Return of the Dominator: Seth Killian Revisits Domination 101

By on October 14, 2013 at 10:36 am
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Over ten years ago, Seth “S-Kill” Killian wrote a series of columns for Shoryuken.com called Domination 101 that tackled fighting games from a different angle. Killian wrote about playing against your opponent’s psychology, not their character; about preparing your mind, not your optimal combos. Countless players — myself included — can point to Domination 101 as a turning point in their own personal fighting game journey.

But ten years is a long time. The games are different, and so are the people who play them. And so is Seth. So I decided to see what he thought about Domination 101: What he’d keep, what he’d cut, and what he’d do if he picked it back up for a second round.

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Patrick Miller: First off: Why’d you write Domination 101 originally?

Seth Killian:I had a lot of ideas roiling around in my head, and I liked to argue with people. That was basically it. 🙂

I figured a column format was kind of a thing, though it’s clear the articles don’t really stick to that format at all. I was most interested in the theoretical ideas behind the games, and then how those ideas got applied (or not) by players, at the intersection of game systems and psychology. I guess I just wanted to talk about the deeper general concepts, and also to debunk a lot of misunderstandings that were still floating around at the time.

A lot of the concepts–even the basics of how we understand fighting game strategy today–had never been analyzed or even written down before. Looking back, I’m surprised at how the concepts and even the terminology has stuck around to today. Of course it could have been done better, but at that time nobody was talking like that about fighting games or thinking about things systematically.

It’s not like people were talking about controlling space or explaining the Ume-Shoryu at the time–it just wasn’t happening. Much like now, the discussion was centered around particular things like wake-up strategies for a certain character, or option selects, with nobody really talking about what it meant in general, or the way psychology (beyond simple yomi) factors into the match.

PM: Many newer SRK readers that have just read Domination 101 are often surprised by the rougher tone than post-Capcom S-Kill. Would you change it if you were to rewrite Dom101? Why were you so mean?

SK: Wow, that’s actually a big question. I think there are two primary reasons, one having to do with all the environment at that time, and the other personal.

The scene and the discussion back then was very different. SF culture online came from a place where everybody thought they were the best, based on some very local experience. They all thought they were speaking from a place of knowledge and understanding, and while there were good ideas, there was also a staggering amount of misinformation. I think it’s hard for people coming into the scene in the past few years to understand just how confused almost everybody was back then about some very basic concepts.

As an example, I remember flame wars over whether “jumping roundhouse, crouching roundhouse” was a combo (!!). Lots of people thought you could block it if you were “fast enough” or whatever. I’d never fault anyone for being wrong (a lot of concepts are extremely complex and there was no way to get solid info), but they weren’t just wrong–they were wrong, loudly wrong, and in the majority.

We didn’t have good home versions, or training modes, and even people who had gone to the lengths of buying their own boards just had to keep putting in credits and holding two joysticks to experiment–it was extremely hard to get good info. The experimental tools were terrible. No info from publishers, no good way to consistently test things, and no way to share videos even if you did something cool.

When you pair the extreme difficulty of sharing clear evidence with a lot of confident-but-confused loudmouths, it was literally drowning the scene in crap, having the same arguments again and again, and making people want to quit trying. So the occasionally mean/mocking tone had two purposes. The valuable side of being mean was that it gave you a way to cut through the noise. In the Usenet days, you could argue for weeks with people and they would never budge, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

I eventually realized that, unlike good arguments and solid evidence, hitting them with a zinger and parodying their views seemed to work better to make a point, while also being fun to read for other people (lots of YouTube stars and even political pundits have the same shtick). So I thought I’d try to do that, while hopefully also including some legitimate discussion.

So the tone was mean, but on purpose and self-consciously. Maybe that’s not a good enough excuse, but writing like that did seem to quickly expose the people who were never going to understand, and managed to stomp out some pretty crappy arguments that were taking up a huge amount of mindshare back then (it was no accident that the first article was “On Cheapness”).

