Spreadsheet Superstars

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It’s happy hour in Las Vegas, and the MGM Grand casino is crawling with people. The National Finals Rodeo is in town, the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament is underway, the Raiders play on Sunday, and the U2 residency is going strong at the giant Sphere, so it seems everyone in every bar and at every slot machine is looking forward to something. (And wearing a cowboy hat.) Even for a town built on nonstop buzz, this qualifies as a uniquely eventful weekend.

But I’d wager that if you wanted to see the most exciting drama happening at the MGM on this Friday night, you’d have to walk through the casino and look for the small sign advertising something called The Active Cell. This is the site of the play-in round for the Excel World Championship, and it starts in five minutes. There are 27 people here to take part in this event (28 registered, but one evidently chickened out before we started), which will send its top eight finishers to tomorrow night’s finals. There, one person will be crowned the Excel World Champion, which comes with a trophy and a championship belt and the ability to spend the next 12 months bragging about being officially the world’s best spreadsheeter. Eight people have already qualified for the finals; some of today’s 27 contestants lost in those qualifying rounds, others just showed up last-minute in hopes of a comeback.

The room is set up with four rows and three columns of tables, each one draped in a black tablecloth and covered in power strips, laptops, and the occasional notepad. There’s a long table with coffee in the back, and over the two days we’ve been in this room, carts have occasionally wheeled in with cookies, queso dip, and at one point, surprisingly delicious churros. The unofficial dress code is business casual, the overall vibe somewhere between summer camp and business conference.

Now the room is quieter, more focused. 26 of the contestants are furiously setting up their workspaces. They plug in their computers, clean up their areas, and refill their beverages. A number of players reach into their bags and pull out an external mouse and keyboard — everyone in the room has strong opinions on brands and features, but all agree that what you really need is a keyboard with function keys separate from media keys, and then to turn those media keys into more function keys so you can work even faster.

And then there’s me. I’m the 27th competitor, and I’m both the only person in the room using a Mac and the only person who has no idea what I’m doing. I’ve spent the last two days in this room with this group, as they’ve taught each other new Excel tricks and compared notes on the state of the art in the world’s most important piece of software. They’ve been debating VLOOKUP and XLOOKUP and teaching each other how to use the MOD function. I’ve been desperately trying to get my app to update on the MGM’s Wi-Fi.

The competitive Excel setup is simple: computer, mouse, keyboard. Every athlete has their favorites.

At 6PM on the dot, Andrew Grigolyunovich, the founder and CEO of the Financial Modeling World Cup, the organization hosting these championships, takes the modular stage in the ballroom. He loads an unlisted YouTube link, which begins explaining today’s challenge, known as a “case.” It’s a puzzle called “Potions Master,” and it goes roughly like this: You’re training to be a potions master in Excelburg, but you’re terrible at it. You have a number of ingredients, each of which has a certain number of associated points; your goal is to get the most points in each potion before it explodes, which it does based on how much of a white ingredient you’ve added.

The Potions Master case, like so many of the puzzles conquered by these competitive Excelers, is not particularly complicated. This is a flashier, faster, deliberately more arcade-y version of spreadsheeting, more like trying to win 10 simultaneous games of chess on easy mode rather than painstakingly taking on a grandmaster. If you like, you can solve the whole thing manually: figure out when the white number gets too high, count the total points until that spot, then double-check it because it’s a lot of numbers, and eventually answer the first question. That’s my strategy, and I think I get it right. Now there are 119 more, worth a total of 1,500 points, and it’s quickly clear I’m not going to finish in the 30 minutes we’ve been allotted.

While I’m squinting into my 13-inch screen and carefully adding 1s and 3s, the other 26 contestants are whirring through their spreadsheets, using Excel’s built-in formula and data visualization tools to organize and query all that data. Everyone in the room seems to have their own way to chew through the ingredient lists and spends the first few minutes turning a mess of numbers and letters into real, proper capital-d Data. They start answering questions a half-dozen at a time, while I’m still checking my mental math.

Almost everybody who participates in competitive Excel will tell you that the app itself will only get you so far. If you can’t hack the puzzle or figure out what you’re trying to do, it can’t make something out of nothing. Your brain will always matter more than your software. But if you really know how to make Excel sing, there’s simply no more powerful piece of software on the planet for turning a mess of numbers into answers and sense.

