“How can a newbie learn from playing in tournaments?”

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Hello Patrick,

After seeing all your posts about the importance of social interaction in fighting games, I have decided to participate in one of my local tournaments.

That would be my first tournament ever, I hope to have lots of fun and to learn a lot!

The problem is that, because I’m pretty new to Fighting Games in general, I can do a fireball motion, the DP input and a couple of simple combos, I know I’m not gonna win the tournament and I will probably lose all the matches…

So here is where I raise my question to you… How can I prepare myself to approach my first online tournament? I know that all my adversaries have been playing this game far more than I have, and I probably will be beaten up, so how can I make sure that I can learn, in a competitive environment, from these defeats?

Deep down, I think the problem is “How I’m supposed to confront this challenge, if I know I’m not going to win and I will probably look like a complete beginner and people will laugh at it” type of situation, but I will also like to learn as much as I can from it, improve my game and integrate in the local scene.


Playing Guilty Gear

Hey Alexandre! Thanks for writing, this is an excellent question! Thanks for giving me an excuse to write about it — I’ll definitely edit this one to go on my Patreon.

First off: Congratulations on jumping head-first into tournament competition! I know you’re asking about how you can use the tournament to learn, but let’s take a second to acknowledge that just by signing up and putting yourself out there, you’re putting more pressure on your will to improve, and that is a key part of progressing as a fighting game player. Even if you go 0–2 and don’t learn anything from your matches that you couldn’t have gotten from getting stomped in Ranked, you’re making a shift in your thinking to orient your focus onto tournament play, and that kind of testing and pressure will do a lot to push you to improve as long as you stick with it.

Next, let me assure you that in my experience, people tend to be pretty good about not mocking new players at tournaments. Some of this is because all of us remember being scrubs at our first tournament, and some of this is because any TO worth their salt wants new players to have a good time so they’ll come back and keep getting better. Not everyone is like this, of course, and sometimes new players create lots of amazing comedic moments in-game because they do shit that experienced players would never think about doing. But in general, anyone worth a damn doesn’t really think about new player mistakes enough to mock them because we’ve all seen them a thousand times before.

(If you find that your local scene does mock new players, that might not be a scene you want to stick around in. We do our Caliburst Beginner Bracket because we want to give new players a space to be scrubby together, and that attitude has largely propagated through our local scene.)

Now, let’s talk about what you can get from tournaments. Based on your description of your current level of ability, you’re probably not going to learn anything from the matches you play that you wouldn’t be able to learn online, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get something from it. In your case, the first thing you’re going to learn about is how playing in tournament is different than playing outside of tournament. People play differently when there’s something on the line. People play more seriously about tournament matches than they do about ranked points even if there’s no prize for winning the tournament. I’ve written about this a little bit before (see getting good at playing in tournaments and overcoming tournament nerves) so I won’t belabor the point too much, but a big part about getting better at entering tournaments is learning to play as seriously as you possibly can.

For example, when I enter the Wednesday Night Fights +R tournaments, I try and give myself 30 minutes before the bracket starts to eat a snack, put on some warm clothing, do some light exercise to get my blood flowing, drink some water, warm up in training mode, and get in a few games of netplay casuals in. That’s a big difference from how I play when I’m just messing around in lobbies, and learning how to prepare for different modes of play is a big part of learning to be competitively successful in fighting games that has nothing to do with the game itself.

In your first tournament, you’re probably going to panic. You’re probably going to fuck up some stuff you don’t normally fuck up. You might try some wild shit that you think is a good idea at the time (“Surprise! I lost the first game, so I’m switching characters to someone I just tried out last week!”). This is all normal, and you need to enter tournaments to get better at not doing all this stuff and instead sticking to focusing on the way you want to play the game.

Playing in tournaments is also useful for building your social connection to your scene, which is an important part of getting better. Very few people can get good in fighting games without building networks of people that they can rely on for help. When we run offline tournaments, a lot of the value is just in getting together with the folks in your area who are willing to take the time and energy to get to a place and play the game. Anyone who likes a game enough to spend an hour driving out of their way to play it with other people is more likely to a) be good at the game and b) be down to hang out and talk about the game with other people. This is not true of all locals, mind you, but I’ve found that it’s true of most that I’ve seen. And getting people who are down to kick it and talk about the game is really important if you’re going to get into that social learning pattern that we’re talking about.

For online tournaments, some of that filtering function is still there, but a bit less so, because no one has to go anywhere. Just like offline locals, online tournaments can vary widely in quality and value. Some TOs are there just to run the bracket and the stream, and other TOs put in more work to create room for the players in the tournament to socialize, play casuals, and have a good time outside of their tournament matches.

It can be a bit harder to find people to play casuals with, for example, because a lot of players will just dip out when their bracket run is done. But there will often be people who are also salty about getting knocked out early. The nice thing about going 0–2 is that 25% of any bracket goes 0–2, and you’ll all be hanging out in Discord or whatever without anything to do but play against other people who are probably at a reasonably close skill level.

Unlike the matchmaking queue, these people are more likely to show up again in the next tournament, so if you play casuals with them now, you’ll be ready for them when you see them next week. If the tournament has a stream, you can hang out in stream chat and shoot the shit while you watch all the people who you might get matched up with next week. A big part of getting better at fighting games is learning more about the people you’re playing against, and that doesn’t have to stop when your tournament run does.

So when it comes to figuring out how you’re supposed to approach this challenge, my recommendation would be to not think too hard about the results you get, or even the matches you play, and just focus on getting to know the local scene and finding people to play. Your challenge is not to play in a single tournament, it’s to keep playing in tournaments consistently enough that you get to see yourself improve. If you make competition a habit, you’ll find yourself thinking about more specific goals in-between tournament days. If you lost to a character you’ve never played before, you’re more likely spend your next session learning a little bit more about the matchup by practicing and watching high-level videos so that next time you’ll be more ready.

In other words, most of the learning for a tournament happens after the tournament — either through casuals with your newly-adopted scene, or through your own practice and self-reflection between the last tournament and the next one. So all you have to do is keep entering in tournaments, and use the results to guide your practice sessions in-between tournaments, and you’ll be learning plenty!

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-1030PM PST), or join my Patreon.


-patrick miller