Understanding your motivations and finding clean fuel

Patrick Miller
13 min readMar 13, 2023

[This essay was funded by my generous Patreon supporters. If you liked this and want to see more, please consider joining the crew!]

These days I think a lot about how absolutely ridiculous fighting games are, and the fact that people are willing to devote themselves to playing them is beautiful to me. Fighting game players are special motherfuckers, and the ones who are compelled to compete are invariably driven by different emotions which lead them down different paths.

We do not, as far as I know, possess the power to channel our physical life forces to throw fireballs or anything. And yet, the classic fictional trope of being able to manifest our will to fight into a magical energy — chakra, ki, the Force, whatever — applies neatly to the factors that motivate us to play fighting games. When we see Ryu struggle over the years to choose between the Power of Nothingness and the Power of Killing Intent (AKA Satsui no Hadou), he is choosing between different fuels to power his fists. Killing Intent certainly has its perks (you get to juggle with tatsu ->DP!), but it hurts himself and those around him, and ultimately, Ryu decides he’s not about that life.

As an older fighting game player and martial artist, I can relate. I started playing in my teens, and the people who I played with were my clearest benchmark for improvement. I chased those wins hungrily, because whether I won or lost was the loudest feedback I could get. My understanding of fighting games was too limited to clearly see how I was improving at the game over time, so instead I relied on my head-to-head comparisons to give me that feeling of progression.

SFV could have reduced a not-insignificant amount of stress in the world if it simply did not show your worldwide numerical ranking during a match.

The problem with using other people as my benchmark was that it invariably starts to get personal. Feeling frustrated or discouraged because I couldn’t beat someone could lead to disliking that person, which is probably relatable to anyone reading this, but also a patently ridiculous reason to dislike a person, especially when playing fighting games because you’re supposed to be beating each other. If losing makes you dislike the person you’re playing with, you’re probably not going to last long enough to get good, and you’re almost certainly not having a very good time.

Later, I would learn through martial arts many strategies for managing my emotions and ego; when you’re in a sport that involves actively hitting and hurting other people, you absolutely have to learn to make it less personal, because a training environment becomes toxic if the players there are hitting each other in anger. These days I have no room in my life for activities and communities that create serious interpersonal drama, because that shit ends up feeling bad for everyone in the end, even if it is occasionally entertaining.

“You know, we all could have been reading a book right now.”

Of course, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Most of the people I played fighting games with early on were also young men who liked playing these games because they gave us a fun way to flex on each other, and emotions often ran high. The primary factor that kept our emotions in check was that we knew that if shit got too bad and people quit, we wouldn’t have anyone to play with, which would make it a lot harder to get better. In the information-starved age of fighting games, when the best thing you had was a bunch of jerks on the SRK forums yelling at each other and match footage for just about anything was scarce, you needed people in your local scene to stick around if you were going to be able to keep playing the games you loved.

One day, the person you hated to lose to might be your ride to your first Sunnyvale Golfland tournament, and when you see that person do well, you might think, hey, our scene is pretty strong, huh. I might lose to that guy, but so did all these other guys, and if I keep on playing at my local, maybe I’ll be able to beat those guys too.

And then that ride to Sunnyvale Golfland becomes a ride to your first Evo, and you find yourself cheering for the Sunnyvale players because they’re from NorCal and the other guy is from SoCal, and then later you cheer for the SoCal player because they’re from the West Coast and the other guy is from Chicago, and in some other game you’re rooting for Chicago because they’re playing against someone from Japan.

The only true unity the fighting game community will ever feel is when an alien pulls up to Evo and we get to watch Tokido body it in Grands.

Fighting games are different now, though. You can get practically everything you need to get good without ever having to interact with another human being. You can mash on anonymous netplay matchmaking without ever needing the courage to ask for a turn on a setup. There are more hours of high-level match footage out there than one person could ever study, deeper technical breakdowns than we ever had for our older games (and in English, no less!), and Discords filled with players on the same journey as you. Fighting game gurus abound on YouTube with advice about managing tilt and improving mentality; I like to think I was a little early to the game there, at least. (Sub to my Patreon if you want to send me questions, by the way! I write a lot more often when I get emails.)

Someone at Frosty Faustings told me they were specifically a fan of my earlier YouTube content, which is the best backhanded compliment I’ve ever gotten.

