Have you considered that maybe your attitude is the problem?

High Score Girl (2018)

The biggest bread and butter combo in the FGC is the classic fighting game player and self-loathing. And why wouldn’t it be? Many of us spend hours in the lab and in the replay theatre looking for problems and practicing solutions to problems… only to choke what we’ve practiced in a tournament setting. FGC culture values growth, learning and self-improvement. We value continued growth and dream of our labour being paid off with a trophy in one hand and a massive $10 dollar cash prize in the other. So when we don’t get the results we expect from our hundreds of hours of grinding, we’re dissatisfied despite our hard work.

Shit like this is not only frustrating but downright discouraging. Frustrated players will usually ask questions like: how did I choke despite knowing what the most logical decision in that moment was? Why am I losing to people way worse than me? Why can’t I reach a higher rank? Why is it that, no matter how hard I’m working, I’m not getting the results I deserve? Why am I learning too slowly?

If you find yourself asking these sort of questions, then I have only one question for you:

Fact is, almost everyone is capable of learning. Anyone can evaluate their own progress and find solutions to problems in their gameplay. All it takes is enough time and experience. But in fighting games, victories aren’t always determined by who has better technical knowledge, reads, game sense, or even skill: in fact winning a match can be more complicated than that. And here, I want to shamelessly steal some words of wisdom from W. Timothy Gallwey’s book, ‘The Inner Game of Tennis.’

Imagine a fighting game is fought on two fronts: the outer game, and the inner game. The outer game is the fighting game itself, the mechanics, the matchup, your decisions and your opponents decisions. The most important aspects of the outer game are technical knowledge, pattern recognition, game awareness and calculated decision making.

Though modern psychology has made some of his points dated, Gallwey’s book still offers a good amount of wisdom.

The inner game however, is different: it’s a game that exists not only while you’re playing a fighting game, but outside of it too. The inner game is your control of emotions and management of expectations and stress. What makes the inner game relevant in fighting games is that it can interfere with your performance in the outer game. Gallwey argues that fear, self-doubt and anxiety are obstacles that need to be overcome to win the inner game. By winning the inner game, we can then perform optimally in the outer game.

In short, to perform the best that you can in the present moment, you need to have a very strong outer game with as little interference from the inner game as possible. Your mind can’t be worrying about how your kids won’t be able to eat because you’re about to lose your Wednesday Night Weekly. Your mind needs to stay silent.

A poor mental game can be one of the reasons why you see players who demonstrate strong game sense, technical knowledge, and reading ability succumb to pressure or feel as if they’re the dumbest player in the world. While I don’t want to disparage the masterful skill of Punk (who is easily in the top 3 of the best SFV players of all time), his crumbling confidence during the grand finals of EVO 2017 was obvious to the commentators and to the audience through his dropped combos and misinputs.

EVO 2017 SFV Grand Finals: A seemingly invincible Punk places 2nd in heart-breaking fashion against the legendary Tokido.

While the idea that, “you need a good mental state to play well,” may sound kind of preachy, I honestly believe it is an obstacle that is not only overlooked, but affects us all as players.

So then what should I do to control the inner game? First, realise that you can’t just get a ‘good attitude.’ It is a process that is not instant, but rather ongoing and long-term. It is not a linear process but rather, messy. That said, the way you can start to control the inner game is by slowly shifting your attitude.

How you learn to shift your attitude depends on what your outlook is in the first place. In the context of fighting games: what is the reason for your salt and what shape does it manifest? Here I will take a look at the two most common forms of salt and suggest ways to start shifting it.

The scrubby attitude of entitlement

There is a shared, unspoken convention in the FGC to avoid salty, passionate outbursts aimed at degrading the opponent. Don’t be a bitch. The last thing any of us wants is to be immortalised by ScrubQuotes.

To recap: the term ‘scrub’ is not an assessment of skill. A new player is not the same as a scrub. A person who plays in a style that you don’t like is also not a scrub. Rather, a scrub is a player who actively wants the game to revolve around them, dismisses their opponent’s skill and is an overall entitled douchebag.

