I wasn’t sure whether to post this on the AE board or the Fighting Game Discussion board as it’s applicable to fighting games in general but is based around and discusses only my experiences with SF4.
This essay is light-heartedly dedicated to Seth Killian, fellow philosophy major, whose amazing Domination 101 essays, which can be found on their own forum on SRK (http://shoryuken.com/forum/index.php?forums/domination-101.98/) and are absolute must-reads, gave me the idea to do this and also just because of his priceless contributions to the FGC over many years.
My Attempt at Domination 101: Thoughts on “Randomness,” Mashing, and High Level Play
There’s been an abundance of a certain type of saltiness directed my way lately, especially from higher level players. This saltiness takes the form of complaints that I am “so random,” that “all do is mash DP” and even that I don’t really know how to play Street Fighter IV. Such comments are sometimes followed by the player I’ve just beaten several times giving me all sorts of condescending tips on how to improve my game. Yes, that’s right – condescending tips delivered fresh off their frustrating defeat at my hands. Pretty clearly, the reason for this is that people who think they know a lot about the game, which they often do, cannot stand to lose to players and, more relevantly, tactics that they believe are inferior to their own. If you take nothing else from this essay, I encourage you to question yourself whenever you are tempted to write off someone you just lost to as a scrub. Most of the time, you’re just plain wrong, and if you can fight that urge to dismiss your recent loss and opponent, you have a much better chance of improving as a player.
Let’s start with a couple of anecdotes – skip ahead if you want to get straight to the theorizing. I was recently at a tournament and playing some casuals against a fairly well-known player. I had been discussing this player with another guy at the tournament earlier in the night, and I’d told him that while I like this player as a person and think he’s a strong opponent, this player has a very predictable habit of criticizing my play after I beat him. In this casual session, the score was either 7-1 or 8-1 in my favor and I had won at least six in a row. After my sixth straight win, out of the blue yet like clockwork, he made a comment about how I kept doing the same set-up after I knocked him down and that I was being very predictable (the thing is, if it were that predictable, he wouldn’t have commented on how strange it was). Let me reiterate, this was after my SIXTH straight win. During a later game, he said something like “GEEZ, why would you DO that?” about a recent move of mine. Later, he acknowledged, “Maybe it’s just your style, I don’t know,” which, to his credit, was the first time he’s ever hinted that just mayyyybe when I win against him it’s not because I’m a sub-par, mediocre player getting lucky with “randomness.” He clearly believes that I do not play the game correctly, and it bothers him a lot when my style triumphs over his – a natural reaction, but I question if he’s really perceiving the situation accurately. Maybe he’s coming around.
Another striking example occurred a couple of weeks ago when I played another fairly well-known player online. I didn’t dominate in the win-loss column against him, but after losing the first three games, I adjusted to some of his tactics and went slightly over 50/50 for the rest of the set. I was having a good time, but after I won a game with a dominating third round (with a mashed out EX DP to cap it off, IIRC), he left the room. I wasn’t sure if it was a rage quit or what, but my answer came soon enough. As I was writing him “ggs, man,” I received a lengthy message from him saying that I was “one of the worst Akumas [he’d] ever seen,” that all I did was mash DP, and that I need to go watch some videos of Tokido and Eita because I “don’t have any understanding of the basics of SF4.” I was pretty floored. If I’m one of the worst Akuma players out there and have no understanding of how the game works, then what does that make him when I went about 50/50 against him and was having more and more success the longer we played? We talked about it a bit, and he ended up being more friendly, but he didn’t soften his stance that, basically, I suck. Cue ridiculous criticism of my game play that was incorrect and straight up amusing on my end. There was zero doubt in his mind that he had SOMEHOW just lost quite a few games to a complete scrub.
Let’s consider the typical evolution of one’s tactics from scrub to intermediate to advanced player. When people first start playing Street Fighter, they have a tendency to uppercut every time they are knocked down (actually, before that, most people probably don’t do anything on wake up, including block, before getting perfected a few times and realizing they had better do SOMETHING at least). A new player knows that the uppercut (or EX Messiah or Ultra or whatever) is going to beat basically anything the opposing player does to try to continue his offense, and, feeling vulnerable on wake up, their first instinct is to mash DP. The problem is, if this n00b (I’m not even talking about scrubs here - I’m talking about people who can barely execute special moves) is playing a superior opponent, the veteran will probably see almost immediately that the n00b is garbage at SF and therefore bait out those uppercuts and punish severely.
Once the new player gets tired of being destroyed due to mashing predictable DPs, the next step in his growth is to radically reduce the frequency of these tactics in response. This change is undoubtedly fueled in part by the countless posts on SRK and other forums proclaiming how terrible and scrubby the tactic of mashing DP is. All over the boards, people talk about random DPs and Ultras as though you might as well not play the game if you’re going to resort to such an obviously idiotic strategy. I have noticed in my years of playing SF4 that intermediate players - players who are solid and clearly have put in many hours of game play and studied the game pretty hard but whom I nevertheless beat much more often than not - typically do not mash DP or “randomly Ultra” on wake up nearly as often as either beginners or, more importantly, high level players. If Street Fighter becomes a science at the intermediate level, it becomes an art at the highest levels. Perhaps you can predict where I’m going with this.
