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Guest Column: How They Got Good: Tips on Learning Fighting Games from the Pros

Guest columnist Patrick Miller talks to pro fighting game players about how they work to up their game.

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Evo 2016 is nearly upon us, and I have no doubt many of you out there will catch the streams and be inspired to start your own (or rekindle a previously abandoned) journey towards fighting game greatness. You'll dust off your stick and hop online to play a few games--and then you'll get bodied and slink back to Overwatch. It's like your failed New Year's resolution to exercise, and that Mad Catz FightStick TE is your January 2nd gym membership.

For newcomers, the road to improvement is a bit more clear: Practice your execution, learn your characters, and develop your gameplan. (Also, read my free book.) But once you've got a little experience under your belt, what comes next? I asked a collection of high-level fighting game players for their tips on breaking new games down and leveling themselves up. Let's do it!

Where Do I Start with a New Fighting Game?

Breaking down a newly released fighting game is itself a skill that longtime fighting game players develop over years of study. For Justin Wong (Evil Geniuses), it starts before the game even comes out. "After watching countless trailers of the game until it gets released, I already have an idea of the moveset and the meta of the game," Justin says. "Once the game gets released, I go to training mode to figure some basic combos of the character of my choice before I go online and try my luck in online play."

Justin Wong
Justin Wong

Fellow EG teammate Kenneth "KBrad" Bradley, on the other hand, prefers to start with the big hits: "Usually when I pick up a game the first thing I like to learn is the most damaging combos," he says, "I'm a combo freak so cool combos, long combos, damaging combos, I need to learn them all."

St. Louis up-and-comer Leah "GS|gllty" Hayes starts her new game prep with research. "I do a very small amount of in-game practice and a lot of external study into resources about the characters. I try to download what is going to be 'common knowledge' to avoid being behind as much as I can, since I don't live on the coasts."

But if you're just getting started, the wisest words come from fighting game legend Daigo "The Beast" Umehara himself: "I always start with basics. No exception. I practice basic moves and only after I master them, I move on to the next."

How Do I Pick a Main?

Once you've eased into a new fighting game and started feeling comfortable, the next step is to pick a character to focus your practice time on. Easier said than done, right? Maybe not. Surprisingly, none of the players I spoke to described the character's spot in relative power rankings as particularly influential--most of them focused on finding the right fit.

For Team Liquid's Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, finding Jigglypuff in Super Smash Bros. Melee was just a matter of one move. "I picked Jigglypuff in Melee because I thought Rest--the one hit KO--was a really cool move. I would use it on my friends and they would get upset. The rest was kinda history."

Ricki "HelloKittyRicki" Ortiz

Evil Geniuses' Ricki "HelloKittyRicki" Ortiz looks for characters that complement her highly mobile playstyle. "I tend to gravitate towards what the FGC calls 'pixie' characters--it's a rather old school term. Usually a pixie character has great walk speed and fast normals at his/her disposal. Choosing a character with those attributes allows me to play at my strong suit. I also TRY to generally only use female characters, but that's purely aesthetic."

Hayes also looks for function first: "Back in the dying arcade days, I'd always pick cute appealing characters. Unfortunately my stubbornness led to me getting freshly bodied every week, and eventually I began to envy those who stayed on the machine and prized cheapness over my 2D waifus."

And what does The Beast look for? "I go for a distinctive trait that catches my attention," Daigo says. "A character you choose is like an extension of you. I want to express myself through the character. I need to be able to relate to and feel attached to him/her. That is the reason why my characters tend to not be almighty. I like them all the more because of their shortcomings. But they have a good heart.

What's a Good Practice Routine?

You've got your game, you've got your main, now it's time to grind. But how to get good? Let's dig into the pros' practice schedules.

Hungrybox says his schedule is "completely random and varies," but notes the importance of finding a competitive local community. "These past four months I've had the benefit of living with two old school pros, XIF and Mike G, and we have big Smash fests every Wednesday. Buford, the area of Georgia where I live, actually has a very talented concentration of players. So if you look hard enough, there's always Melee somewhere."

Leah "GS|gllty" Hayes

Hayes finds most of her practice online, so she prioritizes practicing for upcoming tough matchups. "I do a lot of netplay because of my geographic location, and most of it is a priority tree," she says, "If I'm playing Justin Wong next week in finals of my pools, I'm going to research that specific matchup and ask someone like Romance to play so I can get an idea what I'm in for."

If she's not prepping for someone specific, she'll come up with her own drills to stretch her skills. "Due to the matchmaking system, often I don't have a lot of contest besides coming up with mini games to practice something specific, like 'I'm gonna do gale a lot' or 'I want to practice perfectly spaced drill setups.'"

For Daigo, practice is just as important as reflection. "My practice hours vary, but I do play everyday," he says. "But once I get my moves down, I spend more time thinking rather than actually playing. I strategize my gameplay or I try to figure out a puzzle."

Daigo adds, "I walk while I think. So I keep walking forever. Ha ha."

(Hm, that sounds like someone we know.)

How Do I Study a Matchup?

