How can I keep playing fighting games without feeling pressured to compete?
Hey Patrick! I’ve got a question that’s been bugging me long enough to draft like five emails to you and never sending them. So I’m just going to send this one off and stop overthinking it!
Short backstory: I’ve been playing fighting games super irregularly and casually since the days of the PS2 GGXX release, popping in to play friends now and again but never really sitting down to learn until the pandemic set in. And I’ve made a lot of progress and learned how to have fun learning and playing people of all skill levels, and I’m proud of that!
I am not a competitive person, at all. I don’t have an innate drive to be Super Good Amazing The Best — I’m happy being Kinda Okay Sorta Maybe. I found out really early by entering a few online beginner tournaments that tournament play in general just really does not appeal, at all, and doesn’t work with my schedule either. I made it out to a local during a lull in the pandemic and generally had fun, and while I wouldn’t mind going again, a day out in a busy social environment like that can easily take way more out of me than what it gives back. And I’ve spent so much of my adult life trying to unlearn toxic productivity and perfectionism that I’m allergic to “just grind it out” style talk.
This doesn’t mean I don’t value learning or improvement — I very much do — but I find myself doing it to teach or help others rather than for myself. All the best experiences I’ve had the past couple years have been from helping and teaching others, or just being there to support other beginners.
But I’ve found that I feel an enormous amount of pressure to only be the kind of player I don’t want to be — competitive, tournament player, hardcore grinder. I can tell that it’s largely imaginary and self-inflicted, but I find it harder to deal with than any busted oki setup. And I have noticed it’s causing me to keep the FGC at a bit of a distance because of that, which definitely does me no service whatsoever, and leaves me feeling like maybe I just don’t belong at all.
I’m currently on a bit of a Discord diet trying to find a way to navigate being part of those spaces without getting myself super worked up by pressure I’ve manufactured to do nothing but grind to be a superior player, because I see a lot of that in spaces like those and a lot less of what feels like my speed. I think that’s what makes tournament-oriented play really stressful for me — I feel like I have no choice but to soullessly grind, especially when rather than going 0–2 and playing a bunch of casuals, I go 0–2 and go to bed and I’m too tired the rest of the week to hop in the lobbies.
I honestly have also been thinking if what’s missing in the online experience isn’t stuff like “having a tournament to go to every month” but having a continuous league-style round robin rolling, the way I used to experience when I bowled as a kid, or when I played bridge with a bunch of weird old church ladies.
Any help on short-circuiting this thought process is deeply appreciated — I feel way too caught up in it to see a viable and healthy way out of it that keeps me engaged with the community and the learning process.
Hi GO! Thanks for writing in.
It sounds like there are a lot of things going on in here, so let’s see what we can untangle first.
- Low time/social energy budget for events
- Dislike for tournament play as a competitive format
- Valuing learning and growth but disliking ‘soulless grind’
- Feeling pressure to improve as a competitive player despite not having the desire to prove yourself competitively
1 + 2 are perfectly normal; being around people can be quite exhausting, and spending the time and energy to travel to compete in a format where you’re only guaranteed two best-of-three sets is not worth it to many people. Neither of those preclude you from engaging in a meaningful way with fighting games, or the people who play them; just look at all the streamers, content creators, wiki editors, writers, commentators, lab monsters, etc. out there who do their thing without ever having to touch a bracket themselves. And, hey, if you want to compete but don’t want to enter tournaments, low-stakes money matches are a great way to bring some heat without worrying about wasting time with brackets and traveling, and they’re fun as heck for others to watch.
3 + 4 are where things start to get interesting.
Valuing learning and growth is generally a pretty common trait among fighting game players, since it’s a big part of the engagement loop that the genre is built around. I don’t know what kinds of activities you associate with getting better at fighting games that constitute a ‘soulless grind’, though. My weekly routine for GG usually looks like this:
- Monday — Rev2 lobby session (streamed)
- Tuesday — REV2SDAY netplay tournament
- Wednesday — +R netplay or Rev2 lobby/training mode session, depending on what I’m feeling
- Thursday — Either +R weekly netplay bracket or playing other non-GG fighting games with friends
- Friday — local +R/Rev2 casuals
- Saturday — local tournament or replay review/training mode time
- Sunday — break
Out of all of these sessions, I can’t think of anything that I would think of as ‘soulless’. Is it a grind? Maybe it looks like that to others who don’t want to spend quite so much time playing Guilty Gear, but it doesn’t feel like a grind to me. When I have free time, I generally choose to spend it playing fighting games, and I have a couple that I really like playing, so I focus on those. I don’t know what your weekly menu would look like, but I wouldn’t expect it to look like mine unless you wanted it to, and anyone who did what I do without enjoying it would probably burn out quickly.
Put another way, you might feel like the ‘soulless grind’ is associated with how you think you have to play in order to improve, you might think it’s about the amount of time you have to spend in order to be a Real Competitive Player, or maybe it’s both — but I suspect you could find ways to improve that don’t feel like it’s a soulless grind, spend as much time as you feel like you want to spend on it, and see yourself improve at a satisfactory pace.
