The fighting game genre has been around for over 30 years, and since the beginning it has always been 1 vs. 1, last man standing wins. There is an entire generation of us who grew up pumping endless quarters into arcade cabinets at our local pizza parlor. Every round we got better and learned something new to give us the advantage in our next match.
Fighting games are a unique form of PvP games in that they are one of the few that focus on 1 vs.1 competition. It can make for some truly agonizing defeats, but also amazing celebrations in victory. When you emerge victorious it’s because you did it. Matches are also pretty fast, taking anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes as opposed to a 60 minute MOBA or Battle Royale match.
This tight iteration loop coupled with a focus on the self create a state of Kaizen for the player. Kaizen is a continuous process of reflection, improvement, and iteration. One that doesn’t truly end.
Earlier this year I wrote a paper titled “Fighting Games and the Growth Mindset.” It focuses on the skills you learn playing fighting games and how you can apply them to everyday life. In this article I’d like to share some of the more ubiquitous topics. If you are interested, please make sure to check out the full paper on the SSRN library.
We've all been there. The desperate struggle to win, a moment of weakness, or maybe it was just picking up the stick for the first time. We button mashed. We blindly pressed anything and everything in an effort to make magic happen. Sometimes it did happen. We'd let a soaring Dragon Punch rip, knocking our opponent out of the air. Felt good didn't it?
Bad news. Button mashing will only get you so far. It's a blind, thoughtless approach. You aren't thinking, you aren't executing, you are flailing. Any opponent worth their salt can spot this behavior from a mile away, and they will take advantage of it 100% of the time. It's easy to capitalize on this behavior because it has no strategy, no plan of attack. But that's ok, we all start somewhere. It's time to learn, it’s time to practice, and it’s time to push yourself because we’re in it for the long game.
Start by taking a look at your buttons. What tools do you have at your disposal? Take the time to press each one and see what you get. Be mentally present and remember what each button does. Let's establish the rules of the game so we can begin to act with intent. You don't have to know what's good and what isn't yet. Just get into the practice of slowing down and analyzing what’s in front of you. Train your brain to learn from your actions and analyze your results. This will be the bedrock of your growth.
An important part of this process is analysis and reflection, it will be the bedrock from which we learn everything. Be mentally present and review results in real time so that the next time you have to make a decision you have that much more data to inform the correct path forward.
Hit Boxes and Hurt Boxes
In fighting games each attack has a hit box and hurt box. The hit box is the portion of the attack where you can deal damage to your opponent. The hurt box is where your character can be dealt damage. Think of it this way, when you throw out a low forward kick, your foot is what’s going to hurt the foe. But what if the opponent jumps over your attack and hits you in the face? That’s your hurt box.
Let’s look at Ryu’s low forward again. Red is his hitbox, and yellow is his hurtbox.
While it sounds simple, these are the building blocks of all fighting games. I’m trying to hit you without being hit - also known as risk assessment.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of each attack? More importantly, what are the strengths and weaknesses of your tactics? It always feels good to land a successful hit, but it’s important to know where your blind spots are. Analyzing your risks will help you mitigate them preemptively and leave less opportunities for your tactics to fail.
It’s pretty easy to analyze a straight punch right? What about a combo of four hits in a row? Can you spot the opening and counterattack? How can you apply this analytical thinking to your everyday life? Identify the strengths. Expose the risks.
By now you’re going to be dancing with your opponent. Throwing a couple punches trying to hit the opponent. This is called footsies. No - it’s not the awkward thing you did under the table with your fling in high school. This is a fast paced back and forth, where rapid fire decision making guides your execution.
In the real world you make countless decisions everyday. Do I run the red light and risk getting a ticket, or stop and risk being late? Do I ask that cute person out at the bar and risk the answer being no, or save face but go home alone.
It all amounts to calculating the odds. FGC players calculate odds at blistering speeds a hundred times a round, ever trying to find the optimal path to success. How do you begin training your brain? Step one, turn off autopilot and be mentally present. It’s ok if it doesn’t come easy at first. Afterall, how many red lights have we just casually run through. How many rounds have we fought online until everything goes fuzzy. When you feel yourself drift, that’s the moment to double down and refocus your mind.
By now we’ve covered some new material. It could feel awkward at first, you are using new muscles after all. The best way to train these muscles? Practice! Or what we call in the FGC: lab time. Think of the lab as your gym. You gotta train to improve your fastest mile time. Just like you gotta train on your combos before you can execute under pressure.
It can be intoxicating to dive in head first into competitive play. You want to climb that ladder, you want to level up, you want to run that 6 minute mile. But what would happen if you started your training by sprinting from the get go? Cramps, exhaustion, worst case a muscle tear. Ouch. You gotta build up. Set aside time specifically to train before going into primetime.
Here are some pointers for a successful practice session..
Focus on what you are doing and try to eliminate distractions. Don’t multitask, if you divide your efforts your results will suffer.
Allow yourself breaks every now and then. It’s easy to get sucked in and try to master everything all at once, but taking 5 minutes to step away and refresh will help.