It is my theory that the strategy of “random DP” and randomness in general basically comes full circle and becomes extremely relevant again in high level play as top players “unlearn what they have learned.” I believe this is because many intermediate to intermediate-advanced players are stuck in the realm of theory fighting. They are stuck in their minds, hung-up on making “the right decision” at every point in the game, which to them is rarely to “randomly DP.” They think, “Oh heavens, surely my opponent is predicting exactly when I will scrubbily mash DP, and how embarrassing would it be to whiff and eat a punish, even though I have a massive life lead!” These players don’t play with enough intuition, with enough “feeling,” with enough creativity, unpredictability, and daring. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played against a decent player who cowers in fear while I Demon Flip, crouching short, overhead, cross-up, “random DP,” etc. him to death for what feels like an eternity of game time when at just about ANY point he could have broken my momentum with a reversal. But because that player probably sees “random DPs” as a scrub tactic, because his fear of guessing wrong and being punished clouds his risk/reward judgment, he just sits there and does absolutely nothing while I mix him up until he’s stunned and it’s gg.
Aside from something like a safe jump, every single move in SF4 is a risk. That’s how the game works. The entire game is about risk/reward and using not only your knowledge but also your INTUITION to take the best risks. Some people are so uptight about playing the game “perfectly,” in a sense, and about mastering the system and analyzing everything from an intellectual/theory fighting perspective that they aren’t really PLAYING the game anymore so much as trying to apply some formula. Let me be clear (Obama style) that I’m not arguing game knowledge isn’t EXTREMELY important. It is, and a load of it bigger than Kindevu’s torso is necessary to be a great player. Knowledge as well as execution will allow you to beat inferior opponents with consistency. But it won’t carry you to victory over a player with comparable knowledge but who plays the game with more creativity and courage than you.
I’m sure lots of people on SRK understand this in varying degrees. I know for a fact that many top players get it because they talk about it. Tokido said in an interview that he hates playing against Daigo because Daigo mashes DP constantly whether or not he has meter to cancel and so Tokido never feels like he is safe from a counterattack. Daigo with them scrub tactics. Daigo undoubtedly whiffs plenty of DPs and gets punished for them, but he is confident enough in his intuition and his overall skill to know that, when he does choose to mash DP, the risk of whiffing does not outweigh the reward of breaking his opponent’s momentum and throwing him off his game. If you never take risks, you’re never going to develop your intuition, so if you don’t take these risks regularly, you best start mashin’ DP sometimes and see what happens. You might be surprised. I heard that Alex Valle has said that “top level play is very random.” Why is that? Because if you’re getting close to the highest levels of play, EVERYBODY knows plenty about the game. Everybody knows the options, can hit combos consistently, and has good spacing and reactions. So what is it that sets one top level player above another? Creativity, intuition, courageous and unexpected decisions… and “better randomness.” But I didn’t need to hear any of these big names say it to know that all of this is true. Simply watch the AE top 8 from the magnificent EVO that just wrapped up. Daigo, Poongko, and Latif were absolutely all over the place with “random” DPs, command grabs, and flame kicks. While Daigo did get obliterated by Poongko for mashing DP at all of the wrong times, he took those risks because he knew he HAD to in order to have a chance. He knew that if he didn’t, Poongko would SPD him four times in a row to stun, just like he actually did later in the match when Daigo had been trained not to mash DP. Daigo got outguessed, out “randomed,” by one of the top five players in the world who also happens to DP all day long. And they both made it to top 8 in winners’ bracket in a field of 1600 competitors. To top it off, how many times has Seth said on stream, “I really like that reversal DP early in the fight, setting the tone and saying ‘I’m not afraid’ to his opponent”?
In the championship game of a major sport, it’s very rare for one team to blow out the other. Most of the time, both teams are as prepared as could be and just about evenly matched physically. The deciding factors are those clutch moments - which team has the guts to go for it on fourth down and make it, which player successfully risks ultimate humiliation by taking and making the three-pointer at the buzzer. In music, there have been countless guitarists since the 60’s who have more technical ability and more harmonic knowledge than Jimi Hendrix did, but no one has ever heard of 99.99% of them. Jimi could play fast and with great control and knew plenty of chords and scales, to be sure. It was not those things, though, but HOW he played, with feeling and boldness, that made him a legend. By all accounts, he fell on his face sometimes during live performances, taking musical risks that did not pay off, just as Daigo fell on his face against Poongko, but the risks for both players were certainly worth taking because it is impossible to succeed at the highest levels by holding down-back all day. Jimi Hendrix flying on Owsley LSD, playing absolutely FEARLESS guitar, humping his amp, and then setting his instrument on fire in front of a mostly bewildered crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival is to music as Alex Valle walking up to you three times in a row and EX hurricane kicking you in the fucking face is to Street Fighter.
If you think this is a load of bull or obvious, then good for you - maybe you already play Street Fighter with guts and plenty of successful Ume-shoryus. Or maybe you’re a hopeless scrub. If you’ve already thought about this kind of thing and generally agree, then my hope is that I’ve given you a little food for thought or confirmation as you continue to psychically DP your way to victory. And if just one person who struggles by playing too cerebrally, too safely, starts to feel himself a bit, slams a Red Bull in Poongko’s honor, and wins a game against a mindless, pressuring Yun in the third round by mashing out an EX DP for the epic win, then writing and posting this has been well worth it.
If you liked this (or didn’t, I guess), please let me know. I already have an idea for a follow-up article if there’s any interest.