How to E-Sports: How to train in fighting games

So you’ve decided to seriously get into the fighting game community but can’t seem to level up your game. Luckily, there’s a way to fix that: training mode. Training mode allows you to practice your fundamentals in a controlled environment, which is useful when you are still trying to get your fingers to do what you want them to do.

This article is not about how to practice fighting games, but rather how to use training mode most effectively. Nothing will replace actual battle experience against other players, but a good training regimen will help you put those experiences to good use.

1. Fundamentals and Muscle Memory

Before you even think about being competitive, you have to be able to get your character to do what you want it to. This means being able to do every normal, special, and super move, along with each pre-programmed hit-string. This also means being able to perform every type of movement, from dashing, to super jumping, to wave dashing and other types of advanced movement. This may seem overwhelming, but fighting game characters are built and balanced with the assumption that players will be using every tool available to them. Having a gap in your toolset will give you a huge weakness that will be exploited by your opponent.

Print out a copy of your chosen character’s move-list. Then face your character to the right and do every single move on the list. If you screw up even one move, do the whole move-list again. Once you can execute everything perfectly without screwing up, face your character left and do it again. Once again, continue until you can execute every move perfectly. Then face right again and perform every move without looking at the move-list. Commit it to memory. If you forget a move, do it again. Then face left and do the same. Continue until you can pull off every single move available to you, facing left or right, without looking at a move-list.

Don’t even think about training in any other area until you master your character’s basic tools. Otherwise, you’ll internalize bad habits that will hurt you in the long run.

2. Combos

Training mode will be the place you’ll go to learn most of your combos. Instead of trying to trial and error your combos together, just look them up on the internet. While using canned combos certainly doesn’t have the same pizazz as coming up with your own, there will only be a handful of good bread and butter combos for any given character, and with thousands of fans attempting to optimize combos daily, you might as well let them do the work for you and save the experimentation for when you have already made a place for yourself in the competitive scene.

A bread and butter combo is a combo that can be done off of several hits in several situations. Learn two or three to start. Just do them on a standing training dummy that’s doing nothing.

If you are having a hard time memorizing them, try breaking them up into small chunks of two or three moves each and practicing these chunks individually. The human brain can only keep about seven items in memory at a time but it can “chunk” items together to save space. This is why important numbers like phone numbers or social security numbers are broken up by dashes. It makes each chunk of the number take up only one “memory slot.”

Once you can do your combo facing one direction, do it again facing the other direction. Then do it with your training dummy crouching and jumping in either direction. Then do it after you land a crouching or jumping attack in either direction. Then do it from a crouching or jumping attack while your opponent is crouching or jumping, and so on.

After you have your combos memorized, turn on the opponent’s A.I., the harder the better. Now your goal is to land your combo while being attacked, which is easier said than done. You want to be able to pull your combo off whenever you see an opportunity and you’ll only learn how to recognize this opportunity by being attacked.

Once you have mastered a few bread and butters, start learning more obscure combos. By no means do you have to learn every combo that a character has avilable. However, you should seek to make your combo set as varied as possible.

Learn one or two damage optimization combos. This is a combo that is hard to hit, but will do a massive amount of damage if the situation is right, likely killing your opponent. Learn one or two meter building combos. These are combos that don’t do much damage but give you resources to use later in the game. Learn combos from your most useful moves like reversals, counters, and anything with armor and invincibility.

Finally, learn a variety of combos that leave your opponent in different hit-states. Learn a combo that knocks your opponent down. Learn a combo that keeps your opponent standing. Learn a combo that leaves your opponent in the air. Learn a combo that carries your opponent into the corner. A good portion of high-level fighting game strategy is being able to manipulate your opponent’s position and state to put you at an advantage, and you can only do this through combos.

3. Setups

Fighting game training is mostly building up your muscle memory. Unfortunately, mix-ups, gimmicks, and other set-ups are hard to build muscle memory for because there’s no guarantee your opponent will do them. This is where training mode comes in.

Most training modes have the ability to “record” a set of actions for your training dummy to do, and then play them back at will. Some games go far enough to allow you to save a game-state at the same time, allowing you to choose exactly where you and your opponent are and what you were doing before your dummy plays back the actions you choose.

