If you’re a competitive person, all of your instincts will bend towards the thought of winning. Competitive baseball players dream of hitting walk-off homeruns; competitive basketball players picture themselves hitting buzzer-beating jumpers; and competitive fighting game players envision the sweet moment when their opponent’s health bar hits zero.
But unless you’re literally flawless, you’ll have your share of losses. That may sound obvious for beginners – after all, everyone’s a scrub at first. Yet as an undeniable mathematical fact, even the pros fall short of their goals more often than they attain them. No matter what your level of play, losing is an unavoidable reality.
Still, that doesn’t mean that you have no say in the matter. Although you can’t always control whether you’ll win or lose, you can at least control how you’ll end up losing. If that sounds like cold comfort, think again. Many of the most competitive people in the world know how they want to lose, and that knowledge helps them to (1) structure their gameplay ahead of time, (2) react in the moment, and (3) refine their skill set in the long term. Believe it or not, one of those people is Street Fighter legend Daigo Umehara.
Planning For Imperfection
For most players, the first step towards achieving an overall strategy is developing a basic gameplan. As my colleague Choysauce writes, the key question in a basic gameplan is “how your character’s tool set works as a whole[ i.e.,] which tool is needed for a given situation.” In other words, a starter gameplan is one that focuses on what you and your character do best. But that’s only part of the picture. A more comprehensive plan will also account for what you, your character, and your opponent do worst.
Let’s look at some examples from the world of athletics. Typically, defenses in baseball are evenly spaced, like so:
The theory behind this arrangement is twofold. First, it assumes that the defensive players are all skilled enough to cover roughly the same amount of ground. That’s the basic gameplan: acquire competent defenders and spread them out to cover the whole field. But there’s also a second, hidden assumption, namely, that the batter is equally likely to hit the ball just about anywhere. Most of the time, that assumption holds true. Sometimes, however, it doesn’t – and when it doesn’t, the defense usually goes into a “shift,” like this:
As you can see, there’s no subtlety here. When the manager called for this shift, it was a way of daring the batter to hit the ball to his left. In essence, the defense was saying, “Please, go ahead and put the ball near third base – if you can.” They had scouted their opponent, and they knew both his limitations and their own. When they put it all together, they knew how they wanted to lose: they wanted to lose only if the opponent overcame his own weakness (hitting to the left) or an empowered defense (with players positioned more closely together to the right).
Basketball coaches often do the same thing. By default, defenders in basketball try not to leave people wide open. But when they know that the opposing team has a sub-par shooter, they’ll do something like this:
The underlying plan here is exactly the same as it is in baseball. Instead of trying to cover every possibility at once (which is impossible), the Rockets (the team in white) purposefully allowed a bad shooter to take an open shot. Once you learn to see the pattern, you’ll see it everywhere. Savvy competitors consciously protect themselves against their opponents’ strengths even if it means increasing their exposure to their opponents’ weaknesses. In short, they won’t just plan out their path to victory. They’ll also come into the game knowing how they want to lose.
Knowing How You Want To Lose In Fighting Games
The same logic applies in fighting games. In a recent stream that was subtitled by FGC Translated, viewers asked Daigo Umehara how he reacts when his opponent successfully jumps over his fireballs. His reaction? “[It’s] destined to happen at some point, so don’t worry about that.” Like a baseball manager employing a shift or a basketball coach who intentionally leaves a bad shooter open, Umehara accepts his own fallibility. He knows that he’s giving his opponent an opening every time he throws a fireball. But he’s betting that his fireball game will take away his opponent’s strengths. If he has to lose, he wants to lose on his terms, not theirs.
If you’re a beginning or intermediate fighting game player, this attitude might be shocking. How can he just accept damage like that? But there’s no mystery. Indeed, the question answers itself. He doesn’t just ignore jump-ins, he accepts them. After all, jump-ins are a sign that his gameplan is working. They indicate that he has the space and time he needs to throw fireballs, and that his opponent feels as though they have to respond to the fireball. That’s how Umehara wants to play.
It’s also the reason why he won’t abandon the fireball game just because of one or two stray jump-ins. Instead of panicking and adopting a completely different approach, he’s committed to adapting within his fireball game. This is what it means to impose your gameplan on your opponent: instead of overreacting in the moment, you accept small losses in exchange for larger wins. It’s one sign of a great player – but it’s something you can’t do until you know how you want to lose.
Learning Within Limits
This is not to say that losing doesn’t matter so long as you planned it out ahead of time. As Umehara goes on to say, there are some situations in which he needs to make changes immediately, such as when his opponents punish fireballs with normal attacks. Wanting to lose that way would be foolish. He would have a plan, but that plan would make it too easy for his opponents to beat him.
It’s also not good enough to accept a loss after it happens. In the moment, there’s only so much that any competitor can do to win. That’s why mid-match reactions sometimes turn into overreactions: if you depart too far from your gameplan, you’ll end up relying on skills that you simply don’t possess. But that doesn’t mean that losses are meaningless. If you have a good idea of how you want to lose and then you actually do lose that way, that tells you something about how to improve. For example, say that you follow Umehara’s advice and stick to your fireball game, but you can’t convert your anti-airs. That doesn’t mean that the fireball game is a bad one. It just means that you need to practice anti-airing after throwing a fireball.
This is why knowing how you want to lose can help you develop as a player in the long run. By playing within the limits of a strict gameplan, you’ll force yourself to confront the challenges that are inherent in that gameplan. Sometimes you’ll overcome these through practice. Sometimes you’ll overcome them through smarter planning. In some cases, you may even realize that your gameplan isn’t viable in the current meta. All of these will make you a more mature, more focused competitor.
Know More, Lose Less
“Know how you want to lose” is hard advice for a competitor to hear. Ultimately, no one wants to lose. But every competition is full of risks, and ignoring those risks won’t help you to win. In athletic competitions like baseball and basketball, champions work hard to ensure that they’ll only lose in one specific way. Even in fighting games, legendary players know when to take damage without changing their plan. The reason is simple: the more you know, the better chance you have of winning, even when what you know is how you want to lose.
Eli Horowitz is a writer, amateur basketball player, and even more amateur fighting gamer who lives in Pittsburgh, PA. His first novel, Bodied, is set in the FGC. Get your copy here, then follow him on Twitter @BODIEDnovel for FGC jokes, puns, photoshops, and general positivity.