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Fighting games are hard to get into, and they’re especially hard to get deep enough that you can see why other people find them so profoundly compelling. Frequently, people describe the process of getting into fighting games as the equivalent of going to the gym or learning a martial art, except without the physical health bonus and somewhat-practical skill that those two activities give. So, why on Earth would anyone ever choose to play a fighting game when they could do those other things instead?
As a writer, competitor, and game designer, I think a lot about their potential as a medium to improve the lives of those who play them. I don’t like thinking about games as entertainment meant to consume empty hours; as an adult, those hours are a cost I pay to get something, not a burden to be freed of, and so when I play a game I want it to make me better than I was before I played it. And I want to make games that do the same.
So: This one is for all the folks who are interested in digging deeper into fighting games but are unsure of whether it’s worth the cost, as well as all the folks thinking about how their work can change the people who interact with it.
1. Learn to git gud
Most people tend to think of themselves as good at the things they’re good at, and bad at everything else, with little capacity for changing those things. They don’t spend all their free time practicing a skill, watching videos of that skill, talking with others about that skill, documenting their knowledge of that skill, and testing their skill against others. We crack out on that shit, and it makes us stronger people for it.
I played soccer and baseball as a kid. I was not good. Practice felt like an hour and a half of dedicated Being Bad At Something time. In high school, I was on the debate team, where I did well enough, but never worked hard enough to have a shot at the upper echelon. Fighting games weren’t my first competitive activity, but they were the first thing I found where I actually discovered that practicing something made me better at it, and that felt good.
This is an easy thing to discount because, as kids, we’re told time and time again that practicing something — anything — will make you good at it. But sometimes it doesn’t click until it does, and for me, that was in fighting games. I was never the most diligent student or the hardest worker, but fighting games have taught me to cultivate diligence and discipline in my practice habits, to be open-minded in my approach for identifying problems (how do I deal with this matchup?) and creative in my attempts to find solutions.
There is a certain cockiness to people who have reached “fluency” in fighting games; they’ve gone through the process of learning a complicated set of skills so many times that the thought of doing it one more time — for anything, not just another fighting game — is no longer intimidating. Truly, after playing Guilty Gear for a couple years, teaching yourself how to draw, code, write, cook, speak a new language, etc. is no longer nearly as intimidating.
2. Learn to read, name, and talk about emotions
Most people don’t think too hard about the decisions they make, much less go through their reasoning and emotional state to see if they’re making good decisions. But in fighting games, when we find ourselves not making good decisions, we have to revisit those decisions and remember what it is we were thinking and feeling in that moment and find a way to change it, because we don’t want to let it happen again.
A critical part of fighting game skill is learning to read the emotional content of your opponent’s decisions in order to better predict their next move; players often learn this by having it done to them (“getting downloaded”), at which point they begin to learn that their moves have meaning beyond hitboxes and hurtboxes and damage values.
This is really fucking cool, and it’s not something that comes up nearly as much in IRL fighting games, or in other sports or competitive activities, either. In order to become better fighting game players, we need to get good at recognizing both the emotional state of our opponents to predict their next move, and we need to get good at recognizing our own emotional state to check our decision-making patterns.
And if we want to get good at this skill, we have to learn how to talk about this kind of thing with others, which means we’re learning to have conversations about feelings with other people. Learning to talk frankly about someone else’s weaknesses, learning to give someone space after a loss before asking them about it, all of these are strengthening your ability to feel what other people feel.
This is handy stuff, especially for young men who are often raised and socialized to treat emotions as weak and irrational.
3. Learn to hold your losses and grow from them
Most people do not go through life competing regularly. Competition — especially serious competition that people have spent time preparing for — is not a consistent element for most people’s lives. Which means that for most people, suffering a loss is a dramatic setback, one that they might remember forever. But for us, it was Tuesday.
Fact is, any time you’re learning to do something competitive, you’re probably going to lose a lot before you get to the point where you can start winning. If you don’t compete often, however, you’re far more likely to think that you got that special somethin’ that will make you the exception, and that dream will be destroyed the moment you step up unprepared.