Competitive Excel has been around for years, but only in a hobbyist way. Most of the people in this room full of actuaries, analysts, accountants, and investors play Excel the way I play Scrabble or do the crossword — exercising your brain using tools you understand. But last year’s competition became a viral hit on ESPN and YouTube, and this year, the organizers are trying to capitalize. After all, someone points out to me, poker is basically just math, and it’s all over TV. Why not spreadsheets? Excel is a tool. It’s a game. Now it hopes to become a sport.

I’ve come to realize in my two days in this ballroom that understanding a spreadsheet is like a superpower. The folks in this room make their living on their ability to take some complex thing — a company’s sales, a person’s lifestyle, a region’s political leanings, a race car — and pull it apart into its many component pieces. If you can reduce the world down to a bunch of rows and columns, you can control it. Manipulate it. Build it and rebuild it in a thousand new ways, with a couple of hotkeys and an undo button at the ready. A good spreadsheet shows you the universe and gives you the ability to create new ones. And the people in this room, in their dad jeans and short-sleeved button-downs, are the gods on Olympus, bending everything to their will.

There is one inescapably weird thing about competitive Excel: spreadsheets are not fun. Spreadsheets are very powerful, very interesting, very important, but they are for work. Most of what happens at the FMWC is, in almost every practical way, indistinguishable from the normal work that millions of people do in spreadsheets every day. You can gussy up the format, shorten the timelines, and raise the stakes all you want — the reality is you’re still asking a bunch of people who make spreadsheets for a living to just make more spreadsheets, even if they’re doing it in Vegas.

You really can’t overstate how important and ubiquitous spreadsheets really are, though. “Electronic spreadsheets” actually date back earlier than computers and are maybe the single most important reason computers first became mainstream. In the late 1970s, a Harvard MBA student named Dan Bricklin started to dream up a software program that could automatically do the math he was constantly doing and re-doing in class. “I imagined a magic blackboard that if you erased one number and wrote a new thing in, all of the other numbers would automatically change, like word processing with numbers,” he said in a 2016 TED Talk. This sounds quaint and obvious now, but it was revolutionary then.

Bricklin’s software, eventually called VisiCalc, gave many people their first good reason ever to buy a computer. In 1996, Apple CEO Steve Jobs called VisiCalc the first of two “explosions that propelled the industry forward” and said spreadsheets were the driving force behind the success of the Apple II. A generation later, a competitor called Lotus 1-2-3 became a key app for the IBM PC. By 1985, after briefly dabbling with a program called Multiplan, Microsoft announced a powerful spreadsheet app of its own, called Excel. At the time, it was an app for Apple’s Macintosh, which was flagging in sales; both Apple and Microsoft thought the best way to compete was with spreadsheets. They were right.

Four decades later, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called Excel “the best consumer product we ever created.” He doesn’t just see it as an enterprise tool. It’s for everything. Nadella said he simply can’t imagine a world without Excel. “People couldn’t make sense of numbers before, and now everyone can.”

The goal isn’t just getting an answer. It’s understanding all the inputs that allowed us to arrive there.

Looking back, there’s a surprising resemblance between the way we talked about spreadsheets in the ’80s and the way we talk about artificial intelligence now. The same worries about automating people out of jobs; the same questions about whether we could really trust the computers to do all this complicated work so quickly. In fact, in the 1980s, spreadsheet programs were the AI bots of their day. “The aim is to knock some sense into otherwise mindless computers,” The New York Times’ David Sanger wrote in 1985, “getting them to understand — and perform automatically — the tasks that individual users struggle each day not to forget.”

In so many ways, though, the spreadsheet trajectory is the best-case scenario for an AI future. Where current AI tools like ChatGPT try to abstract away the inner workings and underlying data and simply offer you the world through a text box, spreadsheets do the opposite: they promise an ever greater level of control and understanding of the world around you. The people who work on Excel and other spreadsheet tools are perpetually trying to make them easier to use while also giving power users more ways to tinker. If you want to create something with AI, you just type in a prompt and hope for the best. A spreadsheet artist, on the other hand — and there really is such a thing — can paint their creation one cell at a time. The goal isn’t just getting an answer. It’s understanding all the inputs that allowed us to arrive there.

