What HOTS Players Can Learn From Smash Players

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If you’ve read my blog, or you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have two great loves in esports. As is obvious from where you saw this, one of those loves is Heroes of the Storm. The second is Super Smash Bros, and by extension fighting games as a whole.

My love for Heroes came as a natural evolution of my first passion in esports–League of Legends. The Fighting Game Community (FGC) caught me completely by surprise. I happened across the grand finals of Smash 4 at Genesis last year and was transfixed. Since then, thanks in large part to the YouTube channel Super Couch Fighters, I have developed a love for nearly all fighting games. At their highest level, fighting games are beautiful to watch. A high level battle in Super Smash Bros. Melee requires the APM of a Starcraft match with the reaction time of a game of tennis.

What’s especially interesting is the crossover that already exists between Smash and Heroes of the Storm. I’ve tweeted it before, but our own SolidJake was featured in The Smash Documentary, a YouTube film which details the history of competitive Melee. Old school HOTS fans will remember countless pictures of the Cloud9 squad warming up for their matches by playing a few rounds of Smash. As a passionate member of both communities, it is my belief that these parallels go even further. In fact, I think there are many things that the hardcore players of each genre can learn from one another. In my next two articles, I’m going to explore these parallels and what each scene can learn from the other. Today, we’ll begin with what HOTS players can learn from Smash (and the greater FGC as a whole).

Note: these thoughts are primarily focused at players in a competitive setting–team league, amateur tournaments, and HGC.

Know Your Main

Fighting games don’t have the degree of variance you find in HOTS. In a game like Smash, the battleground still influences gameplay, but it rarely influences character selection. Instead, nearly all serious FGC players have a main character that they play in the bulk of their tournament matches. They become so connected with this character, and play them so frequently, that often the two become one in the eyes of their fans. Your main is a part of your identity. If you asked a Melee fan who Leffen is, their first sentence to you would include the words “he’s a Fox main…” There are even memes that discuss how your main says something about your personality.

When someone chooses a main, it has two primary factors. First, how well can I compete with this character? Does playing them come naturally to me? Do their combos and special moves feel right in my hands? Second, can I have fun with this character for 10,000 hours?

In a fighting game, much of your time spent with your main will be what’s called “labbing”. You’ll sit in the training mode practicing movement techniques and combos over and over again. In Smash, you’ll also have to practice all of your options for recovering back to the stage. You have to know everything that your main can do, and know exactly how to make those options happen exactly when you need them. If you play Zero Suit Samus, you’ll be practicing grab>dthrow>uair>uair>up-B over and over again. Is it still fun after the 500th time? Are you still excited to use your main in a tournament?

Now, obviously in HOTS you cannot simply pick a main character and be successful in a draft environment. When we talk about a “main” in HOTS, let’s focus on knowing your “role”. Are you a tank, a healer, a ranged, a flex, what? What role feels most connected to your identity as a Heroes player? What role is the most fun for you? Which heroes could you spend hours mastering, and still want to play over and over again?

When I coach a HOTS team, the first thing I do is ask each player what heroes they can play at a competitive level. I’ve reached the point where I now shudder when I hear someone tell me “I can play anything.” That is a player who does not know their main. They have not developed an identity as a competitive player. They have not taken the time to really study their play and understand their role.

A competitive fighting game player would never tell you “I can play anything.” At a tournament level. They may have a few secondary characters prepared, but each of those has been carefully selected and practiced. They know those few characters almost as well as they know their main. If, as a HOTS player, you tell me you can play anything, you’re saying that you’ve put just as much practice into your Rexxar as you have your Zeratul. You’re saying there is zero difference in your mechanical accuracy with Kael’Thas and Stitches. You are telling me that you know exactly the right talents to pick  with Alarak, Artanis, and Arthas in every possible scenario.

