- level 0 is watching yourself (autopilot).
- level 1 is being random (mashing).
- level 2 is paying attention to your opponent (countering).
- level 3 is reading your opponent (beating).
- level 4 is controlling your opponent (ume shoryu).
- level 5 is being champion.
In regards to level 0, this actually applies to fighting games, RTS, and FPS alike. If you are entirely focused on what you are doing and what you feel like doing then you'll almost always get crushed by better players. In fighters this is like jumping at the opponent just because you want that sweet jump-in combo only to be consistently anti-aired. Or throwing fireballs because you think they look cool, only to have your opponent jump over them and kick you in your chest.
However, autopilot has many dimensions to it. With fighters you can actually pay attention to your opponent to some degree, long enough to get a knockdown for example, then autopilot the rest of the match based on rushdown/mixup patterns that are really strong. In RTS if you're not scouting your opponent you will most likely get countered/destroyed, but if luck is on your side then you can just pick the strongest build and roll with it without having to adjust your game based on your opponent. And it definitely applies to FPS, it's possible to run the map and control respawn and item-spawn points once you get the first frag, but if all you do is autopilot then you're being predictable and leaving yourself open to be countered.
With level 1 the player isn't necessarily autopiloting. Sometimes players just do the weirdest shit for no rhyme or reason. In fighters we get that "Why would you do that?" moment, because there's really nothing that happened over the course of the match that would prompt a player to do (x) move at (y) time).
Interestingly, level 1 has a chance of actually beating the higher levels of play by virtue of luck. Also because the higher levels depend so heavily on paying attention to the opponent, yet if the opponent is acting in a way that is entirely non sequitur then these skills are hindered to some degree. In RTS and FPS this applies in the sense that you're left completely in the dark if you're unable to physically see your opponent at any given time, so randomness can actually be really strong since there's a chance these unpredictable actions are set up without you even being aware of them until it's too late.
That's pretty much the only reason being random is placed higher than autopilot. Moreso, the reason auto-pilot is given level 0 rather than level 1 is because it can take many forms and be incorporated into the other levels to varying degrees.
Speaking of luck, it also occurred to me that luck plays a really huge part of RTS and FPS, and other competitive games like Poker. With most fighting games, players create their own luck by forcing mixups and guessing. But in RTS/FPS/Poker, the game creates the luck for them and you need to compensate for your luck with talent.
Level 2 is all about reaction. It seems like the strongest leap forward when a novice player grasps the concept. Indeed, it's a rather large and essential step forward in fighters, but even bigger in RTS and FPS. As mentioned before, if you're not paying attention to your opponent you're subject to being countered. On the flipside, if you are paying attention, you can counter them.
If some one flips a coin and tells you to call which side the coin lands, but you have five seconds to call it once the coin lands, why would you guess? Why would anyone not use those five seconds to inspect the coin before saying which side it landed on. So, when a player is obviously blocking low you can go for an overhead, or if the player is clearly blocking high you can try for a sweep, and things like that. One of the greatest joys of a counter is probably anti-airing the opponent, not because it's difficult, but because once you learn to watch your opponent you begin to realize how fun it is to punish the opponent for doing something they clearly should not be doing.
In a way, it's kind of like saying that you're letting your opponent come to you, and you're not really beating them so much as you're allowing them to beat themselves. Basically, you're killing them based on the mistakes they make.
But this is why raw countering is pretty low on the skill-tiers in the grand scheme of things. It has it's own set of weaknesses. First of all, how can you punish mistakes if the opponent doesn't make any? Further more, you are subject to tunnel vision and loss of control. If all you do is sit there and try to react to your opponent, your opponent is then free to take initiative entirely. They will make it increasingly difficult for you to predict/react to what they do, intentionally using tools that are difficult to counter.
It's a pretty disheartening and cold feeling to realize that you were so focused on that anti-air that you let the opponent walk across the screen and smack you in the face. Though that's an extreme example, it's not unrealistic. Some players that are so intent on countering they will watch much too closely for the wrong thing -- they are so sure the opponent will jump that they are baffled and surprised when the opponent simply does not.
Level 3 is all about anticipation. If some one hides a coin in their hands and lets you guess which hand the coin is in, you're using anticipation. You don't really know which hand the coin is in, but you're making an informed choice based on an educated guess. This compensates for vision in a lot of ways. In fighters things can happen in an instant. After you knock an opponent down, you don't know if they will do a reversal or not when they get up, and it's much much too fast to react to. But if you don't do an attack when they are getting up then you're giving them the opportunity to recover, regain initiative/momentum, and you lose your mixup potential. This is where anticipation comes into play. You have to just assume you know what the opponent will do, whether they will try to defend against you or try to counter you with a reversal.
The strength of level 3 is that you're freeing up your tunnel vision and just playing based on both reaction and anticipation. You're not so focused on any one thing, but rather you're allowing yourself to be fluid.
Level 4 is a bit esoteric, it's not something that many players comprehend, let alone achieve. It takes a lot of time and practice and observation for some people to realize just how strong it is to simply walk forward in a fighting game. What level 4 does is exploit the weaknesses of level 2 and 3 and 0. The trick is getting your opponent to do what you want them to do. That way you can throw out your reaction and anticipation all together. Why risk guessing if they will jump, and why bother trying to react to it, when you can just force them to jump?
The idea is using fear and uncertainty and feints. If you walk right up to your opponent, but just outside any of their pokes, you're putting the pressure on. Their personal space is invaded, and now you're throwing fireballs in their face and they are taking chip damage. They are worried, they see you qcf and start a fireball, they jump. Only to be anti-aired because it wasn't a qcf-fireball at all, it was a qcf-LK feint. A simple trick, but an effective one. The LK recovers much faster than a whiffed fireball, so they person feinting is free to anti-air the fool that jumped.
This all sort of revolves around the idea of the Umehara Shoryuken (psychic dragon punch). It's not so much that he's psychic at all, more like he puts you in a situation where he can't possibly guess wrong and he doesn't need to react. He just forces you to make a mistake or bad decision, rather than waiting around for it to happen.
Level 5: The champions fists are special.
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