On plateaus in fighting games

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Fighting games feel the best when it feels like the time you’re putting in is paying off. But when you hit a wall, it can be one of the most frustrating experiences a video game can deliver.

When you hit that wall, you feel like the thing you did to get here isn’t working. Your work isn’t paying off like before. You ask yourself if you’ve hit your limit as a player. Maybe you’re seeing your tournament results get shaky, or you’ve identified a couple players that you feel like you can’t come close to. You thought you were the protagonist of the story, but now you feel like you might just be a quirky side character.

This is called “hitting a plateau”. I first came to hear of this concept through weightlifting, where it refers to the times where you’re stuck at a certain weight — say, 220lbs on the deadlift — and simply cannot improve on it. With experience, weightlifters cultivate their own tips and tech for breaking out of plateaus, changing things up in their routine to find the factor that’s holding them back and eliminate it.

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Look at this plateau. Nice, but no one’s tryna hang around here.

Weightlifters have it easy. 220lbs will always weigh 220lbs. For fighting games, everything changes — you, your opponents, your tournament paths, sometimes even the game itself. There is no one true measure of a player’s power level, and this means that it can be very easy to focus on the imperfect measures that are easier to see. Typical progression markers like ranked division or tournament placings aren’t going to tell you what you want to know. sometimes they’ll tell you that you’re better than you are; other times they’ll tell you that you’re worse.

As people who play fighting games, we can all ask ourselves two questions to evaluate our strength:

  • Can you beat someone when it matters (tournament, money match, whatever)?

Players often emphasize the “can you beat someone” question because it’s simple and satisfying. Win, and your way is validated; lose, and you go back to the lab. But simply tracking your wins and losses won’t tell you whether you’re getting stronger or not, just whether you were stronger or weaker than the other person at that moment in time. (If you beat me in tournament and I practice up and beat you at the next one because you took a break to play Sekiro, then I won because I got better, not because you got worse.)

If the ‘can you beat someone’ question is your primary source of feedback, you’ll run into plateau problems whenever you find people you consistently lose to. For example, there are a handful of players in NorCal that I’ve lost to pretty consistently in tournament: Bears, Daymendou, AngryBlack, and OrionXElite. If I were to base my evaluation of myself solely on tournament results, I would probably feel like I’ve plateaued. In other games I’ve played in the past, I did focus mostly on tournament results, and I was well-acquainted with the feeling of flattening out.

These days, I don’t have that feeling. I think this is because I take the time to evaluate my ability independent of tournament results. I spend time watching stronger Chipp players so I can better understand how my character works; I spend time watching my own matches so I can uncover weaknesses in my thought process; I gradually add new combos and setups to my game; I experiment with different approaches and movement patterns in neutral; I refine my ability to look for clues and patterns in my opponent’s choices to learn more about what they’re focusing on and why; I talk to the people I play with to learn more about how they approach the game.

Yes, this is “work”. It’s doing more than just sitting down and playing the game with another person. But it is through this work that I learn. After all, when you play with someone, you’re probably too busy playing to do much learning. The work is how we reflect.

This work is how I feel myself grow. I do not have to worry about losing, or what losing “means” any more. Tournaments are no longer The Moment Of Truth; they’re a tool to help uncover weaknesses that only reveal themselves under pressure. I practice so I can have more fun at tournaments, which makes me want to practice more. If you just practice but don’t compete, your work will go untested; if you just compete but don’t practice, you won’t be feeding your brain the stuff it needs to get stronger.

It is here that the doubting voice says, “OK, but how do you know that it’s working if you still can’t beat those guys in tournament?”

And it is to that doubting voice that I say, I can see and do things I couldn’t before, and that’s how I know it’s working. Each time I lose, I get to take something with me and use it to build something new.

Fighting games are frustrating, and plateauing sucks. But if you focus on understanding and growing your own ability instead of comparing yourself to others, you’ll get better and feel less frustrated about losing. And it’s a lot easier to stay consistently playing and growing if you’re not pissed off all the time.

Thanks for reading!


-patrick miller

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