“How do I catch up to the ‘09ers?”
I’m a lifelong Smash player (yeah, I know) who recently got into fighting games around a year and a half ago in quarantine with Street Fighter V. Since then, I’ve switched to mainly Granblue and Strive, and have started practicing and competing in those two games. One mental roadblock that I find at my in-person locals with the former is this semi-mantra I find myself repeating in my head: “how can I compete with thirteen years of Street Fighter IV?” I’m pretty new to the genre, and although I’m doing my best to go through the motions — getting practice, playing more, taking notes, and improving on the parts that I know I can improve on — there’s that looming feeling that all the competition has been honing their skills since 2009.
Obviously, that’s an exaggeration, but as someone who wants to push themselves to be competitively the best they can, it’s a little disheartening to feel frustrated that many of my opponents have a decade-long headstart. Granblue’s ease of play but large-scale similarity to Street Fighter seems to only further this comparison in my head. Even though I know that improvement comes at a personal level, it feels kind of crushing to be aware of this massive generational gap that comes with genre-wide experience and skill specialization. I guess my main question is: how do you reconcile with the fact that it’s hard to catch up and get good at fighting games when you’re starting “this late”? How does someone “catch up” to someone who started playing footsies before you even knew how to do long division?
Granblue’s kind of just a cherry-picked example from lived experiences — I could feel the same way about Xrd to Strive to Smash 4 to Ultimate, to even Counter-Strike to Valorant. Different games in many ways, but similar mediums and overall very transferable skills.
Thanks so much, man. Love the content, it’s helped me a lot as a budding fighting game player.
Trying To Punch Old People But They’re Hard To Hit
First off: I’ve written a bit about the specific issue you’re describing before in an essay called “Why complicated fighting games are weirdly good for beginners”. I hate it when fighting game devs turn down complexity in games to make them beginner-friendly because in my experience it makes the new player feel better about spending $60 to buy the game, but after about a month they feel exactly the way you do.
That said, “catching up” doesn’t quite work that way.
When Street Fighter 4 dropped, I had been playing fighting games competitively for about seven years, which by then was a little less than half of the duration of the entire existence of competitive fighting games. Seeing so many new players around had me excited to ride the wave of my experience advantage; if it took me seven years to get where I am now, surely it would take them seven years to catch up, during which I’d be pushing myself to greater heights (and basking in the adoration of all the ‘09ers in the meantime). What’s more, I actually had a local advantage on Street Fighter 4 because I was in Japan when the game dropped in 2008 and had gotten to play a bunch there before the NA release.
In my recollection, I got to feel kinda good at Street Fighter 4 for like, a couple months before people caught up and I was fighting for my life every time I entered a bracket.
What the heck happened?
While fighting game players do talk a lot about ‘legacy skill’ — and make no mistake, there are certainly skills that cross over from game to game — a lot of how that stuff works still has to be learned from game to game. I thought I was nice with the footsies because I had played ST, 3s, and CvS2, but ‘footsies’ in each of those games is different due to the combat systems and attack design. In ST, footsies are played around the fireball game; in CvS2, they’re played for guard crush; in 3s, they’re played around parries.
So while I had the basic tools of footsies ahead of the ‘09ers, I still had to go and learn the SF4-specific stuff — character matchups and attack interactions, risk/reward payoffs, how to deal with invincible backdashes, and playing around Focus Attack. (Since I didn’t actually like SF4 that much, however, I didn’t really do this.) When you’re playing GBVS against weathered veteran ‘09ers (it’s still weird for me to type that out, by the way), they’ve got a head start on the basic concepts behind footsies, but they still need to learn how GBVS-specific footsies work like anyone else. You don’t need to “catch up” as much as you think you do.
If you’ve been playing Smash for a while, you’ve almost certainly seen similar “catch-ups” happen. The highest level of SSBU play is not reserved for Melee oldheads because the games are different enough that not everything carries over, and even Melee is seeing some fun fluctuation lately because it’s hard to stay on top if the others are hungry enough. Most of what differentiates top players from everyone else is mastery of game-specific knowledge and nuance, and prior expertise usually just makes it easier to identify and absorb that stuff more quickly than others.
