Sins of a Solar Spymaster #66: EVE's Outliers

The Mittani serves up a few EVE success stories and how players can achieve greatness in this week’s Sins of a Solar Spymaster.
Time to confess: I’ve finally gotten around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books, particularly Blink and Outliers. Gladwell is of one of the most gifted science popularizers; his writing is tight and anecdotal, using singular examples to illustrate academic research - an alchemy of storytelling and science guaranteed to rocket one to the top of the bestseller lists while leaving a trail of bitter critics in one’s wake - in Gladwell’s case, both scientists and writers have had their turn at green-eyed pitchforkery. Yet Outliers has a special significance to EVE.

Patrolling

Outliers could be summarized with one sentence, followed by several hundred pages of maddeningly well-crafted anecdotes. Ready? Here: Successful people are born in the right time and place to maximize opportunities, and then they bust their ass - usually “10,000 hours” of ass-busting - to become a world-class expert at whatever it is that propels them to the top.

As the accidents of birth are completely beyond our control, the most practical real world lessons from Outliers are the “10,000 hour rule” and the concept of accumulated advantage. In a way that would the most jaded Marxist crack a smile, Gladwell illustrates that the ‘Great Men’ of the modern age reached their apex not due to an innate genius of birth, but because their circumstances allowed them an opportunity to rack up those 10,000 hours of practice. An early head start becomes magnified into ever more chances to practice their chosen craft and polish their expertise.

Yet unlike the stratified and scarcity-plagued real world where accident of birth features so prominently in an individual’s ability to acquire 10,000 hours of practice in their field, the sandbox of EVE presents the closest possible approximation to a level playing field. Pilots cannot truly die or starve; their mobility costs nothing, and they are free to join and leave societies at will. Even a lack of skill points can be gotten around through character arbitrage. Horatio Alger stories are the fairytales of fools and excuses of reactionaries in the real world, but in EVE you actually can pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Meet Ribeye Jaksom, the best interdictor pilot in EVE. Nearly eight thousand pilots have met their deaths on the wrong end of Ribeye’s Sabre, and the majority of his kills have been solo. Average players think interdictors simply camp gates and catch ships entering a system; Ribeye barely does that anymore. He figured out how to use inline bubbles between gates and jump bridges to hunt down ‘uncatchable’ ships like covops and ludicrous-speed interceptors. Then he invented something called a “zero man gatecamp” which amounts to a hard counter to blockade runners. If a Sabre can do it, Ribeye knows about it, and is better than you at it. What enabled this special genius?

Sabre

Ribeye first began flying Sabres in late 2007. He got a taste for the hull and began specializing his character entirely towards it while flying it every day. Where other pilots end up dabbling and bouncing between hulls, Ribeye maximized every single skill related to his Sabre, including such minutiae as Small Autocannon Specialization or Tactical Shield Manipulation. And then he flew and lost Sabres hand over fist as he refined his techniques. He has thousands of hours of experience accumulated over four years of dedication to a single hull, and has reached a point where his engagements are more like executions than fights. Due to this mastery, he almost never loses a Sabre while flying solo - not because of some innate genius, but time in grade and a vast repertoire of experience.

Ribeye isn’t the only ship specialist. What Ribeye is to the Sabre, Dagaon of Stain Empire is to the Curse. In early 2009, Dagaon gave up his Sacrilege and hopped in a Curse and hasn’t looked back, leaving a trail of dead bodies and quite a few Curse wrecks in his wake. Like Ribeye, Dagaon works every day in his Curse, allowing him to rapidly rack up hours of combat experience with a particular fit compared to the average scatterbrained training path of an EVE player.

Despite his Finnish modesty, Shadoo is widely heralded as one of the greatest Fleet Commanders in EVE, well known both in nullsec for his prowess and in the wider public from his commentating during the most recent Alliance Tournament. Yet his origins were humble, first setting foot in 0.0 as a pilot in a ‘pet’ alliance, Knights of the Southerncross, a vassal of Lotka Volterra. Repeatedly frustrated by the poor quality of the scouts in his coalition’s fleets, young Shadoo started out as a covops pilot, having taught himself the basics of probing by doing PvE exploration.