All this is to say that fighting game players don’t really need to interact with other fighting game players to get reasonably good at the games. The social barrier is not entirely gone — you still need other people to play with, and it does help to interact with other people, but it has degraded to the point where it isn’t really much of a gate any more. This is undoubtedly a relief to people who wanted to play fighting games without interacting with other people; for me, over the years, I have come to understand that playing fighting games for the people is the goddamn point. I want to get better at these games because the better I get at them, the more clearly I get to see how other people got good at them, which is a really cool way to get to know someone at a profoundly deep level.

Or, as I usually put it, if you’re not here for the people, you’re missing out. Going through that journey where you start out hating everyone who beats you, and then twenty years later you find yourself moving heaven and earth to resurrect a “dead” game because you want to find more people who can beat you is the real fighting game shit. Part of the fun of playing fighting games is finding rivals and bracket demons, students and mentors, and all kinds of other people to play with. Fighting games without fighting game players are just another video game, not something So Great.

So: The desires that motivate you to play burn differently. They’ll take you to different places, and those places will affect who you grow into. Let’s talk about them.

I have found the pursuit of Mastery to be an S-tier source of emotional fuel; it’s the electric car of fighting game motivations. It’s a clean burn with very low emissions for a simple reason: As long as you’re playing the game, you cannot become worse than you were the day before. Every hour spent is another experience point added to the pile; every person who blows you up is simply just shining a light on where your path will go next. Just keep playing, and you’ll get better.

The main problem with being powered by the desire for mastery is simple: Wanting to be good at a fighting game for its own sake is for nerds. It’s sustainable because the stakes are low. The lows aren’t as low, but the highs aren’t always quite as high. If you are blessed with the motivation to master a fighting game, you are also cursed to spend an insane amount of time on something that will probably never get you paid or laid. It’s great fuel for folks like me playing the long game, but it took a long time for me to get to the point where I was ready to accept that I’m here to get good at these games because I’m a nerd who likes getting good at stuff I think is cool.

The desire for Community is another S-tier fuel in my mind, though for different reasons. The foundational bedrock of the fighting game community is that we are a community of practice, in the same sense that yoga practitioners are a community. Yes, fighting games have fandoms and cosplayers and esports and all kinds of other stuff built on top of it, to the point where plenty of people who go to fighting game events without actually playing fighting games, but the core that all of it rests upon is that we’re a bunch of people who get together to play these games with each other, so if you want to be part of it, it helps to actually play the games.

In my experience, fighting game scenes generally have some pretty good vibes, so if you’re here for that and you play the game to help share in those vibes, you’re mostly going to be having a good time. Consistently having a good time is critical for clean-burning fuel. If you find yourself feeling like you hate something after wrapping up a fighting game session, whether it’s a person who beat you or a character who you can’t defeat or the game you’re playing or whatever, then continuing to do that thing is probably bad for your health. There’s enough hate in the world without having to encounter it in your recreational activities.

I hesitate to call this a downside to Community as a source of fuel, but it’s worth mentioning: If you’re having a good time just showing up to play and be around fighting games, you might never get motivated enough to get actually good. I think having fun being bad at these games is incredibly liberating, and the people who show up and have a good time going 0–2 are invariably a lot happier than the people who win the bracket. And if you mix Mastery and Community together, you’ll get to hang out with a bunch of nerds who want to get good at a thing together.

It’s called Caliburst, and we run it every first Saturday of the month. Shoutouts to elgrandepedro for the beef bowls.

Attention, highlights, clips, clout; fighting games are a performance, and if you play them right you’ll get to look cool in front of other people. This source is solidly A tier; it probably won’t get you to be the best, but most people won’t be the best no matter what their fuel is, and there are worse things to get from fighting games than a sweet highlight reel. After all, most people don’t remember who won Third Strike at Evo 2004, they just remember the Daigo Parry.

Wanting the spotlight can feel a little petty compared to some of the other motivations I’ve mentioned, but the feeling of satisfaction when someone says that a thing you did in a video game looked cool is real, and if you can get that through fighting games it’s at least a bit easier on your body than getting it through skateboarding. The best thing about this fuel is that it’s easier to swallow the 99 Ls if the 100th game is the one that got you the clip. As a wise man once said, when defeat comes, you won’t even notice, because you’ll be too busy looking good. The desire to look cool can lead your game to some really fascinating places, because you’re superimposing an aesthetic lens over the game that isn’t just about your optimal path to victory. Over time, you’ll build a playstyle that feels wholly your own, and it’s real satisfying when other people show you love for it.

