“How do I get better when I don’t have people my level to play with?”

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Hey Pat!

I’m a relatively new fighting game player who’s, unfortunately, become smitten with a set of fighting games that have… not so great netcode (Granblue, UNI, and the Smash Ultimate mod HDR)

One major frustration I’ve found on my journey to work and get better is the inability to play against…people…for real. Going through all the motions is one thing (nailing down training mode execution, watching vods of top level play of my character, and labbing scenarios), but from prior experience in other games (Strive and Melee particularly), you need to play other people to improve.

I have locals I go to where I can sweat casuals (and I’m lucky to be located in a major city with a large FGC presence) but even so, everyone at these events have years of experience on me, and as enjoyable getting 10–0’d by a cracked Linne or Cagliostro is, it doesn’t help me find too many weakness points in my play to improve on. (Also, not that it matters too much in casuals, but the dopamine of winning sometimes helps a little.)

I love netplaying as much as the next person but obviously, so many logistical issues arise. Mentality around delay based netplay is hard to take seriously, especially with regards to characters who play relatively reaction based in neutral. Furthermore, as much as I love Discord FGC communities (I AM a Granblue player, they’re the gold standard) it’s frustrating for match finding to be an entire ordeal. In particular, beginner matchmaking pings usually…match me up w 11F delay from someone in Singapore.

So I’m reaching out to you, both with regards to generally “how do you improve in a fighting game and convert solo training mode practice into your play against people without actually playing against people” as well as “how do you find avenues of improvement if finding people at your skill level is difficult”


Hopium Addict

Dear HA,

Allow me to open this with a real Boomer Shit alert: I literally used to walk 90 minutes to get to the nearest university arcade just to have a chance at playing whoever happened to be on campus on a weekend. I factored arcade proximity into my college applications. I emulated Windows on a (pre-Intel) Mac in order to run Kaillera, well before GGPO or Fightcade, so I could netplay Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. I have cracked a neighbor’s Wi-Fi encryption in order to netplay SSF2 HD Remix and tethered my 3DS to an iPad’s 3G internet connection to netplay Super Street Fighter IV on the 3DS.

I have done horrible things for netplay.

I understand that the kids these days are raised on one-click matchmaking and that anything short of a perfect Elo match made under 30 seconds is literally a dead game. You go to your locals and occasionally mess with delay-based netcode, so you’re clearly willing to go out of your way for some Good Shit. However, as someone who made major life decisions and committed unforgivable latency sins in order to play fighting games, I need to be clear: The solution I recommend for this issue is what I think you should do, though perhaps not what you want to do, and I will be explaining it with the conviction of someone who has been here long enough to believe very strongly that I Know Better. It may rub you the wrong way, but try it on and see if it fits.

I understand your problem well, because I am also hopelessly devoted to a game with delay-based netcode. Rev2’s is not the worst delay-based netcode out there by a long shot, but it’s no rollback. The latency restrictions of delay-based make it harder to find opponents at all, never mind trying to find skill-matched low-lag opponents within minutes of queuing up or opening a lobby.

And yet, I get plenty of meaningful, high-quality netplay matches to more than fill out a productive week of improvement-oriented fighting game play. My netplay training diet has all kinds of stuff in it; long sets, low-lag pickup lobby sessions with players of many different levels, and brackets and exhibitions. It’s not just me, either — I see plenty of new Rev2 players with similarly easy access to a lot of quality netplay, and they’re leveling up very, very quickly.

They’re doing this by hanging out in Discords with each other, forming groups by region so they can reliably get good-enough matches, sometimes by organizing times in advance to play together, and other times by just growing the group big enough that there’s usually someone down to play when you want to. They’re not all the same skill level, but that just means the stronger player gets a chance to practice something different, and maybe teach the weaker player something so they’ll be a better training partner next time. In short, they’re part of a community, not in the generic sense like “the Guilty Gear community” that you might find in a subreddit or a hashtag, but an extended group of people with a mutual interest in each other’s well-being and growth. They’re friends, mostly, and that makes it a lot easier to do things like wait ten minutes to play a laggy match across a skill gap.

Normalize “bgs” but only with people you’re cool with.

So let’s get this out of the way: You can absolutely solve this problem just by labbing more and harder, and I think that’s probably the kind of advice you’re expecting. You can learn to love the Record and Playback functions and the Random Block setting. But I think you’ll have a better time playing fighting games if you instead focus less on “converting solo training mode practice into your play against people without actually playing against people” and instead ask yourself what you can do to spend more of your time playing the fighting games you love with people you also love.

Matchmaking for a mainstream fighting game endeavors to connect you to a low-lag opponent of approximately similar skill as quickly as it can. This is one way to play a fighting game, and it is generally the one that reliably generates a good-enough time. But it is by no means the only way to play a fighting game. It is the most convenient way to play, but also the loneliest, which isn’t great for the ol’ dopamine. Fighting games are skills that we study and practice, and any skill must be practiced in many different modalities in order to be mastered.

Fortunately, I’ve gone deeper on this kind of stuff before. When it comes to social stuff and skill gaps, go read How to learn from getting bodied, Playing against weaker players is good for you, How to be a good sparring partner, and The importance of fighting game friends. For netplay tips, try Adapting for netplay and Locals in a time of corona. Generally speaking, though, the idea is that any match against any player can be one in which you can learn and practice useful stuff as long as you’ve got the right mindset and you’re down to talk to the person you’re playing with.