As for me personally, I started out angry, competitive. I didn’t have a lot of control over some things in my life, but in games, the control was mine. I could rub someone’s face in how foolish they were, and it felt amazing. “See how dumb you are? Don’t you even realize you always jump in after my second fireball? I can read you like a book!” This is part of the exhilaration of fighting games, and a thrilling feeling for a skinny pencil-necked nerd. I can walk into an arcade and just school all sorts of guys, much bigger and older than me, even the dangerous-looking ones.

Back then, I treated Internet discussions about the game the same way I treated the game itself. I discovered Street Fighter and the Internet around the same time, so they were deeply intertwined in my head. I treated them both like games where you could antagonize another person until you won, with no lasting harm. SF is probably still that way, but in the time since then, the internet has become a big part of our real lives. Today, being a jerk on the internet is just being a jerk, so I grew up a little and stopped acting like that.

Growing into adulthood in the FGC and watching it over time has also changed my attitude. I still like to make fun of things, but now with a little perspective I think twice before popping off. Some of you have children. Some of you will suffer personal tragedies. Many of my best friends are from this scene, and I guess I finally learned that people on the internet are real! At the end of the day, we love the same things.

It’s also easier now for me to be nice even when people are jerks or are yelling, etc. because I recognize my former self in them, and I see it all as a part of something we helped to build. It’s a good thing. A unique thing. Is it flawed? Of course! We made it ourselves, flying by the seat of our pants, with no budget and no examples. Things are better today, but it still comes from the same place–we love the same things, and we all need one another to make a scene.

I think (or hope at least!) that most people that know or have met me in real life, even back then, would agree that I’m not a big jerk. I like to laugh and make fun of things, but it’s always been at myself more often than anything. At the end of the day, even though I typically wrote in a way designed to irritate confused people (which still happens–even 13 years later I get random hate mail telling me I’m a cheap bastard), I wrote the articles because I wanted people to have a better understanding of the thing we all loved.

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PM: Is it just me, or were most of us in general a bit more mean and hostile to newcomers in the pre-SF4 era? Do you think the overall community expectations for behavior have changed over the years?

The signal-to-noise ratio was just really bad back then. About 80% of everything people posted was just wrong, or majorly misguided, but it takes time to figure that stuff out, and nobody wanted to listen. It was more like a bar brawl than a serious discussion.

“Noobs” back then were also a bit different–many of them had actually been playing for many years, and were even successful players, but just in a very local scene, with no idea that things were perhaps much different elsewhere. They were less “hey guys, will somebody tell me what to do? Thanks!” than “I’m the best, you guys all suck, I got a 40 game win streak and nobody can beat Ken.” So they were less “noobs” than ignorant, which prompts more hostility in responses and closes down good discussion.

As for community expectations, I do think they have changed. You catch more flies with honey, so the overall tone has shifted to nice guys being nice. That’s great for attracting a crowd and fun times with social media, but it may not propel as many to great heights. In the arcades, playing at the SF machine was simple. You didn’t need to worry about niceness there, and if you could prove yourself, you earned respect.

I think there’s a real value to both approaches. We worked really hard to be in this club. If you want in, you have to earn it. You have to be nice in your daily life, but SF was not a game built around not being nice, it was about defending your quarter, beating your opponent into submission, and taking their money.

So while I’m happy with niceness when it’s genuine, I think that’s what a lot of people misunderstand about the “OGs” from the 1990s. It’s not that they are mean people (quite the contrary—many of the “harsh” OGs are actually incredibly kind people that would and do give others the shirts off their backs, and many have become organizational pillars of the scene), it’s that they liked the idea that membership in the club really meant something—it reflected a lot of hard work.

That’s less important now, so while the scene as a whole has grown, and the average skill of players has increased, you don’t have to work as hard to be a solid player. There are great tutorials and resources to push you forward all over the internet. This is a natural evolution and a good thing for the scene overall, but it’s also not impossible to understand that OG perspective. If you worked your butt off to become a Navy SEAL, and later they lower the requirements, it somewhat devalues the fact that you did it back when it was really hard.