The biggest downside to seeking Attention is, frankly, that sometimes the things that get you attention aren’t good for your health or anyone else’s. Being a jerk is a great way to get attention — sometimes even monetizable attention. It’s okay when pro wrestlers do it because they’re paid to be bad guys for the sake of providing the conflict that drives a storyline, but when you’re being a jerk to people playing a video game in their free time it’s a lot less entertaining for everyone involved.

Any excuse to link 『必殺技』.

The absolute god awful D for dogshit tier fuel is Financial Reward. If you want to press stupid buttons to make money just get into crypto or something. Playing fighting games for money is incredibly unsustainable and highly unlikely to ever pay off to a degree that would justify the time and money spent leveling up.

Wonder how the hourly rate works out.

I spent a lot of time doing stupid item farming runs in Diablo II while I was in high school, partially because netplay fighting games hadn’t really been invented yet, and partially because I felt like I was earning items that I might eventually be able to turn into money. I did not ever turn them into money, and I knew that I wasn’t ever going to go hard enough on Diablo II to actually turn those items into money, but the feeling that I might hit that jackpot was enough to keep me murdering thousands of Pindleskins when I could have been labbing. (Or, you know, studying.)

Fighting games don’t have RNG loot drop tables, but they do have publisher-funded prize pools, and that kind of accomplishes the same thing — it gets you to imagine what you could do with the money if you won it for being good at the fighting game, and that crosses some dangerous wires.

Let me put it this way: I do group lottery buys with my friends when the Powerball jackpot gets big because it’s ten dollars to daydream about being rich, which is fun every now and then, but if you associate that daydreaming with playing fighting games, you’re going to spend a lot more time than $10 is worth on it.

Eventually you might catch yourself justifying the time you’re spending on playing the game as work that could yield a material reward to satisfy your basic needs as a human, and not something you’re doing because it satisfies higher psychological needs for mastery/community/attention/etc. The vast majority of people will never get paid enough to make getting good at fighting games ‘worth it’, and there is no quicker way to grow to dislike something than to rely on being competitively successful in that thing for your job. If you have anything else you can do to pay bills besides win money in fighting game tournaments, I highly suggest doing that instead, and keep the games for fun.

Bounty events are dope, though. Much love to Tag-In Battle ❤

Finally, we circle back to where we started; the Satsui no Hadou, being motivated by the raw desire for Domination — as in, “I want to win because being better than other people feels good.” It’s hard to argue that it won’t drive people to great heights. Just think about how you feel when someone breaks out Monopoly at the family gathering and your super-competitive aunt rolls her sleeves up and gets ready to ruin the evening. Human beings are often known to discard all forms of social grace if they’re given something to compete over, because winning is its own reward.

This is the fighting game equivalent of leaded gasoline. Fighting to be better than the person sitting next to us is the cheap gas that built the fighting game community early on, but it also smogged up the vibes and made all of us who huffed it a little bit dumber.

Feeling like your pride and worth as a human being is connected to being better than someone else at a video game will definitely fuel people to do great things, but it can also make you feel like the world is over because you lost to someone you thought you were better than. It’s easy to hate the people who beat you because they’re standing in the way of your greatness, and it’s easy to disrespect the people who you beat because you’re better than them. Over the long haul, this mindset does not make it easy to like people, and there are fewer things I think are worse than playing video games with people you dislike. But, to extend the fuel metaphor, there are few things that can go faster and farther than good old-fashioned gasoline. It’s just not sustainable or healthy to rely on it for the long term.

Of course, we are not our horoscopes. People are complex combinations of motivations that fire at a cadence and intensity unique to each individual. My fighting game practice is powered by all of the above, and the mix changes from day to day and year to year. I play, I feel, I reflect, and then I adjust the mix and try it again. Find something that burns clean, and you can play forever.

Thanks for reading!

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-patrick miller

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Patrick Miller

a little bit miyamoto musashi, a little bit yoga with adriene.