In November ESPN, the well-known US sports television channel, broadcast the finals of the “Microsoft Excel World Championship”, a world championship dedicated to the most expert users of Excel, the widespread software for the production and management of spreadsheets. The competition has only been around for two years and, as well as being televised, can be streamed on YouTube (where the finals have reached up an audience of about forty thousand people).
The tournament is organized by the Financial Modeling World Cup, an association that aims to «promote financial modeling as an educational, training and competitive tool», and therefore also the software that more than any other is used in financial management. The FMWC events are sponsored by investment firm AG Capital and by Microsoft itself, makers of the program at the heart of the competition.
It is not the first time that Microsoft has promoted the use of Excel in the eSports category, the competitive and professional practice of video games: between 2012 and 2019, the company had been a sponsor of a similar initiative, the “ModelOff Financial Modeling World Championships”, the finals of which were held in New York or London. After their interruption in 2020, the “Financial Modeling World Cup” took their place, focusing less on the presence in person and the organization of events in sporting venues, and more on the clash between great champions, in live streaming.
In each Excel race, challengers start with an equal data set that relates to a specific case and must use the program to derive information with which to answer five questions in order of difficulty (there are also three bonus levels). The fourth and fifth levels are similar but test different skills: “If you get stuck on the fourth level, we strongly advise you to move on to the fifth,” explained the tournament announcer, recalling the importance of strategy in this type of competition. In the tournament, 128 men and women compete against each other in one-on-one challenges, up to the final.
The cases in question are not exactly similar to the use that millions of people do every day of Excel. In this year’s quarterfinals, for example, the challengers faced a scenario designed by Andrew Grigolyunovich, founder and CEO of the Financial Modeling World Cup, who also serves as host and commentator on the championship, along with other industry professionals. According to his profile LinkedInGrigolyunovich is a “financial modeling expert” who finished fifth in the 2017 industry championships.
The challenge he devised for this match concerned the fictitious kingdom of Votelandia, whose ruler has decided to abdicate to establish a parliamentary republic in the country. In this context, the challengers had to act as consultants to determine the best electoral system on the basis of some data, and knowing that five different parties are competing for the votes of an electorate that will go from a hundred people to a thousand people. In the first and easiest level, the challengers had to calculate how many votes one of the parties, the Purples, had won.
The case faced in the final, also designed by Grigolyunovich, concerned a huge chessboard with 100 rows and 100 columns in which each piece was assigned a score (10 for the king, 9 for the queen, 1 for the pawn). Challengers had to “predict how many of these opponents’ pieces they would capture by placing one of their own pieces on the chessboard,” which is reproduced on an Excel sheet. Attached to the instructions to solve the problem, the organization had also added the basic rules of the game of chess.
Although not a particularly dynamic show, these matches seem to interest a rather involved audience, which is felt above all in the live broadcast on YouTube, alongside which a real-time chat full of messages of support or criticism flows. How noticed fromAtlantic, Excel’s competitions have some points in common with the world of online gaming, starting with the predominance of male players: Brittany Deaton, one of the finalists of this edition (who lost by a whisker against reigning champion Andrew Ngai ), was the only woman among the eight participants in the quarterfinals. Of all 128 players, only a dozen were women. This did not surprise Deaton, “given how predominantly male are the senior positions in the world of work”.
Speaking of the future of the Excel league, Grigolyunovich said he has “a big vision,” envisioning competitive Excel as a phenomenon that can fill Las Vegas esports arenas “with prizes worth millions” of dollars. Meanwhile, in this year’s edition, there were fifteen thousand dollars up for grabs, which went to Ngai, already winner of the previous edition. As for the audience, it doesn’t seem to be a show only for great Excel and financial model experts: each challenge includes a starting case, its discussion among the presenters and the possibility of seeing the players tackle the various levels of the challenge by observing their choices in real time. Beyond the founder’s ambitions, for now the economic aspect seems to be secondary in these competitions: it is above all glory and prestige, as well as entertainment, that interest and attract players. As a user wrote under the live YouTube, imagining a future job interview of the winners of this tournament: «What are your skills with Excel?» “I’m world champion.”