The Rise of Excel as an eSport

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, as there are some levels of nerdy that are simply beyond mere mortal ken.

The sport gained unexpected popularity, leading to its renewal for the 2023 Ocho. The championship is set to hold its finale in the Las Vegas HyperX eSports Arena this December, featuring a prize pool of $10,000 across the competition.

Origins of Competitive Excel

Excel as an eSport didn’t appear out of nowhere fully formed in 2022. It emerged from an existing culture of financial modeling competitions. These tournaments require participants to create a financial forecast for a fictional company based on a provided dataset—in Excel, of course.

The organizers of the Financial Modeling World Championship sought a way to turn these competitions into a spectator sport. They gradually adapted the format to make the contests more exciting and accessible. In mid-2021, these competitions went viral, partly due to the pandemic. ESPN then expressed interest, and the FMWC Open was streamed on ESPN3 in December 2021. The following year, Microsoft sponsored the competition, making it the Microsoft Excel World Championship.

The Competitive Excel Experience

But what does a round of competitive Excel actually look like? Each round of an Excel tournament has a unique challenge, such as tabulating the results of hypothetical elections or projecting the outcome of a game of Whack-A-Mole. Participants face 100 increasingly difficult questions about the puzzle in only 30 minutes.

Questions are typically organized into five batches of 20 questions, and experienced players often create a single formula to solve an entire batch. The winner is the first to answer all questions correctly or the one with the most points when the 30 minutes are up.

Strategies and Challenges

Points players receive are adjusted to normalize scores across games because puzzle difficulty can vary significantly. Familiarity with keyboard shortcuts is crucial, and player bios often list their favorite shortcuts. There’s controversy over whether competitive players should use a mouse to navigate, and advanced players may even code on the fly using Visual Basic.

The game tends to be dominated by accountants, actuaries, mathematicians, and engineers—essentially, the alpha nerds. Tournaments can feature one-on-one elimination matches or eight-player battle royales. A panel of commentators narrates the game, dissects the outcome, and introduces and interviews players before and after the match.

In-person events often have an electric crowd excited to see their favorite Excel battler perform the spreadsheet equivalent of a mounted elbow drop off the top rope. And, of course, it’s not a sport without merch, including shirts with clever Excel-related designs.

Excel Beyond the Championship

The Microsoft Excel World Championship isn’t the only gaming arena where you’ll find Excel. It has a long and eccentric history in gaming, often acting as an external supplementary tool for complex RPGs that require advanced data management. Games like EVE Online, sometimes called Spreadsheets in Space, even received an official Excel plugin.

People have been programming games directly into Excel for decades, including classics like Snake, Minesweeper, and Battleship. The unconventional joy of watching a crowd cheer on their favorite Excel champion as they formulate their way to victory demonstrates that human beings can find joy in literally anything.

In conclusion, the Microsoft Excel World Championship has turned a mundane tool into a thrilling eSport, captivating audiences with the unexpected excitement of competitive spreadsheeting. If there’s anything to be learned from this phenomenon, it’s that joy can be found in the most unexpected places—even in the formulas and functions of Excel. Thanks for watching, and don’t forget to subscribe and follow for more unexpected insights into the world of esports.

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