[This essay was funded by my generous Patreon supporters. If you liked this and want to see more, please consider joining the crew!]
Watching fighting games is a lot of fun. It’s pretty easy to see what is going on (someone is getting hit!), even if you don’t always understand why or how, so you don’t need extensive game experience to follow along and see what’s going on.
If you play fighting games, though, learning how to watch fighting games is its own skill. Getting good at watching fighting games is crucial for learning efficiently and diagnosing gaps in your game, and it lets you turn between-match downtime at tournaments into a tactical advantage as you gather data on your upcoming opponents’ habits and tendencies. It’s kind of like watching a movie twice: the first time, you’re just paying attention to see what happens in a story, but the second time, you get to pay attention to how the story is told.
Lots of newer fighting game players know they should be watching to learn, but don’t know how to do it. So here are some tips! (And if you want to watch me do it, check out my Replay Reviews on YouTube or stop by the stream on Thursdays.)
First off: Most people start by watching other people play their main character to see how they use tools or respond to certain situations. As a Chipp player, I’ll get different things from watching Bears or Summit matches (lots of intelligently calculated risks and optimized combos/setplay) than I will from watching Big Homie Sarvets of the Rising jD. It’s much easier to follow a match when you can empathize with one of the players and contrast their decisions from your own in any given situation, so that’s a great place to start! But as you dig deeper into a game, you’ll find that a critical part of learning a matchup is paying attention to what your opponent wants and needs, meaning you’ll have to learn how other characters/players think besides just your own.
Even if you don’t play either of the characters in a match, you can still use it as an opportunity to practice understanding what each player is thinking about and how they make their decisions. When I’m watching to learn, I ask myself these questions:
- Whose turn is it? Paying attention to who is taking the lead and who is responding in any given exchange is the first step in understanding the flow of a match. Often, decisions that don’t seem to make sense in a vacuum are easier to understand if you consider how a player might feel after spending the last 10 seconds walking forward and getting punched, or getting punished for pressing buttons at a disadvantage. Tracking who is dictating the pace and how each player handles aggressive and reactive situations also makes it easier to recognize those moments in your own play as well.
- Who is being more aggressive in neutral? The pace of a match is typically dictated by the player more willing to move forward into the opponent’s space, and paying attention to how often either player is willing to take that risk, and how they decide to do that, is a critical part of developing an early read on a player. This can sound rather hard to keep track of, so here’s an easy shorthand: visualize a vertical line dividing the screen in half at the midpoint between both characters, and pay attention to stuff like to how often either player crosses the line, how deep each player crosses into the other player’s side, and whether players are getting hit on their own side of the screen or on the opponent’s.
- What are they doing on wakeup? Knockdowns are major moments in a match, and if you can keep track of the decisions that players make during these moments, you can get an idea of their emotional state, and appetite for risk. If a player is blocking a lot, they are likely fairly confident in their ability to read or react to whatever their opponent is going to do, and are willing to risk some health to gather data. If they’re not blocking, ask yourself what is happening in the match that would get them to swing.
- How are they spending their resources? Super meter, health, Burst, Vorpal, stocks, assists, whatever it is, if you can spend it or risk it to get something, it’s worth paying attention to how the players are doing it. Also, just practicing the habit of tracking resources during the course of a match will make you less likely to get caught by stuff like unexpected supers when you’re playing.
- How did they block that? You can practice defense even if you’re not in the game — just try playing along with the players and see how you do in mixup situations.
- Why did they do that? This is the question that lies at the root of fighting games, and answering it is how we download our opponents. So ask it whenever you see something you don’t get. You may not always have a great answer, but it is in asking and answering it over and over that you build your control of the mental game.
Now, that is obviously a lot of stuff to track, and doing it in real time is hard as hell, so I highly recommend that you watch for fun when you’re watching a live tournament stream (or if you’re watching in-person) and taking note of matches that you want to go back and study later. That way you don’t need to split your attention between watching for fun and watching to learn, and you can take your time pausing and backtracking. And when you’re up for a dose of real humility, go ahead and watch your own matches with the perspective of hindsight and see what you can improve. (That’s the real fun stuff!)
Thanks for reading!