On sustainable grinding and taking a break
“Is taking breaks useful? How do I take a break in fighting games? There are times where I’m unmotivated to play, but at the same time I know playing when unmotivated is important to keep the muscle memory and to keep up your ‘B level’ of play and make you more consistent. Also, I feel guilty when I have the time but don’t have the drive to play.
This is such a good question that I had to look back through the archives and was surprised to find that I hadn’t really talked about it! It’s also particularly timely because for the last year and a half I’ve been playing fighting games for a couple hours every day, usually six days a week, and for the last week I’ve been on vacation and haven’t played shit. I think I’ve only taken one other full week off from fighting games since the pandemic started, and I’m enjoying my recovery period plenty.
The fact is that even though fighting games do not have any literal grind-for-power mechanics like XP or leveling, a player who has more time in a game will usually be stronger than the player who has less time. (Yes, everyone learns at their own place and everyone comes to a new fighting game with a different set of relevant experience than everyone else and yadda yadda yadda but when you look at the general trend, more time > less time.) A big part of attaining competitive fluency in a fighting game is being comfortable enough with the game’s controls, mechanics, situations, matchups, and game flow to be able to do things like recognize opponent habits, identify countermeasures, and execute them in the moment, and the more time you spend playing, the more experience you’ll have doing all of that.
This effect is particularly noticeable in the first couple weeks of a new game, where a difference of ten or twenty hours of play experience might be the difference between knowing the basic elements of a matchup and having no idea what to do. Fighting games are hard, but they get easier the more you play them. So, people will cram those games in early on, get some better-than-expected tournament placements, and grind more heavily because they feel the pressure to maintain or improve their results at the next tournament.
But as time passes, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. A difference of five or ten hours of game time is huge when the game has only been out for a couple days, but it’s practically nothing after a month or two. And once the game’s boundaries feel fairly well explored and players aren’t really finding “new” stuff any more, the value of sinking time just goes down. The player will feel like they’ve stalled out and lost momentum as they see other players around them catch up at their own pace, and their efforts won’t feel as rewarding as they used to early on. It’s just a matter of time before they burn out and usually quit playing until the next fighting game comes out (or maybe a good DLC update).
(Warning: If any of the above sounds like the way you play fighting games, you’re legally obligated to share this essay.)
This is, generally speaking, a terrible way to play fighting games. Yes, taking breaks is important — but before we talk about taking breaks, we’re going to talk about structuring your play in ways that will make your practice feel healthier and more sustainable. Breaks are all well and good, but if you’re feeling guilty about anything, you probably need to work on reframing your perspective so you don’t build practice habits that are reliant on guilt, shame, or obligation. So first we’re gonna talk about the routine (which I also wrote about while discussing the training mindset) and then we’ll talk about breaks.
Putting together a sustainable routine
As usual, my model for thinking about fighting game practice comes mostly from my experience of martial arts competition practice and related strength and conditioning training. Most video games with explicit progression design — think like, damage numbers going up because you got a new sword or whatever — don’t really fit this kind of model, but because fighting games are more about progression through mastery and skill acquisition, I find that this stuff works pretty well.
The idea behind constructing a practice routine is basically that there are all kinds of different ways you could spend time practicing to grow your skills, but the gains you’d make in any given session are fairly low, so you want to set deliberate goals on how you want to grow and what you want to improve, then decide on a workout plan that you might stick with for weeks or months or years, depending on those goals, so you can focus your practice time on getting there.
For example, if you’re getting into weightlifting, you won’t really get anywhere if your goal is “I wanna get hella buff” and you just roll up to the gym every other day and do a bunch of random exercises that have no connection to what you did for the previous session or what you want your body to do or look like in six months. By calling a shot, you can narrow down the things you want to work on in order to get there, and when it comes time to hit the gym, you don’t need to waste time thinking about which lifts you need to do today because you’ve already made a plan. It’s an important tool for focusing your practice and giving you a clear way to mark your progress.
The first thing you want to acknowledge when thinking about your fighting game routine is that the law of diminishing returns is very real. Skill acquisition in fighting games is a lot like playing a musical instrument, insofar as the work you do on one day often doesn’t show up as gains until a day or two later, after your brain and hands have had a chance to digest it for a bit. A lot of people spend too much time playing because they think they need to do a thing until they Get It in that session, but most of the time they’d be better served by doing the thing for ten minutes today and another ten minutes tomorrow because they’ll Get It the day after.