That doesn’t mean there won’t still be great new SEALs that do amazing things, but they might not have had to work as hard as you did to reach the same level. This kind of gripe is the eternal plight of old people everywhere though, and the history is very clear: nobody cares 🙂 That said, I think it’s worth at least explaining the attitude isn’t crazy, and doesn’t necessarily come from a place of anger.

PM: “Draw This!” is surprisingly relevant these days, considering the hubbub about collusion and pot-splitting. Dom101-era S-Kill came out against hard forms of policing pot splitting and collusion; has your opinion changed at all 10 years later?

SK: My feelings haven’t changed, but it’s interesting to watch a new crop of top players struggle with the same issues that caused me to write the article. It was a big deal for me at the time because the people splitting pots were good friends of mine. It was also not widely known what was happening (no streams, often limited or no video at all), so it was very difficult.

Watching it unfold again today, the arguments were pretty much exactly the same 10 years ago. “It’s their money, how can you know what’s in someone else’s head, who cares they’re just having fun,” etc. That said, if you expect people to take competitive play seriously, much less give you lots of money for doing it, the respect for the integrity of the competition has to be there from the players themselves. If you don’t take it seriously during times where we’ve assembled to take it seriously, you can’t expect anybody else to do it either (much less give you money for your ability). It doesn’t just hurt the other competitors, spectators, and the people who organized the event, it threatens the entire basis of the scene if it’s coming from the best players.

I know nobody wants to take a stand against pot splitting–of course it’s obviously true that it’s their money, and they are allowed to have friends and share it how they wish, and it’s impossible to police, but even pot-splitting undercuts the integrity of the competition to some degree. For me, the question isn’t “What’s allowed?”, it’s “What’s ideal?” It’s true that it’s functionally impossible to stop pot splits, but ideally everyone would play their hardest in competition because they want to win, and they want to be the undisputed best.

Even if you buy everybody else dinner after the event, you played your hardest so you could be the one truly on top. That may not be present in every single match, but without that kind of passion at some level, no competitive activity can have value and endure. If that’s too much to ask, then yes, the bare minimum is to play seriously and put on a good show.

PM: It seems to me that the “scrub” mentality isn’t quite as prevalent as it once was; online play and readily-accessible videos of high-level play seem to do a good job of tempering new players’ expectations with regards to “cheapness” (or perhaps it just scares them away earlier). Would you agree? Does the modern-day scrub look or behave differently than they did in 2003? Or are we gradually driving them extinct?

SK: I agree that the “scrub” in the form of the generally confused player is probably gone. If you’re interested enough to want to play, the rise of the internet has given everyone easy access to world-class information, but of course that’s only half the battle. I see good players make mistakes discussed in Dom101 at Every. Single. Tournament. Even great players make these mistakes from time to time, but the mid-level hustlers make them a lot. The general understanding of mechanics, basic tactics, and combos are all there, but I’m not sure the metagame discussions have moved on very much. I see good things once in a while (like Viscant’s writing) and good commentary and post-match analysis has awakened a lot of players to the concepts, but I still think there’s a long way to go.

PM: In “So You Want To Be A Dominator…” you wrote: “the amount you can teach someone in a patronizing, playing-with-the-kid-gloves way is pretty limited.” I’m curious: Do you still think that way? Was this sentiment in reaction to a dominant attitude you saw at the time?

SK: I think it depends on the goal for the person. There’s understanding the game, and then there’s drive to win. Of course people have to understand the basics, and tutorials can be great for that, but ultimately you have to find your own style, your own approach, and your own source of spark of genuine drive and dedication. I’ve never seen that come out of a tutorial.

We all agree it’s silly to have a first-time player compete against the EVO top 8, but once you’ve got a handle on the basics, I do think you should push yourself to face strong opponents quickly. That’s really what I’m getting at–you’ll learn vastly more by going all out against your opponent than anywhere else. Ideally you’ll be faced with only slightly superior opponents throughout your journey (and some competitive games are good about doing this online), but the range of what you can endure depends on your dedication. The most dedicated players are willing to slog through playing vastly superior opponents, trying to come away with a nugget of knowledge or understanding even while they are beaten senseless. Others are not. It’s a question of dedication vs challenge, and the greater the dedication, the more crap you’re willing to wade through.

