How to e-sports: What the heck are footsies?

EVO is coming up and you have been hearing a lot about footsies this year. MK11 and SamSho are both footsie heavy games. UNIST is incredibly footsie heavy for an anime game. Street Fighter has given up complex footsies for more aggressive gameplay. Footsie this, footsie that, footsies footsies footsies, and you know that these fighting gamers aren’t flirting with each other under the dinner table. So what are footsies? How do you play footsies? And why are they so important to high-level fighting game play?

Keep your shoes on. It’s time to take a look.

What are footsies?

“Footsies” on a whole refers to the mid-range space control aspect of fighting games. That’s a mouthful, which is why we call it footsies for short. While in footsies, you are trying to safely poke at the opponent while tricking the opponent into unsafely poking at you. This sounds simple but actually involves a complex flowchart of behaviors, each with a counter that leads you to a unique situation. We rarely go in depth about footsies because it’s one of those things that you just kind of know when you see, but breaking the footsie game down is incredibly valuable for new to intermediate players.  A couple of the concepts we are going to talk about might seem weird and that’s because most fighting game players do them on auto-pilot.

Concept #1 – The wiggle

At the beginning of any footsie heavy game, you are likely to see both players walking back and forth. This isn’t just because they don’t know what else to do. This is actually a core movement pattern that initiates a game of footsies.

What is actually happening is that both players are momentarily stepping inside and outside the range of their opponent’s attacks. The goal here is to get the other person to press a button. This is where we are presented with our first risk/reward scenario.

You can’t block while walking forward in 2D fighting games. So if a player can predict when their opponent walks into their range, they can press a button that triggers a long range attack and score a hit.

However, both players know this, and so they are employing a variety of tricks (yes, even though they are just walking back and forth) to prevent anyone from scoring a hit in the fashion.

For example, if a player correctly predicts when an opponent is going to try to poke them, they can just walk backward beforehand, causing them to whiff. Most of the time, throwing an attack causes your character to project their body and thus their hurt box forward, so avoiding an attack in this fashion would allow you to counter poke and get some damage in.

You can also do this in reverse. For example, you can walk back for just a little bit longer than usual and then start walking forward. Your opponent may predict that you are going to walk forward, but since you created just a little bit of extra backward distance, you still won’t be inside their range. This is your cue to attack back.

Concept #2 – Speed vs. range

The wiggle doesn’t always happen at the absolute maximum attack range of both characters. Many times, players will find themselves in close quarters combat, inside the range of many of their opponent’s attacks. This is where you have to consider your move’s speed and range.

Your longest range attacks tend to be your slow heavy attacks. You might be tempted to throw out a heavy in this range and get a lot of damage in, especially if you see your opponent walking forward. It’s not as if competitors stop wiggling while in this range.

However, you have to consider if you are inside the range of your opponent’s quicker medium attacks. If you aren’t, and you throw out a heavy attack, even if it gets blocked it can be considered a “safe poke.” If you are, then your opponent can counter you by throwing out a medium first, or possibly counter you by throwing out a medium after they block your attack. The same holds true for medium and light attacks if you are even closer to each other.

At this point, you are effectively wiggling in and out of the next lowest range of attack. If you are both inside each other’s heavy attack range, then wiggle inside and out of medium attack range and the same concepts apply. Just note that there’s an extra step of throwing out quicker attacks to beat or punish slower attacks.

There’s also an extra dimension of baiting inside this range. If you sense that your opponent is looking for a punish, try throwing out a quick move rather than a slow move. For example, throw out a light attack. If they mistake it for a slower move, they may be tempted to throw out a medium in an attempt to punish. However, this usually leaves you in one of two situations. Either A, the light attack beats their medium attack simply because it’s faster and contacts them before startup or B, the light attack recovers before their medium attack completes, allowing you to whiff punish them instead. Which of these scenarios you find yourself in will be a function of what range you were wiggling in and out of.

This is a good time to talk about knowing how your moves, well, move you. Some moves, for example, will cause your character to take a step back. These are amazing counter-pokes but very bad initiating pokes. Meanwhile, moves that cause your character to step forward are good initiating pokes because they make your range hard to guess.

Concept #3 – Invincible attacks or “reversals”

The term “reversal” has gotten a little muddied in fighting games over the last few years. For our purposes a reversal is any move that will, in effect, beat any other move on startup but leave you vulnerable if blocked. Nearly every character in every 2D fighting game has some form of reversal. Maybe it’s an invincible uppercut. Maybe it’s a move with super armor at the start. Maybe it’s just a very quick move with a disjointed hit-box.

