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Natural talent vs. hard work: 5 keys to winning and improving your competitive e-sports game

Image courtesy of AwkwardVegetaPhotos
A recent debate erupted among the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Twitter community. It is in regards to competitive improvement. A noteworthy ROB main - Benny&theJets - posted a video series on improving as a player. While the video series went through competitive aspects, such as passion and hard work, one PGR player disagreed on something.

BestNess, a top Ness player, posted a tweet saying that playing top competitive Smash required, "70% natural ability." Consequently, this sparked debate among the Smash Twitter community. Top players, such as ZeRo, and prominent tournament organizers, like GimRchimed in on the subject with some sound competitive advice. With that being said, it boils down to a question. Can anyone become a top Smash player through hard work and experience, or is talent a requirement to get ahead?

The talent trap
The thought of someone being talented is that they're naturally gifted in a certain area of expertise. With enough talent, who needs to work hard? Why bother working hard for something where someone is genetically more inclined to adapt and succeed?

It's a common trope seen in fictional works, particularly Japanese shonen manga. You have one person working hard to get strong. On the other hand, you have the talented prodigy who's well ahead of everyone through seemingly natural gifts. The snooty prodigy will look down upon the former and tell them no amount of hard work will allow them to reach that level. The hard-worker will then make it their goal to beat the prodigy and prove him wrong.

Image from Fire Emblem Echoes courtesy of Nintendo

How to Overcome Your Doubts
In this article, I'm going to explain my personal experiences growing as a competitive player. As a Smash tournament player myself, I will give you five tools I used to improve as a player and become a noteworthy competitor in my region. My tag is Rango, I've reached Top 10 PR in the state of Georgia in both Smash 4 and Ultimate, and maintain my status as one of the best Ike mains in the world.

Keep in mind that this guide will cover aspects of competitive gaming in general, not just Smash. So, if you play League of Legends, for instance, this guide will help you just as much as it would if you were a Smash player. I will link some helpful resources, which I personally use, in this guide so be sure to look out for them.

1) Surround Yourself With Positive Influences
No matter what skill level you're at, positive reinforcement goes a long way. People cheering you on helps your positive mentality. Likewise, negative criticism and insults might make you doubt yourself as a player, second-guessing your methods, and wondering if it's even worth it.

With that being said, here's a simple tip: avoid gatekeepers.

Gatekeepers tend to be lower-ranked players who can't reach their goals. They feel they've failed themselves and likely were also gate kept by other players at a similar level. These people want to drag others down to avoid breaking the status quo. "If I can't be great, why should you?" This is also known as a crab mentality.

Don't buy into someone else's attempts to bury your talent. Your friends and your supporters want you to succeed. Make sure you want to succeed too.

2) Try New Methods
It takes more than just playing the game to get good. You can familiarize yourself with movesets and matchups all day long. Playing against higher level people is also important. But if you're doing nothing but losing, doing the same thing over and over again will not help you advance.

Instead of repeatedly face-tanking, find another method to learn. Take a break and cut your losses. Let your mind rest and mull over what you did wrong. Save your replays, watch them, and critique yourself. The most important aspects will stay in your mind.

Watch other top players who use the character you play. Watch guides on YouTube, find the Discord for your game or character, and make use of resources available to you. Maybe you'll uncover something that you wouldn't have ever learned if you just did nothing but play.

3) Learn New Characters.
Understand that matchups and tier lists are a proven element in competitive gaming. Does this mean you can't use the character you love? No, you're free to use whoever you want to. However, depending on the results you're looking for, you might not get where you want unless you're willing to take the plunge and try someone else instead.

Instead of solo-maining(using just 1 character), pick one or two new characters to cover your main's bad matchups. Pick higher tier characters as your secondaries if you don't want to give up your main. If you do give up a low-tier main, then pick a high or top tier you love playing.

You can pray for balance patches and expect the developer to fix your character, tut you also need to know that the sooner you accept that your game's balance will never be perfect, the sooner you can accept changes you need to make to your roster and style. Pick the character that suits your style, not just who's sitting at the top of the tier list. Most games give you several choices featuring viable top and high tier characters.

