Today’s article is going to go over the various levels of competency in gaming. Once again, the concepts discussed here apply to the majority of competitive games, but this article will primarily deal with the scope of fighting games.
Internalization is the term I prefer to use as a catch-all for overall game knowledge. Over the course of my fighting game history, I’ve played countless players both good and bad, and each one had their own level of internalization insofar as their skill level. It’s easy to simply say “Daigo is a beast” or “so-and-so sucks”, but things are not always so clear-cut. Sometimes in tourneys, seemingly good players get assed out and other randoms go farther than they should. What causes this? The answer is actually a complex network of player interactions woven together by a number of factors, one of them being how deeply they have internalized their skill. Today, we are going to examine these factors and break down exactly what makes a good player strong.
First off: why does this need to be explained? Shouldn’t player skill be self-evident through their win/loss ratio? This is the typical line of thinking for the majority of the population, that kill/death ratios (KDR), win/loss ratios, and ELO are the only quantifiable factor in player ability. However, this is not necessarily true; the answer is actually multi-layered with various elements that contribute to seemingly inexplicable wins and losses on both sides.
Mastery of a competitive game can be broken down into five categories: Fundamentals, Mechanics, Characters, Matchups, and Experience. These categories are roughly ordered chronogically, in terms of where a player acquires each skill. Let’s go over what each one specifically means.
The Fundamentals are just that: raw basics, building blocks of knowledge. The ability to make smart decisions. The sense to react to situations appropriately. Without fundamentals, the value of all the other categories are highly devalued.
In the scope of a fighting game, fundamentals boils down to a couple of core concepts that apply regardless of what title is being played.
- Situational Awareness: Paying attention to what is happening on the screen to make informed decisions based on the environment.
- Spacing: Having a general sense of where you can and cannot attack, what you can and cannot avoid.
- Movement: Understanding the options you have in order to apply spacing.
Further specifics are learned in the categories below, but as far as fundamentals are concerned, a player with strong fundamentals is going to perform stronger than one without — and quite possibly better than players with ability in other areas but weak fundamentals. (Street Fighter IV is a common scapegoat of this.)
The Mechanics are where we begin to delve into the actual nitty-gritty of a title. Mechanics are the underlying tools available to every character in a game: for example, Focus Attack in Street Fighter IV, Parry in Street Fighter III, chain combos in Melty Blood, homing cancel in Arcana Heart, etc. A grasp of Mechanics and Fundamentals allows a player to be able to pick up any character and have at least a rudimentary ability to play, since two of the largest learning blocks are already out of the way.
Mechanics actually come after Characters for most players, since many people tend to learn their own character first before understanding the entire breadth of all a title’s game system. This is perfectly acceptable and normal. However, Mechanics are a far more fundamental concept than Characters, and with later categories — Matchups and Experience in particular — it’s easier to understand them quicker with a firm handle upon the game’s overall system.
Most players begin with Characters. As soon as they start learning a new game, they open training mode and begin figuring out the full capacity of what their Character can do. As previously stated, this is common and acceptable, but this is where the first breakdown of player skill occurs.
A common term in the fighting game fandom is “training mode warrior”, typically used to refer to players who spend hours grinding combos and setups with disregard for the basic concepts of spacing and situational awareness. These players are characterized by a series of very obvious tells, the first and foremost being a poor neutral game. The second typically comes when they manage to land a hit: suddenly, their game becomes practiced and smooth, as they are in familiar territory.
Character knowledge is extremely important, of course. In order to maximize the chances of winning, one must have a complete grasp of every tool available for the character. Every glitch, esoteric, idiosyncracy and quirk must be documented and ingrained; without this, a player is not fully realizing the potential of the chosen character.
But the breakdown here is dangerous yet subtle: in learning a character, many players overlook the other categories necessary for mastery of a game.
Let’s say that a player has strong character knowledge, a decent understanding of game mechanics and is not new to the fighting game genre. They may still inexplicably lose due to Matchups. This category of knowledge is actually an extension of Characters. Fighting games are a two way street, after all (or four, if you play Smash). Your character is not the only one in the game; the other half of the puzzle is how your character interacts with everyone else’s. There are going to be situations that apply only to a specific character, from a specific character; there will be situations that can be taken advantage of and there may be liabilities that need to be compensated for. A player cannot truly move on to the last category without being intimately familiar with at least the vast majority, if not all of matchups for their character.
This last category usually the easiest to acquire skill in, since experience can be gained anytime a player sits down with an intent to have a productive session. Experience is the overarching category that starts being ingrained into a player’s skillset from the very beginning as well as being the ultimate end goal for the lifespan of the game. Experience, much like Fundamentals, also transcends game. Knowledge and techniques from a one game may transfer to others, shortening the learning curve for every subsequent title substantially. The longer a skilled player has been in the fighting game genre, the easier it will be for them to pick up newer games in shorter times than those who have to learn the other four categories from ground up.
So now that we’ve established the five levels of internalization, let’s examine a few common player archetypes and the specific areas of their shortcomings.
The Experienced Casual
This is someone who has played enough to be familiar with the game they play but not much more.
Can Go Either Way: Matchups
Weaknesses: Mechanics, Fundamentals, Experience
The Training Mode Warrior
Can do combos and setups nearly perfectly, but gets confused by neutral game and doesn’t have a full grasp of the best decisions under pressure.
Strengths: Mechanics, Characters
Can Go Either Way: Matchups
Weaknesses: Fundamentals, Experience
The Theory Fighter
Knows everything there is about the game on paper (or so they think). Memorizes frame data and esoterics. Some theory fighters are top players; many of them are actually not great at the game itself. Tends to be blindsided by information at times.
Strengths: Mechanics, Characters
Can Go Either Way: Experience
Weaknesses: Matchups, Fundamentals
The Old School Fighter
Remembers when spacing game was called “footsies” and shoryukens had “priority”. Doesn’t really like numbers. Mostly an intuitive/instinct player. Strong fundamentals and reactions, but lack of full understanding can be detrimental.
Strengths: Fundamentals, Experience
Can Go Either Way: Characters, Matchups
The New School Fighter
Learned how to play through Youtube match videos. Studies frame data and uses training mode, but isn’t all knowledge like the Theory Fighter. Does well overall, but not as well as they’d like.
Strengths: Characters, Mechanics, Matchups
Can Go Either Way: Fundamentals
Undoubtedly there are many more variations on these archetypes. The path towards self-improvement begins with understanding where the deficiences lie, so hopefully this has been insightful as to where your own shortcomings may be and what can be done to improve on them.