Getting Into The Competitive Scene – Improving At A Fighting Game

Competition is a part of life. In the modern world, it has taken many forms: athletics, intelligence, spelling bees, or grades. In more recent times, another form of competition has emerged: competitive video gaming. Players may compete to see who can get the highest score or who can complete the game in the fastest time possible.

Almost anything can be turned into a competition, but there is one genre of video games that is arguably made for competition: fighting games. Like any other competitive medium, they can be played casually or on a higher, “competitive” level.

For those who wish to devote their time to improving at their favorite game, it can be daunting to move onto that next stage to reach a higher level of play. To prepare up and coming players for their entry to the competitive scene of a fighting game, two Oceana students, Jude Pabonan, vice president of Oceana’s Video Game Club, and Ivan Apolinar, who is regarded by his peers as the best Super Smash Bros. player in said club, share their experiences in their journey towards this goal. While what they say is mostly about Super Smash Bros., fighting game advice can be easily applied to almost any other game in the genre that you want to play.

GC Controller
A GameCube controller, the preferred controller by many for Smash

1. The First Step

It can be a challenge to take the first step simply due to the sheer difference in skill level between a player moving into the competitive scene and someone who already has that competitive experience. Ivan recalls the moment he decided to step up his game. “I think it was towards the end of my Freshman year. I thought I was good at this game because I could beat my friends, then I went to a tournament and died. So that made me very interested in actually learning how to play the game.” It’s important to know that your experience playing the game as a casual player will not get you far.  Competitive gaming takes work.

In the beginning, there are a lot of concepts and other things that players need to learn. When asked what he needed to learn were, Ivan responded, “Like, everything. I did not know how to play this game before, nope. Neutral, combos, matchup interactions, everything.” Fighting game basics are something Jude needed to learn at the start as well. He had to learn “things like neutral, disadvantage, […] like corners and stuff.” Learning and getting used to your preferred fighting game’s mechanics and concepts is a good way to get started out because it builds the fundamentals you need to get better.

2. Picking A Character

Before a player can get to any of that, they need a character to play. In a game like Super Smash Bros., this can be difficult when there are dozens to choose from. Ivan and Jude chose their character in a similar way. Jude says, “With Young Link, he’s fast, combos well, he’s sort of a sword character, and also Majora’s Mask is a game I love, so I want to represent that.” Overall, Jude chose to play Young Link because he not only likes the character and the game series he represents, but also because playing Young Link feels right to him. For Ivan, this is the same. “It’s kind of in part what I want to do and what I feel just kind of clicks for me. At this point I only play the Pokémon Trainer because I love the idea of the character, and ever since they were announced to be back in Smash Ultimate, I’ve been excited to play them, and after playing everyone in the roster, I’m still just stuck with them.” Out of every character, Ivan prefers Pokémon Trainer because he likes how the character plays and how it feels to play them. Picking a character that feels good to play and that you like is a good way to approach this.

Ivan does caution against using more than one character right away, however. “Sometimes I get bored and kind of want to pick up a new character, but […] I’m not at the level where I should start trying to manage a secondary.” Even so, it can be important much later on to have a secondary character. They can be useful “for different matchups, since it’s a very diverse game. There are characters with very different strengths and weaknesses and different characters can handle different other characters better. So if you’re really at a higher up level, there’s an opponent you just can’t beat, maybe if you have a second character that you can manage and you’re good enough at the game to play another character, then try counterpicking.” Counterpicking is when a player chooses something, such as their character, specifically to counter their opponent, giving them an advantage they wouldn’t have otherwise. In the higher levels of play, this can make the difference between winning and losing.

3. In The Game

When playing the game, it’s generally understood that the overall goal is to win, but the way there is a hard one. Players may need to adjust to the circumstances on the fly, but they usually have a sort of gameplan that will depend on the player, their character, or the game they’re playing. Jude explains, “My gameplan, specifically for Young Link, is to get them to a high enough damage so I can KO them.” In a game like Super Smash Bros., it’s important to know your kill setups and when you can use them. Because of the percent and knockback mechanics, combos only work at specific times. Different from Jude, Ivan says, “I’m more of a neutral-oriented player. I just kind of focus on getting my hits in and don’t think too hard about trying to get a kill.” 