If it’s not supplemented by no-holds-barred play, I think watching tutorials and replays trains a good spectator, but I don’t know if you can produce a great competitor that way. They’ll understand how someone won, and maybe correct a commentators error, but they may not really understand the deeper “why” behind the win, or how to achieve that themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, and not every player has to target greatness, but I think it’s worth a try!

I had wins at majors and competed at the top level for many years. It became clear to me eventually that I was not a truly great player, but it didn’t stop me from kicking some truly great players’ asses along the way. By aiming for greatness and coming up below there but still among the top competitors, I learned a great deal about myself as a person, and was able to find peace with the game. I count it as one of the most rewarding experiences in my life, and for me at least, being thrown in at the deep end of the pool was the best way to inspire me. I can accept that that’s not true in every case, but it’s true for just about every top player I’ve ever known.

It really comes down to what inspires that dedication. There are different ways to climb the same mountain, but I think it comes from getting hit in the mouth (virtually of course) by another human and saying to yourself “That’s not going to happen again. What do I need to do?”

PM: “Controlling space” is kind of a classic that not so many other folks have touched upon since then, but after watching the Evo finals, it seems to me that the topic is just as relevant as ever. How do you think players ought to practice paying attention to controlling space?

SK: To me, it’s less of a conscious, moment-to-moment thing than it is a way to understand the overall flow of the match, and a clear way of pointing at where your character can be effective. Character X wants to deny you this space, and you want to occupy it. A great player will instinctively deny you that space, and you might feel frustrated and ineffective but it can be hard to put your finger on exactly why. With a good understanding of you and your opponent’s optimal space, you can see lots more opportunities, or how sometimes finding a way to overcome a single move or technique can totally change the match up, and get you back into the area where your character and techniques can be effective again.

I thought it was important to articulate this concept clearly because I saw (and still see) a lot of good players losing because their opponent just keeps them out of position. Understanding that you lost because you got hit with a mixup or dropped your combos is easy, and there’s an easy solution. But a lot of people lose because they’re basically being rendered overall ineffective by a better player who is keeping them out of their optimal screen space. They don’t get the chance to land their combos or try their mixups because they’re out of position, and kept there.

Of course, Chris G and Morrigan teams are a clinic in space control–for over a year, we’ve watched teams built around mixups and rushdown just melt against it, because he’s playing a different game. I watched Mago knock Haitani out of some insane Makoto approaches (at the Capcom Cup qual at TGS) simply by jabbing into what looked like thin air, and it was a perfect illustration of controlling space. He was doing low-risk attacks into the space where she wanted to be, rather than where she was. If you can master this concept, you’re immediately playing on a higher level. If you recognize how an opponent is doing it, you can revisit your strategy, find a counter, and get back to the meat-and-potatoes attack strings that you formerly thought was most of the game.

PM: “Mental toughness” was another good one; who do you see excelling in this realm, and what would you recommend players do to emulate them?

SK: At the root level, the toughest players are the ones that get surprised the least. That may sound stupid, but that’s essentially the key. They know their matchups, and the possibility space, so as the match progresses, you aren’t shocked into re-calculating on the fly. That doesn’t mean you are able to avoid all mixups or win every guessing game, but it does mean that when you come out on the losing end of an exchange, your mind doesn’t get blown, and you don’t have to rethink the threat.

To borrow a little from comp sci, it comes down to the mental processing stack, and the number of things you have to actively evaluate. A new player has to evaluate a LOT of stuff, which is generally overwhelming and they aren’t sure which are the important parts where they need to focus their attention. Experience and mental toughness just equates to minimizing the number of things you have to actively compute and think about. When you get hit with something you didn’t anticipate at all or worse–something you don’t even understand–your mind gets blown.

