I've had people ask me about the best way to get "into" fighting games. The connotation being, how do they go from button-mashing to taking it seriously, developing some level of intentionality along the way?
The truth is, for a long time, I never took fighting games seriously myself. From an early age, I just enjoyed the format—the characters were cool, rounds were quick, and it was a fun way to make Spider-Man fight Cable, or see if Link could take on a living nightmare with a giant sword. But the further I got in, the more I appreciated different aspects of the metagame, learning about special moves, combos, and ways I could better style on my friends who didn't care as much as I did.
Then again, I'm not sure I truly took the genre seriously until I had a rival.
An Equal But Opposite Reaction
Despite not delving into the mechanical depth of fighting games, I've been a competitive person most of my life. I like winning, but I also like the act of competition itself. For most of my life, I was relatively unchallenged in fighting games. I was nowhere near an online warrior, but my real-life friends were often punching bags for whatever game I picked up.
If you've followed me for a bit, you might be aware of a podcast I co-host with Kenneth Shepard called Normandy FM. We broadcast weekly updates about our playthroughs of various BioWare games, but our friendship goes back a ways further, as does our rivalry. See, Kenneth is also competitive, and like me, has played fighting games in some capacity for a long time.
For a while, our tastes differed. Kenneth skewed more toward the Injustice series, due to his penchant for Green Arrow. Most of my early experiences were either with 3D fighters, like Soulcalibur and Tekken, or a few 2D "retro" fighters, like Capcom vs. SNK 2. When Street Fighter 5 came out though, we had common ground.
After we'd both been playing for a while, Kenneth and I decided to start squaring up against each other. We first rumbled at E3 2015, back when Street Fighter 5 had just been out for a few months, and have played in-person just about every chance we've had since. (We live in separate states.) I locked in Rashid, my fighter of choice at the time, and felt somewhat confident.
I was immediately humbled. I probably should've seen it coming, but Kenneth's patience as Ryu (ironic, right?) chipped away at my over-eager desire to rush him down. In most games, I veer toward an offensive playstyle. I like "rushdown," as fighting game players define it. In the time since that fateful day, I've drifted more to characters like Cammy; in games like StarCraft, I'd rather play an offensive Zerg opening than sit back and play long-term economic play. Making my opponent scramble, panic, and ultimately commit mistakes is where I'm most comfortable.
For years this worked, until I ran up against the stonewall of Kenneth's defense. He likes slower characters, who can either play the neutral game well (like Ryu) or just straight up zone me out (like Green Arrow). Also, he commits to playing characters, a level of discipline I've only recently acquired after years of haphazardly bouncing around the roster select.
I lost, and folks, I lost bad. There are probably records of that day, and they do not reflect well on my ability to hold my own. But that was the thing: even while I was losing, I knew why. Even while I was on a streak of defeats, I was dissecting the little ways I could get an edge next time. And when I took games off Kenneth, they felt earned.
There are easy tips for learning fighting games, like watching hours of bread-and-butter combo videos to optimize every opening one can find. Scouring tier lists, labbing out elaborate strings, and throwing oneself into the meat grinder of online play are all important. But to use a musical analogy, that's practicing scales. At some point, the musician wants to play some actual music.
The Distance Between Us
Finding a rival is so crucial to the learning process, and not just any person, but someone who can grow with you. Not a friend who's just willing to be your punching bag. Not someone far and above you who doesn't want to take the time to teach, but someone who can square up and help you gain a real measure of your own skills.
In 2018, two legends of the fighting game scene clashed at an event called Kemonomichi 2. Daigo Umehara is a well-known titan of the fighting game scene, the Ken player in the infamous "Evo Moment #37." He was playing Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, himself a legend, but in the lead-up to their match, Tokido made the gap between them clear.
"I'm still nowhere near that level," said Tokido. "I can't even see his back from where I'm standing. He's a distant presence. But I want to confirm for myself just how big that gap is."
Over the years, whenever Kenneth and I have met up in person, it's never taken us long to find the closest Street Fighter setup. It's a constant in our friendship. These irregular matches let me see the distance between us, whether I've improved or grown rusty, as well as just how far I—really, both of us—have come in the years since that first match.
It's easy to see fighting games as a purely competitive venture, but find the right person, and it can become cooperative too. This can extend beyond a single rival and into a community, but with a regular training partner, it's easy to establish a counterpart that lets you mark that distance so much better.
It's easy to say I would've kept playing fighting games at my usual pace, but I wouldn't have the drive I have to actually improve nowadays if not for that fateful butt-whooping. Having a rival gave me a goal. I found ways to improve even in my wins, and I could take little victories from my losses.
It's also a way to keep in touch. It's become a cornerstone, a little way for us to brag. Kenneth will absolutely wipe the floor with me in NetherRealm's games. Any vaguely "anime" game, I've got his number. (Except Persona 4 Arena, which he's pretty good at.) Street Fighter's our neutral ground, and it gives us an excuse to talk trash, hang out, and in at least one case, literally spend half a day just playing matches.
Playing fighting games right now, in the current climate of stay-at-home gaming, is a little rough. Depending on who you ask, Street Fighter 5's netcode is better or just the same, while other games don't always provide ideal online experiences. With modern netcode updates to old games, it's worth it to pick up the sticks and start a journey with another friend.
Rivals can be anyone, though it helps if they're someone you know, and even better, someone local. They need a similar drive, usually (but not always) a similar skill level, and most importantly, they need to be someone you don't mind spending hours grinding out games against. It might sound odd, but literally playing the same match-up over and over for hours can be one of the more rewarding experiences in gaming. It becomes cooperative even when it's competitive; you're both seeking to learn, and the more you put in to beat an opponent, the more they get out and vice versa. I've learned more about my specific play in hours of friendly competition than just about any other venue.
Learning to play fighting games at a higher level is immensely rewarding, but it's so much more when you have someone journeying alongside you. There's a reason the Ryu-Ken dynamic endures to this day, or even Goku-Vegeta, or Rocky-Apollo. It's fun to learn a new combo or master a certain mechanic, but at some point, you want to look up to see just how far you've come, and how much there still is to grow.