The converse of that, though, is that spreadsheets make plain exactly how easy it is to reduce so much of modern life to a bunch of numbers and formulas in a spreadsheet. Give me some numbers, and my Excel file will predict when you’re going to die. Dating spreadsheets have become normal in a world where romance is about swipes and statistics. Have a hard decision to make? I have a decision-matrix spreadsheet for you! In a spreadsheet world, everything is comparable, reducible to some base figure that eventually explains everything if only you know how to ask. Spreadsheets promise the world isn’t actually complicated — you just have to know the formulas. I don’t know if that’s beautiful or bleak or both, but it’s certainly big business.

This group that has gathered in Vegas operates like a mix of camp friends, colleagues, and competitors. Most work in financial analysis in some way: on the first day, I had lunch with a financial modeler for a mining company, an actuary, and a certified Microsoft MVP — a Most Valuable Professional, who teaches other people how to use Excel. We sat in the MGM Grand food court eating salads and Chinese buffet talking about the MVP’s expansive kaleidoscope collection and the modeler’s current budgeting challenges given the strange economy and some regulatory complications.

Many of these folks have been playing competitive Excel together for years. Years ago, the main organization for these players was called ModelOff, which was much more strictly a financial-modeling competition. Every year, a bunch of these Excel users would get together, usually in New York or London, and essentially do their job competitively.

The last ModelOff was in 2019, before the pandemic put a stop to pretty much anything in person. But Grigolyunovich, a longtime ModelOff fan and competitor, decided to keep the legacy going. Grigolyunovich is tall, with blonde hair parted down the middle and his shirt permanently tucked in, and exudes a kind of constant low-grade, manic energy. He loves Excel — loves using it, loves talking about it, loves tinkering with the sheets he’s made for this weekend. He created the Financial Modeling World Cup in 2020 in hopes that he could keep the ModelOff spirit alive but also expand it. “I really missed playing” when ModelOff stopped, he says, “because I’d been doing that for seven years. I also wanted to make a better tournament.” The only downside, he says, is that running the competition means he can’t participate anymore.

The Financial Modeling World Cup is really three separate things: There’s the Excel World Championship, the most mainstream (and I use “mainstream” in the loosest way possible) version of competitive Excel, which Grigolyunovich hopes can turn into a popular esport. There’s a similar event for college students, known as the Microsoft Excel Collegiate Challenge. And there’s the Financial Modeling World Cup, which is more like ModelOff — it requires financial knowledge, uses financial cases, and has slightly different rules. The FMWC is the most complex, maybe the most prestigious, and definitely the least exciting of the three.

The Excel World Championship had a viral moment in 2022, when it showed up in a half-hour block on ESPN’s annual “The Ocho” event — a joke from the movie Dodgeball before ESPN took the idea and made it real — in which the network airs a day full of sports that would otherwise never make its schedule. The “Excel Esports: All-Star Battle” portion aired at 5AM Eastern, between the 2022 eSkootr Championship and the 2021 World Air Hockey Championship, but enough viewers were excited and surprised to see competitive Excel on TV that it had a bit of an online moment.

Now, Grigolyunovich says the job is to turn that virality into true momentum. He wants the FMWC to be a fun community activity, an educational resource for people of all ages, and an honest-to-God spectator sport. It’s not clear to me whether it’s possible to do all three of those things — and a lot of the people here think it’s not. David Brown, a University of Arizona professor and previous FMWC finalist who also runs the collegiate tournaments, says he thinks competitive Excel makes the most sense as a fun way to teach students some more practical skills, in a sort of Model UN way. Hardly anyone here seems to think Excel esports is a path to true fame and fortune.

Excel Esports might not make you rich or famous yet, but the trophy looks great in your Zoom background.

The best way to train for the Excel World Championship, everybody tells me, is to practice with old cases. The great players treat this the way a football player might watch film or run the same play over and over until the timing is perfect; you do a case, then do it again another way, until you’ve sharpened your skills and your muscle memory such that the next time something like it comes up, you’re ready. Every case is different, but they do have a lot in common. Lotteries and slot machines are common case fodder, and there are plenty involving poker. The final case in last year’s championship was about chess, another game with near-infinite variations and permutations. The more you train your brain to work with these mountains of data, the better you get.

Diarmuid Early, a past ModelOff champion and the biggest celebrity in the room — an article once referred to him as “the LeBron James of Excel,” which immediately stuck — is sitting in the back row of the Vegas ballroom, trying not to think about whether he’s trained enough. I’d been hearing about Early for months before we met, and he’s one of two names everyone offers when I ask who they think might win. People speak of him both fondly and with just a little bit of reverence.

