<blockquote>"What qualities do the top players have that put them at the top?"
-- Sean Hoyles, NF Canada</blockquote>
Most people, when sizing up the opposition, or evaluating how "good" someone is, see only the most superficial aspects of a player. You look for the obvious- some cinchy repeatable tactic you can steal- the big combos, etc. This helps explain why some punks are (idiotically) able to come away from watching even the best players, saying things like, "He just got lucky", "Ive seen better", or (my favorite) "He didnt do anything I couldnt do/havent seen before."
So sad. Saying things like this only proves how weak you really are. Its weak not just for having lost, but also for failing even to take anything away from the beating you just took. In the hurry to repair their (sad, local) egos, pride gets in the way of their being able to step back and figure out what really just happened to them. Instead of understanding it, theyre rushing to make it seem like nothing really happened at all. Predictably, they wind up saying, and then (incredibly) believing things like the above, preventing them from ever rising above the level they came in (and went out) at.
In beginning to list a few of the hallmarks of great players, one feature in particular kept popping up. Additionally, as the entire list was too long for a single article, Ive broken it up into two sections, devoting the first of them pretty much entirely to that recurring key. Hopefully this will help to underscore just how important it is, without ignoring the many other things that go into a champion. Once weve completed the list of general features of top players, well be better able to appreciate the individual touches that distinguish the styles of particular top players. Blah, blah, blah. And so:
There are two ways to walk away from a match as the loser. You can just lose, or you can be beaten. You can give it away, or have it taken from you. Everyone understands this distinction on some level already, but lets make it explicit:
Say you werent keeping track of the timer. Or you blew your big chance at a combo/counter. You guessed the wrong way to block. And so on. This is you, losing. This is giving it away. Losing like this is something you effectively do all by yourself- the opponent can just hang around, taking advantage of all the mistakes youre handing him. The other way to lose is to be beaten. This is the only way a serious player will allow themselves to lose. To lose like this means to be in the game, do your best, and have the win pried from your cold, dead hands. You get beaten by superior tactics, being outguessed, or to something youve never seen before, etc. Not because of something you screwed up. Never "just losing" is one of the first steps toward being a serious player. The key to never giving anything away is simple: execution.
The role of execution really cannot be understated. When some people see a difficult combo, they tell themselves "Hey- thats not so amazing. I can go home and do that combo without too much trouble. Yawn." Lots of scrubs get pleased with themselves like this. They shouldnt. In the tournament, the fact that you have done, or are "capable" of doing some combo means nothing. To say you can "do something" under tournament conditions means you can pull it off, every time, without even having to think. That is top play.
This point shouldnt be mistaken to be simply about tricky combos, however. Pulling off low forward into FB is clearly no big deal, but doing it 100 times over the course of a three round fight, never missing it once- thats something. A great player wont accidentally get the DP, they wont jump, etc. This isnt going to "wow" the crowd, but it may have won them the match. Execution is all about never giving anything away. Top A2/A3 tournament player Thao Duong wins almost purely on execution. Compared to the other players at the top, hes not doing much that could be called tricky. He just finds what works, and executes. Watch him (on the "yes, its still coming" B4 tape) and youll see what Im talking about. Consistent execution also means you never have to surrender the momentum. Controlling the momentum of a fight is another key feature of great players, which Ill talk about more in Part 2 (yes, there are actually part 2s to the "part 1s").
Despite his unprecedented tournament wins, John Choi is famous for getting sent to the losers bracket, sometimes quite early. Though dangerous, this is like his wake-up call. In the losers bracket, you realize youre playing for keeps- time to take care of "bidness". I lose approximately 85% of my first (of three) matches, in every round of the tournament. Some kind of unbelievably deep arrogance- I just cant really take my opponent seriously until theyre 1 match away from beating me. Then Im forced to win 2 straight, giving away the counter-character advantage. Though its worked for me, this is clearly a bad idea. Go hard right from the start. Executing well is executing all the time.
Old-school champion Thomas Osaki was perhaps the most extreme example of never giving anything away. He played his hardest, ALL the time. Even against little kids who wandered up to the machine, he was firing off sonic booms at the maximum possible rate, and hitting them with tick throws. For him, the key to execution was constant practice, against anyone, anywhere. He was on fire, all the time.
