Learn to teach: 7 tips for teaching Street Fighter

by Patrick Miller — follow me on Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, or subscribe to my newsletter! Art by Jonathan Kim.

My five tips for learning how to learn Street Fighter seemed to go over well, so I thought I’d do a followup piece on learning how to teach Street Fighter.

Fighting games are hard to learn. Most things that are hard to learn have people who teach them — martial arts, music, math, whatever — but fighting games don’t have a whole lot of that. There is a lot of advice and knowledge sharing — “Don’t jump” or “Check out these bread and butter combos,” for example — but there isn’t a whole lot of straight-up teaching. When I wrote From Masher to Master, I wanted to create a textbook that people could work through with their friends for exactly that reason. (Plug: It’s a free download over here.)

This is understandable, because teaching is work, and it’s a different skillset than playing, and most of us aren’t any good at it, and besides, you probably got together with your buddy because you wanted to chill out and play some games, not spend time Explaining Stuff! But if you really want your buddy to get into fighting games and see what you see in them, stepping up your teaching game is probably the easiest way to do that. If you’ve been around in fighting games for a while, you know that it can take months to get semi-decent at a game — good enough to start having fun — but I think a lot of that is because we mostly force people to learn these games on their own.

I’ve been teaching my girlfriend Irene to play Street Fighter V, and I streamed one of our sessions; you can see the video below, if you like. I don’t really recommend watching the whole thing, because it’s two hours of us in Training Mode, but if you skip around a bit you can see some of the things I like to do when teaching someone.

So: Seven tips for teaching fighting games!

1. Take your time

Be prepared to spend an hour or more in a decent training session. It’ll probably take some time for your friend to translate your words into hand-motions, and it’ll take even more time to make sure it settles in and sticks in their brain after the session is over. When you explain a concept (Footsies 101) and give them a task (walk back and forth and try to hit me with c.MK), give it some time to breathe. Let the drill get a little bit old before switching to the next thing so you can make them feel like they’re ready to move on — “This lesson is going too slow, hurry up” is a better feeling for a student than “I can’t keep up with all the things you’re teaching, slow down.”

2. Simplify the game, then add layers

Imagine playing Chess when you don’t know what all the pieces do, and you have to learn what they do by watching your opponent crush you with them. You’re not really playing against the opponent in this scenario, you’re playing against the game. Well, that’s basically how fighting games work until you have a fundamental understanding of each matchup, and it’s not a whole lot of fun for new players — which is why your goal is to get your friend to the point where they know enough that it is fun.

Rather than tell your friend to learn every character’s moveset, I like to try playing simple competitive drills that reduce the game to a few moves, so they feel like they’re playing against you. After all, that’s the part that’s fun in fighting games, and if we learned anything from Divekick, it’s that you don’t need to have dozens of moves to make a fun fighting game! For example, I always start out every first-time training session with a few minutes of sweep-only sparring in a Ryu mirror match, where the only thing you can do is move left and right, block, and sweep. After a few minutes of that, I’ll add crouching medium kick, and then I’ll introduce the fireball and get them practicing that motion, and then eventually add jumping and Dragon Punches.

If you jump head-first into a fighting game, you’re going to feel like you’re drowning in the sheer volume of stuff you need to know. Your job as a teacher is to introduce that stuff at a much more reasonable pace and give your student the conceptual tools needed to understand why someone would want to use X move over Y in any given situation, so they can study this stuff themselves at their own pace.

3. Explain execution.

With a new player, you may have to explain how to do a move in more detail than “Do this.” I don’t teach a fireball motion by saying “Do a quarter-circle from down to forward on your stick,” I say “Hold the stick in the down position, then gently roll it to down-toward and toward, and hit the punch button as soon as you hear the toward switch click.”

Fighting game execution requires careful coordination between both hands! In that respect, it’s a lot like learning a musical instrument, and indeed, if people are playing on a stick, I often suggest that they think of a move or a combo as a series of notes that they need to reproduce. I’ll do the move myself, ask them to listen to it, and then let them try to recreate it. Also, make sure you take some time to explain how to hold a stick, and don’t let their hands fly off the stick when they’re done performing a move.