In reality, Early — everybody calls him “Dim” — is a friendly, relaxed but fast-talking financial consultant with thinning hair and a slight Irish accent who showed up to Vegas in the middle of the busiest time of his year at work. I catch him in jeans and a gray hoodie, typing furiously on his laptop. In Excel, obviously. “I do bonus planning work with an investment bank,” he tells me, “so the end of the year is Go Time.” He’s already qualified for the finals on Saturday but is a little nervous about how he’ll do this weekend. “I was hoping to be doing more training than I am,” he says, but work has made that impossible. Even during the down moments (and the occasional not-so-interesting moments) of the conference, I keep catching Early swapping his fun spreadsheets for work spreadsheets.

All the important stuff in an Excel competition, Early says, happens in the first few minutes. After reading the instructions, “you’ve got, like, 30 seconds to think, ‘Okay, how am I going to approach this?’ and then it’s just, go. If you set off down the wrong path, even if you realize five minutes in that there was a better way to build it, it’s probably not worth going back and changing it.” Some players will just dive into the first question in the first level and take things from there; the ones who win are usually the people who build a system that will eventually answer all the questions. “But if you get that judgment call wrong,” Early says, “and you’re three minutes away from having all the points but what you actually have is none of the points, then you’re dead, right?” He has horror stories of this happening. Everyone does.

“If you ask the same question to five different people, and they have Excel experience, they might think of five completely different ways to do it,” says Peter Scharl, another already qualified finalist. “There are things I do in the Excel competitions that I didn’t know how to do three months ago, six months ago just because of doing it and reviewing what I did or reviewing what other people are doing, reading comments, watching videos.”

In the last couple of years, though, there’s been a shift in the Excel world: you can now write complex, reusable functions called Lambdas in the app and even write Python code directly into a cell. (Microsoft’s Nadella recently called Excel formulas “the world’s most popular programming language,” and he’s probably not wrong.) More than one person in Vegas tells me about the work of Eric Oehm, known to many in the community as the Excel Robot, who builds software that automates a lot of the drudgery of building spreadsheets. Brown jokes that Oehm might give him some particularly cool tools that he hides from Early “because he wants someone to beat Dim.”

Most days of the year, tools like these are a godsend to everyone in this room in Vegas. A faster way to build powerful systems in a spreadsheet? Sold. But in competition, it’s like a performance-enhancing drug. Brown says he suspects eventually, there will be two versions of the Excel World Championship: one in which you can bring all the outside tools and knowledge you want, and one that is just you and a fresh install of Excel. The former version, he thinks, could be wild in what it makes possible, much like Peter Thiel and others think the so-called “Enhanced Games” could make athletic competition all the more impressive.

By now, I’ve asked a few folks if they’re worried about eventually being replaced by AI, and they all basically laugh — have you seen what happens when ChatGPT does even simple math, and do you know how high the stakes are for getting a company’s decade-long projections right? But Excel Robot and Python do seem to spark some existential concern. They might make Excel easier, but they also make it more opaque. And is being good at Excel about getting answers out of the spreadsheet or about understanding where the answers come from?

The energy in the MGM Grand ballroom is noticeably different on Saturday morning. It’s finals day. We’re due for a few more panels and tutorials, and the champion will be crowned this evening.

Before the day’s events kick off, I run into the biggest name in Excel who isn’t competing tonight: Laurence Lau. He is the opposite of everyone else I’ve met this week. Lau is wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses in a room full of khakis and dress shirts, he’s loud and brash and rude to some of the other competitors, and he thinks the whole FMWC is a little ridiculous. He’s also the #1 ranked player in the financial modeling side of the competition, and virtually everyone agrees he’s the best Exceler in the world when he bothers to show up.

If the FMWC wants to be a success, Lau tells me, it needs to be bigger. If it wants to be bigger, it needs the best players and the biggest personalities to show up. Lau believes he’s here to remind everyone of how exciting all this could be, if only the organizers pull a Jerry Maguire and show him the money. (He points out that this whole thing could be bankrolled by Microsoft, the world’s most valuable company, with money found in the couch cushions in Redmond.) Even his jacket — a New York Yankees All-Star Game jacket from 2008, which he says was his favorite team “because I’m a fan of whatever team has the highest payroll” — is his way of reminding everyone that sports are about stars, and stars should be paid like it.