Keep a positive mindset. It’s going to be especially hard when you are practicing something different. Pros can still make mistakes in tournaments.
Break it down. Instead of trying to learn a massive combo all at once. Learn bite sized pieces of it, then put it all together. Take a couple topics at a time to put into practice before moving on. Another example, learn to dribble before you focusing on shooting.
FGC players will often tell you that time in the lab is as important as playing competitively. Not only does it build up muscles and execution, it’s where you can collect data, iterate, and test new ideas. When you are focused on winning the round, you may not be thinking about new ideas - you are thinking about how to win. The lab is a safe space to test new tech and uncover the new, next best tactic. Winning tournaments feels good, but set aside some time to practice each day. I personally try to play 15-20 minutes of lab time when I fire up a fighter just to hone my skills before jumping online. Same as you would lightly jog before going for a run, or practice some hoops before a game of basketball. Are you allowing yourself enough practice time to level up?
As you take on more and more opponents and evolve your plan, you might find yourself trying a myriad of new techniques. Some will work, others will not. That’s ok, because failure is a growth opportunity. What’s important is how you approach your tool chest. At any moment you may have dozens of tools at your disposal. How should you go about selecting which ones to use?
All fighting games are about placing bets and risk assessment. I believe my opponent is going to act one way, so I will act in another to counterattack. That belief is a bet, and believe it or not you are placing dozens each round you play. There is a commonly accepted betting principle called the Kelly Criterion Betting Theory. It goes into great depth as to optimally place bets when odds and outcomes are unknown, but we can apply the thought process and logic to everyday decision making as well.
Look at your tool chest. Look at all those options inside of it. We have our bread and butter techniques, and we may have our less used surprise techniques. The Criterion Betting theory suggests we place as many bets as we can safely and analyze which ones pay off the most. The ones that don’t yield results should be disregarded, so that we can redeploy our efforts on the bets that do pay off. Think of it like doubling down when you have the highest confidence.
Did throwing fireballs work? Yes. Keep throwing them.
Did dashing forward and throwing work? No. Less throws..
Did jumping in work? No? Stop jumping.
Did sweeping low in the neutral game work? Yes? More of that.
And so on.
Trying several different tactics up front will expose your opponent’s weak points quickly and allow you to focus the remainder of your efforts capitalizing on that weakness. If your opponent foolishly jumps a lot, keep letting those dragon punches rip until he or she stops jumping and the opportunity dries up. Recognizing when it’s time to pivot is as important as recognizing the opportunity in the first place.
The FGC is intensively competitive with pros hailing from all over the world. Tournaments both local and regional can bring in hundreds of thousands of players - all eager to prove themselves and win. At first it can be daunting, but that tension can be good as it will keep you on your best game. Stress can affect even the most seasoned veteran’s execution and the only way to get better is to play and practice. There is no substitute for tournament pressure - but being calm, cool and collected under pressure will make you that much better at executing.
Tournaments are also one of the few places to expand your horizons by challenging new players from around the world with different skill sets and even the pros themselves. Building comprehensive experience against a wide range of opponents is incredibly valuable. Sure, playing friendlies with your buddy every weekend is fun and can grow your skills - but you will only ever build experience against that specific matchup. How you play a specific character is only one perspective and there are hundreds of thousands out there.
At first it may feel a little rough; the competition is fierce. But that’s ok. Don’t focus on the defeat - focus on what you learned. Every match is an opportunity to learn something and as long as you are growing, you are winning. Ditch your ego, don’t assign blame, own your mistakes, and go in humble. If you can do that you’re already ahead of 90% of players out there. The pros didn’t get to where they are by beating up on the new kid, they took big swings at players who were better than them. The more you play with fierce competition the faster you will level up, even if you take the occasional pummeling. Use it as your inspiration to get better - because one day you will get your rematch.
Don’t Scrub Out
Winning and defeat are important topics. Everyone wants to win and sometimes that desire for gratification can short circuit our growth. Daigo, a famous fighting game pro with several tournament wins has said, “being the best is more important than winning.” If you focus on just winning you lose sight of the growth and skills you need to develop to win.
Winning is not a linear end state or destination. Traveling to a destination has a start and a finish, but we never want to stop growing - its a continuous process. Remember the concept of Kaizen from earlier? Victories and winning tournaments will be a part of that journey, but grow your skills and the victories will follow. Picture it like a circle vs. a straight line.
“Scrub” is a term that gets thrown around a lot and can mean many things, but ultimately a scrub player is a low skill, low effort player. Often times we say that a tactic is scruby or cheap, referring to something that is gimmicky. It may work on occasion, but a cheap trick is a novelty at best and easily seen through. Scrubs will often take the path of least resistance to get a win - doubling down on low effort higher yield tricks to get a win, but they never push themselves beyond that point. For example, a scrub would immediately look at this article and find the section on “winning,” then skip to it.
