By Joe Renaud

I spent a lot of time walking around the MLG tournament floors this year, having attended nearly all of the events. I would often wander from station to station, marveling at the pro Halo:CE players’ spectacular displays of skill. The number of amazing players at MLG events is staggering, so it was difficult to stand in one spot too long. With each impossible triple kill, close-range sniper head shot, or effortless power-up grenade trick, the crowd of people who’d been standing behind watching the match would gasp, and then turn to each other and quietly discuss what they had just witnessed. No matter which coast, no matter what city, the crowd reactions were almost universally as follows:

Stage 1: Disbelief. “What the heck was that?” and “There’s no way he survived that!”
Stage 2: Awe. “Oh my god that was sick!” and “I didn’t know people got this good!”
Stage 3: Jealousy. “I could’ve done that.” and “It’s just because they play all the time.”

A season’s worth of watching the top Halo players dominate each tournament has exposed me to a lot of chatter from local players and pro-hopefuls about just what it is that makes them so good. Some say it’s because they time the power-ups so well, or because they know more grenade, respawn, and weapon tricks. Some say it’s because their pistol aim is so well refined, or because they use cover so effectively. Still others believe that it’s for simpler reasons, such as the mere fact that they’ve been playing since the game came out, or that they allegedly “don’t have lives”.

Regardless of conspiracy theory, most of the speculation ends in the same conclusion: Halo 2 will be different. It’ll be a fresh start for everyone, and a new chance to break in and rise to the top. Everybody has to start from square one together – new maps and game types, no pistol, no blowing the rocket launcher to yourself from across the map, no double melee or backpack reload, and did I mention no pistol? Surely all of this will level the playing field a bit, right? Right? Well, yes and no’

A few short weeks after Halo 2′s release, the Xbox Live servers are teeming with rabid gamers who’ve waited for three years to become hopelessly addicted to an all new Halo. Well, it looks like they got their wish. With close to a million matches recorded and about 350,000 unique players each day, the Halo community has almost certainly never been this unified. With this much activity and this many players, competition is bound to be extraordinarily high. No longer are you safe because you are the best player in your group of friends, or even your town, because the rest of the world gets to chime in about your skills in unprecedented numbers. This is not your father’s XBConnect.

Even at this early phase of the game’s lifespan, there is already a mad-scramble to establish dominance. With the MLG 2005 season not underway yet, currently the easiest and most obvious way to measure a player’s Halo 2 dominance is through the Bungie.net Xbox Live leaderboards, which rank the top 1,000 players for each playlist (ffa, team games, etc) based on their acquired experience level. Probably to the chagrin of Halo pro-hopefuls across the nation, a quick glance at these leaderboards reveals that many of the dominant players from the MLG 2004 season are placing very high, in several cases even clinching the top several spots. This seems to lay to rest the theories that the secret to their success was merely an intimate knowledge of Halo:CE’s tricks, exploits and inner workings, and instead suggests a very high level of adaptability, versatility, and just plain old skill.

But all is not lost! The experience level gaps between the 1st and 50th place players are fairly small right now, and since the game is so new, many of the placements are likely due to players simply not having played enough total games to solidify where they should actually be on the leaderboards. And really, if there are four MLG pros in the top 10 of the Bungie.net boards, who are these other six people?

There are a lot of possibilities. Some are probably excellent players who somehow never heard of MLG, or even any other tournament scene. Perhaps, despite MLG’s nationwide tour, they were never able to make it to an event. Maybe they’re in high school and their parents wouldn’t let them go. And what is most heartening to a player of moderate skill like me, maybe they were middle-of-the-road players from the previous season who found that Halo 2 plays much more favorably to their skill sets and are now able to become the killing machines they’d always wished they were. All of these new top tier players emerging on the leaderboards is certainly invigorating, and casts a veil of uncertainty on the outcome of all future Halo 2 tournaments.

What will this all mean when the MLG 2005 season begins? Hopefully, a lot of fresh faces and excitement. Cross-communication between players will likely be at an all-time high due largely to Xbox Live’s unification of Halo players worldwide coupled with its voice chat capabilities. This could see tournaments becoming much more widely talked about and result in unprecedented attendance. Also, let’s not forget that Halo 2 sold over 1.5 million copies before it was even released, making it destined to be one of the most popular games of all time. These early days of Halo 2 have proven that the MLG scene’s top players can certainly hang with the best the world has to offer, but the vast number of currently unknown players near the top of the Bungie.net leaderboards is inspiring to the average player, reassuring them that all the top spots are not yet occupied if they really work on their game. One thing’s for certain though: 2005 will be a wild ride in the MLG circuit, so get practicing!