When we pick up a game for the first time our initial goal is to just get to a point where we’re not complete trash at it. The first time we play, we are making tons of mistakes, and just trying to survive the initial learning curve. But eventually, as we just keep playing we begin to get the hang of it. Slowly we stop making embarrassing mistakes, and we start getting to a point where we’re more comfortable. And sooner or later we reach a point where we’ve completely mastered all the easy stuff, every game feels a lot easier and easier.
Of course, at this point you’re not exactly a professional player yet. Your mechanical abilities are good but not exceptional, and your gamesense is decent but you still struggle to rely on it in tough situations. But at this stage, you’re comfortable with your skills. You do still want to get better, but you assume that will just come with time. If you just keep playing over and over you’ll slowly get better. And perhaps after a year or two you’ll finally reach a high rank.
And this highlights an important principle when it comes to improving your gaming skills – time and effort correlate with skill. Hence why professional esports players have invested 5,000 to 10,000 hours into their respective game. But does this mean that it is purely a numbers game, and that more time always equals more skill? Well If this is the case, then why is it that some people play for years and years without really getting that much better? Why is it that we can sometimes hit certain skill plateaus that feel like they’re impossible to get over? Is this just a sign that we’ve reached some maximum capacity for skill, that we’re held back by our own genetics? Or is there still hope?
Time and effort are some of the greatest indicators for predicting success. But sometimes we seem to reach a certain skill ceiling that holds us back, and we see this with players who invest thousands of hours, playing game after game without really improving. To explain what’s happening here, let’s look to a study that might offer a few answers…
Let’s imagine for a moment that you have to go for surgery and the hospital you are going to is letting you pick between two doctors; one whos been working for 30 years and another doctor who’s only been working for 10 years. Now chances are you’d be a bit more attracted to the person who has more experience and you would assume that more experience makes them more qualified.
Well, a systematic review of clinical health care evaluated the performance of physicians in association to their level of experience. Out of the physicians evaluated, most showed an overall decrease in performance with the amount of years in practice. In fact 96% of them showed an overall neutral or negative correlation between the amount of experience and performance.
These physicians in their early years actively learned a lot, and it’s likely that years of experience lead to greater and greater skill. But at a certain point they reached a level of knowledge and skill where they were comfortable, where they could rely on previously learned skills and comfortably coast through their day to day life. And once they hit this point, their overall performance started to decrease.
Now, when it comes to competitive gaming, most players approach the game in the exact same way. This approach is about just playing until it feels good, without a specific goal or focus – and in the initial stages of learning this works fairly well – it’s fun, it doesn’t take much strategy or effort and leads to results. But it’s limited once you get good enough. This is when most players stagnate and hit skill plateaus, only making small improvements on occasion, yet overall decreasing in their skill despite playing for more and more time. So how do you avoid this pitfall, how do you maintain progress, and stop wasting time??
The issue is that playing game after game isn’t the ideal environment for improvement. To get better we generally need three things including optimal challenge, proper feedback, and the opportunity to try things again when we don’t succeed.
1. The Ideal Challenge or Perfect Opponent.
Now the first of these is finding the ideal level of challenge. We need to find a perfect balance of challenge where we are challenged to apply maximal effort, yet not too challenged that we don’t get the opportunity to practice.
But as you’re likely aware, most matchmaking systems struggle to find the perfect level of challenge for us – meaning we may spend entire gaming sessions, with only a few games playing against an equally skilled opponent.
And this issue gets even worse when you consider team-based games where optimal challenge is also dependant on your teammates, these other players can easily make the match far easier or harder than is ideal for actual improvement.
2. Understanding what went wrong.
Now, the second key factor is understanding when things go wrong. Improving at the game relies on a cycle of learning from our mistakes. We need to make mistakes, but then be able to understand what went wrong, and how to correct the mistake.
But in a normal game, when we make a mistake we will often notice the results, but we won’t have time to pause and actually understand what specifically went wrong or how to fix it. As a result, we learn to ignore mistakes or mis-diagnose the issues that lead to them.
3. The ability to try again.
And the third key factor is the ability to try again. Learning is best done when we can try something again, make a mistake and keep doing it until it feels comfortable.
– For example, when watching a professional Smash player like Leffen, you’ll notice how in his streams he’ll practice the exact same move 10s, over and over again until he feels he has perfected it, or at least feels a lot more comfortable with it. But in a normal game, you can’t just stop and repeat a certain move until it feels good.
Against a weak opponent we can easily coast through the game without much effort at all. On the flip side against an opponent that’s better than us applying too much effort might feel like a complete waste. And even against the perfect opponent we don’t get the chance to learn from our mistakes or try something over again. As a result, we can easily get stuck in a sort of auto-pilot mode, just playing games over and over with minimal effort and minimal improvement. And this mental state is what the physicians in the study have likely fallen into. They may not depend on competition for improvement, but they’ve reached a point where they can get by in a sort of mental auto-pilot, going through the motions without any improvement.
And for you this means you’ll hop into one game after game, playing in the exact same way, and feeling completely stuck at your level of skill. And if you feel this way then you can be sure that the feeling is accurate, you probably are stuck in a loop of playing over and over without improving. How do we break this cycle?
In short, you need to add to our gaming routines better methods for improving. Starting by finding the ideal opponents. For one on one games like fighting games this may mean finding training partners at equal skill that you can practice against on a daily basis. Or if you play a team-based game this could mean scrimming against equally skilled teams.
But of course, we also need to develop a better understanding of when things go wrong. This means reviewing matches to break things down and understand exactly what caused certain issues and how to fix them going forward. As a bonus, you could work with coaches who can provide you with feedback in real time and advice in real-time during games.
And of course we need to be able to try things over again until you get it right. So practice certain skills outside the game in controlled environments where you can try skills over and over, correcting your mistakes and testing different approaches.
Most players who hit a skill plateau will assume that they just need to put in more time and effort And when that fails on them they’ll start believing that they’re just genetically limited to a mediocre level of skill. But by actively adjusting the way you approach your skill development you’ll quickly be able to break the cycle of wasting time playing without making progress.
And it seems, then, that if you integrate any of these lessons into your regular schedule, you’ll be able to punch through the skill plateau holding back other players. And breaking through this plateau is exactly what is required to reach an exceptional level of skill.