Overcoming tournament nerves

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[People who back my Patreon send me questions sometimes and I like answering them. Please consider joining the crew!]

Hi Pat,

I’ve been playing fighting games for a little while now, and I’ve been feeling pretty good about my progress. Recently I decided to try entering tournaments (netplay, of course, we’re still quarantined), and I felt really freaked out by the pressure of playing on stream. I dropped a bunch of my combos and just kinda panicked a lot. Is it like this for everyone? What should I do?

Sincerely,

Under Pressure

Shoutouts to you for putting yourself out there and competing! Most people who play fighting games never get there, and many of the ones that do immediately decide it’s not for them.

Don’t worry about being bad. Worrying about others’ expectations is a great way to wear out your mental stamina before even getting into a match. Seriously, no one cares. Most people in the world are terrible at fighting games, and 25% of the people who even enter a tournament go 0–2. Anyone who bothers to shit on someone for being bad at a video game is wack as hell and not worth wasting worry on.

I don’t think there’s anything unusual about being nervous performing a complicated skill in front of an audience, especially in a competition. In fact, I’ve found that fighting game tournaments were actually pretty good mental preparation for competing in actual martial arts tournaments! (It’s kind of funny, if you think about it; getting hurt is less scary than looking dumb in front of an audience.)

So hang in there, UP! We’ll get you sorted out — though it won’t happen overnight. Becoming a tournament competitor involves a lot more than just regularly playing and practicing your game of choice, because once you get deep enough in the bracket, you’ll be playing against people who put in as much work as you do (if not more). Let’s unpack this stuff!

Tournaments are different from normal play

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Pictured: The first time you see Chipp vs. Slayer in Danger Time.

As you have already noticed, tournaments are different from just playing casuals. When you’re playing fighting games normally, whether it’s in ranked matchmaking, a lobby rotation, or long sets with your friends, you’re in a pretty good setting to have fun and maybe learn a thing or two. Losing costs you nothing but pride, time, and quarters (or ranking points). A match here and there might get serious sometimes, because you really want to win this one, but when it comes down to it, the stakes are pretty low. And if an unfamiliar player enters the rotation, or a character you’ve never played before shows up, you have plenty of time to try stuff out.

The tournament format isn’t about having fun, it’s about finding the strongest player in the room within a reasonable time. Everyone is there to test themselves, and if you lose two best-of-three sets, you’re out. Unlike casuals, you simply don’t have much room to make mistakes, and if you get caught with a wild opponent or an unfamiliar matchup, you don’t have the luxury of losing and learning until you figure it out.

As such, preparing for tournaments involves additional training beyond just learning the ins and outs of your character (check out my other essay on tournament prep tips!). Eventually, you’ll learn how to download your opponent, cash in some key reads, and learn to power through the long sets at the end of the bracket. But before you do that, you’ll need to learn to keep yourself together well enough to play at your full potential.

Preparing for tournament stress outside of tournaments

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Doing my chores will definitely help with your tournament stress.

There are three things that make tournament play more stressful:

  1. Unfamiliar opponents
  2. Everyone is playing to win
  3. You’re performing for an audience

Of course, entering more tournaments will get you more practice at all three factors, but for your heart’s sake, I’d recommend taking some time to deal with these stressors individually. If you’re not used to playing against strangers, go try your luck in matchmaking, or in lobby casuals with randos. If you’re not used to playing seriously, find some friends and play for dollars/shots/pushups. And if you’re not used to playing in front of others, start up a stream or play in someone else’s.

You can also take some measures to cut out distractions and help your focus. I usually try to play with headphones on, ideally with game audio or some music, because I cannot help but pay attention to every single word I hear, and if I hear background conversations or commentary I can feel myself thinking about that instead of the match I’m playing.

In other words, the things you learn from your practice session depend largely on the context in which you’re playing, so broaden your practice sessions to recreate tournament conditions and you’ll be more ready for the tournaments themselves. If you’re getting too comfortable with your current practice habits, it’s time to change them up and get uncomfortable again.

One rule of thumb that’s helped me work through competition stress is to think of your starting competitive ability as roughly 50% of your casuals ability. Half of playing fighting games in tournament is the fighting game, and the other half is the tournament mental game, which you’re missing. Bring that up, and more of your fighting game ability will carry through to competition.

Stop mixing yourself

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Daniel-san pulling out some YOLO shit in grand finals def wasn’t the smart play tbh.

Adapting to tournament stressors is a key part of preparing for competition, but I’ve often found that the biggest stressor actually comes from the player’s own mind in the form of too-high expectations and the need for validation. The tournament is the endpoint of their hopes and dreams, and their performance determines whether everything was Worth It.

Straight up: Fighting games are best enjoyed for the journey, not the destination. Tournaments are a great excuse to hang out with a bunch of people who like the thing you like, and the chance to test yourself against your peers can be a fantastic motivation to practice getting good at something that is both rewarding and frivolous. But if you think of the time you’re putting in as suffering that will be paid off by your tournament results, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

When I was getting ready for my first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament, one of my friends told me that in his years of high school wrestling, he had learned to treat his tournament matches as the reward for consistent practice, rather than the obstacle that needed to be surpassed. That framing worked really well for me because it kept me training regularly, so I’d be able to go into each competition confident in the time and effort that I had put in, rather than fretting about whether I was good enough to enter. And because I was putting in the work, I got better, and did better in tournaments.

If you look back, you can probably remember your heart racing the first time you played a fighting game against a friend. It raced again when you played a stranger, and again the first time you played with a group of people you didn’t know, and the first time you played for ranked points or money or something. Right now, entering netplay tournaments is the most stressful setting you’ve ever played fighting games in, but eventually it too will fade into the background.

When that happens, you’ll miss it. You’ll miss the feeling of your hands shaking, your mind going blank, your buttons feeling thick and clumsy. You’ll miss the way it brought everything into focus, the way it pushed you to do more. And you’ll start to chase it, because that’s the feeling that will lead you to bigger tournaments and stronger opponents. That’s your reward for playing fighting games.

Congratulations! You’ve earned it.

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💪😎👍❤

-patrick miller

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