I remember being pretty good at the arcade version of Street Fighter II when it first came out. I had a really solid Guile that I played in an unconventionally aggressive style and a pretty good Blanka. I could beat most of the people at the two arcades I went to and thought I had mastered the game. Then, one day this guy I had never seen before came in and totally wrecked me. And he did it with multiple characters as I kept feeding quarters into the machine. He had impossible to escape fireball traps, wakeup dragon punches, impeccable zoning, and more. It wasn’t even close. He was not only better at this game than anyone I had ever encountered, but better than I even thought was possible.
This was well before YouTube, Twitch, or any kind of video on the Internet so I had never had a chance to see how good someone could get at a video game outside of urban legends or people blustering on Usenet. Now, the growing popularity of streaming and e-sports means that we can easily seem what truly godlike, top tier players look like. People who are so quick, so practiced, and who appear to do amazing things so effortlessly. They seem to be as far removed from the rest of us players as professional athletes or concert violinists are from my cat. He can’t even hold a violin properly.
For me, this begs the question: How do you get that good at games?
Looking at the Bobby Fishers (chess guy), Yo Yo Mas (cello dude), and Serena Williamses (tennis lady) of the world, it’s tempting to assume that gaming superstars are gifted with some rare kink in their DNA that sets them apart from other mortals. They just have a natural affinity that gets them most of the way there. 1 But I’m not so sure. I suspect it has a lot to do with how they practice, which we probably don’t fully understand yet.
This is largely because I recently read the book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.2 Ericsson in particular has done a lot of research about how people practice in order to master a skill. Superauthor Malcom Gladwell popularized the work of Ericsson and his collaborators in the book Outliers where Gladwell discussed what he called “The 10,000 hour rule.”3 The idea is that it takes about that many hours of practice to become a master at something –chess, violin, basketball free throws, cs_dust, whatever. Ericsson pushes back against this oversimplification in Peak, saying that the number of hours is far less important than the way in which people practice a skill.
Instead of a using a stopwatch (stopcalendar?) to chart our path to mastery, Ericsson calls for what he calls “deliberate practice.” This isn’t just practicing a skill by doing it over and over again. I mean, it is that, but it’s also more. The authors summarizes the principles of deliberate practice thusly:
- It develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which training methods have already been figured out.
- It happens outside of the trainee’s confort zone
- It relies on well-defined, specific goals and targets very specific things for improvement (for example, in basketball think “making 90% of free throws” vs. “making more shots”)
- It requires full focus and attention. No zoning out or practicing on autopilot even if things are repetitive and boring.
- It involves getting accurate feedback and deliberately acting on it.
- It creates and relies on accurate mental representations of what the trainee is doing
- It focuses on improving existing skills in a step-by-step approach. It focuses on incremental improvement.4
The authors go on to describe how this can not only apply to sports, music, and chess, but also other areas of life like work. And, I think, video games.
It would be fascinating to levy this kind of deliberate training program at getting better at games. Not just playing games, but playing them deliberately in very specific ways. It would, of course, be tricky and maybe not a perfect fit to the ideal deliberate practice regimens. Team-based games like League of Legends would be hard to create deliberate practice routines for because they rely so much on cooperation and synergy from teammates. But I could easily imagine a non-team game like Starcraft where players use mods or custom maps to drill through optimal build orders or micromanaging units and casting spells just right. And then watching replays (which are conveniently recorded by the game) to refine your mental model of what’s happening in the game and extracting feedback on your actions.
One of the other things Ericsson and Poole emphasize is having access to a really good coach that’s appropriate to your current level of skill. Beginners can benefit from any kind of coaching, but as you progress you need someone who knows more and can customize training activities to correct more subtle mistakes. Like Olympic athletes who retire to coach a new generation, I wonder if there is a market for aging e-sports stars to take up coaching gigs. Or to charge by the hour in order to review recordings of matches and assign deliberate practice drills.
I mean, forget e-sports. That’s already old news. E-coaches are where it’s probably going to be at.