…And How My Ass was Handed to Me

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Continuing from my previous post. After finding this hidden underground community of players pursuing intense matches and registering for a nearby tournament held by them, I had no idea about what to expect. The tournament turned out to be nine or ten guys stuffed into a single room playing Brawl all day. There were a couple of players that were only slightly better than me, but for the most part I was beaten up pretty badly. All my “skills” amounted to pretty much nothing against other players with that same drive towards the game. Playing against CPUs and weak players most of the time had not prepared me for entirely new tactics like these. It was very fun, though, and I met a lot of people with various backgrounds, sharing the same interest towards a game that was not designed to be competitive.

Thus, I happened to attend the next tournament around here as well, and the next one after that, and so on. It wasn’t apparent right away, but after a couple of tournaments it became clear that I was at the very bottom of the spectrum. I didn’t care about “casual” players anymore, since I could have all these great matches with players who were far better than me. Here in Finland, a Brawl tournament is held generally every month or two, with smaller gatherings scattered here and there. The venues have varied between small rooms and exhibition centres – some events have been tiny while others have been larger. Generally there are entrance fees that are used for giving prizes to the top players or paying for the venue. I found traveling around the country and playing a surprisingly deep children’s fighting game to be very, very interesting.

2012-11-17 18.22.08 Shot from 11/2012, amateur bracket Grand Finals

Even after half a year of playing, it was difficult for me to beat nearly anyone in a tournament match. I was constantly learning new things and had adapted my playstyle a lot, switched to better characters and practiced technical mastery multiple times a week. I found out a lot of the things that were to be found out about the game, and visualised the “correct” ways to play against various characters. I played Smash against other people from the community whenever possible, and tried to correct my playing by comparing the mistakes I did to the way top players played. Still, it took me a while to actually win any tournament sets with overall skill rather than by a fluke. It was fairly stressful every now and then, but I didn’t have much else to fill my time with.

The difference between winning and losing is enormous, though. A single loss can cost you the whole tournament. You have to be consistent, and you have to be able to beat these really good players one at a time. Players who have put as much time into the game as you have. Players who have practiced even harder and for longer. Unless you’re absolutely the best in the whole world, there will always be someone who has endeavored more and will beat you. Even if you are on the top, the rest of the world is hungry for victory.

Competing is not easy, and the chances of being able to live off of it are very slim. You have to be a lot better than other excellent players in order to place for the money consistently. This is true, whether you want to improve in Smash or poker or sports or any other thing that you are truly serious about. Even if money is not relevant for you, the whole basis of competition on a high level revolves around becoming the best at whatever you do. That’s a big part of it, or otherwise the players wouldn’t have worked so hard to get there.

Armada sure wanted to be the best.

About a year into the game on a competitive level, I started lacking motivation. I still tried to improve and entered all the events I could afford to go at, but like me, everyone else was improving as well. In order to really get better and start winning against someone consistently, you must be very rigorous. At this point I don’t think I was even trying as much as many other players, though. My game was obviously really good when compared to the average player, but I was still getting beaten by almost everyone in tournaments. Many of them had already implemented advanced strategies into their play, while I didn’t have a good overall view on what brings upon the difference that leads into victory. I think I was constantly learning new things, but just couldn’t put it all together. Many fields of my play were severely lacking, and I couldn’t deal with difficult situations at all. I had some technical mastery, but my skills with some general techniques of the game were no good.

Although my overall level was below that of my opponents, the extent of your skills isn’t all it takes to win. There are many factors in play outside of the game itself – external conditions that can affect the outcome greatly. Some of the more important things amongst them are rest, nutrition and feelings. It is easy to see how getting enough sleep and being properly awake helps with focusing. Not being fatigued but not too stuffed either is a great boost. Keeping your game solid even when losing and dismissing disturbances without them affecting you is essential. There’s also the metagame – the game outside of the game. Having information about your opponent’s style, preferences, strengths, weaknesses and habits can be useful. Understanding the things to watch out for in two characters’ match-up and how to adjust accordingly is crucial in order to overcome your character’s weak points.

muchartv3 Most recent Brawl match-up chart, released in July 2013.

By being prepared, you have an edge over opponents who are not prepared. Is someone known to be defensive and bad in fast-paced situations? Pressure them aggressively. Does your character have an easy way to kill a specific opponent? Abuse it as much as you can. In my eyes, when playing against non-casual players the only thing that matters is victory. Things such as “cheap tactics” or “honorable play” only exist because certain players want to restrict their ability to win by setting artificial rules on themselves. If something is overpowered – so good that there does not exist a practical counter to it – it’s banned. Everything else? Use it to your advantage. There is no reason to restrict yourself in a tournament setting, rather, I aim to tip all factors in my favour if possible. Not so much as to ruin everyone’s experience or resorting to blatant cheating, but doing anything else to win under the extent of the agreed rules is fair game.

Following Brawl’s release, there was much talk about what should and what should not be allowed. Many of the stages give poor measurement of the the players’ skill, and many of them are not wanted for competitive play. Many excellent tactics were found, and many of these things brought in a lot of controversy. Should the character Meta Knight be banned? Is Pokémon Stadium 2 a suitable stage? Are items appropriate for tournaments or not? There are many arguments for and against issues like these. In Smash, the player with more general play skill will have a huge advantage over the worse player. On top level competitive play that difference is mitigated since all characters will have many good players. Regardless, a player called Mew2King or M2K for short found plenty of strategies and tactics that are very tricky to deal with. He ended up dominating Brawl results for a while, and it became clear that Meta Knight has all the tools he needs to win. Thankfully, the metagame has slightly balanced out over time as people have been finding new things from the game.

planking MK has ridiculously good options and the ratio between risk and reward is often favoured to him.

As for myself, I finally started becoming a legitimate player after two years of competitive playing, in 2013. My situational understanding and ability to cover my opponent’s options got a lot better, and at last I started applying various tactics properly. The gap between learning something and actually understanding it is indeed wide. More recently my playstyle has evolved drastically, and my understanding of what’s really happening in the quick moments of a match is getting deeper. I trained my ass off in late 2013, so to speak, and have managed to reach the upper echelons of players around here.

Regardless, Finland still has only a handful of people who are capable of getting good standings at larger mid-European tournaments, and we don’t have much fame on an international scale. There are people who can easily beat our strongest player, who easily beats our other strong players, who easily beat players of my level. Further on, I easily beat lower-level players and they can easily beat casually competitive players. I’m probably in Finland’s top 15, but that’s barely anything when compared to the world’s thousands of tournament attendees. The caliber of competition is extremely high, and there are players of so many skill levels – which is exactly what makes competitive playing so interesting to me.

Recently I’ve been at crossroads between focusing properly on my university studies and using time to play games.. The latter doesn’t really support my personal aspirations or goals well. Yet, the feeling of having very intense matches against other skilled players – and being able to win them at times – is what makes all this worthwhile. The opportunity to create contacts with people who have similar interests, from anywhere in the world. I have no hope of becoming a professional player who can make a living out of gaming, nor do I wish to do so, but I can say that it has been an interesting experience. I intend to keep it that way for as long as possible, whether it’s with Brawl or any other game.

If you’d like to hear more or share your thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment!

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Site suggestion: It would be nice if there was some indication as to who wrote each post. It’s sort of weird having absolutely no idea who the contributor is!