Learning how to learn: Five tips for new Street Fighter players

by Patrick Miller — follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my newsletter! Also, you might like my short stories Re: Member and MVP — a game dev short story.

Illustration by Jonathan Kim.

Congratulations! You’ve been watching the tournament videos and following the hype for a while now, and with the release of Street Fighter V, you’ve decided to dive in head-first into one of the most intensely competitive game genres out there. You’ve got your brand-new fightstick sitting on your coffee table, you’ve got the official game guide pulled up on your phone, and you’re Ready to Go.

Relish this feeling of pure enthusiasm and anticipation — the feeling of being able to daydream about one day being the best — because it will fade as you lose over and over, and as it fades, so will your motivation. And learning how to work through it and keep it alive through countless losses has been one of the most important things I’ve learned from fighting games.

Through fighting games, I learned how to work hard and push myself past the point of “Man, I suck at this, this is no fun,” and I hope that you have a similarly impactful experience. And I want you to know that everyone goes through that I-suck-at-this-it’s-no-fun phase, and it’s the main thing that stops people from continuing to play and really get good. So, let’s talk about a few strategies for dealing with it.

1. Treat every match as a chance to learn.

You will play against people who are much better than you, people who have no idea what they’re doing, and every now and then a person who is just right at your level. Each of these are valuable — but you have to approach them with the right mindset, or else you’ll get bored or frustrated.

Think of the easy matches as a chance to experiment with new characters or strategies, or a chance to focus on a single aspect of your game — footsies, or anti-airs, or throw mixups, or blocking, or whatever. If you’re that much better than someone else, try winning by Time Out every round.

For the hard matches, don’t worry about winning, worry about surviving. Do your best to try your A-Game stuff — the parts of your game you feel the most confident in — and use the great players as a chance to identify holes in your game that you can patch later. If you can survive to Time Out against these guys — even if you lose — you’re probably doing okay.

And for the just-right matches, well, they’ll be the most fun anyway, so just enjoy them. They get harder and harder to find as time goes on.

2. Focus on improvement, not wins and losses.

Fighting games are complicated. There are hundreds of things you need to learn how to do, and simply not doing one of them well can be the reason you lost — even if you did all of the others just fine. This is one of the major reasons that fighting games can be super intimidating and frustrating for new players. “I think I’m getting better,” they cry, “but I keep on losing!”

It takes a while to get good enough to beat someone who knows what they’re doing, and in that while, you’ll be losing a whole bunch — even though you’re getting better. So, if you want to get good at fighting games, you’ll need to stick around through a lot of losses, and one way to make that less frustrating is to not focus on whether you’re winning or losing, but whether you’re learning how to do new things and successfully executing them in a game.

If you just learned a new combo, make your goal to hit that combo. If you’ve been practicing your footsies, make your goal to keep the fight in footsies range for more practice. If you’re trying a new character, then your goal is just to try to survive with them.

As you improve, you’ll win more. But the thing about fighting games is that winning shouldn’t be your end goal. Improvement is your goal; winning is a happy byproduct.

3. Treat this as a skill, not a game.

Street Fighter is a game, but it’s no fun until you’re kind of good at playing Street Fighter. Make no mistake: This is a skill you’re learning, so treat it like one. Practice regularly. Warm up your hands with a pre-game training mode ritual before sparring online. Study match footage, watch new tech videos for characters you don’t play, talk about the game with your friends. Learn to find this kind of stuff rewarding on its own, and it’ll make the rest of the game feel like more fun, too.

Fighting games are every bit as hard as learning a martial art or a musical instrument, and we pay people to teach us those in classes. We don’t really do that for fighting games (yet, anyway), but that’s the kind of work you should be prepared to put in to get the most out of it.

4. Champions don’t quit.

Consistency is more important than short-term intensity. There will be other fighting games besides Street Fighter V, and we’ll probably be playing this one for several years.

Short-term, playing a little bit every day is more important than getting in extended grinding sessions once a month. Make this a habit and you’ll get good with significantly less effort.

Long-term, learning to deal with the frustration and stay with it is the most powerful thing I’ve learned from fighting games. Don’t be fooled: True gains in your ability are realized over the course of months and years, not the first few weeks of a new game.

5. Learn how to learn.

Personally, I’ve never been good at learning a skillset if I don’t feel like I have a strong understanding of how the things I’m practicing day-to-day map towards long-term goals and the big-picture view of Getting Good at Fighting Games. It’s not enough for me to learn a new combo or setup; I need to learn why this combo or setup makes me a better player.

This is the kind of thing that a good teacher usually has; in fighting games, we have to be our own teachers. In order to make the most of our training time, we need to get good at breaking down these games not just in terms of frames and inputs but in terms of concepts like gameplans and footsies and controlling space.

This is the work that I really enjoy doing! So, if you feel like you’re running into a wall and you don’t really know how to get better, I recommend checking out some of these things that I’ve made. They’re not specific to SFV, so no matter what fighting game you’re into, you can get something useful out of it:

From Masher to Master is a free guide to fighting game fundamentals.

“Leveling up your fighting game mentality” is a video on getting yourself into the right frame of mind to learn a fighting game without getting frustrated.

“Why you lose in fighting games” is a video/essay combo that will help you learn why you lost a game.

“Developing a fighting game gameplan” is a video/essay combo that talks about how to make the right decision in-game by planning for it beforehand.

“Why I play fighting games: Leveling up IRL” is a video that will help motivate you to keep playing when you feel beaten down.

Thanks for reading, and good luck!

— patrick miller