The World Cup of Microsoft Excel
How can watching people fiddle with spreadsheets possibly be this fun?
A few weeks ago, you very likely missed what were very likely the most thrilling moments in the history of Microsoft Excel. Allow me to set the scene: The semifinal of the Excel World Championship was streaming live on YouTube and ESPN3. Defending champion Andrew Ngai had steamrolled his previous three opponents, but he now trailed the unseeded newcomer Brittany Deaton 316–390—not an insignificant margin, but by no means insurmountable. “Andrew is lost,” GolferMike1 commented in the YouTube chat. “He’s shaken.” The game clock ticked under four minutes.
To be crystal clear: Yes, we are talking about people competing in Microsoft Excel, the famous (and famously boring) spreadsheet software that you may have used in school or at work or to track your finances. In competitive Excel, players square off in test-taking showdowns, earning points each time they answer a question correctly. Players’ screens are a whirlwind of columns and keystrokes and formulae; if the terms XLOOKUP, RANDBETWEEN, and dynamic array don’t mean anything to you, you are unlikely to understand what’s going on. The commentators help, but only to a point. Even so, you can always follow the scoreboard, which tends to change suddenly and drastically. With just over three minutes to play, Ngai nailed a set of questions and jumped out to a 416–390 lead. GolferMike1 began to rethink his earlier assessment: “Uh oh. We got a game.”
This is when things really got wild. As the clock approached one minute, Deaton submitted a batch of correct answers and shot up to 610 points. Seconds later, Ngai leapt to 603. Then, Deaton accidentally changed several correct answers and dropped to 566, ceding the lead to Ngai … who promptly began hemorrhaging points himself—592 … 581 … 570 … 559. Fans were losing their minds. “Undo!” one commentator exhorted. “Control Z!” They both did, and suddenly we were right back to Deaton 610, Ngai 603. “Ave Maria!” cried another commentator. Ave Maria indeed: Still behind with five seconds left, Ngai went for the Hail Mary, entering what he would later admit was a random guess and, miraculously, guessing right. A buzzer-beater! Ngai 615, Deaton 610. The chat went into full-blown meltdown:
What is happening!
Hard-core internet communities are not generally known for their grace and charity. Even the most seemingly benign can, at times, turn deeply unpleasant. But so far, very little of that unpleasantness seems to have seeped into the secluded, absurd world of competitive Excel. At least that’s how it seemed watching the championship. Here, in an era when so much of the internet is unstable or controversial or just plain bleak, was a moment of good, clean, unmitigated fun.
Competitive Excel clearly is not the NFL, but it does have the beginnings of a fan base. This was just the second year of the World Championship, but it’s already streaming on ESPN3. This year’s edition has 30,000 views on YouTube. Supporters of Michael Jarman, the No. 3 seed in this year’s competition, call themselves the “Jarmy Army.” A few months ago, an all-star game of sorts aired on ESPN2, and this month, ESPNU will televise the collegiate championship.
The tournament begins with a 128-player field and proceeds March Madness–style, in one-on-one, single-elimination contests. The format lends itself to frequent upsets: This year, the No. 2 seed was eliminated in the third round. In each match, players work as fast as possible—they’re generally given about 30 minutes—to answer a series of progressively more difficult questions testing both their puzzle-solving skills and their fluency with Excel. The questions all revolve around the same scenario. In the quarterfinal, for example, the questions all had to do with a fictional country transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. The first and easiest question asked players to calculate how many votes were cast for the purple party. The championship case, which was far more difficult, centered on a 100x100 chessboard. This year’s total prize money was $10,000.
Naturally, a large proportion of Excel competitors work in Excel-heavy jobs; the field included plenty of finance bros, data analysts, mathematicians, actuaries, and engineers. All but one of the eight finalists had over the course of their lives spent thousands of hours working in Excel (the other is a Google Sheets guy), and half of them had spent more than 10,000. The tournament is not particularly diverse. Of the eight finalists, Deaton was the only woman. In the field of 128, she told me, she counted no more than a dozen, which didn’t surprise her, given how heavily male the relevant occupations skew.
In this respect, competitive Excel is similar to other online-gaming communities, many of which are notorious for their abject sexism and abusive behavior. This all came to the fore most memorably and grotesquely in Gamergate, a misogynistic harassment campaign in 2014 and 2015 that targeted women in the gaming industry. But that was by no means the end of it. In 2020, The New York Times reported on dozens of allegations of gender-based discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault among competitive gamers and streamers.
Culturally, though, competitive Excel is nothing like these other online-gaming communities. The whole thing is almost unbelievably wholesome. Despite its gender imbalance, Deaton told me the community has been “very positive across the board.” During the semifinal, the YouTube chat was awash with “GO BRITTANY!!!” and “#welovebrittany” and “Brittany a queen.” At one point, one of the more active commenters announced his imminent departure the way you might apologize for leaving a party early: “Unfortunately I have to go pick up my kids from the corn maze, so I can’t watch the rest of this round … it’s been great watching this with such friendly and smart excel enthusiasts!”
In the rare instances when new participants made obnoxious comments (“They’re just not that good at it tbh … I could do this in my second year of middle school”), they quickly gathered that this was not the vibe and shaped up. On one occasion, several people firmly but respectfully told off a newcomer, who, rather than digging in or going silent, apologized: “Guys I would like to personally apologize for all of my tomfoolery. At my Heart I am a true lover of excel and would never disrespect these brave competitors.”
But the Excel esports scene is still young—and vanishingly small compared with online communities oriented around, say, basketball or soccer fandom. But it may not 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 an esports arena somewhere in Las Vegas … with prize checks of millions for the winners.”
If competitive Excel really does take off in the way Grigolyunovich hopes, civility may be the price it pays. Perhaps this is the inevitable fate of niche online subcultures that go (ever so slightly more) mainstream. It’s not hard to imagine how growth might strain a community’s ability to self-regulate. Just look at Facebook. Or pretty much any social-media platform, really. Perhaps this is just a brief moment of prelapsarian bliss, doomed to give way to run-of-the-mill internet toxicity. “I’m sure that will eventually take over,” Deaton told me. “But for now!”
For now, competitive Excel is a little vision of the internet as we wish it were, rather than as it is. A few minutes after the obnoxious newcomer apologized for his bad behavior, he was rooting hard for Deaton: “I am a part of Brittany’s little monster squad!”