Break fighting game skill plateaus by crosstraining

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Fighting games are hard, and learning how to play fighting games takes a lot of work. Whenever you’re working on learning something difficult, you will invariably run into plateaus — seemingly-endless stretches of time where you feel like you won’t be making any improvements. It’s the combo you just can’t hit, the matchup you just can’t win, the bad habit you can’t break, the player at your locals that you just can’t beat. “Maybe this is as good as I can get,” you’ll think to yourself, “Maybe this is it.”

You have probably run into this before! I certainly have. I ran into it over the winter holidays in Guilty Gear, after Bears whooped me in an 80+ game set (not unusual) and pointed out a whole bunch of deep-rooted problems with my game that I didn’t feel like I was making progress toward fixing. I haven’t fixed them yet, but I am making progress, and the thing that helped me was a week-long family trip where I spent some quality time with Super Smash Bros: Ultimate.

The value of cross-training

When it comes to fighting games, crosstraining is a very powerful training tool, but its benefits aren’t always obvious, especially to newer players who are still in their first competitive fighting game.

Any given fighting game, generally speaking, tests its players on their ability to quickly process a complicated situation, decide on the appropriate response, and execute that response in time to win. Each individual fighting game will test its players with different kinds of challenges, and emphasize some kinds more heavily than others, but there is overlap between games, which is why most players who win tournaments are players who have been competing for a long time in several different fighting games.

If you think about fighting games as weightlifting for your brain, then consider each different fighting game as a different kind of workout, and crosstraining as a tool to help maximize the utility of your training time. Even powerlifters need to do a little cardio every now and then.

As you dig deeper into a fighting game, you’ll cultivate your ability to laser-focus your attention on the things that matter most — the small details that you’ve identified in a match that are key to your success. This is a good thing! But when you focus too hard on that, you’re at a higher risk of feeling like you’re plateauing, which is no good.

Fighting games are highly emotional endeavors, and people generally don’t stick to something for very long when they’re practicing hard and not seeing the results they want to see. After all, getting good at a thing isn’t just about hard work, it’s also about feeling good about the work that you’re doing, and changing up the goals and the training methods is an important tool for helping a fighter feel confident about the work they’re doing.

How Patrick got his groove back

Picture this scene: It’s a warm, quiet afternoon, light breeze, some wind chimes. I am sitting next to my beautiful wife of six months beating the everloving shit out of each other. (It’s very romantic.)

Playing Smash for a week — as someone who tried to get into competitive Melee back in 2007 but stopped short of properly Getting Good — felt almost like relearning how to play a 2D fighter. I knew what I wanted to see my character do, but I had to carefully go through the inputs required to make that thing happen, and once I got it, the outcome wasn’t always what I’d expected.

Fortunately, that was exactly what I was hoping for. When I came back to Guilty Gear, I found that I had a new perspective on the things I was working on, and more ideas for how I could level them up.

Perhaps my most significant weakness in Guilty Gear is autopiloting, which is pretty common among mid-level players. Guilty Gear players often have committed dozens of various sequences of input strings to memory — combos, pressure strings, knockdown setups, defensive tech, even movement patterns in neutral — and while simply getting to that level of skill is often enough to beat the average netplayer, stronger players can see when these players are executing without actually paying attention to what the opponent is doing on screen and will punish them for it.

Breaking this habit in Guilty Gear is hard because you need to develop a sense for when you’re autopiloting and remind yourself to pay attention, but playing Smash helped me recognize these moments more easily because a) I don’t know Smash well enough to autopilot and b) in Smash, characters almost always have a lot more agency than GG characters (thanks to variable hitstun/hitpush, DI, all that stuff) so the game itself forces me work that brain-muscle much earlier in the learning curve than GG did.

I also found that I came back to Gear with a higher sensitivity towards my execution mistakes. I spend most of my practice time netplaying, and I’ll often find myself making execution errors that go unpunished or even end up working out positively for me, so I don’t think of them as Real Big Problems until I make those same errors in tournament and get blown up. Playing Smash reminded me of a fundamental fighting game truth — you need to be able to get your character to do what you want them to do — and when I came back to Gear I found myself noticing more of my drops and input errors than before. So now I’m spending a little more time everyday tightening up my execution, paying special attention to the problem stuff and raising my standards for consistency higher than before.

Of course, Smash isn’t the only useful crosstraining tool. I’ll still go back to Super Turbo or Street Fighter IV Ryu to brush up on my basic sweep footsies and fireball/DP trap game, and a surprising amount of those interactions show up in Gear with Chipp’s 2D and Gamma Blade in neutral. If I take a break to play UNIST or DBFZ, I’ll come back to Gear less stressed about blocking patiently because those games just make you get used to it.

Tips for fighting game crosstraining

Learning to play your first fighting game is hard; learning to play your second is different; learning to play your 10th is mostly like learning your 9th. So if you’re still new to the process of picking up a new fighting game, you could probably use these crosstraining tips.

It’s normal for it to feel bad at first! When you’re used to feeling reasonably comfortable in a fighting game, going to a different game and feeling like you’re back to at the beginning can feel rough. That’s okay! Your fighting game brain is trying to apply the tools from your main game, and it’s not working the way you expect it to. As you adjust to the new game, you’ll be feeling out different ways to use your existing tools, and finding the gaps where you need to get used to using new tools. You’re not getting worse, you’re just learning to see more of what you’re missing.

Take the time to learn ‘proper’ execution. It can be tempting to bypass the execution practice for the new game if you’re not thinking of it as a “serious” compared to your main game. Don’t do this! Execution is a skill you carry from game to game, and each game will test your dexterity and timing in different ways. Personally, one of my biggest regrets as a long-time fighting game player is not investing more time in improving my execution early on; I told myself that I wanted to win by being ‘smarter’, but really I was just afraid that it’d be a waste of time because I lacked some kind of born talent to execute.

Don’t hold yourself back. If you feel like digging into advanced tech for the side game, go for it! You’ll get plenty out of just feeling out the fundamentals, but learning what advanced players look for will teach you more about the side game that can help change the way you think about your main. The best fighting game players usually play multiple fighting games, and will adjust between playing wide and playing deep when they feel it’s right. Plus, learning more games means you can play with more people. It’s what the arcade days were all about, and it’s one of the things I’m glad to see alive in the modern-day FGC as well.

Thanks for reading!


-patrick miller

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