I started playing fighting games with Street Fighter II when it came out for SNES. I was an only child in second or third grade, and my dad played with me for maybe three games before quitting video games forever, so I spent most of my time playing through Arcade Mode with different characters. I didn’t start on the path of actually getting good at fighting games until high school, when I met a friend who did stuff like practice combos, watch match videos, and study matchups, and would ask questions about what I was thinking or why something worked instead of just shrugging and hitting rematch.
I started practicing martial arts with a Shotokan Karate class in college. I had always wanted to try it out, and figured I’d do like Ryu. I took those classes for a semester or two, spending about six hours on forms every week, and then I decided to try out a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, where I met a friend who did stuff like watch instructional videos, set up extra practice time outside of class, and watch MMA matches to study technique instead of just showing up to class.
Fighting games and martial arts are essentially the same games living in different media. They reward you based on the work you put in, and they can sharpen your physical, mental, and emotional faculties in ways that pay off outside the game. But you can’t get there by just showing up and playing — you need to take active steps to improve instead of waiting for it to happen. And while some people come to fighting games already knowing how to do this, I find the vast majority of people, especially people who are coming from other kinds of video games, don’t have a whole lot of experience with this. So in this essay, I’ll go through the basic steps of cultivating a training mindset for fighting games.
This essay is applicable to just about any skill that people can acquire. One of the most powerful things I’ve learned from fighting games is that getting good at something is not a mysterious or sacred process; in general, anyone can get good at anything. But this is particularly important for fighting game players right now, because our locals are shut down for the foreseeable future, and if you’re the kind of player who depended on the regular social contact to motivate you to get good, you’re going to come out of lockdown with a maxed out Animal Crossing island and get bodied by someone who treated their time in isolation like a Hyperbolic Time Chamber.
Okay so WTF is a training mindset?
Fighting games are hard. They are hard because they give two players a space to test each other on the ability to see something, know what to do in response, and accurately perform the thing they need to do in time. Unlike other competitive video games, there are no teammates to share the work (and the blame), and few (if any) random elements to introduce variance. All that matters is the skill of both players. In this respect, they are more similar to 1-on-1 competitive sports like tennis, ping pong, and actual fighting than they are to other video games, which is why even people with lots of experience playing MOBAs, FPSes, card games, and other competitive games often have a hard time picking up fighting games.
Most people who play video games do not sit down for a session expecting to do something hard. They’re probably relaxing after a long day at work or something, and they want a game that will give them something that looks hard (saving the world from aliens) but is actually pretty easy (run around and press buttons for a couple hours until you run out of aliens to press buttons at). Indeed, video games have gotten decidedly easier over time as developers have gotten much, much better at making the games feel harder than they actually are, because the satisfaction of a job well done is why people are paying to play these games.
When most people sit down to play any fighting game expecting it to meet them where they’re at — applying the same amount of thought and energy that they would to progress in, say, Assassin’s Creed, for example — they’re going to have a bad time. And when they see what a competent player does to play a fighting game well, whether it’s the lab time or the match study or whatever, they’ll usually frown and say stuff like “But that doesn’t look fun.”
Of course, the fighting game player finds it fun. Just like any other video game, it’s fun to find satisfaction in winning and fuel in losing, and it’s fun to feel your growth over time. In fact, the deeper that player gets into fighting games, the less fun other games will often feel by comparison, because they’re missing all the work you have to do to earn the wins.
The only difference between the two people is that the fighting game player is playing their game because they find the process of getting good at a thing to be fun. To the non-fighting game player, the thought that someone would willingly choose to do something as seemingly difficult and often frustrating as play fighting games in their downtime is so alien that they might as well think of each other as different species entirely, biologically determined to enjoy different things. (Which isn’t to say that the non-fighting game player isn’t also doing something also difficult and frustrating in its own way, mind you; I’m far more intimidated by gardening than I am Tekken.)
This is not the case. As far as I can tell, no one is hardwired to enjoy grinding at fighting games from birth. The difference is that the fighting game player has cultivated enough discipline and self-direction to turn their practice into routine. That right there is what I’m calling the training mindset; it’s the mental and emotional tools that make learning a fighting game feel recreational and leisurely like any other video game. It’s like learning to eat spicy foods, finding that the spice intensifies the flavor, and then finding that everything else tastes bland.