Lau wants the FMWC to have multimillion-dollar prizes, not the measly three grand the winner will get tonight. If this is a sport, it should be a full-time job. Right now, he says, “people do this because they like Excel.” These events will always feel more like a golf weekend with the guys than a PGA championship. And, he reminds me, not everyone likes Excel.

“Most Americans hate their job, right?” They don’t come home from work wanting to look at more spreadsheets. It’s fine for the FMWC to be about education and camaraderie, but then why is it streaming on ESPN? He senses an identity crisis in this room, and it makes him mad that no one will do anything about it.

Lau compares himself to Deion Sanders, the famous football player who took on the “Prime Time” persona to bring more attention to players at cornerback, which, before him, had been one of the lowest-paying positions in the NFL. He’s happy to be the brash jerk in the room, trying to convince people to make the competition worth his while — and maybe build a brand in the process.

The world may not run on spreadsheets, but spreadsheets run the world

His obnoxiousness stands out even more in this crowd, which seems to skew introverted and mild-mannered. Nobody’s exactly competing for stage time with Lau’s antics. But as uncomfortable as everyone appears to be with his shtick, they also seem to understand his point. After all, these people do puzzles for fun and overwhelmingly do financial modeling for work. For all the fun art projects and life-tracking stuff that everyday people do in Excel, the true customers for these tools are the money guys. The ones who used the advent of the spreadsheet to turn Wall Street into a global industry, that built wildly complicated things like collateralized debt obligations and helped usher in a financial crisis in 2008. The world may not run on spreadsheets, but spreadsheets run the world. Maybe all Lau is doing is saying the quiet part out loud, which is surprisingly uneasy in a room full of finance professionals.

Lau heads inside to join a panel of former Excel champions, and I head over to Grigolyunovich to get his take. He’s a little embarrassed by Lau’s whole alter ego bit, it seems, though he does agree in principle with some of his stances. Grigolyunovich says there’s plenty of room for more money — including from Microsoft, which is already a sponsor and would surely be happy to see Excel become must-watch TV. But he’s torn between loving this community and wanting it to be educational and fun for the people who do it while also wanting it to be bigger. And he wonders if there could be another reason Lau’s not competing — maybe he doesn’t like the cameras and the pressure?

Meanwhile, Lau has taken the stage in that Yankees jacket and sunglasses and is explaining to everyone why they shouldn’t even try to compete: because, odds are, they’re not smart enough. When the moderator asks him if this is all just a bit, he laughs. “I can be normal if I need to be,” he says. But he gets back to his point. “My argument is a top Excel analyst is three, four, or five times more productive than your average,” he says, working himself up again. “They’re not getting paid three, four, or five times more than your average person.” He gestures to the audience: “If you work for a company and you’re pretty good at Excel, you are underpaid… so just remember that.” Brown, the moderator, quickly changes the subject.

After the panels end, Grigolyunovich announces the winners of yesterday’s last-chance qualification round. One by one, he reveals the eight names of the top finishers, rounding out the field of 16 for tonight’s finals. (Jakub Pomykalski, an already qualified finalist who did the qualification round for fun, won it by scoring 1,234 of the 1,500 available points — I don’t think he intended to intimidate everyone by doing that, but he did.) I didn’t qualify, which is not remotely shocking but is slightly disappointing nonetheless. And with that, the conference portion of the weekend concludes. As we all file out of the MGM Grand ballroom, everyone receives a Certificate of Completion from the Financial Modeling World Cup. They all look like college diplomas, and mine congratulates me on “successful completion of financial modeling & Microsoft Excel training.”

A few hours and a brisk walk down the Vegas strip later, I arrive at the night’s chosen venue: the HyperX Arena, a 30,000-square-foot esports space with seating for 70, dozens of gaming PCs, a bar, and a large stage in the center. On a typical day, the arena might be home to a Fortnite tournament, but tonight, it will be spreadsheets.

The finals don’t start until 7:30PM, but by about 3PM, the arena is already buzzing. Max Sych, the FMWC’s chief operating officer, is onstage polishing the three trophies for the top finishers when he sees me and offers to give me a tour of the arena. He leads me through the room where all the arena’s producers turn its many cameras into a single livestream. We walk through the neon-green Hype Tunnel, where each competitor will enter dramatically and then pause for a selfie before they take the stage. We peek into the VIP room, where sponsors will watch the event.