That’s a very common way to lose, and all great players are very quick to capitalize on it. It introduces self-doubt, confusion, momentary paralysis, and fear, all of which basically mean you’re going to be leaning too hard on your defensive options or flailing on a reversal to make the pain stop. All of that makes you predictable, which means you’re going to get exploited (and maybe have your mind blown again), which is the domino’s falling that lead to a loss. If you can remain centered with “Yep, that happened. I made my play, and I came out the loser, but I know what happened and understand the available options” then you’re in an optimal place for whatever comes next.

Mental toughness has also become more important as tournament attendance grows. It’s exhausting to have to think through a lot of tough opponents, so the less you have to actively, carefully consider in each match, the more gas you can keep in the tank to get you through the really tough opponents.

PM: Out of all your Dom101 posts, which do you think most badly need a rewrite?

SK: Heh, probably all of them. I haven’t read through them in a long time but as I’ve said, the scene I was writing those for has transformed completely, and I have too. That’s probably why I don’t have any serious interest in rewriting–they are what they are for that time, warts and all. I stand by the concepts–those have stood the test of time–but the packaging is only relevant to a bygone era.

PM: If you came back from editorial retirement to do one more Dom101 post (maybe “Dom201”?), what would the topic be? What do you see now that you didn’t see before?

SK: I have a long list of metagame ideas, but in the short run I’d probably end up talking about Daigo (who should absolutely inspire anyone paying close attention), and what’s on the other side of winning. I was blown away by his attitude towards choosing Ryu in AE2012. I think a lot of people misunderstood that as simple character loyalty, being too proud to switch, or even misguided pride in not picking a top tier. It was none of those things, and he said exactly that. He plays Ryu because he feels the character lets him express himself at every point.

That sounds like flowery bullshit but it’s actually extremely interesting. Unlike a lot of very strong characters like Akuma or Cammy, Ryu has very few “set plays” (knockdown into your choice of vortex/unblockable). Obviously those techniques are very powerful, and creating them is fun, but he dislikes them in practice–not because they are strong, but because it basically takes away the element of inspiration. You aren’t really playing SF during a vortex, you play a real game to knock them down, but from there you’re on autopilot. Daigo is at his happiest when both he and his opponent are making meaningful choices. Vortex characters turn many situations into somewhat meaningless choices. There’s a guess, but often it’s just that–a guess.

I know some people laughed at me when I’ve mentioned this, and even a lot of smart players just file this under “he has failed to optimize his play to win at all costs.” That may be true, but it’s more nuanced, and I think it’s worth really thinking about precisely because he’s already achieved more than probably any other player in the world, and continues to be at the absolute top.

If it was somebody else saying this, I’d be more sympathetic to calling it bullshit excuses for losing. But Daigo has already been to the mountain top. Everyone is quick to call out familiar players that didn’t win EVO “washed up,” but his actual performances make it extremely clear he’s playing on an incredibly high level. He’s won practically every major competition around, and has been doing it with amazing consistency for close to 20 years. For anyone else, winning EVO or the old SBO would be career-defining moments, but for Daigo, it was Tuesday.

He still plays the game because it’s a great game, and dislikes the elements that reduce it to something else. He wants to beat you at a maximally interesting game, so he plays in what he considers the most rewarding way for him personally. He absolutely aims at winning, but wants to do it on his terms now, and the confines of characters built around set plays don’t interest him. They make SF more like autopilot, and games with a strong autopilot element (like Hokuto No Ken) aren’t ultimately very interesting. The genius of a great fighter is that while there are overall arcs to the match, there’s a moment-to-moment possibility for each player. It’s like a lively discussion (or maybe an argument), but vortex games make it more like a monologue, or a congressional filibuster. He plays to maximize meaningful choices.

Maybe he’s misguided, but I think it’s a topic worth exploring–even thinking about it for 5 minutes gave me lots of interesting perspectives about the relative virtues of games like Marvel as opposed to SF (both of which I love but for very different reasons).