I know, I know- "But arent these games supposed to be about fun!?" Remember where you first heard that sentiment? When you were on a little-league team that sucked. It was the coachs pre-game "pep talk" to soften the impact of the beating you all knew you were about to take. While I agree that Osaki may have bordered on unhealthy, and of course theres nothing wrong with having fun- my concern is to point out the way in which so many scrubs use the idea of "having fun" as an excuse to never really get any good; to hide their inability to really play. They can pretend to laugh off their losses because they were "just having fun". So why bother? Its another of those cheap devices for soothing their own damaged egos. Not only will these guys will not only never be real competitors (they like to take a pathetic "moral high-ground" on this one, claiming: "Well if thats what it takes, then I dont want to win! Ill never give up having fun!"), but they actually miss out on the best kind of reward these games have to offer. Theres something deeply satisfying about seeing these games played truly well. It has a kind of beauty all its own. A well-played match has a flow like nothing else- that youll never see just screwing around, no matter how big the combos, or how wacky the tactics. "Fun" is used not only as an excuse for lazy slop play, its also (of course) used against certain tactics. Usually those same tactics that make you work to get around them. This is a new kind of sadness all its own, as in the vast majority of cases, counter tactics exist. Finding these, and the back and forth of complex tactics is one of the greatest pleasures these games offer. But no- we should give that up for the "fun" of being able to slap our buttons the same ways we used to. Scrubs.
Finally, the idea that you cant win and have fun at the same time needs to be exposed as the mysterious scrub propaganda that it is. Osaki, at least, was having fun. There are a lot of aspects to "fun", not least of which is the special joy of winning a serious competition. Look at the faces of everyone in the Olympics (the ones that arent already sitting on fat million dollar "I dont have to care what happens" contracts, anyway)- is anyone having fun? You ever see anything other than those scary "for the judges" smiles? No. The only time you see these hardcore competitors really smile is following... what? A dominating performance. One where they know theyve just done exactly what they needed to do- for themselves, team, country. Fortunately, SF tournaments (and SF generally) have a lot more opportunities for fun than this. Most every top player I know has a ton of fun playing these games- and unquestionably more than the losing, button slapping scrubs who console themselves by thinking the winner must have "given up his humanity" or some nonsense to get that good. In fact, groups of top players have more fun playing these games, hanging out at the arcade, than any other group Ive ever seen playing, and Ive seen a lot. The idea that fun cant go together with winning isnt just confused, its exactly wrong. These guys are playing the game better, more satisfyingly, seeing more in it, and getting to beat everyone down at the same time. Fun.
What else? "The honorable player would teach others, not hit kids with tick throws!" More nonsense. Osaki did teach- by example. He set a benchmark of excellence, and the observant player could learn his tactics by watching. Learn by trying certain tactics against him, then seeing how he handles it. The amount you can teach someone in a patronizing, playing-with-the-kid-gloves way is pretty limited. Supposing you know things like how to do the moves, basic game rules, etc, the best thing to do is to get in there and play hard, observing as best you can. And what about that little kid? The truth that everyone knows is that he shouldnt have been there, and had no real chance of being competitive anytime soon- better to direct him someplace where theres a better chance of his having fun. Showing him how to do a fireball and letting it go the three rounds- what does that accomplish? Besides making you (pathetically) feel like a big man, it just wastes everyone elses time, and gives the kid false encouragement, whereupon he may want to play again right away. Stupid. People most interested in this crap seem embarrassingly attracted to silly martial arts metaphors ("I am the master! Hes my student!"- gay.com), and the urge to look benevolent or otherwise cool in the eyes of people who arent even watching (go volunteer at a real charity if you mean it- trying this in the arcade is just misguided and useless).
Execution is so key for the fairly obvious but routinely overlooked reason that nothing else is possible without it. Of course any remotely serious player has a fairly high degree of execution, but as you get towards the top levels of play, even little differences are magnified. I can tell right away- even from watching someone playing against the computer- whos going to stick around, and whos going to get washed out quick by their own (even relatively minor) slop. Its the polish, the edge- throwing that next sonic boom the instant youve got your charge, and not a moment later- thats a serious part of what separates the top from the merely decent. High-level play is all about exploiting minor errors for maximum penalty- if you want to win, quit giving it away.
-- Seth Killian