Once you get into more complicated executional tasks, you can start using stuff like “Chunking,” where you break a sequence down into individual parts, practice them, and then try to put them together. In that video above, I have Irene doing Chun-Li’s s.MP, c.MK xx MK lightning legs, and I had her practice the first part and the second part separately until she could hit those parts on both sides five times in a row without stopping.

4. Don’t practice one thing for too long.

I think it was PR Balrog who talked about the way he practiced things in Training Mode: He’d work on one thing for a little bit, then move on to something else, then go back to that first thing. I don’t really know why this works, but it does feel like your brain will get on stuck on something if you can’t do it quite right, and when you switch tasks and come back to it a little bit later, you’ll find that you can do it a little bit better.

So, try this out in your own Training Mode as well as your teaching time. Do a thing for a few minutes, then do another thing, then go back to review the first thing. You should find yourself improving at each task more quickly per minute of practice than if you just spent the whole time working on a single task, and you get to spend less time throwing yourself against a wall feeling like a failure (which is not a good feeling for a new player).

5. Make this a habit.

Just like any other hard-to-acquire skill, you won’t see godlike gains in a few cram sessions; getting good at fighting games requires habitual practice. So if you’re really trying to help your friend play fighting games, get together with your friend as consistently as possible, and when you’re not there, make sure they have a few things they can practice for a little while on their own. Give them Training Mode homework, even if it’s just reviewing stuff that you’ve worked on together. The only guaranteed way to get better at fighting games is by practicing and playing, so if you encourage them to put in some improvement-minded training mode time before playing some online games, you’ll get them to level up that much quicker (which means your teaching sessions can get to the fun stuff!).

Drilling stuff in Training Mode is one of those things that feels like a drag and a pain in the ass until you turn it into a habit, and eventually you can come to enjoy it and look forward to it. It’s rewarding to see yourself improve, after all, and you’re more likely to feel your improvement when you see your training mode homework getting easier every day than you will in online PvP.

6. Gradually escalate the intensity.

The best teachers I’ve had in martial arts use a three-stage process to teach a new skill. First, they teach the move slowly, explaining each part step-by-step, and they make you drill it against a compliant partner for about 10–15 minutes. Once you feel like you have the motions down, your partner starts to exert a little bit of resistance, starting at 20% effort and then maybe moving up to 60% or so. This is important because without that resistance, you don’t learn to develop the sense for how it actually feels to do the move against someone who knows what you’re trying to do, meaning the move would only be useful against untrained scrubs (and generally, we don’t practice martial arts to beat up untrained scrubs). After that, you move on to using the move in a friendly sparring session, to see how it can integrate into the rest of your toolset — maybe this move fits into this other series of moves you’re already comfortable with, for example.

I like to do this in fighting games, as well. If you’re teaching a Dragon Punch, phase 1 is “Practice this motion until you can do it five times on each side without messing up,” phase 2 is “Okay, now hit me with it while I jump at you over and over,” and phase 3 is “Now let’s add some sweeps and fireballs to the mix.” To put this another way, they don’t actually learn the move when they execute it, they learn the move when they can consistently perform it against a resisting opponent. And the best way to get there is to gradually add intensity.

7. Talk!

As anyone who’s ever done a martial art or watched Kung Fu Panda 3 knows, at some point, the only way you can level up yourself is by teaching other people. Teaching forces you to turn the things you know in your brain and hands into words. It’s really hard, but it’s kind of neat because it makes you realize that you might not know things as well as you thought you did — which gives you a list of things you can practice and improve for yourself. Also, once you get good at teaching, you may find that having to explain stuff actually makes things more simple for you, too.

However, none of that happens if you don’t talk to the person you’re trying to teach. I wouldn’t worry too much about whether you’re saying the right thing in the right way or not! Just talk about the game. Explain what you’re doing and why; explain what they’re not doing and why they should be doing something else. I don’t think you’re really playing a fighting game until you can understand what decisions you’re making, what decisions your opponent is making, and why both players are making those decisions, and the best way to develop that analytical skill is to talk about it. Without the why, these games aren’t nearly as fun.

patrick miller