In other words: Don’t end the session because you’re too tired or salty to keep playing. End the session because you’ve put in just enough time working on the things that are on your plate to feel confident in your consistency, and maybe you’ve got a couple more things to add to the routine or research in training mode next time. Using your frustration level as a timer for your session just guarantees that you’ll end every session exhausted, and that’s not good for you.
So while I can’t tell you where the law of diminishing returns kicks in the most heavily for you because it’s generally different for each individual, I can tell you that my daily home sessions typically last for about an hour and a half or so, split up between warmup drills for 10–15 minutes, an hour and change of netplay, and then ten minutes reflecting on some observations/ takeaways from the play session in my notes and maybe quickly labbing a situation or two that I think I need an answer for. Most newer players will probably hit that point of diminishing returns within an hour. Some people will get so salty or frustrated that they probably should stop even earlier than that.
Above all, consistency is the name of the game here. You’ll improve more rapidly if you can play for 30 minutes every day than you would if you can only binge three-hour sessions once or twice a week. As long as you’re continually feeding your brain and hands new stuff to think on, you’ll be making good use of your time. This is often hard for people who treat fighting games the same way they treat other video games, because other video games typically are designed to reward constant small sessions (like mobile games) or prolonged multi-hour sessions defined by progressing through narrative, where the narrative pacing’s highs and lows create satisfying break points. Fighting games are not built to offer those dopamine hits, so you cannot rely on the game itself to give you those easy outs. Instead, you must learn to find them yourself. It’s just like going to the gym.
If you absolutely must devote more time to your practice, consider spending that time on reflection and recovery. Reviewing replays requires less physical work than labbing, and trust me, if you aren’t concerned about taking care of the body you use to play video games, you most likely won’t be concerned about it until it’s too late. Instead of spending that extra fifteen minutes on a salty runback, get in the habit of performing some self-maintenance — hand stretches, contrast baths, maybe some real-ass exercise — so you can maintain this pace safely.
Pacing yourself over the long haul
Now that we’ve covered making your regular sessions sustainable, let’s talk about the big picture! Most people who are just starting out with fighting games often have a hard time getting into smaller daily sessions, because they’re used to other games that reward you for burning huge chunks of time upfront. Once you’re in a regular groove of playing fighting games every day, it can feel so good to get those daily sessions in that you might not stop. However, if you don’t create breaks in your routine, your body will eventually get worn out and your mind will often get lost in the day-to-day practice that you’ll miss out on valuable opportunities to rest and reset your perspective.
Personally, I try to make sure that I take at least one day a week off from playing fighting games, a week off from streaming after running an event, and a week off from playing after major competitive milestones or holiday breaks. This gives me time to recover and reflect on bigger-picture improvement areas and next steps that might take longer than a lab session or a VOD review to figure out.
Also, if I’m in a state where I feel like my hands are easily fatigued, I’ll generally opt for sets that give me more room for downtime. These days I try to save long sets for special occasions and instead play in small rotations or lobbies that give me room for downtime. That way I can give my hands a break and shoot the shit with the homies in-between matches, and the pressure of losing and having to wait in line forces me to play more attentively than I would otherwise. Unless I’m specifically trying to explore a matchup in depth or work on something very specific, I find that rotation sessions are better for sessions longer than 20–30 minutes because they’re easier on the body and more useful for refining my play.
Now, sometimes it can be hard to tell if you need a break, and if you’re not well attuned to your physical and mental state, then the point that you realize that you need a break is probably far past the point where you actually needed one. If you’ve been consistently playing and find yourself frequently getting frustrated or stressed out, you probably need a break. If you find yourself ending sessions because you’re too angry or upset to keep playing, you definitely need a break, and you also need to change up your routine so you don’t get that upset. Put down the controller and do something else until you’re feeling hungry to get back in the game. (If you never feel that hunger come back, well, you probably shouldn’t have been playing that game to begin with.)
See me in the retirement home
Most people who start playing fighting games drop out shortly after. Some folks stick around for months or even years before switching over to perma-spectator mode. But a very rare percentage of the people who try out a fighting game will discover that there’s nothing else that hits you quite like fighting games do, and you’ll be stuck here with the rest of us forever. So please, make sure that you can play them forever too! Take care of your body before it lets you know that something’s wrong with it. Spread that practice time out across the week instead of binging hard. And know that when I’m living out my final years of life at a retirement home that has a Guilty Gear setup, you can be damn sure that I’m not gonna respect any excuses about how you would have blocked that Chipp mix 60 years ago.
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