From fighting games, we learn grit. We learn that you have to hold a lot of Ls to get good, so we better get good at holding those Ls. Over time, we learn that losing doesn’t matter in the big picture, though that doesn’t stop it from hurting. And we learn that losing is how we get better.
Anything worth doing in life — fighting games or otherwise — is going to involve setbacks. Learning to hold the L and grow from it is how we develop the resilience to stick with something while we’re bad at it because we know that one day we’ll be good at it.
4. Learn to go deep
If #2 taught us to ask “Why did I do that?”, the followup question that usually comes is “Why am I like this?”
This is because learning to play fighting games requires us to go through our brain’s inner workings one frame at a time to figure out why we didn’t react to the overhead or tech the throw. And no one else can do that work but you. So you develop your personal tech for checking yourself, because you know yourself better than anyone else.
From what I’ve observed in non-fighting game players, this process of self-discovery is the kind of thing often set off by dramatic interpersonal drama that involves text messages, tears, and therapy. For us, it’s just because we mash too much when we should be blocking. (No word yet on whether anyone has a therapist that can fix this, but if you know someone, get at my DMs.)
People are often not used to thinking of their deepest faults and weaknesses as things that they can change about themselves. They don’t think of themselves as agents capable of guiding their growth into a better version of themselves. But if you play fighting games long enough, you’ll eventually learn to change the things you can, and to play around the things you can’t. And you’ll also be part of another person’s journey, and you’ll learn to give them the support and perspective they need to help them grow as well.
(When someone bodies you for twenty games in a row, they’re giving you some real good support and perspective.)
5. Learn to set goals and motivate yourself.
Fighting games do not teach you to get better at them; at best, they give you some tools to practice and leave you to figure it out for yourself. A professional fighter can rely on his coach and training stuff to tell him what to do; a fighting game player is left to figure their training plan out on their own. When it comes down to it, we are our own coaches and instructors.
At first, you may set goals like “I just want to not get perfected” or “I just want to not go 0–2”. But eventually your goals will be about trying something new out, or adapting to a specific player, or simply about keeping yourself in the right frame of mind. You will form your play and practice rituals toward specific ends (“practice this matchup” “try out this new setup”). You will be able to find a perspective on your own play outside tournament results and ranking points where you will feel like you’re getting a little bit better every day.
You will learn to make your own path to grow in everything you want to do, and you’ll learn to compare your thinking and your experiences with others to copy their tech whenever you can. Managers, mentors, parents, teachers, leaders, and peers all become people you will travel with along your path, showing you some shortcuts and detours, but the path is ultimately yours and only yours.
I don’t want this to sound like some overly hokey bullshit, so: playing fighting games will probably not be your ticket out of a shit job or a bad living situation. Priorities are important! But playing fighting games might be the difference between seeing a shit job as something you’re stuck with until fate/God/esports money throws you a bone, and something you’re doing while you work towards the next step, and there’s a lot of power that comes from the second perspective. It’s the difference between pushing buttons in a blockstring when you’re scared, and pushing buttons in a blockstring when you know what to look for.
6. Learn to be humble
In our daydreams, we can be the best. We can see ourselves playing on the big stage, we can imagine the popoff we’d give upon winning Evo and the graceful victory interview we’d give after it was over. We can imagine how good it must feel to win and our brains will give us just a little bit of a hit of what that feels like. And the funny thing is, we can do this even if we don’t play fighting games.
But if you do play fighting games, you know just how much work stands between you and the top. Because each time you lose to some ranked rando, you’ll think, “If this was tournament, I’d be in losers.” Even the greatest players to grace the sticks have a difficult time staying consistent. No matter who you are or how hard you’ve worked, we’re all playing the same game.
This kind of environment filters out the proud, for the most part. Everyone was weak once; everyone had to work hard to get better. If you do not already have humility, you will learn it real quick. If you live your life in a bubble that that does not challenge or expose you, but instead tells you that you’re fine and your problems are someone else’s fault, you may find fighting games to be a cold splash of perspective that wakes you up and puts you on track.