Explained eloquently by FGC commentator Sajam

Note: not all scrub quotes are toxic to other players, in fact (at least in the FGC) you’re way less likely to find children and manchildren hurling racial slurs at each other after a match. Rather than one person calling the opponent a “fucking idiot,” the scrub quotes I’ll be looking at are more subtle. Because while FGC members want to be on their best behaviour, the need to subtly attack someone’s skill is quite irresistible. Here are some examples:

  • “My opponent plays so stupid/unga bunga”
  • “I work 10x harder than my opponents yet they keep beating me”
  • “I should’ve won”
  • And of course, the classic “I can beat grand masters but I keep losing to the silver Ken mashing on wakeup”

One of the common themes here is a feeling of deservedness. The player goes into a match thinking they deserve a specific outcome — or at the very least, expect a certain outcome to occur — and instead, get rewarded with the opposite. These statements of deservedness are so common but they are generally ‘less considered scrubby’ because they lack the toxicity you’d expect from ScrubQuotes. But let’s not mince words: the above quotes are scrub quotes because they reveal a scrubby attitude of entitlement.

Here’s the truth: in the FGC, whether it is a win over a player, a tournament victory, a specific rank or whatever else, you are not entitled to anything.

You don’t deserve anything unless you actually get it. You don’t deserve that win against that “fucking scrublord cunt” any more than that “fucking scrublord cunt” deserves to beat your ass. If you think like this, it will help to shift your attitude away from ideas of deservedness. The reason I say this is because an entitled attitude is a trap that can mask deeper problems in your gameplay. If that’s the case, then your attitude makes it more difficult to identify the problems in your gameplay and subsequently more difficult to come up with solutions.

Seriously… if you’re ‘beating’ higher ranked players (and let’s face it, you’re probably not beating many of them consistently, so any stray win against a high level player is probably meaningless) but losing to lower ranks, then there is clearly a problem in your game plan, technical knowledge, decision making or — dare I say: attitude.

It’s too, too easy to fall into the scrub trap when you forget the fact that you’re playing a two player game. You may lament the fact that you’re “working so hard yet still losing” but have you considered that your opponent — a human being — is also improving as well? If you’re working hard, there’s a high chance they are as well. When you remember the fact that a fighting game is a two player game, it is significantly more difficult to feel frustrated. Don’t forget: the world does not revolve around you.

My language was extremely harsh in this section because it’s the kind of thinking that needs to be exposed for how dumb it is. My hope is that by highlighting how absurd this line of thinking sounds, it would be easier for players to slowly refrain from feeling as if they ‘deserve’ specific outcomes.

Be like Ken and Ryu. Shake hands, have a chat, beat the living fuck out of each other, go home and down some schooners together.

In my opinion, the easiest way to do all of this is to always remember that fighting games are two player games. Obviously when you’re salty, you will probably forget it. Which is why I recommend something as simple as a post-it note on your monitor with the words “they’re human too” or something cheesy written on it.

The point is, fighting games are designed to have one winner and one loser. It’s fine to lose. It’s statistically required that you lose. In the same way that your opponent is relishing in their victory, try not to spoil it for them. Try and be happy for them and know that one day, hopefully, you’ll be relishing your eventual victory over them.

The crippling attitude of toxic perfectionism

I used quite harsh language when writing about the scrubby attitude. Here however, I’m going to lessen the intensity of my language . This section talks to the players who, for lack of a better term, feel despair. These are the players who write over discord chats that “I’m not improving” and “I can’t do it.” These statements are really, really, common. In my mind, the reason players say these things is because they feel they aren’t living up to the FGC’s core tenets.

The tenets of self-improvement, continued growth and most importantly, accountability, allured me to the FGC at the age of 14. I would play SFV for hours every day with the hopes of getting better each day. Over time however, I realised that this was a double-edged sword. I got dissatisfied with my progress. I hated myself for not “being good enough”. I was slowly but surely, hating a game that I forced myself to play for no other reason than to “get good.” At that point, I realised this much stress was not worth it for a game I no longer cared about and will never make any money playing. I quit fighting games and wouldn’t return for years.

Self-improvement can be a beautiful thing. But the expectation of consistent, incremental improvements can easily fall from a motivator to a stressor. I’ll ask you this: in your odyssey for self-improvement, have you become self-deprecating?

If you’re saying (on a consistent basis) things along the lines of:

  • “I suck
  • “I learn too slowly”
  • “I’m so fucking stupid”
  • “I’ll never be able to do it”
  • Or worse…
Please, please, PLEASE for the love of God, do NOT be like me in this moment!

Then you definitely need to shift your attitude. Again, it’s important to point out flaws in one’s gameplay, but there’s a fundamental difference between saying something like: “I dropped my bread and butter combo and died because of it” vs. “I have a brain the size of a dung beetles’ left nut.” Self-defeating language may seem appropriate in an episode of salt, but it’s corrosive. The problem with self-defeating language is that:

  1. It’s too common in the community so you hear a lot of players using it.
  2. If repeated over a long period of time, it can solidify itself into a habit and eventually a belief.

