How to get better at fighting games

Fighting games are hard. The vast number of moves, combos, counters, cancels,anti-airs, you name it, means they can get pretty complex. 

While fighting games are hard, getting good at them doesn’t have to be. But the fact is, most beginners often give up playing fighting games as soon as they get beat.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

You load up a cool new fighting game. The characters look cool, the combos looked awesome in the trailer, and you think to yourself, I can do that.

So you go into single-player and beat up a few computer opponents, learn some basic combos, and learn the special moves. That’s it.

Time to go online. You win a few matches and feel on top of the world. I’m the greatest player in the world, and no one can beat me.

You then come across someone good, I mean good. A couple of rounds of ass-kicking later, and that’s it; you give up, turn off the game and play something else.

This is probably an exaggerated example, but it goes to show the mentality a beginner may have.

You don’t have to spend years training to get good at fighting games. No, you only have to follow a few fundamental tips, and you will become a force to be reckoned with.  

In this guide, I’m going to give you some basic tips that will elevate your game. Even if you think you’re good at fighting games, this will still be useful.

Should I get a fightstick?

A lot of people ask this. Will getting a fightstick instantly make me a better player? The short answer is no. If you’re a bad player, you will stay a bad player, even with a fightstick.

Getting a fightstick will, in the long run, make you a better player. Getting a fightstick now means you won’t have to learn later on; although this isn’t a big deal if you have to, it’s always good to get a head start.

It’s honestly down to personal preference. There are a lot of good pad players, some of whom play professionally and have won EVO championships.

A decent fightstick can get expensive, so starting, feel free to use a controller.

I prefer to play on an arcade stick as I feel it has some advantages over a controller.

1. Pick your character

Pick a character that you like the look of and don’t worry about tier lists or which character is ‘considered’ to be good.

Playing a character that you like will mean you will have more fun.

If you’re having trouble choosing a character, then ask yourself this:

  • What kind of player am I? Are you offensive or defensive? Do I like pulling off cool combos? Or am I uber-defensive and like to zone people (keep them away)? Then, pick the character which has the most appropriate playstyle.
  • Which character’s moves do I like? Don’t worry too much if you can’t pull off any of a character’s complicated moves or combos at this point; that comes later.
  • Do some research online, watch a video of a pro player using that character, and see if you like it.

Once you pick your character, stick with it. Constantly switching characters when trying to get better at fighting games is bad and can overcomplicate matters. Please keep it simple. Stick with the same character until you get good, and then, if you want, you can switch to another character; get good with that character and then repeat.

Understand your Character

Now that you have your ‘main’ character, it’s time to understand the fundamentals.

The fundamentals include your character’s moves, abilities, combos, punishes, etc.

There are lots of tutorials online, so I suggest you start there. Just search for your character’s tutorial on Google or youtube.

Just a couple of things to bear in mind at this stage:

  • You don’t have to know every move of your character. Especially in games like Tekken or Mortal Kombat, the number of moves a character has can be overwhelming. Just focus on 4 or 5 good moves to begin with. The rest will come later.
  • The same principle applies to combos. Again, focus on 2 or 3 bread and butter combos, and the rest can be ignored.

Go into practice mode or ‘The Lab’ and practice, practice, practice. You need to understand your character in and out. Most practice modes have the option to face the computer. Do this. Set the computer to the hardest difficulty if you have to.

Once you have learned the basics for your character, it’s time to go online, but not to win. Be prepared to lose…a lot. Your goal here isn’t to win but to focus on practicing a fundamental technique you’ve learned.

Let me explain.

Let’s say you’ve just learned an awesome bread-and-butter combo. Well, your goal now is to go online and pull that combo off in a real match at least 3 times.

Do this with everything else you’ve learned or anything you want to work on.

For instance, if I want to work on my defense, I will go online and block the whole game. Yes, I’ll be sent horrible messages afterward for turtling, but it’s all about applying the technique. This is the way it will stick.

Once you’re confident you know your character, it’s time to move on to the next stage.

2. Understanding Matchups

Understanding matchups means understanding how other characters play: their moves, combos, specials, etc.

This step is important. You can know your main character all you like, but if you don’t know how to play against other characters, you’re, in a word, screwed.

What’s the best way to understand matchups? Quite simply, the best way is to play more matches. In other words, play the game…a lot.

You don’t have to understand every matchup. Instead, only focus on the characters you are weak against.

Once you know the character(s) you are weak against, go into practice mode and play against that character. Set the difficulty to max if you have to.

Try to understand how to play against this character. What moves give you the most trouble? How do I punish this move? Try to create setups in training mode so that you can practice.

3. Neutral game

This is the final stage of becoming a better player. This is the stage in which most pro players know how to do well.

The neutral game, as it implies, is essentially the part you don’t do. This is when your character isn’t doing any combos or punishes. Instead, this is where both players are simply using their movement, normals, and zoning to win the game.

If you look at pro players playing against each other, most of the time, they are working on their neutral game.

They are poking, using footsies, anti-airs, and generally reacting to their opponent.

This final stage is only effective if the first two stages are mastered.

So you then might ask, how do I get better at my neutral game?

Again, it comes down to investing the time and playing the game. This doesn’t have to be a massive amount of time; even 20 mins daily will do. But, like with anything, the more you play, the better you will become.

You can also work on individual aspects of the neutral game. Pokes, footsies, and anti-airs; can all be practiced in training mode.

The more you play, the more you’ll be able to react, and your muscle memory will improve. An arcade stick helps greatly in this respect.

Once this stage is reached, you’ll truly be a force to be reckoned with.

4. Bonus tip: Follow good players 

One final tip, which is very useful if you can put the time in, is to watch and follow players that are better than you.

In most cases, these are pro players. This will especially help you in the beginning stages of understanding your character, but it can also be applied at later stages.

There are plenty of videos on Youtube to study all types of characters in any fighting game.

Also, if there are any local tournaments, then try and attend these. There can be plenty of decent players in these tournaments, and who knows, you may even find a worthy sparring partner who will elevate your game much higher.

Illustration of a smiling man with long hair and beard sitting in a gaming room with computer equipment in the background.
Mike "The Destroyer" Johnson

Bio: Mike got hooked on fight sticks after a jaw-dropping arcade visit back in high school. Since then, he's spent countless hours perfecting his moves and combos, constantly pushing himself to improve. With his relentless drive, Mike has become a force to be reckoned with in local and online tournaments. He's now dedicated to sharing his expertise and passion for fight sticks with the world. Favorite Fight Stick: Razer Panthera Evo Favorite Games: Street Fighter V, Tekken 7