7. Learn to feel yourself
Of course, the flip side is also true. Fighting games give us space to be skilled, to be excellent, to challenge strangers to fights, to defeat others in front of an audience.
If you were to quantify your journey through fighting games, most of your time will probably be spent thinking about why you lost and working to fix it. But the moments you remember most will be the times that your work paid off. Sometimes, you’re going to pull off some cool shit, and when you do, you get to look yourself in the mirror and say, “Self, I’m fucking nice.”
This is an important skill.
Many of us are taught that our importance lies in our ability to contribute to and sacrifice for The Team or The Family or The Class or The Company, and that our moments of individual success are really just a credit to everyone else’s hard work. We’re taught that we’re not valuable, or that the things we care about are meaningless. We’re taught that we’re not worth celebrating because we don’t matter.
If that’s you, then you absolutely need something in your life that tells you, “You are worth celebrating, and you do matter, and when you hit that clutch anti-air with the perfect conversion to combo into an Instant Kill, ran up, and did the finishing pose alongside your character on the big screen, you were fucking nice.”
8. Learn to make friends
The creators of Pokemon did this really neat thing where they wrote a world built entirely around the primary activities you perform in the game. Pretty much everyone in the world of Pokemon is connected to each other through the core activities of capturing, training, and battling/researching/exploiting Pokemon. Good guys, bad guys, police, medical staff, everyone has something to do with Pokemon.
Fighting games are generally not like this in-game. They are like this out of game. Everyone who shows up at a tournament generally has something in common, and that thing is fighting games. Some people might not even play fighting games, and they still like them so much that they showed up to watch people play at a tournament and hang out. That’s pretty cool!
No matter where you are in life, it’s pretty easy to get railroaded into a daily routine that limits the kinds of people you interact with and the way you interact with them. If you’re a student, you’re probably going to be around other students of mostly similar ages; if you’re a working professional, you’re around other working professionals; if you work in customer service/retail/etc., then you’ll encounter a lot of different people, but you’re there to do a job. Even martial arts generally sort competitors in age, experience, weight class, and gender brackets for safety’s sake.
You can go to a fighting game tournament and play some kid in the first round and that kid’s parent in the second round.
You might see someone do some sick combos with your main on the big screen and discover that they’ve been playing fighting games since before you were born.
You might see someone do some sick combos with your main and find out that you’ve been playing fighting games since before they were born.
All kinds of people find fighting games, somehow or another, and talking about them is a pretty good way to start making friends. I highly recommend talking about other things with your fighting game friends, too; doing not-fighting game stuff with fighting game people often turns out pretty great, and if it doesn’t, you can just go back to the room and play games.
Not everyone will want to be your friend, and that’s okay, but there are a lot of people out there who have learned the Great Secret of Fighting Games:
Playing fighting games with your friends, and talking about fighting games with your friends, is the best way to get good at fighting games (and make good friends).
TL;DR: Play fighting games (especially Guilty Gear)
If you’re wondering whether your time spent on fighting games is valuable, well, I can’t tell you that it has for sure, but I can certainly tell you that mine has been.
Odds are, if you’re reading this, you probably haven’t seen all of this stuff yet. Maybe you’ve seen bits and pieces of it here and there, but you don’t see what I’m talking about. Heck, you might be far enough away that you can’t even see it on the horizon. That’s fine! The perspective I had on fighting games at one year, five years, ten years in is different than the perspective I have today.
However: I do believe that if you stick around long enough, you’ll have plenty of experiences like mine, and you will learn this stuff.
If that sounds like something you’re into, grab a fighting game and start playing.
And if you want to join a crew of folks who are also learning to play fighting games, stop by my Twitch stream sometime (Monday-Thursday, 830PM Pacific). If you want to ask questions or just talk about fighting games, hang out in the stream chat and do it. And if you ever want my advice or feedback on anything specific, I’ve got a special email set up for folks who support my work on Patreon.
Thanks for reading!