If you too have been infected by the toxic, self-defeating attitude, the first step you should take to shift your attitude towards a more constructive outlook is not to remain positive about everything, but rather to begin to change the wording of your self-deprecating thoughts and to do verbalise them every single time.

Dr. K, known for his channel HealthyGamerGG suggests reframing your thinking from “I’m bad/incompetent” to, “I’m inexperienced.” Frustrated against a matchup you don’t understand that well? “I’m inexperienced in this matchup”. Drop the bread and butter combo that you land 99% of the time? “I got unlucky with my execution”. Got baited into a throw whiff resulting in a loss? “I got baited by my opponent”. Note three things:

  1. The statements aren’t shifting blame anywhere. Not at the opponent but importantly not at yourself.
  2. Most of these statements are descriptive, not evaluative. “I got baited” is an observation that notes why you lost an interaction, but in a way that doesn’t comment on your own skill.
  3. The statements that are evaluative are balanced and not emotionally charged. “I’m inexperienced in this matchup” is a more healthy evaluation than “I’m a stupid fucking idiot that doesn’t know how to play the FANG matchup.”
The relevant quote is timestamped. These lectures on “Video Game Addiction” are excellent and very insightful.

I want to stress that this is not an immediate change. It is not even a quick change, especially if you have a habit of calling yourself colourful words after every loss. The important thing is that you are gradually shifting away from repeating these self-deprecating statements and instead, repeating more constructive and balanced statements.

I won’t lie, this can be very difficult at first and you’ll have days where you’ll suddenly fall back to a swearing contest against yourself. But if you can slowly start this process of balancing your language, it will make it a lot easier to deal with nerves and stress when playing. It will never completely eliminate the stressors, but they’ll hopefully be more manageable than before.

A note on attitude, perceived skill and results

After every string of hard losses, I would go online scouring through resources and opinions to find the ‘secret’ to winning and improving. Hold that thought. There is no secret elixir to winning and there never will be. Ironically, that includes the ‘elixir’ of a ‘good attitude’. Let me tell you now that if you’re cultivating an attitude of growth and relaxed competition for the sole purpose of winning more… you’re probably gonna see opposite results after the high of winning wears off.

Gallwey mentions that his tennis students would shift their mindset from “I can’t swing my racket properly,” to, “I will pay attention to how I swing my racket and adjust my wrist movement accordingly,” and succeed in executing an effective backhand. He would also mention that they would come back the next day, adopt the latter mindset, fail to deliver the same results and then go back to the former mindset. The ‘good attitude’ crumbles quickly.

That’s because cultivating a ‘good attitude’ is not about winning or losing. Thinking too hard about the outcome is problematic and can interfere with your performance. It can cause you to grossly underestimate or overestimate your skill. It can force you to make the decisions that cost you tournaments.

Really, if you’ve put in the hard work and practice, all you can really do is trust yourself. The reality is, you don’t always have control in a competitive environment: that’s the point. Your opponent is literally there to take control away from you and win the game for themselves. As such, keep your mind as still as possible.

That said, I’m not saying to completely shut off your brain (indeed if you stop thinking in a fighting game, you will DEFINITELY play badly). All I’m suggesting is to learn how to quiet the thoughts of frustration, the thoughts of entitlement and the thoughts of self-doubt.

It is not meant to be easy. No fucking way. In fact, a lot of what I’m talking about is the kind of thing you would tackle in cognitive behavioural therapy over a period of years with a psychologist — this is definitely not something you can ‘beat’ by reading one, two or two hundred random articles on the internet.

Competition in all of its forms is beautiful. But it shouldn’t be self-destructive. Competition is an expression of one’s skills and labour, not necessarily an environment to validate your worth by curb stomping others. In fact, if you’re relying on competition to validate your self-worth, then I seriously suggest that you need to go to therapy and work on your self-esteem.

If you love the game and want to play as well as you can, just put in the hard work, manage your thoughts, trust yourself and the results will come. If they don’t, work harder and learn to accept that it may take longer for you than other players. And that’s ok! Competition in a fighting game is not, and should not be a rat race! It is should not be solely about the wins and the losses. As Ryu makes abundantly clear at the end of Street Fighter 2, ceremony means nothing.

The fight is all.

“99.9% of people cannot keep winning […] one must find and maintain a delicate balance of neither being arrogant after winning, nor becoming self-deprecating after a loss, and to face and focus on the game itself.” -Daigo Umehara. (‘The Fight is All’ by Mikaël ‘Orioto’ Aguirre)

Mediocre Oceanic SFV Player. I plan to write about my musings on competition, learning and personal growth in the context of FG’s.