With these tools, the world opens up in front of you. The things you cannot do become things that you could do if you decide you want to, in video games or in anything else. And the good news is, these tools can be taught.
Let’s start with self-direction.
Self-direction: Learning how to learn
When I started practicing martial arts, I focused on making it to class as often as I could. More time practicing meant more knowledge, reps, and strength. Go to enough classes, and eventually I’d be real good at doing the stuff.
This is true up to a point — If I were training at a top tier academy and demonstrated enough dedication and potential that a coach would be willing to invest in me long-term, then all I would have to do is show up and trust my coach, and I’d get better. But in most cases, this is just enough to start learning the art. I spent about fifteen years just trying to get better at them before I had a moment where I realized that the only person who could decide what kind of martial artist I should become was me.
By this, I do not mean that I had run out of things to learn, or that I was somehow at a high enough level in any of the disciplines I practiced that it was time to start inventing new tech. I simply mean that it was up to me to determine how I wanted to grow, what I wanted to get good at and why, and how I approached the evolution of my learning and practice as I grew older and my priorities shifted. Ahead of me were innumerable possibilities — I simply had to choose a direction and chart a course, and then find the coaches, training partners, and resources to make that happen.
This is not how we learn most of the things we’ll learn in life. In school, we do what teachers tell us to set up the steps for us to go through. At work, we learn how to do our jobs well enough to keep them and maybe earn a promotion here and there. Tools and knowledge are more accessible now than at any point in human history, but it’s all hard to make use of without a strong sense of self-direction.
Fighting games test your self-direction almost immediately because they do not teach you how to play them; instead, they give you the tools to learn them and let you figure it out. (It’s a bit like being asked to learn mixed martial arts by learning the ruleset and working backwards from there into a fighting style.) Indeed, many new players run into problems because they expect fighting games to work like other video games — play the tutorial and the single player campaign, and you’ll know enough about the game to have a decent time playing PvP — and leave their improvement in the game’s hands instead of deciding for themselves how to progress.
You do not need in-depth knowledge of fighting games or a decade of martial arts experience to direct your own learning. You need goals to chase, and you need work that’ll get you there.
First, let’s get yourself some goals:
- Ask yourself: When it comes to your skills, what’s the difference between you Right Now, and who you want to be three months from now?
- Write down a list. Be as specific as you can, and frame it around things you can learn or practice. “I want to win my local” isn’t a useful goal here because it doesn’t describe a thing you can improve at, but “I want to drop my combos less often” or “I want to get better at playing under stress” are great. (More thoughts on useful goals here.)
- If you can’t think of anything, then you’ll need to spend some time reflecting. I recommend watching your match replays and pay attention to what you can do better, watching high-level players and take note of stuff they’re doing that you’re not, and talking to people you play with regularly to see if they have any ideas. (More tips on learning from watching here.)
- Take your list, pick out the one that you want to work on the most, and set the rest aside for later.
- As an example, the goal that I’m working toward right now is lowering my overall risk profile. I often find myself taking unnecessary risks that smart players will recognize early on and punish, so I need to work on finding ways to engage that are less risky overall.
Okay, cool! You’ve got a goal you want to work on, now it’s up to you to figure out the work you have to do to get there. Unlike martial arts, fighting games don’t have many teachers, so you’ll have to figure out how to improve on your own. (Though I will take this moment to mention that my $5 Patreon subscribers can email me to ask questions if you feel like you want some help.)
This is also one of those things that sounds more intimidating and mysterious than it actually is. Start with the goal, identify the things you can do to hit that goal, create drills that isolate those things, and then integrate those things into your regular play.
Taking my goal of lowering my overall risk profile as an example, I watched my own matches and compared them to higher-level Chipps like Summit, Bears, Chappu, and E.T., which led me to identify a couple concrete things I could work on in service of that goal:
- Chipp’s fast shuriken and Find Me (invisibility) are great tools for being aggressive without being risky, so by finding more opportunities in neutral to discard his slow shuriken or use Find Me safely, I can lower my risk in neutral and more safely apply pressure.
- I get punished in neutral for swinging with big buttons — especially 6P — far too frequently, so by practicing using lower-commitment moves in neutral I’ll get whiff punished less often.