Now you've got yourself some practice partners and you've figured out a routine. Problem is, there's one person standing between you and first place, and they're standing there every week at your weekly local tournament. How do you train to take someone out?

Du "Nuckledu" Dang

Daigo's attitude is simple. "
First, you need to figure out what you need to do to win against the matchup," he says, "That might take a while, but that is absolutely the first step. Then you apply the solution to practice. You practice till you get it. I don’t think there’s an easy way out, or a specific step that applies to all." (Recently, he has been streaming some of his practice sessions focusing on tough matchups with other top players, so check it out if you'd like to see his methods in action. He's also releasing an English translation of his book, The Will to Keep Winning, at Evo this year.)

Team Liquid's Du "Nuckledu" Dang starts by finding a practice partner who can help. "I go online, find someone I know who plays that character, then play long sets," he says. "I feel that it is more effective to du that, than mindlessly grind for hours on end, when realistically, you need more experience with certain characters."

KBrad doesn't do much to practice against specific characters, but will prep against certain players. "I practice so hard that I don't believe I need to do anything special for fighting a certain character," he says, "But when I fight a certain player, though, I'll go to that player's most recent matches on YouTube or Twitch and study their habits. I like to know what they do in certain situations and how they adapt in others."

How Do I Make it Out of Pools?

You're making waves in your local scene, but winning at Evo starts with making it out of your qualifying pool. Fortunately, you've got KBrad to break this down for you.

Kenneth "KBrad" Bradley
  • Protect the skies with consistent anti-air attacks. "Most players like to attack from the air, so if you can keep them from doing this you'll do great."

  • Sit on your lead. "If you have more health than your opponent when the timer runs out, you win! A lot of new players think that they always have to go in to defeat their opponent, but if you have a life lead, just relax and control the pace of the game."

  • Punish mistakes. "Your opponent won't make that many mistakes, so when they do make sure you have the best punish possible."

  • Don't get psyched out by top players. "A lot of players get mentally defeated when they find out they have a top player in their pool. You have to remember that they're a player, just like you, so they're not unbeatable. Don't mentally defeat yourself before even playing

  • Have fun! "Remember you're playing this game because you enjoy it. If you go out and have fun, you won't be nervous and you won't overthink anything, so you'll be able to play your game with a clear head."

Hayes recommends starting out by practicing a battle plan. "You should flowchart out a best case scenario where you know you can get a perfect, and learn to control situations from there," she says, "As far as getting out of pools, being able to initiate and maintain a series of situations you've already anticipated can quickly close out a lot of games."

She continues to walk me through an example in Street Fighter V: "If I play Ryu, and I get a combo, I'm going to go for an LK hurricane kick, and then dash up and standing MP into crouching HP, hurricane kick, and loop that until someone is stunned or makes a different choice. See, that first combo creates a situation: The person can wake up block, wake up reversal [this is a catch-all term for a risky invincible attack], dash or jump, look for V-Reversal, mash an attack, or throw. Doing the combo again beats each option but block, reversal, or V-Reversal. It only loses to reversal and V-Reversal. If I win this next exchange with my meaty, I've built more stun and transitioned into a second 'situation'. If I'm able to feel out and keep this momentum, I get a stun and can close out the round easily."

What Should Every Competitor Know About Getting Better?

Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma

The road to Evo is long and full of challenges, so I closed out the interviews by asking everyone if they had any other advice for new competitors.

"My advice to everyone is to attend as many local events as possible and just drown yourself in friendlies," says Hungrybox. "Play as many people as you can and ask them what you're doing wrong. It's the most direct form of critique and it helped me massively when I started. And make friends!"

Nuckledu suggests you shoot for the moon. "I think people set their goals too low. A lot of new players always set their goal to not go 0-2, or to make it out of pools," he says. "I learned this the hard way, where my goal was to make top eight at EVO, and I prepared so hard to get there, then when I qualified for top eight, I just got complacent, and lost at seventh place. Set your goals high, and you'll get there eventually with the right work ethic, and attitude."

KBrad suggests you get good at losing: "My advice to new players is to never give up. You're going to get destroyed in a new game but that's absolutely fine. You have to be able to take your Ls and keep moving forward."

"The Beast" Daigo Umehara

For Hayes, the real championship was the friends she's made along the way: "Don't forget to have fun. Go play with some nerds, and go out for food afterwards. Go travel to different cities and invade, use the car ride to talk and build friendships and bonds. That's pretty rad."

Finally, Daigo leaves us with some familiar wisdom:

"I am going to disappoint you, but there’s no formula that I can share helps you win consistently. There’s no such a thing, because all games and winning or losing is dependent on so many variables."

"A victory is a byproduct of what you do and experience. The most important thing is to focus on your progress, and practice to achieve your growth. Do not be caught up by a short-term goal of winning, but look beyond that. That in turn will bring you consistent winning."

Or, as Ryu puts it:

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Patrick Miller does a lot of thinking, talking, and writing about fighting games. When he's not working at Riot Games, he's tweeting inane stuff @pattheflip, teaching fighting games on YouTube and Twitch, and writing on Medium. You can download his book on how to learn to play fighting games for free at