A true Ice Climbers main knows every scenario in which they can execute a wobble (a complicated maneuver that guarantees a kill every time). Similarly, a true melee player in HOTS should know exactly when Kerrigan can dive an enemy team. They’ll have practiced against enough compositions that they know when they can blow up a target, and when they’ll get punished. They should know the situations where Illidan can solo a core. Identify your role, embrace it as part of who you are, and invest the time in mastering that role.

Play the Matchup

In fighting games, matchup knowledge is critical to success. You have to know what options are punishable, which moves can kill you, and how that character wants to win. In a Smash game, you even have to know the angle every attack will send you. However, just having this knowledge isn’t enough. You have to figure out how to adjust your play around the strengths and weaknesses of the matchup.

For example, let’s say your character has a good projectile and your opponent does not. In this matchup, you might want to stay far away from the opponent and throw projectiles, trying to rack up safe damage. Conversely, your opponent will be looking for a way to get in close to you so that you cannot safely throw projectiles anymore. There are no unwinnable matchups in fighting games–every character has tools that they can use to overcome the strengths of their opponent. The key is to identify these strengths, and adapt your style of play to capitalize on them.

In HOTS, the matchups are your team compositions and the map. You need to know where your composition is strong, and where they opponent is strong as well. Then you must identify how the map affects those strengths. This is one of my primary coaching points for any team with whom I work. Every weak team I’ve ever coached will draft their composition, and then spend the whole loading screen talking about how Wonder Woman was an overrated movie. Like, yea it was good, better than most DC movies, but there wasn’t anything particularly special about it. I did think Chris Pine was really good, and the chick they got to play Wonder Woman was really well cast, but—wait what? The game started? Crap, what lanes are we focusing, what talent do I pick? Guys is this a game for jugs or Water Dragon?

Don’t do that. Instead, use that time to analyze the matchup. Look at the enemy composition. How are they going to try to win? What did we draft that can help counter their strategy? What is our win condition with this comp? Are we stronger than them before 10? Are we stronger at 16? In every match, you should have a clear strategy for the full game before the gates open.

Pick a Top Tier

Character tier lists are a big thing in the FGC. Every pro and community has their own personal ranking for every character in their game. While many people will disagree on the actual number ranking of most characters, there is usually a consensus at the top and at the bottom. There is always a clear set of characters who are consistently bad. They struggle in most matchups, their frame data is bad, and their moves don’t do enough damage. You can absolutely win any game with these characters, but you will have to work much harder, and play near-perfect every time. If you play a bottom tier, a single mistake will often lose you the game.

Conversely, there are characters with amazing tools for every situation. They win a lot of the relevant matchups in a tournament, put out lots of damage, and often have some sort of mechanic that they can rely on in a pinch to consistently guarantee a win. Most FGC pros will tell you to choose a character you love, but the road will be so much harder if you don’t fall in love with a top tier.

In HOTS, we talk a lot about the “burden of execution”. There are so many moving parts in a MOBA. If you add to that a complicated team composition, it will often backfire. You may have a ton of fun with your Butcher/Tyrael Judgement dive comp. It may even win a ton of games in Quick Match. But, when you come to a tournament, think about how much work goes into setting up that perfect engagement. If you fail to execute, how hard does your team get punished? Is it worth investing the time into this fun, cheesy comp if it won’t succeed deep in a tournament? When theorizing drafts and compositions, try to develop strategies that play to your strengths, but also keep the burden of execution on your opponent.

Know Yourself

Ultimately, this is the core of success in any competitive game. Smash players know exactly which characters they can play well in a tournament, and which characters need work. They know why they lost that game, and how to put in the work to fix it. They know their bad matchups, and they know everything about their main.

Even though HOTS is a team game, the fundamental truth remains the same. You are the only thing you can control. How hard you work, how much you practice, how well you play–these are the only things you can actively change. Stay focused on what you need to do better. In each loss analyze how you could have played differently before you examine your teammates. Ask yourself how well you fit into your current role. Study the heroes you play, make sure you know them perfectly. Work on your execution, your knowledge, and your passion for perfection. When you know yourself, there’s nothing that can stop you from reaching the top.
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