How to e-sports: Watching a fighting game match

So you’ve dropped the money to fly out to Vegas in order to get a prime seat for EVO 2016. You’re wearing a Street Fighter shirt, waving a Tekken flag, and cheering for Daigo Umehara when the matches begin. That’s when you realize… you have absolutely no idea what’s going on.

Fighting games are fast, twitchy, and look like two people beating the crap out of each other. While a casual observer might say that the winner is the player who presses the most buttons, pros would describe a fighting game match as a type of high speed chess. You are constantly looking three steps ahead to make sure you are using the right move at the right time.

This guide won’t give you the skills to make the EVO top 8, but it will help you follow along when you watch the top 8 with your friends. Let’s learn how to properly watch a fighting game match.

Timing and Spacing

In the most technical sense, fighting games are state comparison machines. Every frame, the game seems to see if an attack is hitting a vulnerable character, and if it is it produces the correct outcome, usually a loss of life. But that’s fancy talk. In simpler terms, fighting games are all about time and space, specifically the time it takes any given attack to come out and the space that it covers.

We’ll use Street Fighter as an example, but these concepts can be applied to just about every fighter out there. When a Street Fighter player presses a button, their character throws out an attack, aka a “normal”. Weak attacks are short ranged and do little damage but are fast, while strong attacks have longer range and do more damage but are slow.

The most basic fighting game skill is the game of “footsies”, where both players throw out attacks trying to hit the other. You can’t block while an attack is in motion, so winning footsies is a matter of making your opponent misjudge the spacing and timing of their attacks. For example, if an opponent is right next to you and begins to throw a heavy attack, you can throw a light attack to hit them before it comes out. However, if your opponent is further away and throws a light attack which won’t reach you, you can throw a heavy attack which will clear the distance and capitalize on their whiff.

This is why professional fighting game matches always seem to start with both characters walking back and forth, seemingly doing nothing. The players are trying to bait their opponent into throwing a move that they can punish.

Another aspect of timing in fighting games is “stun.” There are two types of stuns to consider, hit-stun and block-stun, and you are completely unable to take any action during both. Hit-stun, which happens when you take a hit, is longer, while block-stun, which happens when you successfully block an attack, is shorter. In general, the weaker your attack, the less stun of both types it causes.

The final aspect of spacing to consider is hit-types, and the next basic fighting game skill: blocking. Every fighting game has moves which can only be blocked in certain ways. In Street Fighter, high or jumping moves can only be blocked by holding back, and low moves can only be blocked by holding down back. Throws cannot be blocked at all, but can be defended by pressing the throw command at the same time you are thrown. Successful players will attempt to mix-up the attacks they use in order to make an opponent block incorrectly.

Special Moves: Not So Special

Throwing punches might be easy to understand, but what about all these crazy fireballs and flip kicks? They, too, are simply different ways to control space and time.

Think of a fireball as the longest range and slowest normal attack you can throw. It stretches across the whole screen but it takes forever to get there. If you can see it coming, you can always perfectly block it, or move out of its range by jumping. However, it does prevent you from doing anything offensive in a horizontal line, like walking forward or throwing an attack.

Uppercuts, like the iconic Shoryuken, are the exact opposite. They are the fastest normal attack you can think of. They happen immediately and many of them are even explicitly invincible to attacks as they start up.

Hurricane kicks and similar moves control space by moving the character itself. While these attacks may start up and end slowly, they keep you next to your opponent, in ranges where your other moves can be more effective. Many also have special properties, like the ability to pass through projectiles, making this interconnected rock-paper-scissors web more intricate.

If you see a move that doesn’t move the character, has no range, and seems to start-up slowly, then it is either a mix-up or pressure tool. Mix-up tools hit high, low, or count as a throw, allowing you to penetrate an opponent’s block. Pressure tools cause an incredible amount of block-stun, allowing you to keep yourself safe by using them, and keep your opponent on the defensive. More time on the defensive means more time to mix them up.

What Is a Hit Confirm?

It seems fairly simple to tell who is winning a fighting game. Just look at the life bars, see whose is longer, and that’s the guy in the lead, right?

The reality is a little bit more complicated than that, since not every move is created equal.

When a character is in hit-stun, they cannot take action. If you can connect another attack before they leave hit-stun, you will “combo” the two attacks. How combos are formed will vary from game to game, but in general, the riskier the move used to start the combo, the more damage the combo can do. You’ll get much more damage from a landed heavy attack than a light attack, for example.

Unfortunately, most combos are too fast to be input on reaction. You have to already be trying to start the combo when the first hit lands in order to successfully do it. Furthermore, if you go through an entire combo without actually hitting with your moves, you will likely get punished. This is where “hit-confirms” come in. Hit confirms are small strings of moves that serve as the beginning of a combo. If they land, you can continue the combo to completion. If they miss or are blocked, you can stop and still keep yourself safe. If you ever wondered why professional fighting gamers would throw 2 or 3 light attacks in a row when it seems they could do more damage with a heavy attack, this is why.