4) Ask Questions.
Whether you're learning from the beginning or you've hit the top of your hill, don't settle where you're at and stagnate. Understand that success is fleeting and you can still lose. You will always want to keep learning as a player. If you get stuck on a bad matchup, your opponent might know something you don't.

Remain humble, stay open-minded, and never stop learning. Remember that this is a game, not a life-or-death scenario. Asking your opponent for tips after a match is perhaps the most productive thing you can do. When you do, they can give you some game-changing advice.

Chances are they beat you because they picked up on one of the habits which you weren't aware of. You could also ask for matchup advice to learn how better to play against their character. People who boast they would never ask for help will continue to hold themselves back, relying on their own pride, and remain in the position they started in. Remember, no one is a champion alone.

No matter what happens or how badly you lose, don't give in. Whether you drown in pools, lose 20 games to the same person in a session, or fight a bracket demon that you can't beat, this is not the end. If you're not going to take your losses lying down, stay determined, don't lose focus, and use these steps to learn and improve. Your opponent didn't magically get better. They adapted their focus and trained hard to get to where they were.

Never quit, never surrender!

My Success Story
The man who made the video referenced earlier, Benny, I've known for several years. We've teamed in 2v2 events locally for over a year, either winning or coming very close. Before he became a top player, he was an up-and-comer from South Carolina. He eventually defeated me in bracket and also maintained a dominant lead in our local region. Not only had I failed to defeat him on nearly every occasion we played, he even trumped our state's tournament scene.

Want to know what I did?

I avoided naysayers. I didn't listen to anyone or anything saying that he was naturally talented or somehow better than me. This includes the toxic, self-doubting thoughts in my own head.

I tried new methods. I didn't just play and grind, but also watched YouTube matches with Ike, ROB, and how they fought together.

I learned a new character. Since Ike wasn't working, nor was anyone else in my roster, I picked up Terry Bogard, who was added as DLC this past year. I accepted Ike had a horrible matchup against ROB and cut my losses so I could improve faster. Knowing Ike would lose, doing the same thing over and over would not help me achieve my goals.

I asked questions. I went on the Terry Discord and discussed methods, matchups, and setups with other players. I even asked Benny for help after a loss. He knew my weak habits and I sought to improve them.

This past January, I played Benny and won 2-0 against him at the last Georgia regional tournament. I would no longer settle for losing and said it was time for me to get back into the fray. In doing so, I placed in Top 8, 7th out of 161, and made a breakthrough as a player. I achieved my goals and made those wins my own.

With that being said, please be sure to watch Benny's video. He's earned a reputation as an incredibly knowledgeable player. I'm sure you will find subjects that will help you improve as well. If you like his video, subscribe to him as well.

Courtesy of Benny&thejets
Final Thoughts
Talent is a real thing. Aptitude can come from surrounding influences. People can train with high-level players in their region. Love and passion for a game drives players to play the game more and learn faster. The right learning methods will help players improve faster than those who do nothing but play and fail to learn properly. But aptitude is not the end-all, be-all that separates classes of players.

As a competitor, make sure to have a goal in mind. It doesn't need to be something lofty. If you're entering a local or regional tournament, at least make Top 8. In my case, I said I wanted to stop getting Top 96 at major tournaments and at least start getting Top 64. At Super Smash Con 2019, I made it out of pools, on winner's side, for the first time at a major tournament.

Also, make sure you heed the advice of other competitive players. In my case, I read an inspirational book called Playing to Win by Street Fighter tournament champion, David Sirlin. It references Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" yet it's arranged in a way that's easy to understand for competitive players. I honestly cannot recommend it enough as it helped my adaptation tremendously.

Focus on one goal at a time. It doesn't have to be trying to just win your first tournament. That should be a goal, but remember to shoot for it one step at a time. Get out of pools, get out of pools on winner's side, make Top 16, make Top 8, and so forth. Commit to these methods and communicate with other players for feedback and advice. I wish you the best of luck as a competitor and hope that one of you will be telling your glory story and referencing my advice here.