Finally, we land in the commentary booth, where Oz du Soleil and Jon Acampora are already talking through their plans for the evening. These are two of the best-known figures in the Excel world and the two men responsible for helping viewers make sense of fast-paced spreadsheeting. Acampora makes his prediction: he thinks Early is likely to be in the top two, along with Andrew Ngai, an Australian actuary who won the competition both of the previous two years.

Jon Acampora and Oz du Soleil have the daunting task of explaining power-user Excel to casual fans.

At about 6:15PM, the arena’s doors open. The contestants file in, clamber up onstage, and find their PCs. Many of them are wearing Excel Esports jerseys, which I’m just now learning are a thing; they look like soccer jerseys, with the name across the front and sponsor logos all over. A couple players wear green T-shirts that say “I simply” above the Excel logo. (Get it?) A few wear their own clothes. As a group, they look more like a bunch of friends heading to the bar to watch their favorite team’s game, rather than some of the world’s foremost athletes in an up-and-coming global sport.

Group by group, the finalists sit down and begin to prepare their computers. There are eight workstations on the stage for the two semifinal heats. The players aren’t allowed to use premade lambdas or formulas for tonight’s event; they’re all using identical PCs with identical copies of Excel. They are, however, allowed to use their own keyboards, so a number of them start swapping their own for the glowing RGB mechanical sets on the desk. Sych tells them all they’ll be required to wear headphones so as not to hear the commentary or other noise in the arena and tells them they’re only allowed to use YouTube for music. A few start loading playlists — I notice a surprising amount of Taylor Swift. At least one contestant slyly downloads Spotify.

Once they’re done prepping their stations, some of the players mingle onstage, talking strategy and swapping stories of cases past. Ngai, with a hoodie on over his yellow jersey, sits in the front row of the bleachers eating an energy bar. And Patrick Chatain tells me his strategy for the evening. Chatain, a senior studying deep learning at McGill University, is the youngest competitor here but says he’s really not feeling much pressure. Last week, he won the individual competition at the Excel Collegiate Challenge after coming in second the year before, “and this was my last chance at that one.” Now he’s in the big leagues and has his whole career ahead of him.

Nobody practices Excel to get famous

For tonight, Chatain’s plan is to lead with speed. He says he’s hoping to answer the bonus questions — which only a certain number of people can get each round — right away, just to lock in some points. He’s been studying the others and has decided his best chance is not to try and build a perfect system but to just start sprinting from the beginning. It’s a bold strategy, but a necessary one, because the rules are different tonight. Instead of giving every competitor 30 minutes to get as many points as possible, which is how virtually every previous competition has operated, tonight, the person with the lowest score will be eliminated every seven and a half minutes. The players have been telling me — and each other — all week how much this changes things. There might not be time to build a perfect system, because you might already be out; even the game’s most thoughtful and deliberate players will have to play like there’s a fire chasing them down. A lot of players are thinking like Chatain, hoping to score a few quick points or get a bonus to buy some time.

At 7PM, the doors open again, and the fans stream into the 70 seats in the center of the room. They’re mostly friends, family, and fellow competitors — Lau walks in waving an enormous American flag, Scharl’s family starts yelling his name as soon as they see him. I see two signs for Pomykalski: one reads “Jakub the Polish Punisher’’ in cartoonish blue and green letters, and the other says in red, “Jakub never #REFs.” (That is a very good Excel joke.) One person holds a handmade sign featuring Clippy saying, “Go Dim!” and almost immediately, a “Clippy, Clippy” chant erupts from the crowd. The night is off to a roaring start.

At 7:30PM on the dot, Stephen Rose, a former Microsoft marketing manager with a graying beard and a shock of black hair who is the evening’s emcee, quiets the crowd. The lights go down, and the livestream begins. As Rose greets the competitors and viewers, I find Grigolyunovich standing off to the side of the bleachers. He’s been running around nonstop for hours getting set up and finally paused to take it all in. He seems sincerely shocked that this is happening. “Back in the ModelOff days, I was really thinking that ‘this deserves to be an esport, with the crowd cheering and the whole world watching.’” He gestures out at that vision coming to life. The whole world might not be tuned in just yet, but this is a step toward that.

