Getting good at playing in tournaments

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For this essay, I figured I’d write about some of the things you can do to get better tournament results. After all, as competitive fighting game players, we sacrifice our precious free time and money to travel to hotel ballrooms across the world in order to test ourselves against the strongest players we can find. But it can be hard to stay motivated when your tournament results are flat, and it can be frustrating as heck to walk away from another unsatisfying performance knowing that you’re a better player than your record shows.

See, winning a tournament doesn’t say “I’m the best at this game”, it says “I’m the best at winning two out of three games, except in winners/losers/grand finals, where I’m the best at winning three out of five games.” There are all kinds of ways to test players on who is better at a game, and if you aren’t playing to win the specific test, whether it’s a tournament or a FT10 money match, you’re at a disadvantage. I think that most players, even ones who regularly enter tournaments, are limited less by the time and effort they’re putting into the game, and more by their willingness to optimize for tournament play.

In other words: If you want to do better in tournaments, go to more tournaments.

Use the week before the tournament to prep for your pools

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Most larger tournaments will have preliminary brackets up 3–5 days before the event starts. Take some time to go through your pools and see if you can figure out which characters you can expect to run into. If you can find match videos on Twitch or YouTube, or viewable in-game replays if the game you’re playing lets you search by player. And if they’ve been attending tournaments for a while, look through some of their old results to get an idea of how they do overall, and which other games they play.

At first, this might seem like a waste of time. Maybe the TOs will switch your bracket, and you’ll have to do it all over again. Heck, even if you make it out in winners, you’ll only play four people out of the 16 or so in there. And you’re probably not going to find that one godlike tell or read that will give you a clean, easy win. But personally, I find it to be an invaluable part of tournament prep for a couple reasons:

  • While figuring out people’s mains, you’ll realize that you don’t know the first thing about how a certain character works or how to play the matchup. If you look up someone’s character and think “Oh shit idk”, go look up some videos of that character matchup to see how it goes, and pay attention to which tools you’ll need to use more or less.
  • If you end up finding a player’s Twitter or Twitch, you’ll often be comforted to find that they’ve spent the last week a) playing a different fighting game, b) playing a gacha game, or c) RTing lewds. So you can feel more confident about your tournament prep, and hey, maybe you found some new artists to follow.
  • As you look through the other players’ tournament results, you’ll be reminded that most people in a pool go 2–2 or worse. If you’re the type to get nervous when you go to your pool and think “Wow, everyone around me seems so confident and good”, it might help you to know that statistically, most of the players there range from “pretty scrubby” to “kinda okay” and as such you have a chance against all of them.
  • If nothing else: Pay attention to how people deal with throws and invincible reversals. Those kinds of habits are often expressions of a player’s personality at a very fundamental level and often aren’t unlearned until a fairly advanced level. This is helpful for the tournament match itself — maybe you don’t have to spend game 1 learning that you should bait the DP — but it’s also just good practice tracking people’s habits whether you’re playing them or watching them.

You may notice that some of the gains I’m describing here aren’t necessarily about making you better at the game, but about helping you feel more confident. Confidence is a highly underrated aspect of your tournament performance, and most experienced tournament players can suss out players who lack confidence and test them a bit to see if they become timid, reckless, or otherwise brittle. Going into a bracket knowing that you’ve done some work to prepare lets you be a little more confident when you sit down to start playing your games, and that’ll give you an edge.

Develop a comfortable day-of routine

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I find most players have different priorities and rituals when it comes to day-of tournament prep, so I’ll share what I do and you can see what you like and what you don’t. Ideally, my pools are around noon or so, which gives me enough time to wake up, eat something, drink a cup of coffee, and warm up in training mode for 30 minutes or so. If my pools are later in the day, I’ll probably be playing casuals before then, but I’ll make sure to get some fresh air and quiet before my pools start because hanging out in a loud event hall can drain my energy. In general, I want to minimize the chances that I’ll be hungry, thirsty, tired, or otherwise physically irritated during pools, because those factors will absolutely wear down my focus, patience, and overall mental stamina, and those all need to be on point.

That said, I’ve talked with lots of folks about how they like to play their pools and some people swear by not eating, using their first round match as their warmup, drinking energy drinks, and other stuff. You should do what you feel is best for you, and you should change things up to see how your body and mind respond to those changes. (Do note that you should probably experiment with changing things up for smaller tournaments so that you can feel confident about your routine for the bigger ones.)