- There are a couple easy option selects that make certain situations a little bit safer, and by practicing them, I’ll be able to tighten up my game just by changing my execution up a little.
From there, we have to figure out how we can improve on them. The key factor here is isolation — you need to give yourself space to practice the skill by itself before you try to practice it in a live environment. In general, the easiest way to do this is to go to training mode and set the dummy to do whatever you need to do to practice doing the right input at the right time, then practice it on a CPU-controlled dummy, or a dummy doing different recorded strings, or a friend who’s willing to help you out. Some of the things I’ve done in service of my goal include:
- Setting the dummy to random block and using each blocked combo as an opportunity to airdash away and throw a slow shuriken
- Running away from a max-level CPU dummy to use Find Me
- Playing against a CPU dummy with only P and K buttons as combo starters
The idea is that at first you want to get in reps in very optimal conditions at first, like practicing air throws on a dummy that’s constantly jumping, and then add variation and difficulty over time so you can get used to doing it while thinking of all the other stuff you have to think about in a real match.
If you’re pretty new to fighting games, the isolation process will probably take days before you’re ready to get to the integration phase, so don’t worry about rushing into PvP to go chase your goal after ten minutes in the lab. But once you feel pretty comfortable in your ability to do the thing in drills, you’re ready for the hardest part — doing it against another person while not worrying about losing. Remember, your goal is to get better — not to win. So play your games and hold those Ls. Remember, losing costs you nothing, but winning without working toward your goals costs you time.
This process of self-directed reflection and learning is the fundamental meta-loop of playing fighting games. As with anything, you’ll probably suck at it in the beginning, and with time and reps, you’ll get better at finding useful goals and drilling them. However, self-direction alone isn’t enough. There are plenty of people who have this, but lack the discipline needed to see self-sustaining progress. Fortunately, that too can be cultivated.
Discipline: Improving your mental HP
As you navigate your daily life, you’ll have to choose between doing things you should do, and doing things you want to do. Each decision you make that involves delaying your gratification, like choosing the water over the soda, or working out instead of watching Netflix for an extra hour, is basically deducting from your willpower reserve. Think of it like hit points, except for good decision-making. If you’ve been good all day, you might not have any HP left for fighting game training by the time you’re done with work.
The answer, of course, is to make awful decisions and quit your job to play fighting games. (This is actually how I’ve seen several players get good, but I do not recommend this — it’s a losing strategy in the long run. Please do not do this.)
The real answer is to cultivate your discipline. If your willpower reserve is your HP for making good decisions, discipline is the armor that lets you take more damage and keep on ticking. If you want to have the willpower needed to apply a training mindset to a video game, you’ll need to have discipline early on, because you’ll run into a lot of things that will eat into your HP. For example, practicing combos in training mode is more taxing for a new player than an experienced player, because an experienced player is already accustomed to the process of troubleshooting their execution and altering their input timings by fractions of a second, and a new player has to learn all that stuff in addition to the combo. Without discipline, you will not get better at the thing you’re trying to do, because getting better at a thing takes practice over time. 30 minutes every day is more valuable than a five-hour session once a week.
Like self-direction, discipline is not an innate trait that is determined at birth. It’s a mental muscle that can be strengthened. I’ve found a few tricks that you can practice to help grind your discipline stat:
- Get yourself a gym buddy. In general, I’ve found that people generally feel worse about letting someone else down than they do about letting themselves down, so enlisting a partner to hit training mode with regularly and practice stuff with is a great step towards consistency. Even if you can’t practice together, keeping each other accountable with daily check-ins can do a lot to keep your motivation high and maybe even build a friendly rivalry.
- Keep the streak alive. There’s a simple technique Jerry Seinfeld used to improve his comedy writing once — he just had a big calendar up on the wall, drew a big X on every day he practiced writing jokes, and erased every X if he missed a day. As the streak gets longer and longer, the easier it is to maintain the habit and stick to working toward your goals. (I actually wrote about a modified system I call the Good Life Sheet, which I used to start flossing.)
- Focus on sustainability and add work over time. Discipline is not masochism! Your goal is to build yourself up into a sustainable fighting game practice. If you find yourself getting frustrated that you’re spiking your stick after an hour of combo practice, then limit your combo practice to half an hour.
