Lab Notes: How Do I Keep Up with the Competition?

By on September 17, 2014 at 11:46 am
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I got a great question on my ask.fm a few weeks ago, and I thought it’d make a great topic for Lab Notes, so here we go:

I feel like my execution is holding me back. When a new game comes out, I can never seem to fully develop the one-player part of my game in time to keep up with the average playerbase. I can’t focus on playing my opponent when I’m fighting myself as well. How do I keep from falling behind in games?

I love this question because there are several different “right” answers, depending on your perspective and intended outcome.

Answer #1: Try more harder

What would Ryu do? Practice harder, that's what.
What would Ryu do? Practice harder, that’s what.

The first answer is just “Spend more time in training mode!” This is an easy answer because, frankly, pretty much no one reading this column wouldn’t benefit from spending more time in training mode, so it’s always solid advice. And it’s true! If you feel like your execution is holding you back from playing the game at the level you’re aiming for, the best thing you can do is step up your training mode regimen. Log your lab time, set goals (“I want to hit this combo on alternating sides five times in a row”), and you’ll get better.

For people who haven’t made a habit of spending time in training mode, this is probably the best answer. I played Zero in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 since day one, but I didn’t learn how to do Lightning Loops until well after Evo 2012. There wasn’t any secret trick to it, really; up until then, I was intimidated at the prospect of trying to learn them because they looked so hard, but after Evo I decided, “Screw it, I’m just going to practice it until I get it right.” So I practiced them for a couple hours a week for about a year, and now I can do them.

Answer #2: Try something easier

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Eddie is one of those characters that is probably more fun in training mode than in Vs. mode.

The second answer is “Play less execution-heavy characters!” I think this is also pretty solid advice, albeit for different reasons: if you constantly feel like you’re losing to yourself, not your opponent, you’re not going to have any fun. If you feel like your execution is so bad that you’re not getting anything out of your play sessions, I wholeheartedly recommend stepping back to play a lower-execution character for a while. That way, you can focus on playing against your opponent, developing the mental aspect of your game, and hopefully having a little fun in the process. Keep the high-execution character on the backburner for when you want to practice something, or you’re playing against someone whom you can just steamroll with your main, until you feel comfortable making a full switch later on down the line.

I did this myself when I was an active Guilty Gear XX player; I picked up Chipp early on because I liked his playstyle and because his tools were fairly accessible without a whole lot of crazy-hard links. Even though he wasn’t anywhere near the best character in XX, I saw a reasonable amount of tournament success with him anyway, and I had (and still have) a lot of fun playing him. But I’ve always wanted a pocket Eddie, just because I think his design mechanics are so cool (shadow character that responds to button releases). Training mode Chipp was kind of boring for me, so I’d spend most of that time messing around with Eddie instead, and playing him for fun in casuals. This way, I could still enter tournaments and play competitively while accepting that my execution simply wasn’t good enough to play other characters at the level I wanted to.

Answer #3: Just keep playing

While both of the above answers can certainly be helpful for finding short-term strategies to improve in your fighting game play, I think the actual answer to this question is “Just keep playing.”

Just because we’re all playing a new game doesn’t mean we’re all playing on an equal level; part of mastering fighting games is learning how to quickly dissect a game, understand which specific skills it emphasizes, identify which strategies are most likely to offer short-term vs. long-term success, and teach your hands how to perform different combinations of moves at different rhythms than you’re used to.

In other words, learning how to play a new game is itself a skill, so I recommend worrying less about “Getting good at [game X]” and spending more time “getting good at fighting games.” Every hour you spend playing fighting games–any fighting game–is an investment in a fundamental set of problem-solving skills that you apply in every fighting game you play. Yes, some skills are more relevant in this game or that series, but at the end of the day it’s still an addition to your total amount of fighting game ability.

Yes, spending more time in the lab is important, as is exploring different characters to find the one you’re more comfortable using while you level up other aspects of your game. But when you’re talking about “keeping up with the average player,” remember that some of these “average players” probably just started with the new game you’re on right now, while others have been playing fighting games for over a decade prior and are very familiar with quickly learning a new game. They have a stronger base of overall fighting game skills to draw from than you do, and “catching up” just means you need to keep playing anything you can get your hands on.

Pictured: John Choi and Alex Valle, two old Street Fighter players.
Pictured: John Choi and Alex Valle, two old Street Fighter players.

The first two answers to this question focus on short-term strategies for getting better in time for the next weekly or major tournament. “Just keep playing” is the long-term view; you’ll be better at fighting games in general if you play more of them in general. Play old games. Give new games a shot, even if you don’t plan on playing them seriously, just to see what they’re about. Go get bodied by the poverty players. You might not realize it, but you’ll be learning things that you’ll bring back in some form or another to the games you really care about learning.

I’ll end this with a fun story: I’ve never been able to consistently do A-Sakura’s shoshosho custom combo in Capcom vs. SNK 2 on both sides, even though I practiced it off and on for years. Specifically, I had problems doing it while standing on the 2P side; you can kinda mash out the 1P side, but 2P is a bit harder and you have to be cleaner about it. In all my years playing CvS2, I had never successfully finished a full CC on the 2P side. Up until about a month ago, that is. I was messing around in training mode, and I just picked it up and did it. Turns out all the Zero Lightning Loop practice–another combo that relies on consistent Dragon Punch motions, albeit not nearly as fast as Sakura’s custom combo–finally got me over that hump.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s Lab Notes! As always, hit me up on Twitter through @pattheflip with questions and feedback, and feel free to ask questions there or on my ask.fm if you want to give me more ideas for columns.