Onstage, Rose is bellowing into his microphone, introducing each player with all the gusto of a WWE announcer bringing Roman Reigns into the ring. He has nicknames for everyone: Andrew “The Annihilator” Ngai, Peter “The Swiftie Sensation” Scharl, and Curtis “The Beer Hunter” Landry are a few of his best. Each player has been instructed to come down the Hype Tunnel and pose before making their way onto the stage. The next few minutes provide an exceedingly broad definition of the term “pose.” Scharl mimics LeBron James’ chalk-throwing move, Chatain fist-pumps his way down the tunnel, Ngai stops and grinningly waves at the camera with both hands, and several competitors just walk casually past the green lights.

Andrew Ngai came into the weekend a two-time winner — and a favorite to three-peat.

Eventually everyone gets settled, and the competition begins. The night’s first case is called Excel Superheroes, designed by Grigolyunovich himself. In it, there’s a cast of superheroes, each with different strengths and weaknesses, and each player’s job is to forecast how they’ll do competing against one another in lots of different scenarios.

Rose says go, and the most problematic thing about competitive Excel becomes blindingly obvious to me once again: it is damn near impossible to figure out what’s going on. All eight players are moving so fast and doing so many things with keyboard shortcuts and formulas that there’s practically no way to see what they’re doing until it’s already done. What’s happening around me looks like a sport, it’s lit like a sport, and the anxiety levels suggest aggressive competition, but even the other competitors in the room can barely keep up. They’re squinting at the screens in front of each workstation, trying to decipher each move. Really, they’re mostly just waiting for the score to update.

In the commentary booth, du Soleil and Acampora are doing their best to keep up and explain the maneuvers, but watching eight spreadsheet whizzes simultaneously requires multitasking brainpower I’m not sure any human can attain. And if you can figure out what =SUM(CODE(MID(LOWER(SUBSTITUTE(SUBSTITUTE(C3,”:”,””) means in the few seconds it’s shown onscreen, well, you should come to Vegas next year.

Like the rest of the crowd, I mostly resort to scoreboard-watching and cheer every time the commentators go back to show a particularly cool formula or trick a player did. The scores change wildly and frequently: a lot of players tend to solve a whole level at once, adding dozens or hundreds of points to their total in an instant. They’ll jump from last to second to sixth to first, and as the clock ticks down, things move even faster. Even if you don’t know what’s happening — and I really don’t — it’s still pretty intense.

There’s also drama immediately. Ngai, the reigning champ, is eliminated after the first seven and a half minutes. But when Rose taps him on the shoulder to let him know he’s done, Ngai can’t believe it. He’d gotten a bonus question and solved the first two levels already, and he was in last? From my view in the stands, he had a point: the scoreboard had shown him at the bottom of the scoreboard even as it showed him completing things, then it briefly jumped him to third place, before knocking him down again. Ngai walks offstage, incredulous, and is obviously mad as Grigolyunovich quizzes him to figure out what happened.

For the rest of the heat, the competitors seem to be constantly checking the scoreboard. Every time Chatain submits an answer, he spins around in his chair to make sure it shows up; Scharl and others also pointedly check to make sure they’re getting things right. In the last minute or so of the round, the rankings jump around, and with only a few seconds before the round ends, Pomykalski suddenly puts 204 additional points on the board, dropping Chatain from fourth to fifth and out of the competition. As du Soleil screams in disbelief, Chatain appears shocked. “I looked at the screen when I heard a shout” with about 30 seconds remaining, he tells me right after he walks offstage, “but the audience was on the screen! When the scores came back, there were only two seconds left.”

The second semifinal, a case based on a bunch of numbers games, is less chaotic. Lianna Gerrish, the only woman in the top 16, is eliminated first. Early, the favorite to win, writes a wildly complicated two-line formula into a cell that ends in six parentheses and impresses all the experts in the room. There is a pair of brothers in this heat — Harry and Dan Seiders, who I’m told are very competitive with one another — and at one point, Dan is eliminated, but Rose accidentally taps Harry on the shoulder instead. Early wins, to no one’s surprise, and the eight-person final is set.

We take a brief break, and then it’s time for the last round. After much deliberation with the organizers and the other contestants, Ngai is allowed back in. Whatever went wrong was about the score-keeping system, not Ngai’s answers. But now there are nine competitors and eight computers, so Scharl is shunted offstage to one of the computers around the arena, where he dutifully reloads his setup, searches “Taylor Swift playlist” on YouTube, dons his headphones, and signals he’s ready to go. The crowd chants, “Three, two, one, Excel!” and the final begins.

