Saturday, August 02, 2008

What It's Like To Be A "Pro Gamer" (For A Year) - Part I

I bought Virtua Fighter 5 in December of last year for the Xbox 360. Little did I know that buying that game would embark me on this crazy little journey in the world of 'professional gaming'.

DISCLAIMER:

First off, some expectation setting for readers.

NO, I do not see myself as 'the best player' in Virtua Fighter 5; not in the Philippines, nor in the entire world. Let me put it in writing to be very clear. I AM NOT THE GREATEST VIRTUA FIGHTER 5 PLAYER IN THE PHILIPPINES. When I use the term 'Pro Gamer', I use it to mean "being completely dedicated to playing just one game for a longer-than-normal period of time, for the purpose of playing in an internationally-sanctioned competitive event (in this case, the World Cyber Games)". I'm clarifying this because of a little incident recently wherein my involvement in this tournament is being seen as questionable. My thoughts on that matter have already been posted elsewhere, and I'm not going to talk at length about that. Just setting the record straight.

So, to make a long story short, I'm not bragging that I'm 'pro' at VF5 with this post. I just want to write about my experience playing a game "professionally". Maybe one day when I'm graying old already, this blog post will be an interesting memory to go back to, and this post for me serves as a 'time capsule'.

So I'm writing this for myself.

END DISCLAIMER

Going on with my story, a few months after December 2007 when I bought VF5, I found out that the game would be part of the WCG this year. At the outset I wasn't completely enthusiastic about it. I was hoping that Halo 3 or another major squad-based first-person console shooter would have been chosen for the local tournament. Since I've played VF5 for a little bit already by this point, I remember thinking, man, this is one HARD fighting game. I could imagine it was going to be a bit difficult to find players for VF5 for the local WCG because the game has this incredible learning curve. Furthermore, locally, it seems that the Tekken series is much, much more popular. Tekken and VF are so drastically different; I thought it would be pretty hard for any local Tekken player to just shift from one game to another.

At that point I also recalled the first character I started out with in Virtua Fighter (and I'm talking about in the olden days, when I was in High School! On my Sega Saturn...). The first character that I tried to master for Virtua Fighter....was Akira Yuki.

When I got VF5 for the Xbox 360, the first guy I loaded up to play was Akira again, because I thought my brain cells could still recall Akira's old moves from my Sega Saturn days. I was quite surprised to learn that playing as Akira became even more difficult than it used to. I couldn't execute a lot of Akira's new moves in VF5's in-game dojo.

So I picked the one guy that I used to loathe---absolutely loathe, in Virtua Fighter 1.

Jacky Bryant.

I hated that guy. Whenever I played as Akira in VF1, Jacky was this character that just seemed cheaper than most other characters. He was fast. When you play as him, most of his moves only require a single direction push along with a single button press. It seemed to me that a lot of his combos were so simple; you could mash any of the buttons and a combo could be made. He was so simple that my old, 12-year old mind thought---what a n00b character. (Note: The word 'n00b' didn't exist back then...hmm, perhaps my thoughts were more like, 'man, Jacky is for amateurs! No thanks!')

That's what I thought of Jacky back in VF1. I bought VF2 later on (again, for my beloved, but widely hated, Sega Saturn), and I still hated Jacky. Whenever Jacky would come up in single player mode, I used to loathe it because Akira just seemed so slow in comparison to Jacky.

Ironic, then, that Jacky is the character I ended up with, on this crazy journey called 'professional gaming'.

So for the past few months I've been learning the ins and outs of VF5; there seems to be no end to the number of strategies/techniques in this game. I recall going through virtuafighter.com's wiki and being completely overwhelmed on my first read-through. Abare? Sabaki? Nitaku?? ETEG? What??? Do all the VF players really understand each of these terminologies? The vocabulary one needed to build just to understand the wiki is quite incredible. Over time, I managed to figure out what most of these terms mean; it just takes patience, and admittedly, I wouldn't have had the patience had I just been casually reading on the site. Given that I was going to try out for a local gaming tournament, I took it pretty seriously. I guess I didn't want to look like a fool there, I thought. Besides, I also thought that, in case I did win (remember, I posted earlier that I had a gut feeling there wouldn't be that many participants), at the very least, starting out early in understanding the ins and outs of the game would help me later on. I never closed my mind to the possibility of actually winning, so I practiced in view of 'what if...'...what if I actually win this local tournament and end up representing the Philippines? I thought, perhaps I'd meet someone at the local tourney who was really good at the game; I might as well put on a great show, right?