Now we’ve got you working on cultivating your self-direction and your discipline. But how does this stuff actually translate into fighting game practice? Let’s get you a routine.
Routine: Working toward EX You
One of my nerdy pleasures is coming up with physical training routines. When you have enough tools and knowledge, drafting a routine becomes a fun problem-solving exercise that is fundamentally about thinking about the person you want to be in the future, and figuring out the work that will get you closer to that person day by day. (Needless to say, this coronavirus isolation stuff has kept me busy with the home gym.) This is also true for fighting games, because they’re something you have to learn over time, and you can’t really rush the process.
I wrote earlier that 30 minutes every day is more valuable for your growth than a five-hour session once a week. This is because learning a skill is not entirely a conscious process; you can understand how something works, but that doesn’t mean you can do it yourself. It takes your brain time to internalize the things you worked on in practice and imprint it into your eyeballs and muscles, especially when it comes to fighting games that go fast enough to test the limits of human reaction. If you spend 30 minutes working on a new combo, then pick it up again the next day and keep working on it, your brain will have spent a day figuring it out while the rest of you is sleeping or eating or doing other stuff. So: You’ll need consistency if you want to see gains, and a routine is how you’ll build that consistency.
A routine is simply a plan for structuring your game sessions so you can focus on what you’re doing now instead of thinking about what you should be doing next. By thinking through a plan in advance, you can make it easier to stay focused on your goals and use your time more efficiently while also avoiding burnout.
There are two parts to a routine: the content, or what you’re doing, and the timing, or when and how often you’re doing it. Let’s start with the timing, because that’s effectively your time budget that determines how the content will go, so ask yourself:
- How long do I want to play per day?
- How many days do I want to play per week?
- Does this feel consistently sustainable?
Time per day * days per week is your maximum time budget; personally, I’d recommend practice sessions of 60–90 minutes, as I find that my time gets less productive after that, and if you can play at least four days a week your hands will feel warmer more quickly. Playing more hours, more often will give you ample time to improve, but remember that consistency over time is more important than unsustainable grinding. You’ll be more likely to stick to it if you commit to 3x/week minimum and feel good when you exceed the goal, than you would be if you committed to 5x/week and felt bad about only making 3. And remember that over time, you’ll find that your routine feels less taxing because your discipline will kick in, meaning you’ll have more HP to spend on fighting games (or other stuff!).
So let’s say you’re playing for at least 60 minutes three days a week — not a tremendous amount of time, but enough to see gains while maintaining other commitments or hobbies. (Or play other video games.) What should you do with this time? Well, on one hand, you’ve got all the stuff you’re doing to work towards your goals that you figured out earlier, practicing your bread and butter combos and drilling air throws and studying that matchup that bodied you at your last local. On the other hand, you need to balance that with playing against other people, online or offline, because that’s where you’re going to feel your work paying off.
How you structure your sessions is ultimately dependent on your goals and what you find works best for you, so it’s worth experimenting to see what feels right for you. But if I were given a new player who was down for three hour-long sessions a week, I’d expect to see gradual gains with 20–30 minutes spent on warmups and drills and the rest of the session playing against people (local or netplay), ideally in long sets.
This is just good life shit in general
So: Cultivate that training mindset. Practice self-direction and discipline to develop your routine. Do all that stuff so you can learn to play a fighting game.
I think some people will read this essay and be like “Fuck yeah, I’ve always wanted to get into fighting games, but I was worried that unless I spent literally every waking moment of my life on them it wouldn’t be worth it.” If you are one of these people, please let me know! I assure you that is not the case.
Other people will read it and say, “Okay, but why do I want to do all this for a video game when I could be enjoying something uncomplicated in my free time?”
There are many good reasons to do this. Getting good at hard shit is intrinsically cool as fuck even if the hard shit is entirely useless (in fact, that often makes it even cooler!). Also, being good at fighting games has always had some lowkey cool cred, even with normies. (My parents used to go on arcade dates when they met. Apparently Mom was good at Centipede.)
But it’s also applicable to just about any other skill you want to learn in the rest of your life. Instruments, foreign languages, sports, cooking, writing, singing; everything in the world just feels a little bit more doable once you have a handle on learning fighting games.
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