It’s also worth mentioning that “catching up” invariably happens faster and faster. I learned faster in my seven years of lead time than someone who started with SF2 because I had the benefit of a local competitive community that historically had strong footsies thanks to players like John Choi and Ricki Ortiz drilling them into us every week while taking our lunch money, as well as the beginnings of online video sharing to get infrequent visibility into what high-level play looked like in Japan. But ‘09ers came up in an era of netplay, broadband, streaming video, and tech videos that enabled people to level up faster. The pandemic generation of fighting game players is learning even faster, because the more experienced fighting game players are finally learning how to teach the damn games they play. A year spent learning to play fighting games in 1991 is probably worth a month in 2022.
That said, I think there’s a bigger misconception worth correcting here, and that’s the idea that you need to “catch up” at all.
When I got into competitive martial arts, I didn’t look at my instructors’ years of experience and think, “Shit, how am I going to catch up to this guy?” When I was considering becoming a full-time fighter and instructor myself, I didn’t think about what I had to do to compete against the generations of people ahead of me. They weren’t my competition because they were at a different point in their journey than I was. I ended up choosing a different path, but had I stuck with it, by now I’d probably have had a few low-tier pro fights before hanging up the aspirations to the title and settling down to teach.
There are certainly some people out there who can dive right in with a seemingly natural proclivity and “catch up” to the experienced folks out there. Kawano is about as old as Third Strike and is able to hang with players who have been playing at the highest levels of fighting game play well before he was born. Most of the time, we call these players “prodigies”; most people are not like this.
Personally, I consider myself the opposite of a prodigy; I’m a fighting game player who has mostly just gotten good by sticking around and playing throughout the years. But that is the thing that I’m better at than most of my generation. The vast majority of the people who started around the same time as I did have moved on to living the rest of their lives. Some are still around, content to mash once a month or so with the homies. Very few of them are still competing in anything, much less playing new games.
Most of the ‘09er vets you dread have moved on to focus on other parts of their lives. It’s been thirteen years, after all. Most people don’t love anything enough to do it for thirteen years. Even if they really, really love it. And the ones that are still playing likely aren’t as focused on competition like they were in their earlier years because they’ve found that competition alone isn’t enough to keep them in the game. The ones that have stuck around aren’t good because they started with SF4; it’s far more likely that they stuck around because they’re good.
I refer to my fighting game experience as a “career” because that’s the best word to describe my long-term engagement with the activity. The fact that you are more junior in your career than I am doesn’t mean that you cannot compete with me, but it does mean that I have the benefit of a broader and deeper set of experience. Some of that experience is indeed represented in the ten minutes or so it takes to play a tournament set, but most of it is not.
Because if you’ve done this shit for a long time, most of the stuff you’ve learned is not “How do I press buttons good”. It’s “How do I find ways to keep this a part of my life as I grow older and manage adult responsibilities and priorities”.
If you really want to catch up to me, or an ‘09er, or anyone else, it’s not about the number of years you spend grinding footsies. It’s about finding ways to stay active and engaged when the shine of fighting games as something new and novel has faded, or when your dreams of being the fresh up-and-coming talent are reality checked out, or when your friends move on to something else, or your job becomes a career that you’re mentally and emotionally invested in, or you become a partner in a relationship or a provider for a family. If you want to catch up, the main thing you gotta do is this: still be playing in ten years.
Depending on how your career goes, you might not hit your competitive peak with GBVS. Maybe you are indeed a GBVS lifer like I am with Rev2, and you choose to refine your performance in that game long after it’s left the competitive spotlight. But it’s far more likely that you’ll go play SF6 and see some of your footsies carry over, and maybe you do a bit better, and then a new SamSho comes out and you’re just scraping people left and right. Your path as a fighting game player will take you through many games, each one at a different point in your life, with a different you playing it. On a long enough timeline, there are few parallels you can draw between your path and anyone else’s because everyone’s will eventually find them going through a unique set of twists and turns.
The cliche is true: This is a marathon, not a sprint. We all get (roughly) the same amount of time here on Earth to play fighting games or do whatever the heck you want to do with it; the question is how you use yours, not how far you make it relative to someone else who is further along their path than you are. When you’re a year and a half in, you shouldn’t be thinking about how to catch up to someone who’s ten years deep. Use your peers as a benchmark if you must, but know that in the long haul, the only one you’re competing with is yesterday’s you. Stick with it long enough, and eventually you’ll see how little our years of experience mean in the big picture.
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