Whatever it is, desperate opponents will start to throw these in response to any move you make if they find themselves unable to read you. So your job is to figure out which of your moves put you inside the range of their reversals and which of your moves keep you outside of the range of their reversals. You are going to use safer moves to bait out their reversals and punish their cooldown. Remember, one of the most effective counters to reversals is just to block and respond. Similarly, only throw out your reversals when you know your opponent is within range. In general, you shouldn’t rely on these unless nothing else can beat your opponent’s move, or there are too many options to process, but even then use them sparingly.

Concept #4 – Punishing hesitation

Your opponent doesn’t have to engage in footsies. They can just sit on block all day and never have to deal with any of your pokes. Sure you might try to high-low mix-up them but that’s really outside the range of topics here. So what do you do when your opponent sits on block?

Punish that hesitation. All of this wiggling that you have been doing has slowly been inching you in and out of the opponent’s guard. Eventually you will be at a point where a quick dash will put you in throw range. This dash can be mistaken for a simple move forward to strike, which your opponent has been blocking this whole time.

Concept #5 – Take resources into account

Most games have some form of resource that you can spend to open up new moves. Street Fighter has EX moves, for example, which tend to come out quicker and sometimes have invulnerability. Your footsie game has to change

Let’s take Samurai Shodown as an example. You can trade your rage meter to enter a rage explosion state. There you have access to your lightning strike, a fast, powerful, long range strike that does incredible amounts of damage. This drastically changes the footsie formula.

Suddenly, your effective range has grown to screen wide and your fastest attack is not only invincible (like a reversal) but does the most damage out of any of your attacks. What does this mean? Well it means that your opponents are going to be scared to press buttons because as soon as they do you can lightning strike them for a win.

Conversely if your opponent enters rage explosion, it means you have to play differently. Now you have two choices. You can play safe, back off, and block, but this opens you up to throws which can be comboed into lightning strike anyway. Or you can take risks and move in, walking forward to bait out the lightning strike, blocking it (because it’s a reversal) and punishing accordingly. However, you’d have to bet that your opponent couldn’t react to your moves and thus would have to throw out your quickest attacks. It’s a hard game to play, but it’s a game you have to play whenever your opponent expends resources. Remember, you can always rage explosion back to even things up.

All of this is to say, resources change what moves players have access to and the footsie formula always has you taking those moves into account. You can almost imagine a parallel in strategy games. If your opponent’s attack range suddenly increases, the spaces you feel comfortable moving your units into changes as well. It’s the same for fighting games, just in 2D and in real time and you only have one unit.

Concept #6 – Have a plan and disappoint your opponent

Much of the footsie game is a game of training. You want your opponent to end up in a pattern of behavior that you can then exploit. You’ll have a game plan and an endstate and then a strategy to take advantage of that end state.

For example, say you want your opponent to stay on block. You’ll want to aggressively invade their space to tempt them into poking you and then aggressively punish those pokes. You want to make your opponent afraid to press buttons. You can do this simply by out playing them in mid-range, or exploiting your reversals, but either way you want your opponent to run scared. There’s your game plan.

Once you reach your endstate, your opponent will turtle up and stay on block. Now you can dash in and throw them for big damage. This actually gives footsies a lot of similarities to the mix-up game, except it’s much slower. You’ll likely want to hit people high and low if you can manage it but remember, you are doing this from neutral and you can be attacked back.

Now the thing is, your opponent is doing the same thing. They have a game plan and they are trying to get you to behave in a certain way. Your job is to disappoint them and behave in a way they wouldn’t expect you to. Say, for example, they were training you to block. When they run in to throw, you can jump. Their throw will whiff and you’ll be able to land a devastating jump-in combo.

Or perhaps you sense their plan even earlier to be ultra-aggressive while counter poking. You can take advantage of this by using quick moves and countering with reversals of your own. Always do what your opponent doesn’t expect you to do.

How can I practice my footsies?

HiFight has made a minimalist fighting game called, appropriately enough, Footsies. This is a game that boils down fighting games JUST to the footsie game. There is no jumping, no projectiles, just a variety of moves with a variety of ranges that counter each other. You can download it here.

This is all just the most basic introduction to footsies. There are so many more concepts when you add jumping, fireballs, and deeper levels of head games into the mix.