How to E-Sports: How to stop button mashing
After watching GameCrate’s own Nick and Mike go head to head in Injustice 2, I find myself strangely compelled to write this simple guide about how to improve your fighting game skills by moving away from button mashing.
Will Nick and Mike listen to my advice? Who can say. But if you do, you'll find yourself ready to beat button mashers like them nearly every time.
On to the lesson!
What is button mashing, and why is it bad?
Everyone has button mashed before. Pick up a new game and the first thing you’ll do is slam on every button you can. This random input chaos is what most people think of when they think of mashing.
But mashing is a bit more complex than that. Many players who have graduated on to simple combos and basic strategies no longer press buttons randomly, yet they still mash. That’s because mashing can best be defined as pressing any button enough times such that it becomes less likely to execute.
You may be thinking, “How is this possible?” After all, things happen when you press buttons so pressing more buttons should mean more things will happen, right?
Even if fighting games allowed one action to happen every time you pressed a button, you would still have less of a chance of doing what you want while mashing than when not. This is because fighting games need to lock out inputs in order to function.
Go ahead a load up your favorite fighting game and choose your favorite character. Now press any attack button. Now, press the same button again in the middle of whatever attack animation just executed. You may notice that another attack doesn’t come out.
This is the basic system that every fighting game is built around. When you are attacking, you can’t enter another attack or defend command. This is what makes moves “whiff” and what leaves you open to counter attack. Attacking in a way that minimizes openings and maximizes damage is what fighting game strategy is all about.
Fighting games generally run at sixty frames per second. Games can only accept inputs on these frames. At a casual pace, I can mash a button about 10 times a second. That means I can belt out an input every six frames. Not bad.
If every move took six frames to execute, then maybe it would be right to mash as hard as I could. However, every move takes a different amount of frames to execute. So if I threw out a seven frame move mashing as hard as I could, my character would sit still for five whole frames before the next one came out. This is more than enough time to eat a jab or fireball to the face.
This alone gives you reason not to mash, but it actually gets a lot worse. Most fighting games are coded with input buffers these days. These buffers allow you to “mess up” your inputs a little and still execute the move you were trying to do. For example, most fighting games check for a button input both when the button is pressed, and released. In addition, many special moves allow you to shift around the order of inputs. ↓↘→P, the standard fireball motion, still executes if you input ↓↘P→.
Fighting games do this by examining a block of frames in every frame of combat. For example, it’s not uncommon for fighting games to look back five frames to see if any special moves or other attacks have been input.
Now let’s say you are mashing out your attacks as before, but suddenly your opponent tries to attack you. You stop mashing and start blocking as quickly as possible, but because you input so many attacks, the game sees an attack input in the last five frames. Even though you are holding back and telling your character to block, your character throws out a new attack anyway causing you to take the opponent’s counter-attack right in the face.
Whenever someone says, “No way, I was blocking that!” in the middle of a fighting game match, this is usually what happened.
How do I stop mashing?
So now we know why you shouldn’t mash, now let’s talk about how to kick the habit.
The first thing you need to do is adjust how you see the game. It’s tempting to look at fighting games like a game of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. Are any of you old enough to remember Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots? OK, what about Cookie Clicker? Is that a better metaphor? OK.
No matter what metaphor you use, you have to understand that it’s not the number of inputs that makes you succeed in fighting games, but rather the quality of inputs. Think of fighting games like playing a piano. The song doesn’t get better if you play more notes. The song is better when you play the right notes at the right time.
Between each note should be silence, and the equivalence of silence in a fighting game is blocking. So before you can learn to attack, you should learn to block. Try this training exercise: challenge a buddy of similar skill and don’t attack the whole time. Just block. Your goal is to survive your buddy’s attacks until the time runs out. Sure, you will lose, but you will also learn how to be silent.
Once you understand how to defend, learn to attack. Go into training mode and set a bot to throw the same attack over and over again. Your goal is to block first, then attack back, once. If you set the bot right, it should attack as soon as it is capable. If you mash, you will throw out a second attack and get hit by the bot’s attack. If you don’t mash, then you’ll be safe.
Now it’s time to pick up a basic combo or two. One you have the combo’s basic execution down, your goal is to attack with it on the same repetitive dummy you created before. Once again, you’ll get hit if you mash and you’ll successfully combo the opponent if you don’t mash.
Once you have this basic block-response pattern down, it’s time to take it into a match. You will likely lose, but don’t be discouraged. The purpose of this training isn’t to win now, but rather to get good enough so that you win more later. Once again, only hit the button exactly as much as you need. Once you break the mashing habit you’ll find that your fighting game skill will skyrocket. You’ll easily dismantle any other masher that comes your way.
Mashing for Fun and Profit
Once you understand how to not mash, then you can learn how to…mash? It might seem crazy to tell you to mash again after this whole article revolved around how bad it was, but this won't be your normal mashing. This is professional mashing. This is mashing that will make you better at the game.
For example, many professionals “double tap” their arcade stick buttons. They accomplish this by drumming their pointer finger followed by their ring finger across a button whenever they want to hit it. Doing this essentially creates two lightning fast button inputs, usually within a frame of each other. Modern games usually check for button inputs on press and release, which essentially gives you four straight frames of button input. This turns absurdly difficult combos with one-frame links into manageable combos with four-frame links.
Similarly, you might wonder how to execute things like Chun-Li’s Lightning Legs, which require a “mash a button” input without mashing. These attacks actually check to see if 5 inputs have been executed within a certain span of time. The game only checks the final input to decide what the special move’s strength is. So you can “piano” the buttons, hitting each punch or kick button in sequence by drumming your fingers across it, and ending on the button you want. This controlled mashing gives you exact special move execution without the need to hammer on a button.
Finally, you can actually use mashing to fake out your opponents. Some professionals will actually mash on buttons that don’t do anything to send their opponent’s false signals. Hearing a button tap automatically signals an attack. However, if you tap a button and do nothing but block, this can bait your opponent into attacking prematurely, letting you counter attack. Mashing that button might make your opponent become wary of an easily mashable attack, like a dragon punch. This will put the opponent on block, allowing you to walk up and throw them.
Hopefully this advice has helped you kick the mashing habit once and for all. Work on stamping out the bad habits, and you’ll find your skills improving in no time. Maybe one day you’ll even be as good as our own Nick and Mike!