I've chronicled what happened at the actual tournament in this old blog post here, for reference.

And yes, I did win.

By that point I'll be honest....I got this far thanks to a few things going for me:

- Extensive, extensive practice on using the ANALOG STICK for executing moves. I've read online that most moves are 'nearly impossible' using the analog stick. Somehow I managed to figure out how to get over that hurdle, with the exception of using moves that required diagonals like Jacky's High Angle Kick.

- Control Shortcuts LT, RT, LB, RB. Given that the rules at the time said nothing against shortcuts, I used them to great advantage.

- A lot of Xbox Live practice. A lot has been said about how lag affects the online game, but it's still useful to just watch what exactly do real players do in the game.

- Practice in Normal (Quest) mode against Conqueror A.I. at Sega World North. I'll admit that I was really just trying to 'memorize' every single move in Jacky's repertoire. In VF there seem to be so many moves to remember, so playing against the AI at a relatively easy setting was just there to build a good fighting strategy for me.

So by this point, since I had indeed qualified for the WCG Asian Championship, I figured had to really make some serious preparations. I invested in a Hori EX2 Fighting Stick (which was really expensive; I had to import it and pay exorbitant customs fees because Xbox peripherals are hard to come by locally). I bought it just a few days after winning the tourney because I wanted to get started practicing early. Another thing I did was I got rid of the habit of using shortcuts. I mapped out the buttons to be similar to the way the VF arcades are set up. I had this nagging feeling that the 'shortcuts' in VF5 would not be allowed in the future, because at the time the existing rules didn't allow 'macros'. Since Macros are essentially 'shortcuts', I had a gut feeling that the writers for the rules would eventually figure that out and change the rules mid way. Later on it turned out I was right, and now shortcuts are no longer allowed for the Asian Championship.

Another change I did was to set the AI to EXPERT difficulty and play in the most hardcore arcade in Quest mode, Sega World North. All the 'Conqueror' AIs go there and they really put up an incredible fight. You can only imagine how much hell the first day of practice was. The AI would block practically every string combo, and would throw at every lost advantage (whenever I pulled a move that took too long to recover, that automatically meant a throw for the AI). The AI would also dodge strings a lot, and punish severely; it could duck instantaneously, whiffed 'special high' kicks (basically you couldn't 'trick' the AI to fighting back when you hit them with a special high....it's just too smart), and recovered from staggers instantly.

Man, the practice was brutal. I would lose 20 matches in a row to one character. Or more....and when I moved on to the next character, that's another 20 matches worth of losses. It was really frustrating. I'll never forget how much pounding I did on that joystick whenever the AI did something that seemed 'cheap'. It just felt too fast...too incredibly fast.

At some point I pretty much thought, well, looks like I'll never learn this game at all. Might as well enjoy the free trip to Singapore...

Of course, I persevered...thanks to my wife's constant nagging....it's something else when your significant other is also a gamer. Later on I find out that she also played fighting games before; she played Chun Li in Street Fighter II and got pretty good at it in the old days. So she gave me some good feedback to improve my game. We started to use a video camera to record my matches against the Expert AI (there was no way, in game, to save replays of matches against AI). We also started logging stats on which characters I would constantly lose against. One other interesting strategy we created was to play against the Conqueror AI for Jacky, named 'Tricky J'. It seemed that this was the hardest Jacky AI in the game. By practicing against Tricky J every so often, I found new strategies for Jacky that I would never have thought of just by practicing against other characters.