After going on small 5-man roams with one of his corpmates, he tried his hand at leading a combat group. Over four months, three to four times a week, Shadoo would lead a tiny gang out on roams, using his covops experience to find ratters for his cadre to kill. When his corp joined the nascent Pandemic Legion, he found himself in a crucible during the RISE campaign of the Great War where he was the only FC available at his time zone. For two months - before the Eye of Terror opened and RISE collapsed - he was playing for 4-6 hours a day in nonstop skirmishes; jabber had just revolutionized 0.0 communications, and he could log on and engage in combat without needing to roam and hunt fruitlessly for targets, making his leadership experience even more focused.

Leading the Fleet

When the Second Great War broke out and the invasion of Delve commenced, Shadoo was the primary euro time zone FC for the anti-BoB forces, leading 1000-man combined fleets in 2000-person clashes in systems like J-L. These meatgrinders would last for eight hours or more, with multiple time zones of pilots throwing every ship in their hangars at each other relentlessly. From February 2009 until April, Shadoo was on the front every single day. The war was won, and Shadoo was now known throughout the game as possibly the most deadly FC in EVE. His renown is well-earned, yet too often players gloss over those humble beginnings as a simple covops learning how to probe, or the months of work as a gang leader with a handful of disposable Caracals under his command.

What Shadoo, Ribeye and Dagaon all have in common is work and focus. They have picked a single discipline and consistently put hours of work into it, with plenty of embarrassing failures and losses as they learned the nuances of their trade. They didn’t become heralded for their expertise until that work had been done, and they didn’t simply pick up EVE and own everything because of who they were.

Of course, circumstances and luck still play a role in success in EVE. Ribeye works from home, so he’s able to integrate flying his Sabre with his profession - and since his Sabre always has a cloak, he’s chosen a specialty that allows him to still get things done. Shadoo’s formative development took place during a period where his girlfriend was working in the evening, so he would come home from work and have little to do besides play EVE and learn the ropes of FCing.

Spying and Flying

And what of me? Does any of this apply to my spying days?

I began working on EVE espionage in March of 2006, two months after the CEO of Goonfleet made me a director merely because I had been in his corp before Goonfleet was founded. Luck and raw circumstance. At the time I was working as a staff attorney, a job which rewarded the ability to handle mind-numbing tedium and work incredibly long hours. To keep my brains from leaking out my ears, I essentially no-lifed the metagame. I couldn’t play EVE from the office, but I could use Instant Messenger to ‘handle’ agents. While spending twelve hours a day trapped in the bowels of a firm doing deposition prep, I kept my wits sharp by running the GIA and learning how to manage an alliance at war.

My first spy ops were humble and often ended poorly. When Goonfleet’s founder resigned, he dropped the position of CEO in my lap; at that tender age I was absolutely unready for leadership. That CEOship was such a (brief) disaster I still cringe thinking about it. But over time - and there was an awful lot of time spent every day working as espionage director - I learned my trade. When Haargoth Agamar defected from Band of Brothers in February 2009 and I conceived of disbanding them, I referred to my idea as a ‘flash of intuition’, not something deliberately planned. But in hindsight I had already put a completely obscene amount of work and effort into being a ‘spy guy’ between March 2006 and February 2009, since focusing on EVE while at the office is what kept me from losing my mind while helping defend corporate criminals and wallowing in moral hazard.

Leading the Fleet

We assume that the famous or highly skilled are somehow different because they have some kind of innate, unobtainable gift. In real life, you need to both be born lucky and then work your ass off to achieve world-class success; in EVE luck and circumstance certainly helps, but the impact of hard work matters more.

If you find yourself following the exploits of one of EVE’s outliers - someone like Ribeye, Shadoo, Istvaan, Xttz, or Nync, know that you too can reach their heights, so long as you focus and are dedicated enough to put the hours in to learn your trade. I’d suggest picking a specialization that has some kind of real-world applicability, like leadership, psychology, financials or what have you, if only because I wouldn’t want to sink so many hours into something that doesn’t teach you useful skills beyond the game. Don’t expect to achieve ‘natural’ success by dabbling. New Eden is a harsh sandbox, but at least - in this one respect - it is fair.

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