Baptism by fire: how a nuclear scientist learned to command 150 ship fleets in EVE Online
McManis isn’t the type to scare easily. She’s a former nuclear reactor operator at the Reed College research reactor. Crisis management is sort of her strong suit.
But nonetheless, at that moment she was terrified. Her alliance fleet had decided it was time to evict a rival alliance from its base inside a wormhole, and she had volunteered to be the understudy of the main fleet commander to get some experience with a large fleet.
“My friend June said that she would FC (fleet commander), and I said that if she went down I would take over as FC,” said McManis. “And she went down…in the first five minutes. And I had to take over. I said I would take over.”
McManis had some experience leading small groups of 5-10 ships on small-scale missions, but this was a 50-60 ship fleet full of expensive battleships, high-powered weaponry, and dozens of pilots with their ships on the line waiting for her to make the right decisions.
This is the video footage of the fight described above. The main fleet commander goes down at 5:08. McManis is the second female voice that takes over at 5:13. The letters they call out are the first three letters of the character's name that's being focus-fired, and the second word is the type of ship. So “T-H-E in the Loki” is a way of identifying the player “TheCorrupted” in the ship-type “Loki.”
The role of the fleet commander in an EVE Online battle is to serve as a single, unifying voice that gives direction to the entire group. Without direction, every player would be in the dark, and their damage would be spread across multiple enemies. Without focus-firing, enemies can easily be repaired.
What’s more, the coordinated enemy would be able to surgically take out the most valuable, high-powered ships, leaving the fleet severely weakened before the rest of the ships were inevitably wiped out as well.
A fleet commander analyzes their own fleet, the enemy fleet, the tools at their disposal, and the best course of action for coming out ahead.
“It’s a lot of information,” said McManis. “This is what I’m good at, and it’s what made me want to FC. As the FC, you’re in charge of knowing what’s going on and pulling it together into a coherent plan or engagement.”
The challenge isn’t just about analyzing the fight, but pulling together communications from many different sources to stay as informed as possible.
“The entire screen is basically covered with conversations,” she said. “I’ve got a channel for scouts and other leaders in the fleet. I’ve got one for a friend of mine as sometimes we’ll co-FC which can be a lot of fun. I’ve got fleet chat open, I’ve got local chat open, I’ve got my command channel open, I may have one or more private channels with other people I may be working with. I have as many of these open on the same screen as I can.
“In addition, the overview panel is obviously my life-blood for target-calling, and I can use the fleet window to rearrange my fleet so that mechanically things work,” she added.
While all of that is going on, McManis said that the fleet commander is also the “driver” of the damage-dealing ships. In EVE, ships can orbit any object, and they’ll stay locked to it. So in order to keep fleets organized, all of the damage-dealing ships will orbit around one ship, and that ship will move them wherever they need to go. Which is much easier than being forced to coordinate the movements of dozens of players simultaneously.
“You’re picking out targets like: these ships are providing this much damage, these ships are lightly tanked,” she said. “If you’re in a situation where there’s no way out, what you start looking at is which ships have the highest value to the lowest [armor]. I ran a small fleet the other day, and a number of us died, but not before we killed a number of ships that were worth more than we were. When there’s no strategic objective at-hand that can be considered a victory.”
“It’s being the one who’s going to make the call.”
McManis' EVE character, Ali Aras.
When she talks about the role of fleet commander in EVE, she reminds me of a grizzled fighter pilot mixed with an old World War 2 general as she talks about keeping your nerve, making gutsy calls, and managing communications pipelines.
“The number one rule of fleet commanding is that any decision is better than no decision,” she said. “As a human being, one of the available reactions to panic and stress is to just completely freeze up. In fleet commanding that is the last thing you want to do. Because if you freeze up, nothing will happen. There is no chance you’ll even be able to get one kill out of it or even extract.”
It’s a skill that McManis has found useful in more aspects of her life than just EVE.
“The ability to respond to crisis certainly comes in handy when working in a nuclear reactor,” she said. “And I’d say that’s the number one skill for a fleet commander: being able to do well under pressure and think well under pressure and not going into ‘oh-my-god-everyone-freak-the-fuck-out’ mode.”
It also helps being a good public speaker, and she said that one of the traits that seperates good fleet commanders from bad ones is the ability to stay calm and be clear and concise with your orders. Panic and your fleet panics.
An edited version of a large scale fight that McManis commanded, but communications have been edited out so if you don't follow EVE you'll have no clue what's happening.
“I was scared shitless,” she said. “Full-on, fight-or-flight, high on adrenaline, and just calling out targets.”
“We lost that fight eventually,” she said. “It was an amazing fight and I had a lot of great people helping me, but we lost it. There wasn’t a whole lot I could have done to change that. I went to take a walk to calm down later and found myself all light-headed and dizzy. And I was like, ‘oh, I’ve read about this, this is what happens when you get so worked up.’”
“It…it was amazing,” she said. “And that was why I was no longer scared of FCing battleship fleets. It was horrifying, but it was amazing though.”
Ultimately, she was up to the task of surviving the trial-by-fire, and stayed cool while billions of ISK worth of ships and her reputation was on the line. Even though the battle was lost, her cool demeanor earned the respect of her peers and she began FCing more, larger coalition fleets including a series of battles in a weeks-long siege with a fleet that was up to 150 ships strong. Now she describes herself as “fearless.” Or at least that she, “fears-less things.”
“I was able to jump in and make the most of it,” she said. “It was just being thrown into the pool. And now, y’know, I’ve lost my fair share of fleets in horrible and embarrassing ways before. It happens to everyone.”
“It’s an amazingly fun job,” she added. “It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in EVE...it’s terrifying.”