I also continued reading online at virtuafighter.com, going through forum threads, reading other players' tips...I learned a lot. The game continued to fascinate me even further. I was finding levels of play that I never thought existed. By this point I figured out exactly what fighting game terms like 'nitaku' meant and how that does affect your game. That and a lot of other things. I also ended up buying the VF5 strategy guide for a very good price from this online Ebay.ph store And that had even more tips that added to my understanding of the game.

Virtua Fighter 5 is hard to learn. But if you take the time to learn it....what a game. WHAT A GAME. Absolutely fantastic. It's a technical marvel that will largely be ignored by the gaming mainstream---but it is clearly a fighting game masterpiece, something that may never pass this way again, given the current trend towards dumbing down fighting games. At this point I was beginning to think, how is this possible, this game seems like it's totally completely balanced. I have NO idea how SEGA made this game. How did they even play-test this thing? There just seem to be so many permutations of situations, combinations, strategies, tactics....how does SEGA keep track of it all? I'm just staggered at the level of professional dedication needed to really appreciate the game; and learning the game is rewarding in itself.

I also practiced online but over time I began to realize that the effect of lag was really significant. I didn't notice it in practicing towards the first tournament, but this time I did, because I couldn't execute fuzzy guard right, and I couldn't escape simple throws like Wolf's Giant Swing. I began to prefer playing against the Expert AI because it really gave a good challenge and it never seemed to become completely predictable. Sometimes the AI would do things I didn't expect; it was AI but it was eerily human at times, too.

Over time I also began to figure out that, no, the AI does not cheat in Expert mode. I'm of the opinion that it doesn't cheat because as my game became even better, I could see that the AI actually makes mistakes. Not too often that I would win every Expert AI match, but not too rarely that it seemed I was getting lucky whenever I did win. There seems to be a good overall strategy to fighting certain characters, and there is also a general strategy to put pressure on your opponent.

At some point I began to win consistently against Expert Conqueror AI. I had developed a good strategy that was moral (meaning 'safe play') but I also learned that taking risks is essential for the element of surprise. By this stage I was certain that yes, the AI doesn't cheat; because you can surprise it every so often (and it can do the same to you, too).

And now, it comes down to this....in four days I'm going to the tournament. I guess anything can happen by this point. I know that there are three possibilities:

- I can get eliminated in the first round and be absolutely slaughtered by the 'pro' gamers abroad who have the benefit of playing against humans on a daily basis

- I can win a few matches and make it somewhere but not enough to get in the top three

- I can be in the top three

Any of these is possible. Of course, when I go there, I'm playing to win. I'm not going to think about the advantage that international players have because it's pointless to think of that. In the end, what matters is that I've done my best and that I know I've done my best. I know my own in-game abilities and I can tell myself that I'm good at VF5. At this point I don' t know if I'm good enough to be in the top three; I just know that I know and understand most of the principles of the game. There may be some things that I don't know; I guess I'll just have to improvise.

Practice continues until the actual tournament matches. I'm in group D, together with Japan and Thailand. I'm actually looking forward to watching the pro gamers of other countries just to see how the best in the world compete at this level of play. VF5 is just so entertaining to watch; and even when you think that a match is going one way, it can go in the opposite direction and completely surprise you.

That said, I do love this game, and I'm going to miss it. I don't think it will be picked again next year by WCG, because based on what I've read, the turnout for the tournament was quite low in many countries worldwide. Blame it on Sega's distribution of VF5....the arcade game is barely available in most countries; even here in the Philippines I had a pretty hard time finding just one arcade machine for it. Also, I plan on 'retiring' completely from 'pro gaming' once this is all over. No matter what happens, whether I win or I lose, I will focus less on actually being part of the games, and focus more on getting other players to join in the WCG tourney next year. I guess I already miss just playing games as a 'normal' gamer. I missed out on so many titles this year just because I was practicing so much for Virtua Fighter 5. For next year I want to be on the sidelines; I just hope that the turnout for Xbox games would be better, and I also hope they'd pick an FPS or a third person shooter like Gears, because it's really popular with my gaming community, pinoyxbox.com.

So there, that's my view on what it's like to be a 'pro gamer' for about a year. It was an interesting journey and I enjoyed the ride. :)