When you go to locals and get walloped by players much stronger than you, talk to them. Ask the 10–0 Linne or Cag some questions about the game and see if they’re interested in helping you learn. See if they’d be willing to try out secondary characters to make the game more interesting for both of you, or help you find answers to the things that are kicking your ass in training mode in-between sets. Some people won’t respond to that, and that’s their right — no one is obligated to help you out. But lots of people who play fighting games like helping people out because they like seeing new people get into the games they love, and we all know what it feels like to be new to fighting games.

Daymendou 10–0s me more often than not, but I always get something good out of it.

And when you’re looking for some netplay, spend a little effort to line up nearby players who you have a good connection to — whatever their skill level. Find the regional Discords if they exist; make one if they don’t. Invite the people you play with. Get them to invite the people they play with. Find a netplay tournament in your region; if there aren’t any, make your own and host it out of your new Discord. You don’t have to “take netplay seriously.” Just treat it as training weights: a valuable practice tool that supplements, but does not replace, your offline sessions. It doesn’t have to be “serious,” it just has to be “good enough for you to get some useful practice in.”

Because the thing is that people in your situation usually solve it by switching games to stuff that is close-enough and has rollback netcode. You could play Melee on Slippi, or either of the Melty Blood games instead of UNI, or +R or Strive or DNF or Vampire Savior on Fightcade; games that have something in common with the games you like the most, but with more reliable netcode and bigger playerbases for closer skill matches.

Plenty of people do this! For most of the fighting game genre’s existence, people who wanted to play less-popular fighting games either had to live near a scene, build their own scene, or suck it up and play whatever other people were playing around them. I played Third Strike for a couple years, not because I wanted to, but because it was the closest thing to a game I liked that I could find people to play with. I suspect that if you wanted to do that, you wouldn’t be writing in.

Alternately, there are things you could do to get better at fighting games without having people to play frequently. You can pick characters that reward you more for your time in the lab, or characters that do not differ dramatically when you play them online or offline. You can spend more time drilling at varying levels of resistance; you can lab more and more scenarios and create deeper and deeper flowcharts.

You can learn a lot about how to play a fighting game without playing other people if you have the right mindset and methods. Most people who play fighting games do not have a comprehensive understanding of how the game works, and if you can suss out their knowledge gaps relative to yours, you can often bludgeon them to death with their (relative) ignorance. This is how many people play fighting games; you say you’re new, so maybe you haven’t really tried this out yet. Becoming a lab monster is also fun in its own way, but again, I suspect that if you wanted to do that, you’d be playing some flowchart setplay character instead of a reaction-based neutral character.

Xrd Ram players be like (shoutouts to overlord_mitch)

Most long-term fighting game players do not lab as much as they should if they want to be ‘optimal’ in how they practice. I think this is because there are many different game genres that reward its players for methodical study and practice, so people who are down for this have a lot of games to choose from. However, I do not think there is any game genre that feels quite so satisfying to play against another person. It is that part of the fighting game experience that keeps most of us here. If you’re wired to love this shit, nothing else hits quite like fighting games do. So we often want to learn by playing against other people, even if it’s often less efficient than learning on our own.

You’re new to fighting games, but you’re drawn to them. Why do you like them? Why do you want to get better? Why spend your precious free time mastering an ultimately arbitrary and frivolous skill like playing a fighting game?

Certainly there is some intrinsic joy in feeling yourself move your hands more fluidly, or in conquering a challenge in front of you, even if it’s just a combo trial or an SNK Boss. If that’s what keeps you going, you can follow in the steps of countless lab monsters that have come before you.

For me, though, I can tell you that the best reason I’ve found to play fighting games is because I love the people who play them. I love these stupid hard games, the harder and stupider the better, and I love being around people who look at these games and think, “Yeah, I want to spend my time getting better at playing this stupid hard game so I can travel thousands of miles from home to fight a stranger with my ridiculous weeb ninja president.”

These people make me want to get better, and I make them want to get better. I’ve done a bunch of different competitive activities in my life, but nothing has brought me to as many wonderful people as fighting games have.

Shoutouts to everyone who pulled up for Evo!!!

Through fighting games, I met my best friends, I deepened my connection to my hometown, and I’ve gotten to see parts of the world from angles I would have never seen otherwise. Fighting games have enriched my life in many ways, and most of them come from the people I’ve met through playing them.

The reason I am so passionate about introducing others to fighting games is because I know how much they’ve made my life better.

Which is why I often like to say that if you aren’t playing fighting games for the people, you’re missing out.

Now, you don’t have to immediately jump into starting your own Discord tournament or whatever if that feels like too big a leap. Start small and just talk to the locals next time they’re kicking your ass, maybe ask them if they know where you can find some regional netplay matchmaking. Ask for help with the game and see if anyone’s down to show you some stuff. Or, hey, see if you can find people who are newer than you but interested in learning with you. Approach people with genuine warmth and see who is willing to respond in kind. Put out the chill vibes you would like to see reciprocated and you’ll find people who dig it.

Life is too short to treat every game as a job to be hustled and every player as a potential enemy. We’re all just nerds tryna mash! Might as well have some fun with it. You might never win Evo, but you might make some lifelong friends, and I think that’s the bigger W.

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, or join my Patreon.


-patrick miller



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