Offensive mix-ups are easier to learn. If you want to build a left-right mix-up, set your dummy to block in only one direction. If you want to build a high-low mix-up, set your dummy to guard only at one height. For a mix-up to be effective, you want to give your opponent as little time as possible to do anything between your hits. So set your training mode to play back what you recorded after your opponent is done blocking. Record a number of different responses, like dragon punches, mashing jabs, throws, and so forth, and then try your mix-up out. If the opponent gets hit, you have a good set-up. If you get hit or if the opponent successfully blocks, you don’t. One again I suggest looking up a majority of the set-ups you want to try on the internet. Once other players have verified that your set-up works, all you have to do is work on the timing.

Defensive setups are harder to learn. In this case, you’ll need to swap the roles around. Record the setup you want your opponent to do on you and then attempt to defend against it. Unlike much of the advice in this guide, I don’t suggest you look up set-ups on the internet here. Instead, I suggest you try to recreate setups you have had done against you, especially if you lost to them.

Learning defensive setups is an ongoing process and is probably what you’ll be spending most of your time in training mode doing. Unfortunately, being able to replicate these setups requires being able to use your opponent’s character, and that means practicing their normal moves and combos. This can be infuriating and can take up a ton of time, so expect to spend weeks practicing how to defend against even one setup. On the upside, learning how to use an opposing character makes you more familiar with their tools and makes it less likely you will get hit by new gimmicks in the future. Even so, it’s incredibly unlikely that you will ever learn how to defend against every setup, so just focus on ones you find you have the most trouble with.

4. Numbers

Let’s say you are having trouble with any specific part of your training regimen. You just can’t land that combo or make that setup work. Maybe there’s a problem with the numbers, the frame data.

Frame data tells you exactly how many in-game frames of motion a move takes to start, hit, and cool down. It also tells you how many frames of hit-stun and block-stun a move puts the opponent into.

So let’s take an example. Say a move starts up in 5 frames, hits for 3 frames, cools down for 4 frames, and produces 10 frames of hit-stun. If you hit on the first frame you can, the move will go through the last two frames of its hitting animation and its four frames of cooldown, eating up six of the ten frames of hit-stun. To be able to combo, you’d need to use a move that starts up in 4 frames or less. Now let’s say you hit on the last possible frame. You’ll only go through the four frames of cooldown, extending your window of attack to six frames.

Now let’s say a combo you are studying requires combo-ing this move into itself and you are having a problem getting it to land. Well, the numbers will tell you why. If you are hitting with it early it won’t combo into itself, but if you hit late it will. So you want to adjust your combo timing so that you hit with this move as late as possible.

Once again, you can look up frame data on the internet, but if you are having a hard time finding it you can even produce it yourself. Many training modes have frame data built in these days, but if yours doesn’t, just set your dummy to jump after it gets hit or blocks. Your goal is to do whatever move you are trying to figure out frame data for and then attempt to jump as well. If your opponent jumps before you, they can effectively act before you and no move will combo or keep your opponent in hit/block stun. If you jump before your opponent, you need to use a move that starts up in less time than it takes for your opponent to jump in order to keep the combo or hit-string going.

5. Good Training Habits

Finally, let’s talk about how to make your training more effective. First, focus your training sessions. Don’t practice several different things at once. Choose one thing to practice per session and focus on that alone. You retain more information and build muscle memory quicker this way. In essence, don’t distract yourself.

Second, limit the amount of time you spend training. If you push your sessions too long you’ll become fatigued and no amount of training will do you any good. In practice, try to limit your sessions to 30 minutes to an hour. If you really want to get more training in, you can train twice in a day, just space your sessions out.

Third, don’t train when you are looking to have fun with the game. Training is, in a word, boring. If you are looking to get better and have fun at the same time, play some practice matches against friends. You might not get the same returns as focused training, but you won’t be as bored. If you are serious about your game of choice, schedule a time to train every day. I’d recommend training right before you go to bed, as a good sleep helps you to internalize everything that you have learned. In fact, if you choose to train during the day I suggest taking a small nap after training. It really does help your memory.

Finally, recognize that you will never be “done” training. There is no magical point where your training ends and suddenly you are a pro. Training is a process of upkeep; a way to keep your skills honed and capitalize on the experience you get from real matches. If you are looking to seriously compete in fighting games you will have to train and get match experience almost every day. But don’t forsake one for the other. All the training in the world won’t do you any good without practical experience, and you’ll hit a roadblock in your matches if you don’t take the time out to train.

Just remember, all of this advice is only effective if combined with hard work and determination. But if you keep regularly training between your tournaments, you too will find yourself making top 8 in no time.