Personally, I know that if I have too much caffeine, I’m usually more anxious, and my hands will often shake from the adrenaline, so I try to go easy; if I drink alcohol I’ll be a little more bold and aggressive; if I have some cannabis I’ll be more deliberate and thoughtful. If I’m driving, I like to listen to fighting game soundtracks or Naruto openings to get in the mood (Chipp player, remember). Depending on who you are, what game and character you’re playing, and how you’re feeling that day, you might choose to physically and mentally prep yourself in different ways, and what’s important is that you’re taking your personal state into your own hands and learning about what works for you.

Stay active when your pools start

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If possible, show up 30 minutes before pools and get a couple casuals in. Don’t worry about winning those casuals, just get your hands doing the things they need to do and get your brain ready to focus very carefully on another human being you’ve most likely never met before.

Once the pools are starting and casuals are over, try to keep your hands warm. I’ll sometimes wear light gloves in-between matches, or keep some disposable handwarmers in my pockets. Unless it’s rather warm in the venue, I’ll probably be wearing a light jacket too, because my hands get cold pretty quickly. Even sitting down and pressing some buttons on your controller while watching the other matches in your pool can help.

And yes, watch the other matches. As you get better at the game and better at watching, you’ll be able to get more data. It usually won’t bridge a significant skill gap, but it might just steal you a round in a match that might go either way.

Playing your best tournament game

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Even the game itself feels different when you’re playing in a tournament, and you’ll need to be ready for that. When you enter a tournament, you’re competing to see who’s the best at not losing two games to the same opponent. If you’re used to playing best-of-ones in a rotation, or FT10 sets with your friends, or two out of three in online ranked, then you may have some adjustments you’ll need to make to your game. (Which isn’t to say that playing those ways isn’t useful for tournaments! It totally is.)

For example, your everyday mixups that your regular sparring partners have seen will generally work better against your tournament opponents, and the galaxy brain shit you use on them because they’ve adapted to the first seven variations probably won’t work unless your opponent can quickly adapt in the moment. Risky play patterns may get you ranked points, but the odds are against you if you’re trying to make it out of pools, so learn to comfortably outplay people while minimizing risk as much as you can. If losing a round is a potential outcome of doing something in neutral, don’t do that thing.

If fighting games are a conversation, then two games out of three is like, a short but satisfying exchange of small talk. Neither player will likely be able to go deep with the other unless the set comes down to the wire. As such, a player’s depth of game knowledge isn’t as helpful to their success as their executional and emotional stability. You are more likely to lose a round because you dropped a combo than because you have gone eighteen yomi layers deep on the round start interaction, and you either dropped that combo because you haven’t put in the reps or because you missed a beat from all the stress. So just focus on doing the things you know how to do as cleanly as you can, and don’t trip if you fuck it up, because everyone fucks something up.

If you have notes, look at them. You may think “I don’t need to look at my notes right now, they’re not useful.” Do it anyway, just to make sure. It is highly likely that past-you knew you were going to forget to do ABC or not do XYZ, and you forgot about that so hard that you think you don’t need to look at your notes. (I am really bad at this, and I always facepalm when I see my notes after the match.)

Also: Figure out what you want to listen to while you’re playing. Some people find that they play better when they’re listening to music on their headphones, because it helps them stay in their zone, and they’ll put together specific playlists that help them get there. Personally, I will use headphones with game audio if they’re available — some things in fighting games are more easily and quickly reacted to through audio cues, not visual ones — but if there’s a speaker playing game audio clearly enough I like to be able to hear the game and my opponent’s buttons as well. However, if I can hear their buttons, I can also hear other people talking, and sometimes I’ll catch myself getting distracted from the game because I’m listening to someone else’s conversation. I don’t think there’s a right answer here, so again, try things out and see what you like best.

Do this stuff, or don’t

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As a Serious, Motivated tournament player, you know that there are many Serious, Motivated things you can do to improve your tournament performance besides just “getting good”, and I’m sure you can think of countless things you could do to play a bit better.

Do that stuff if you want to. It really does help! But for most of us, tournaments are also a chance to hang out with friends and have fun. They’re a competition, but they’re also a vacation, and if you’d have a better time playing your pools after staying up all night drinking and singing with your homies, go do that stuff. Maybe you’ll go 0–2, have a blast, go get lunch, and leave two other people happy about picking up a win. That’s a successful tournament trip in a different way.

But if tournament results really are important to you, and that’s what you need to improve to keep playing and learning and having fun and feeling like it’s all rewarding and worth it, then do the work and play your best. Not because you need the tournament results — you don’t — but because pushing yourself to do your best is part of the fun.

Thanks for reading! If you found this essay valuable and want to support my work, please do not hesitate to share it around on your social channels, follow me on Twitter, check out my Twitch stream (Mon-Thurs 830PM-11PM PST), or toss me a few bucks on Patreon.


-patrick miller

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