A few weeks ago, you probably missed the most exciting moments in the history of Microsoft Excel. Let me set the scene: The semifinals of the Excel World Championship were broadcast live on YouTube and ESPN3. Defending champion Andrew Ngai had outscored his previous three opponents, but now he’s trailing newcomer Brittany Deaton 316-390 — not an insignificant margin, but not insurmountable. “Andrew is lost,” commented GolferMike1 on his YouTube chat. “He was shaken.” The game clock was less than four minutes.
To be clear: Yes, we’re talking about people who compete in Microsoft Excel, the popular (and famously boring) spreadsheet program you use at school or work or to track your finances. In Competitive Excel, players take part in quizzes, earning points each time they answer a question correctly. Players’ screens are a swirl of columns, buttons, and formulas; if there are conditions XLOOKUP, RANDBETWEENand dynamic array means nothing to you, you hardly understand what’s going on. Commentators help, but only up to a point. Nevertheless, you can always watch the scoreboard, which tends to change suddenly and dramatically. With just over three minutes left in the game, Ngai answered a series of questions and jumped out to a 416-390 lead. GolferMike1 began to rethink his earlier assessment: “Uh oh. We have a game.”
This is when things get really wild. As the clock neared one minute, Deaton submitted a series of correct answers and scored 610 points. Seconds later, Ngai jumped to 603. Then Deaton accidentally changed several correct answers and fell 566, giving the lead to Ngai … who immediately started giving himself bleeding points – 592 … 581 … 570 … 559. The fans were going crazy. “Give it back!” one commentator advised. “Control Z!” They both did and suddenly we were right back to Deaton 610, Ngai 603. “Ave Maria!” another commenter exclaimed. Ave Maria indeed: Still trailing with five seconds left, Ngai went to Mary, entered what he would later admit was a fluke guess, and miraculously guessed right. A noisemaker! Ngai 615, Deaton 610. The conversation is a total bust:
What is happening!
Hardline internet communities are generally not known for their generosity and charity. Even the most seemingly benign can sometimes become very unpleasant. But so far, little of that unpleasantness has seeped into the lonely, absurd world of competitive Excel. At least that’s what it looked like watching the championship. Here, in an era when much of the internet was unstable or controversial or just plain cheesy, was a moment of good, pure, unapologetic fun.
Competitive Excel is clearly not the NFL, but it has the beginnings of a fan base. This was the second year of the World Championship, but it is now broadcast on ESPN3. This year’s edition had 30,000 views on YouTube. Supporters of Michael Jarman, who took 3rd place in this year’s contest, call themselves “Jarmy’s Army”. A few months ago, ESPN2 aired an all-star game of sorts, and this month, ESPNU will televise the college championship.
The tournament begins with a field of 128 players and continues in March Madness-style, head-to-head, head-to-head elimination competitions. The format often leads to upsets: This year, the No. 2 seed was eliminated in the third round. In each match, players work as fast as they can to answer a series of increasingly difficult questions that test both their puzzle-solving skills and their fluency with Excel—they’re usually given about 30 minutes. All the questions revolve around the same scenario. For example, in the quarter finals, all the questions were about a fictional country that transitioned from a dictatorship to a democracy. The first and easiest question asked the players to count how many votes were given to the purple party. The more difficult championship work was centered on a 100×100 chessboard. The total amount of this year’s prize was 10,000 dollars.
Of course, a large number of Excel competitors work in Excel-heavy jobs; the field includes many financial brethren, data analysts, mathematicians, actuaries, and engineers. All but one of the eight finalists have spent thousands of hours in Excel in their lifetime (the other is a Google Sheets employee), and half have spent more than 10,000 hours. The tournament is not particularly colorful. Deaton was the only woman among the eight finalists. In the field of 128, he told me he didn’t count more than ten, which didn’t surprise him given how skewed the men’s respective professions were.
In this respect, competitive Excel is similar to other online gaming communities, many of which are notorious for their vile sexism and abusive behavior. All of this came up most memorably and grotesquely in 2014 and 2015 in Gamergate, a misogynistic harassment campaign targeting women in the gaming industry. But that was not the end. in 2020 The New York Times reported dozens of allegations of gender-based discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment among competitive players and broadcasters.
Culturally, although competitive Excel is not like these other online gaming communities. The whole thing is almost unbelievably useful. Despite the gender imbalance, Deaton told me the community is “very positive across the board.” During the semi-finals, the YouTube channel “GO BRITTANY!!!” was full of and “#welovebrittany” and “Brittany a queen”. At one point, one of the more active commenters announced that she would be leaving soon with an apology for leaving the party early: “Unfortunately I have to pick up my kids from the corn maze so I can’t watch the rest of this. round … it was great to watch it with such friendly and smart excel fans!”
On the rare occasion new participants make snide comments (“They’re not that good at it, tbh… I could have done that in my sophomore year of high school”), they quickly gather that it’s not a mood and it’s formed. Once several people firmly but respectfully dismissed the newcomer, who, instead of digging in or shutting up, apologized: “Guys, I would like to personally apologize for all the lying. “At heart, I am a true excel fan and I will never disrespect these brave competitors.”
However, the Excel esports scene is still young and minuscule compared to online communities focused around, say, basketball or soccer fandom. But it may not be small forever. “I have a really big vision for this,” contest founder Andrew Grigolyunovich told me. “I see it being produced and staged in a sports arena in Las Vegas … with millions in prize vouchers for the winners.”
If competitive Excel does indeed take off the way Grigolyunovich hopes, culture may be the price he pays. Perhaps this is the inevitable fate of (slightly more) mainstream niche online subcultures. It is not difficult to imagine how growth can strain a society’s capacity for self-regulation. Just look at Facebook. Or almost any social media platform, really. Perhaps this is a brief moment of prelapsarian bliss doomed to give way to internet toxicity. “I’m sure it will catch on eventually,” Deaton told me. “But for now!”
For now, competitive Excel is just a small glimpse into the web as we’d like it to be. Moments after the spirited newcomer apologized for her misbehavior, she was firmly rooting for Deaton, “I’m part of Brittany’s little pack of wolves!”