I had never heard the term “Pot Monster” — basically, slang for the folks who continually enter tournaments knowing damn well they’re not good enough to have a shot at winning — until a few years ago. I think it’s kind of strange that people make fun of pot monsters, because I’ve managed to make it out to a handful of major tournaments this year, and now I’m convinced that pot monstering is actually the most time-efficient, cost-effective way for anyone to get better at fighting games. That’s why this week’s Lab Notes is dedicated to all the players out there who stay home and watch streams instead of going to tournaments because, “It’s a waste of money, I know I’m not going to win.”
Tournaments make you a better player
On the Friday night before West Coast Warzone this past weekend, I was chatting with a good friend of mine. He had been playing a lot of Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late over the past month and change, so I asked him if he was entering the tournament. He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and said something to the effect of, “Naw. I know I don’t have a shot at winning it.”
Now, I’m not one to judge how another person wants to spend his weekend — I think he ended up going to the beach instead — but I’m plenty familiar with his attitude myself. It shows up most frequently in people who were once at the high levels of competition in a game long past, know the kind of work they put in to get there, and realize that since they’re not still putting in that kind of work, there’s no point in entering a tournament until they can find the time and willpower to drag themselves back into it. I can empathize, because I sat out of a lot of the post-2009 tournament scene for similar reasons — but getting back into competing made me realize that I was kind of seeing things the wrong way.
For most people, entering tournaments is a fun way to see old friends and have fun playing games you like playing. For a select few players, entering tournaments is a way to prove to the world that you are the best (and hopefully, make a few bucks in the process). But I think the smartest, hungriest players treat tournament travel costs and entry fees as the price you pay to get better. Getting better at fighting games is the end goal; winning tournaments just tells you that you’re on the right track.
But it’s not like paying your entry fee, showing up, and going 0-2 will magically make you better. You have to get your head in the right space, first — and that process starts way before the first pools do.
Pre-match prep and short-term goals
I like to think of fighting game tournaments as the video game equivalent of running a marathon; for most of the people participating, the point isn’t that they’re trying to win the race, but just that they’re committing to doing something difficult, training for it, and eventually setting a bar for their performance that they’ll shoot to outperform next time. Even though we pot monsters don’t plan on getting a cash return on our tournament investments, it doesn’t mean we won’t get a lot out of it.
The first thing I get is motivation: If I’m planning on competing, I’m far more motivated to get more practice time in — lab time, casuals, online play, whatever. I’ll be more likely to hit people up for games instead of going out or messing around with other games I’m not trying to play competitively.
Second, I get focus: In a vacuum, there is a near-infinite number of things I could be doing to get better at my fighting games of choice. If I’m dithering around trying to decide on a main character, an upcoming tournament will give me a deadline to focus my practice time on that character.
Part of this focus is the chance to set some short-term goals, which is something I’ve been working on lately. In open-entry tournaments, it’s really hard to set goals based on results (“I will make it out of my pool”) because you might end up running into two top players in your first two games. (I went 1-2 in Marvel at West Coast Warzone this weekend, but those two losses came at the hands of Macro Micro Gaming’s Vineeth “Apologyman” Meka and Jay “Viscant” Snyder of BROKENTIER.)
So instead, I’m setting goals entirely based on my play. I know that I have a tendency to try dumb counter-picks even though I don’t actively practice those characters, so one of my goals is “I will stick to my main no matter what.” Other goals of mine are “Don’t do any risky Dragon Punches in the first round” and “Don’t drop any Lightning Loops.” These aren’t goals that the other player can stop me from achieving, because they’re all about trying to be more disciplined in competition. It might sound kind of hokey at first, but I’m convinced that the biggest differences between a pot monster and a top player aren’t about their setups or tech or even execution, but about their mental game.
Getting the most out of your entry fee
The great thing about fighting game tournaments is that it’s a specific period of time where you legitimately have nothing better to do than play and think about fighting games, so you should do exactly that!
First off: Don’t be shy about playing casuals on any open setup you can find, as long as you’re not getting in a tournament organizer’s way. If you see people sitting around an unused setup, just ask them if they want to get some casuals in. If people are playing games, go ahead and ask to play next. You’ve got a room full of people to play with, most of whom you’ve probably never played before, so go ahead and use that as a chance to make some new friends (and body them).
Don’t be shy about asking for help, either. Running into problems in casuals? Got bodied by a specific matchup or mixup? Ask your opponents how to beat them, and ask your fellow character specialists how they deal with those problems. Maybe you get a perfect answer, maybe you get a promising clue that will lead you to find your own solution; worst-case scenario is that you get nothing, in which case you’re no worse off than you would have been without asking.
Also, if you’re up for some homework, I’d recommend taking notes on specific matches to review from the stream archives later. You’re bound to run into a few other people who play your characters or teams, and some of them might have solutions to matchup problems you can borrow.
Once the tournament ends, I find that I usually react in one of two ways — I’m either even more motivated to keep playing, or I feel like I need to take a break and play something else for a while. If you feel like you need the break, take it! Just make sure you don’t miss out on all the weak points in your game you exposed in the tournament.
Personally, I’ve been trying to de-scrubbify my post-tournament mindset. I’m usually too lazy to think seriously about how I could have won the games I lost, so I just tell myself, “Well, I guess I just need to keep playing and practicing.” And so I’ll go home and I’ll play some games on Xbox Live, or I’ll hit up a friend for a session, but I won’t actually sit down and practice the matchup I lost.
That’s pretty dumb, if you think about it. Tournaments are the one situation where I absolutely shouldn’t be making excuses (“It’s laggy!” “I wasn’t playing seriously!” “I don’t practice enough!”); every tournament that I lose is one confirmed exposed weakness in my game, and if I care enough to keep entering tournaments, I need to stop telling myself I lost because “I don’t practice enough” and start telling myself I lost because I don’t practice enough of the right things. So, I’m trying to get in the habit of searching for character-specific practice partners and looking up match footage in my free time to grind the games, matchup by matchup.
How do you learn from your tournament wins and losses? Share your tips in the comments!