Three Important Game States

Not every second in a fighting game is equal. Players have to use different skills depending on what state the game is in. The most basic state of any game is “neutral.” This is when both players can take actions. Footsies are played in neutral game. Fireball wars are played in neutral game. Any situation in which players can both take action is considered neutral. In general, projectile oriented characters have the advantage here.

When one character starts blocking, the game changes to a state called “pressure.” Here, one character may continue attacking while the other must simply do his best to fend off each attack. The goal, of course, is to make someone fail at blocking, scoring a hit and a combo. This is different from neutral game because the attacker gets to determine the pace of the battle. The defender can only act again when the attacker lets them out of block-stun (something they have to do eventually but the attacker chooses when and how.) If the defender blocks every attack, either they get to hit back and start their own pressure, or both characters will break off back into neutral. Forcing a character to the corner tends to be advantageous to the attacker, as they have limited movement space and fewer opportunities to break off into neutral game. 

If the attacker succeeds in hitting the opponent, one of three things will happen when their combo ends. First, the opposing character could be knocked far away, causing them to go back to neutral. Second, the opposing character could be left standing next to them, but without enough time to do anything, causing them to go back into pressure. Third, the opponent can be knocked down. In this state the opponent can enter no commands until their character goes through a standing-up animation. However, they are also invincible to attack until they stand up. This state is appropriately called “wake up.” While generally advantageous to the attacker who can throw out long lasting attacks to overlap the opponent’s wake-up animation (“meaty “ attacks), defenders can throw quick moves like uppercuts to reclaim momentum. Wake-up attacks like these are called reversals.

Understanding Everything Else

Everything else follows these basic pieces of gameplay. Characters, for example, excel at certain parts of the game and lack in others. Are their projectiles big and slow moving, taking up a lot of screen space? They are probably a projectile based character or “zoner.” Do they have a ton of moves that get them in the opponent’s face, keeping them blocking? Then they could be described as an “aggro” character. When a character is described as a “charge” character, it means their moves are harder to execute and have limited situations in which they can be used in exchange for being more powerful.

Many fighting games have “meters” which act as a limited expendable resource, but these are usually easy to understand. They tend to fill either by throwing attacks, or by taking damage, and using the meter allows you to do what you already do better. Using meter can let you make combos longer, make projectiles harder to dodge, make your moves faster and safer, and so forth.

Counter-picking is a practice by which the loser of a game changes their character to make the next game harder. For example, if a player loses to someone with heavy aggression but no projectiles, they might choose a projectile character to capitalize on that weakness.

The Big Names

It would take a long time to go over every single big name in fighting games, so here are just a few to start you off.

Daigo Umehara, AKA “The Beast” is largely known as one of the best fighting game players of all time. He is known to play Ryu in every installment of Street Fighter and leaves opponents terrified because of his almost psychic ability to read an opponent’s moves. He is well known for solid basics, short combos, and devastating reads and exists as a kind of legend in every game he plays, even when he isn’t dominating the rankings.

Justin Wong, originally hailing from New York, is largely considered Daigo’s old time rival. If you ever watched the EVO Moment #37 YouTube video, that’s Justin and Daigo squaring off. Justin is currently the favored competitor in Street Fighter 5, and unlike Daigo he changes his character frequently to fit the current meta. He is also largely favored in Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3 where he constantly fights against Chris G, another east coast favorite.

SonicFox is currently one of the most well-known players of Netherrealm games, taking high places in both Mortal Kombat X and Injustice tournaments. He is also a high-placing Skullgirls player. He is known for choosing simple and powerful characters without gimmicks, and for wearing furry ears at tournaments.

Street Fighter has always been something of an international competition. America, Europe, and Japan are constantly warring for the top slot. At the end of the Ultra Street Fighter IV era, Japan practically dominated the rankings with powerful players like Momochi, Kazunoko, Bonchan, Tokido, Fuudo, and Daigo himself routinely winning tournaments. Street Fighter V is a far more even spread, featuring several up and comers from France such as Luffy and Valmaster. Unfortunately, most other fighting games are playgrounds for America only. Skullgirls, Killer Instinct, and Mortal Kombat are all primarily stacked with American players. Tekken, Guilty Gear, and Blazblue have more international participants but nowhere near as many as Street Fighter.

There are plenty of great players I haven’t mentioned, like Infiltration form Korea, Kane Blueriver from Chile, and Xian from Singapore, but listing every single big name in the fighting game community would take up an almanac. Let us know who some of your favorite players are in the comments.

Finally, you may have noticed that I did not mention a lot about the Smash Bros. community. That is largely because Smash Bros. utilizes a set of skills that is very different from traditional fighting games. With this separate set of skills comes a completely separate set of players, and while the Smash community is interesting and deep, it’s a topic for another article.