Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Losing When You Shouldn't


Most people have, at some point, lost to opponents they shouldn't have lost to.  This is another way of saying, one player was perceived to be of much higher skill, but didn't win for some reason.  I want to examine and think about this phenomenon a bit.  Because, even though it can be a valid way to assess an outcome as an upset, it can also be a very destructive mentality.

First off, the odds of losing when you shouldn't vary from game to game.  High punishment for mistakes is a catalyst for upsets, so games like Marvel vs. Capcom permit less knowledgeable and experienced players to win and perform upsets if they can avoid dropping combos, because one random error from an experienced player might give them the window for victory.  The surprise from the first error might lead to stress or an over-correction, causing a second mistake, and by then it may just be too late.  Games where you are punished less for individual mistakes, however, lets a player who is playing slightly off, or getting legitimately unlucky (when applicable) have more chances to fix things.   It should follow that the longer your sets, (a single game, compared to best of five) will shift odds to the more skilled player.  More time to compose themselves, analyze things, and more consistency will generally win out over time.

The odds of being upset can also depend on your play-style.  Some people play very defensive, safe, and fundamental, and some players take big offensive risks.  Riskier players, especially in games where you are punished for errors, are more prone to being upset.

Lower level players are more prone to upsets for a large variety of reasons.  Less skill at handling the pressure of being behind, worse fundamentals to fall back upon, and less consistency overall will all contribute to losing when they shouldn't.  So even though skill is relative, lacking skills that prevent upsets will make upsets more likely.

That's all very interesting.  But there is something of a tautology here, which is this: you measure skill by somebody's ability to win.  Losing when you have more skill does not logically follow.  You might speak in terms of probability, saying "I win about 85 out of 100 games and he got a few of his good ones in a row."  You may take outside factors into account: I had a fever and he had Adderall.  You might say, "he should have won, but then he dropped his game-winning combo and let the pressure get to him, causing more mistakes." At that point, you are making an analysis.

The words and attitudes you use here are important!  "I shouldn't have lost" is a useless statement if you don't qualify it in a meaningful way.  And it's worse than useless if you fail to phrase it in terms of what you can do differently next time.  If you don't focus on analysis and improvement, you start to sound like a sore-loser.

"I should have won.... because I'm better."  Well what does that mean?  How does that help you?  Are you just seeking to discredit your opponent's win?  If you don't measure skill by whether you win or not, what do you use to measure it?  "I shouldn't have lost, but he played gay."  What does that mean?  He used a powerful strategy?  Isn't picking powerful and effective strategies part of the skill of winning?  Isn't learning how to deal with powerful strategies part of competing?  Does this mean you expect to win without competing and adapting?

You have to phrase your thoughts correctly, or they lead you in the wrong direction.  You have to dissect your losses in terms of future improvement, or you lose opportunities for learning.  If you refuse to change certain limiting aspects of your play, you must accept the consequences, or seek to improve them to adapt to your obstacles (low-tier players, we're looking at you.)

What happens when you don't do this?  Besides looking like a tool, you hurt your own growth.  You set yourself up for endless cognitive dissonance that must be justified with fallacious reasoning.  "I'm better, but I lost, so now I have to redefine 'better' so that it applies to me and not my opponent."  You have to discredit the things that you choose not to do, because otherwise, you might not actually be "better" after all.

I mean, yes, sometimes better players aren't focused on the game, so they make worse decisions and make technical errors.  And then their opponent, who is playing the best they've ever played in their life, takes advantage, and it tilts the scales just enough.  Sometimes the better player overloaded on carbohydrates and wants to take a nap in the middle of their set.  The difference between better players who continue to improve is that they honestly examine the causes of their losses, and the players that plateau brush these losses away as trivial or stupid, and brush them away.  One attitude is healthy in the long run, and the other is a recipe for stagnation.

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To finish, let's talk about the difference between "skill" and "skills."

Skill, singular and general, refers to your ability to win.  More skill equals better player.  Better players  win more.  Simple.

Skills, plural yet specific, refers to the tools you develop to lead to victory.  You pick skills.  If you have developed your (specific) skills well, and they lead to victory, then you have successfully cultivated (general) skill, and you win a bunch.  Also straightforward.

And this is where the confusion happens.

"I have learned more difficult skills.  I have more varied skills.  Yet still I lose."  There's the possibility that you may work hard developing hard-to-master tools, yet not have the results you want.  The possibility to have more specific skills, more finely honed skills, yet less OVERALL skill, is a cold hard reality.  This is where the frustration commences.  You want to feel like your training is valid.  You want to feel like you are a worthwhile player.  And if you can have a bunch of developed skills and tools, and still be losing, then something must clearly be WRONG.  With the game, or with the opponent, or with the structure of the tournament.  Don't worry, if you're determined, you will find something.

Or you can stop here, and accept responsibility for your losses.  Accept that you may have been working on the wrong skills, and change.  Accept that you've chosen a tougher road to walk and that you don't get bonus points for doing so, because picking good paths is part of winning.  Accept that your opponent played well and you didn't, and that's okay sometimes too.

What if a path is too good though?  What if you invest in something that is so strong, it can't lose?  In the context of games, we call that "broken."  And that will be the subject for next week.

Thanks for reading.

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