Relay and Retro
In sports we often see the replay camera. He narrowly made it into the endzone! But was he actually out of bounds? Reviewing plays can be a great way to understand truths in a grokkable way that we couldn’t in real time. We say, “everything happened so fast!” Well the same is true in fighting games.
In the heat of the moment you are making split second decisions in rapid fire. In those moments it can be hard to pull back and review your play in real time. At a macro level how are you doing, beyond just the moment to moment? That’s when reviewing your own play can be really beneficial.
Most fighters nowadays feature replay modes that allow you to rewatch your matches. This can be retrospective and helpful. What went well? What didn’t? And most importantly, what did you learn? Seeing how you play will expose your strengths and weaknesses. Sure you can see where you dropped a combo here or missed an input there (fix that in the lab), but more important are your tendencies. Do you notice any patterned behavior? Going back to what we were saying earlier, what comfort zones were you operating in that you could push yourself out of? This is also a great time to re-evaluate your strategies and tactics to ensure they are the right ones. Is Akuma the right character for you? Or is his style of play misaligned with your own?
Add retro to your training regime. Start off in the lab to warm up, take the fight online, record your matches, and review them aftward. Reflection is a key ingredient of self improvement and it will help you take your game plan to the next level.
Feedback is a Gift
Thus far we’ve largely relied on our self for growth and development. Training, mental positioning, reflection, and more. Our peers can also be a source of wisdom and learning too. Local groups and meetups are a great spot to build relationships and get face to face feedback.
When you are asking for feedback it’s easy to become defensive or feel attacked. Especially when the occasional scrub starts running his or her mouth. But set that aside for a moment and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Ask your opponent what they thought of the match. Ask them what they thought of your play. Ask them what you could have done better. It won’t be easy, asking about weakness is hard for anyone to do, but you have to put yourself out there. Most people will reciprocate the honesty when they see you making the effort.
There are entire business books devoted to giving good feedback. My experience has taught me that honesty, objectivity, and actionability are the best tools to ensure your message has been received. Honesty is important because the person asking genuinely wants to learn. Objectivity is crucial because you are evaluating the game not the player.
“You are bad.” This is a judgement of the player and not helpful to growth.
“When you play Ryu, you jump a lot and get hit.” This is an objective assessment.
Finally all feedback should be actionable. The recipient should be able to make meaningful change after hearing it.
“Ryu is a bad character.” This isn’t actionable. Maybe he is, but that’s an opinion and you can’t learn from it.
“Ryu really struggles with his jump attacks, they aren’t good options vs. just poking in the neutral game.” This is actionable and you can learn from it.
The first step to feedback is vulnerability both for the recipient and the person delivering it. Both people need trust and empathy, and face to face will always be better than text.
Finding a Mentor
When you are exploring local meetups and playing face to face, this is also a great opportunity to find a mentor. Anyone who is investing in their growth should seek one out. A great mentor will have a variety of skills, but here are some skills to look for.
Excited to teach
Solid communication skills and feedback
Possess skills that you want to learn
Invested in people and their growth
Mentorships can last anywhere from a couple months to several years. What’s important is creating the dialogue and setting up regular 1:1 sessions. Speaking from personal experience, my mentor coached me over the course of 2 years in Ultra Street Fighter IV before I went to my first Evo. I may have played fighting games prior to that, but my mentor helped me find my path and challenged me week over week to walk it. Now almost 2,000 miles away we still schedule regular sessions to train and learn from each other - and not just in fighting games but also in the games industry and leadership.
There are a variety of ways to share knowledge but I like to break it down into 3 categories:
Teaching - Unilateral exchange of information where the teacher is telling you how to do a thing. This is the commonly accepted way of how to do something. For example, “you throw a fireball rolling from down to forward and pressing a punch.”
Mentoring - More tailored exchange based on the relationship and feedback. Generally the mentor here is an expert in this field so their advice is wise. This is how the teacher would do something. For example, “I believe Ryu is at his best when he plays footsies with his opponent and outranges them.”
Coaching - Discussion focused without a singular answer. Coaches help their students understand the problem set, and help them draw out their solutions. They focus primarily on the why and don’t tell how to solve a problem. They observe, provide feedback, and offer guidance, but ultimately it’s up the student to walk the path. For example, “why do you think you lost that match?”
It’s important to note that no one way is right, and oftentimes they overlap. Each situation calls for its own method of sharing knowledge. Sometimes you will need the fundamental building blocks to level up, and other times there may not be a clear path forward. Your own reflection and exploration will be needed.
John Wooden, famed coach of the UCLA Bruins for over 25 years was renowned for his coaching talent. In addition to coaching his team on the skills they needed to win 10 national championships, he sought to make them better people on and off the court. He has authored several books and once said, “Every piece of knowledge is something that has been shared by someone else. If you understand it as I do, mentoring becomes your true legacy. It is the greatest inheritance you can give to others.”
Find someone who shares this passion for education and learn from them because one day it will be you who passes down what you have learned.
If you are interested in learning more about fighting games can help you level up outside the ring, please read my full paper on the SSRN and let me know your thoughts.