The final case comes courtesy of one of the event’s sponsors, video game Eve Online. In it, each competitor is mining asteroids, building fleets of spaceships, and dealing with market prices for various materials. Their job is to calculate various requirements and costs for building a single ship, then for building the whole fleet, then actually working out how to acquire minerals from asteroids around the universe. It’s hugely complicated: Brandon Moyer, the first finalist eliminated, tells Rose that “I have no idea what that case even was.”

But the others charge along, at least for a while. By about the fourth of the case’s seven levels, nearly everyone seems to stall out — some go back to their initial model and try to solve the whole thing a new way, while others just start trying to attack bonus questions. Early, at one point, looks back to check the scoreboard, only to see his own face on the big screen — he’s just been eliminated in fourth place. As he stands up to leave the stage, Rose says he looks a little frazzled. How does he feel? “A little frazzled, yeah,” Early replies.

The youngest finalist in Vegas, Patrick Chatain lost in heart-breaking fashion.

The final three players are Ngai, Michael Jarman, and Willem Gerritsen. Ngai took a commanding lead almost immediately in the round and never let up. With about 50 seconds left in the round, Gerritsen, who has been staring blankly at his screen for a while, just throws his hands up and gives up. A few seconds later, Ngai takes off his headphones and looks over at Jarman, making sure there’s no magic last-second comeback in the works. There isn’t: Jarman stands up and, along with Gerritsen, starts congratulating Ngai. Rose counts down the time, and his voice cracks as he shouts for “our new Microsoft Excel World Champion, Andrew Ngai!” Ngai walks to the front of the stage, waving to the crowd, before thanking all the other competitors and brushing off the “technical difficulties” from the semifinal.

“For the team that organized it,” he says, “don’t feel bad; these things happen. It worked out in the end!”

For such a huge moment, it’s over pretty fast. There’s no drawn-out celebration, no “I’m going to Disney World!” moment, no post-game analysis. There’s just a quick trophy presentation for both these finals and the financial modeling competition, which Lau won — he goes up and collects a trophy he previously told me he didn’t even want, along with a championship ring I’m told he specially requested. Then Ngai is given his trophy and the large championship belt, which is so big it barely stays in place around his waist. Rose thanks everyone in the arena and on the livestream, tells people to come win the championship for themselves next year, and says goodnight.

The players migrate over to the bar, and before long, folks start to filter out. They have jobs to get back to, family vacations to continue in Vegas. Just before I leave the arena, all the finalists, broadcasters, and organizers gather onstage to take a few pictures. Du Soleil crouches in front of the group, and Ngai holds up his trophy. Lau, still in sunglasses and still with the American flag draped over his arm, holds up his prize, too.

This group will go down in history as one of two things. They could be the first generation of a new sport, the ones who turn Excel from a work tool to a playing field and change the way the world looks at spreadsheets. Or they could be just a group of friends and colleagues who like to play games together — but instead of playing Fortnite or Catan, they play Excel. Like a lot of folks in the room that night, I think I’ve come to hope for the first outcome but would bet on the second. These are the world’s best spreadsheeters, able to turn a chaotic universe into rows and columns and then bend that universe to their will, but the prize for Excel excellence is much higher at the office than it will ever be in the arena. Even the competitors mostly seem happy to spend a weekend doing a Tiger Woods impression before going back to their real lives and real jobs. Nobody practices Excel to get famous.

Grigolyunovich, meanwhile, is already thinking about next year. There will be bigger prize pools — though probably still not enough to get Lau to play — plus more wrinkles in the earlier rounds and more chances for new people to get involved. But tonight, in an honest-to-goodness arena, there was a cheering crowd and real stakes and nonstop drama. Maybe the Excel World Championship will never be mainstream. Maybe the celebrities in this room won’t ever be celebrities outside of it. But Grigolyunovich proved something to himself tonight. Spreadsheets can be anything. They can even be sports.

Written by David Pierce
This news first appeared on https://www.theverge.com/c/24133822/microsoft-excel-spreadsheet-competition-championship under the title “Spreadsheet Superstars”. Bolchha Nepal is not responsible or affiliated towards the opinion expressed in this news article.