at a time when so much of the internet is unstable or controversial or just plain bleak, was a moment of good, clean, no-holds-barred fun.
Competitive Excel is clearly not the NFL, but it is beginning to have a fan base. This was only the second year of the World Cup, but it’s already streaming on ESPN3. This year’s edition has 30,000 views on YouTube. Supporters of Michael Jarman, No. 3 in this year’s competition, call themselves “Jarmy Army”. A few months ago, ESPN2 aired an all-star game of sorts, and this month ESPNU will be televising the college championship.
The tournament begins with a field of 128 players and continues in March Madness style in one-on-one elimination matches. The format lends itself to frequent surprises: This year, the number 2 seeded was eliminated in the third round. In each game, players work as quickly as possible – they generally have about 30 minutes – to answer a series of increasingly difficult questions that test both their puzzle-solving skills and Excel fluency. The questions all revolve around the same scenario. In the quarterfinals, for example, the questions all revolved around a fictional country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. The first and simplest question asked players to calculate how many votes were cast for the purple party. The championship case, which was far more difficult, revolved around a 100×100 chessboard. This year’s total prize money was $10,000.
Of course, a large proportion of Excel’s competitors work in Excel-heavy jobs; The field included many financial offices, data analysts, mathematicians, actuaries and engineers. All but one of the eight finalists have spent thousands of hours in Excel over the course of their lives (the other is a Google Sheets guy), and half of them have put in more than 10,000 hours. The tournament is not particularly varied. Of the eight finalists, Deaton was the only woman. In Zone 128, she told me, she didn’t count more than a dozen, which wasn’t surprising given how heavily male those jobs are.
In this regard, rival Excel is similar to other online gaming communities, many of which are notorious for their abject sexism and abusive behavior. All of this came out most memorably and grotesquely in Gamergate, a misogynist harassment campaign in 2014-2015 targeting women in the gaming industry. But that was far from the end. 2020, That New York Times reported dozens of allegations of gender discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault among competitive gamers and streamers.
Cultural, but competitive excel is nothing like these other online gaming communities. The whole thing is almost unbelievably digestible. Despite the gender imbalance, Deaton told me the community has been “very positive throughout.” During the semifinals, 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, in the way one would apologize for leaving a party early: “Unfortunately I have to pick my kids up from the corn maze, so I can’t see the rest of the round…it was great doing this with so.” friendly and intelligent Excel enthusiast!”
On the rare occasion that new entrants made obnoxious remarks (“You’re just not that good at it, tbh…I could do that in my sophomore year of middle school”), they quickly realized that wasn’t the vibe and molded itself. On one occasion, several people firmly but respectfully dismissed a newcomer who, rather than digging in or remaining silent, apologized: “Guys, I want to personally apologize for all my stupid things. At heart I am a true lover of Excel and would never disregard these brave competitors.”
But the Excel sports scene is still young – and infinitesimally small compared to online communities that are based on basketball or soccer fandoms, for example. But it can’t 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 a sports arena somewhere in Las Vegas… with prize checks in the millions for the winners.”
If competitive Excel really takes off as Grigolyunovich hopes, politeness could be the price it pays. Perhaps this is the inevitable fate of niche online subcultures becoming (a bit more) mainstream. It’s not hard to imagine how growth could strain a community’s ability to self-regulate. Just check out Facebook. Or actually pretty much any social media platform. Perhaps this is just a brief moment of prelapsarian bliss doomed to give way to ordinary internet toxicity. “I’m sure that will catch on at some point,” Deaton told me. “But for now!”
For now, Competitive Excel is a little vision of the internet as we would like it to be, not as it is. A few minutes after the obnoxious newcomer apologized for his bad behavior, he cheered on Deaton: “I’m part of Brittany’s little monster squad!”
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