Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Hidden Fight Beneath the Surface

Evolution weekend was a blast. The tournament was fun but it wasn’t my main focus. While most people attend for the tournament and might enter money matches during their downtime, I do the opposite – I focus mostly on money matches and only enter the tournament because I’m already there. The benefits of money matches are that they allow players who might never meet in tournament to compete, and give players who don’t expect to place for cash a chance to make money from side matches. Plus, during downtime while other tournaments are running, money matches provide an opportunity to stay sharp while waiting for your tournament matches.

This year at Evolution I spent almost the entire event in a group with Knixes, MegamanDS and Neo. My entourage had unwavering faith in my skills and side bet on me almost every chance they had. It felt good to know that I had earned the respect of my peers, and their conviction bolstered my confidence. On many occasions I told them I didn’t feel confident in specific matches but that didn’t dissuade them at all. No matter who I played they were willing to back me, and that support meant a lot to me and probably improved my performance. Thanks guys!

One particular match I played was against AG|MarlinPie. It was one of the larger bets that took place Friday night. We battled it out in a first-to-seven and every single match was intense. In the beginning it went back and forth, but eventually MarlinPie caught on and pulled ahead. Soon the score was 6 to 4, making it game point for MarlinPie. Being no stranger to come-back situations I held my ground and eventually won the match, making myself and my friends a decent amount of money. Later in the tournament MarlinPie and I had to face each other in winner’s finals of our first pool.

If you don’t know who MarlinPie is, you’re sleeping on MvC3. He has the best Magneto I’ve ever seen. I’m known for a fast Magneto, with good execution, but MarlinPie almost matches my speed and has some of the best execution I’ve ever seen. On top of this, he also has several Magneto functions that are unique. I’ve said this before, but MarlinPie is the only Magneto player that makes me feel inferior. With proper practice my execution is solid and many tell me that my speed is unmatched, so it’s a rare occasion to come against a Magneto player of his caliber.

As we began our match a decent-sized crowd gathered around to watch, as he is the premier Magneto of the East coast and many say I am the premier Magneto of the West. As is pretty customary at most top-player tournament matches, many people placed side bets on their favorites. My entourage, of course, maintained the same faith in me that they demonstrated the night before. I, however, did not have the same confidence and was actually somewhat anxious. Although I had won the money match previously, it was still only by one game and I knew that MarlinPie was a formidable opponent.

Nervously, I wondered, “Hadn’t they seen the money match last night? Didn’t they know how difficult it was for me?” I couldn’t understand their confidence at the time. Here I was up against a Magneto player who makes me look scrubby and I’m praying that I come out on top, yet they seem completely unshaken. But I later realized that they had only witnessed part of the match. Unlike MOBA games, MMORPGs or first person shooters, in a fighting game all of the in-game data is displayed fully to onlookers and players. Still, this doesn’t mean that all of the sub-surface facets of the match are evident. To spectators, there is plenty of information that isn’t visible.

The mental battle that takes place between two opponents is much deeper than what onlookers can see. While spectators might be able to clearly recognize the solution to one player’s gimmicky setup, the opponent playing the match is in a very different mental state and might overlook it. Or maybe he understands the situation but is intentionally falling for it anyway, in order to groom his opponent into a comfortable state (in long sets this is pretty effective). It is so much easier to analyze situations and pinpoint the perfect defense when you aren’t simultaneously trying to think and execute an offense. While spectating it can often be hard to understand the reasons players make the mistakes they do.

In the money match the night before when MarlinPie was up two games on me and at match point, I was pretty shaken. I held it together to pull out the win, but it took a moment in which I had to intentionally calm myself and re-center my focus. I had to pull my will together to be sure that I played at my best despite the scoreboard. I had several tricks that I had reserved for such situations and I had to use them. It was draining, difficult and it shook me despite my calm exterior. To my friends, it just seemed like I finally relaxed and played my game comfortably, but that wasn’t the case. My focus had actually intensified and I was pulling out all of the stops. I employed the tricks that I used on my friends regularly but had been reserving in use against “outsiders,” and these helped me edge out the win. I had trained him during the set to do specific things and I was now banking on the counters to the responses that I hoped he would maintain. It was a sequence of thought that couldn’t be completely counted on because there was always the chance he would realize I had trained him and throw me for a loop. Each situation was critical because, as we all know, Marvel is pretty unforgiving.

Reflecting on this helps me look at matches in a very different way. Beyond simply watching the setups, I try to understand the mindset of the players – the nervousness that causes the critical execution fumble, or the overconfidence that leads one player to style and give his opponent another chance. So often, I see top players react several times to a mixup and then, as if psychic, change and react to the alternative to the mixup at the same time the opponent does. I’m starting to see the hidden match much more clearly now – the mental tug of war, the solid determination that sometimes creates the dominance that we all love to see. I appreciate the great commentators who try to explain this deeper fight, like James Chen, Skisonic and Ultradavid, who probably understood this long before I did. I can appreciate watching matches much more now, and I don’t have to always try to get in there. When trying to really put myself in the player’s shoes, I can make out some of the hidden fight beneath the surface. With these glimpses inside, spectating can be pretty entertaining.