Which brings us to your conflict: you feel pressure to play like a tournament player even though you a) don’t like tournaments and b) don’t care to prove yourself competitively.
This is also fairly normal, I think. If you’re around a bunch of deeply engaged fighting game players who are excited about testing themselves at the next event, it’s easy to feel left out, or like you don’t belong in the same space, if you don’t share in the same goals and excitement. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you don’t belong, or that you can’t participate in the journey, but it does mean that you need to find your own way to engage.
Given your stated preference for helping others level up, you may find more value in helping your friends prepare for competition than you would in competing yourself. You could pick up different characters to help your friends round out their matchup experience, help them research specific opponents, set up some two-player training mode sessions to drill specific situations, etc. I don’t know if you’d consider any of that ‘soulless grinding’, but it’ll probably be more palatable when you’re helping build your friend up for success rather than doing it for yourself.
That said, you probably didn’t need me to tell you “Hey, why not spend your time helping the homies out with their tournament prep if you don’t want to do your own”. So let’s dig a bit deeper.
When you choose words like “not my speed”, it makes me think that the issues you’re finding are less about defining and feeling comfortable in your own relationship to fighting games, and more about participating in communities that are centrally focused on competitive-minded growth. That is to say, it may be that the issues you’re running into are caused in part because playing with competitive players means that you have less fun playing because you feel like you’re being left behind by the others. Perhaps you can feel the skill gap growing, which makes the matches less close and changes the way you relate to the other people in your spaces. Or maybe you’re reacting to the tonal shift in how people play when they’re playing with their tournament mindset on instead of mashing and messing around.
Fighting games are not only about competition, but the community that has formed around fighting games is certainly built with competition at its center, and that will shape your play experience even if you don’t enter the bracket. It means that you’re going to be around more people who think of fighting games as skills to be mastered and matchups as problems to be solved, with an eye towards consistent, methodical improvement and less interest in unfocused exploration or whimsy. If that’s what you think of as a ‘soulless grind’, then yeah, being around competitive players probably feels like a drag.
In the end, you’ll have to figure out where you’re feeling the pressure coming from and a strategy for dealing with it based on your understanding of your situation. However, I do think it’s worth pointing out that people compete for all kinds of reasons, and “the drive to be Super Good Amazing The Best” is, from what I can tell, not really that common. Most people who enter tournaments aren’t “hardcore tournament grinders”, they’re just people who like the game enough that they wanted to go hang out with a bunch of people who also like the game, and were willing to spend a couple extra bucks to enter the bracket.
Almost everybody who enters a tournament knows they’re not going to win it, and almost everybody who wins a tournament knows that there are many other players out there who could have beaten them but weren’t there that day. Everyone enters the bracket with their own reason for doing so, and in the crucible of that bracket, we find ourselves tested and sorted accordingly, free to interpret the meaning of the results in whatever way we need to in order to prepare for the next one.
In other words, tournament competition isn’t just about the matches or the possibility of winning a couple bucks, it’s about giving meaning to every hour we spend practicing and preparing for the tournament. Everyone in the tournament will vary wildly in terms of why they play and how much time and effort they invested in going to the tournament, but they can all agree that the game is something special, or else they wouldn’t be there in the first place.
I do not know you, so I couldn’t say whether you’re simply dispositionally incompatible with competition, or whether there’s too many other things going on with your life, like your depleted social energy budget or sorting out your history with “toxic productivity and perfectionism” to make competitive engagement a possibility, either as playing yourself or in helping others. But if you do conclude that both competing yourself and being around competitive players are not for you, then the work at hand will be in finding ways to engage with fighting games outside of a competitive context. Maybe some of the stuff I’ve suggested sounds fun, in case, great — the world can always use some sweet combo videos and updated wikis. But if none of that stuff really landed, then you’ll have to make the choice that countless other fighting game community members have: build it yourself, or put it on ice until you find yourself ready to re-engage.
The latter might sound like a cop-out option, but I actually think it’s highly underrated. Many people write in to me because they’re looking for advice on how to continue their fighting game journey. Sometimes all they need is some encouragement and a little perspective! And sometimes they clearly have a lot of other shit to get through before they’ll be in a place to deeply engage with fighting games. These games are real-ass sports, with the accompanying ups and downs that go along with them. They can be stressful and challenging and laborious even when you’re having a good time with them! But if you already have too much stress, challenge, and labor in your life, you might need something else in your free time to help you recover, and you can pick fighting games back up when you have the energy to engage with them the way you want to, whether it’s competitive or otherwise.
If you need a break, rest assured that fighting games will be here when you come back. And if you decide that what you need is to find people who are down to play at a different pace than the “hardcore tournament grinder”, know that there are likely many others out there who feel the same way and would be excited to join you in doing so. Even in my tournament-grindin’ lifestyle, I try to regularly make room for all kinds of other ways to play. Random select, secondary characters, combo exhibitions, mods, alternate game modes, team formats, handicaps, side bets…there is room for a lot more than just another double elim bracket.
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