Besides focusing on how you’re going to win, it’s important to learn what you’re going to do to win. It’s as the saying goes: practice makes perfect. Ivan and Jude both admit that the ways they practiced in their early days weren’t the greatest ways to go about it. Jude talks about how he used to practice against CPUs. While he wouldn’t recommend it now, he does acknowledge that, “because CPUs always attack you, it’s good training for shielding when you’re in pressure.” Ivan says that he used to mostly play against friends and how it wasn’t a good idea. Both interviewees came to a similar conclusion: fighting more real people is good practice. Ivan has gone to smaller tournaments in the past to try to get more “real world experience.” He regards his lack of this as one of the challenges he faces. On Jude’s side, he goes to online matchmaking. “I think playing against real people helps a lot, since you can catch humans’ patterns and habits, rather than a CPU’s patterns.” Even so, he does share that he doesn’t get much character variety online.

Playing as many people as possible is a good way to practice, but sometimes you might be limited in who you can face. One way to get around this is to enter tournaments.

4. The Tournament Setting

Tournaments are a big part of any competitive game, and some may say that winning them is their goal in playing so that they can prove their skill and maybe make some money while doing it, if the tournament has a prize. It just so happens that Ivan and Jude are two of over 170 attendees of a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament happening March 16 in Oakland, California, where there is a prize pool of $4000. Even though they are entering, neither are thinking of winning – in fact, they are looking forward to losing. More specifically, they are both hoping to learn from their losses. “[…] if I lose – either first round, second round, or even if I do make top 16 – it’s a learning experience,” Jude explains. Ivan views it the same way. “I expect to be destroyed, and I’d like to learn from that experience.” 

By the end of it, Jude is hoping to take from the experience “better knowledge of the game.” Because Ultimate has such an enormous character roster, this brings the problem of learning how to fight most characters. “I want more [matchup] variety coming into and walking out of the tournament.”

There are a lot of characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, making it difficult to get experience fighting them all

5. Final Advice

To finish up, the interviewees gave some advice to new players. Ivan states, “There is a ton of nuance that goes into a fighting game.” There’s a lot to learn and a lot of places you can improve yourself in. One way to do this that Ivan shared was that he writes down a list of things he wants to try out or add to his game plan. Doing something like this can help a player organize their thoughts and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t.

Jude gives his perspective on losing. ““You’re always going to lose, no matter what. Losing is expected in any sort of game, [and] with fighting games it’s more prominent. So I’d say just lose with the expectation to learn from it. With each match I play […] and I lose, I can take something from that. […] Just learn from your mistakes.”


Making the jump to the competitive scene of a fighting game can be hard. It takes a lot of commitment and a lot of time to become a high level player. Other players are a great resource and can be there to help you to improve. As someone who also plays competitively in a fighting game, I have a bit of advice to share, and it correlates with what the interviewees said: play as much as possible, especially against a real person. Fighting games almost always have CPU opponents to face, but they can only get you so far. Many times I have seen a new player show up saying they can beat the CPU on its highest difficulty setting, then proceed to be utterly defeated by the first person to come their way. A CPU isn’t a real person. People play much differently and much better, and it is important to familiarize yourself with the meta elements this entails. Playing with a real person gives you the chance to really apply what you’ve learned and maybe even learn something new or prompt you to rethink your strategy. If you can enter a tournament, do it. Being in a tournament setting can be stressful and affect how well you play. Attending as many tournaments as possible can help you to stay calm under this pressure and play your best. If you’re lacking  match-up experience, like Ivan and Jude said, tournaments can be a great place to find it. Secondly, mindset is an extremely important part of playing any game. It was something Jude mentioned, and I cannot stress how important it is. Accept the fact that you will lose. Be okay with losing. Victory is hard-earned, and losing teaches you more than winning ever will. Analyze replays, ask your opponents for advice, use community resources, use everything at your disposal to find out why you lost and what you can do to fix that. Practice makes perfect, they say, and that applies to fighting games, too.

If you are looking into seriously picking up a fighting game, don’t be stressed out by losing. Play, practice, and have fun.

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