Friday, January 10, 2014

Who Is Better?

This question crops up a lot in every competitive community.  Even communities which aren’t supposed to have competition, crazily enough.  Who is better?  Who is the better [something]?

Underneath every question, an underlying series of questions always exists, “why am I asking this question, what purpose does it serve, how will the answer assist me?”  Sometimes you’re asking a question purely for the sake of curiosity, which is cool, but I think those other questions are worth asking at some point.

Why do we debate which player is better?  A very idealistic part of me says, “we want to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of players to see how it impacts their overall performance.  By doing this, we better understand the game in its entirety, the knowledge base improves, and everybody benefits!”  That’s a really great way to look at it, I think.  I want to know more about the game, and when I see somebody who is good, I ask myself, “what makes that player better?  I want to know!”  I want to see the game the way they do, so that I glimpse more of “what makes you good.”  I know some people like the discussion because it gets all the players involved to become very heated up and try to improve, and that’s fair enough.  I’ll agree that rivalry drives improvement, as long as you keep it in perspective.

But if we’re asking “who is better?” and “why do we care who is better?” then we should take another step back, and just define “better.”  Whenever you start a debate or an argument or a discussion, you need to settle on definitions before you waste everybody’s time.  What does “better” mean?

Quite simply, it comes down to “wins more.”  A game is defined by its rules and its win conditions, by what is permitted and what is forbidden; therefore, any behavior which 1) falls inside those rules and 2) helps you fulfill the win condition can be considered a skill of the game.  Skills are only as valuable as they contribute to fulfilling the win condition, so it doesn’t matter how many skills you possess, or how difficult those skills are.  The player that wins more should be considered better, because they have mastered skills which cause them to meet win conditions.  That’s the long and short of it.  If you dislike the skills which cause you to win a game, then I would argue that what you really dislike is the game.

Number of skills and tricks mastered does not matter if those skills have low value relative to another cornerstone skill that one hasn’t mastered.  Difficulty of a skill doesn’t matter to the game if the skill itself has low value.  Mastering a difficult trick with low impact on the win condition does not demonstrate prowess within the game; it demonstrates mastery of the skill itself, and nothing more.  The only thing that demonstrates “how good you are” is whether you’ve mastered skills that cause you to meet the win condition more often than not.  The only thing which measures “better” or “worse” than another player is whether one player wins more than another.

I want to say that this means we should just master skills in order of descending value.  Sadly, that’s not entirely true, and I know it from experience.  I acquired a very high-value skill early in my Melee career, an infinite combo, but it had the downside of teaching me over-dependence and bad habits.  I experienced a surge in number of victories, then spent years undoing the habits and tendencies the infinite combo taught me.  Later on, once I’d fixed a number of those problems, the high-value infinite started shining again; if I could re-teach myself, I would do things in a much different order.  So it’s not as simple as “master high-value skills first” when it comes to improvement, but you must also consider the effect current training will have on future training.  Also I’m not trying to hate on the difficult but low-value skills; when you hit a certain degree of skill, little things will begin to make the difference between winning and losing.  But unless a low-value skill cascades into a higher-value one--by teaching you good habits, by cementing fundamentals even though you abandon the thing later, whatever--you should probably just save them for later in your career.

I digress.  When it comes to asking “who is better,” it doesn’t always stay simple.  The more fluid, complicated, and counter-based your game becomes, the fuzzier “better” becomes.  The more asymmetric the game, the harder the question.  Let’s consider two hypothetical players.

--One player, named Roadblock, has mastered skills which permit her to utterly demolish 98% of the player-base.  However, she has not mastered any of the skills that would allow her to beat the other 2%.  She is perfectly consistent but incapable of ascending.

--The second player is named Wildcard.  He is capable of making lots of amazing guesses, but lacks fundamental consistency.  About the only time you can actually predict the outcome of his future matches with certainty is against Roadblock, because she always defeats him with absolute fundamentals.  He loses to low level players sometimes, but then can beat the best in the world on a good day.

Who is better?  In the “wins more” debate, Roadblock would have the vote, but Wildcard seems to have a higher ceiling.  We can always predict that Roadblock’s consistent but unimaginative playstyle will defeat Wildcard, but will not beat the few players above her.  Wildcard will take his guesses and chances, but then screw up basics and lose to people both above and below him.  However, nobody really knows the outcome going in.

In the head-to-head, we would say that Roadblock is better.  In terms of predicting results?  Wildcard might be better; we’re never sure!  When Roadblock players god-tier players, she is clearly weaker.  When Wildcard wins against them, do we say that he is better?  Not statistically, but potentially he can win, and now the question is interesting.  We want to use “better” to identify players who are more likely to win, but even that’s pliable, because players don’t only play against one another.  Players have styles, specific strengths and weaknesses.  In video games with characters and matchups and counterpicks, the matter is clouded.

This leads me to the conclusion that “better” is not a terribly useful term when players are close in skill.  When the water is muddied, throw “better” out the window.  I know that if I play for three years I’m probably better than somebody who has just picked up the game, and I’m confident that a player who always gets top 3 is better than somebody who can never break the top 10.  But if it comes to a point where specific skills are making unique differences, “better” ceases to be meaningful.  You need context.  You need to be descriptive and specific.  “Roadblock is a more fundamental, reliable player who doesn’t do much that’s surprising,” and “Wildcard lacks consistency but has amazing intuitions which let him beat top players, sometimes.”

Yes, it’s not very exciting.  But it’s significantly more helpful in getting you to understand the game.  Analyzing this situation might tell us, for instance, that Wildcard possesses skills which are pivotal to reaching the highest level, and that Roadblock lacks them, and you should consider how he plays if you want to be the best.  It also tells you that if you want to improve your consistency, and not have to worry about the majority of players randomly having a chance to eliminate you from the tournament, you would be very wise to emulate Roadblock and do what she does.  Particularly if you don’t want to lose to her like Wildcard.

If you think about things in this boring (but more useful) way, you start to understand more of what your game is actually about.  You fall into fewer traps and become a better analyst.  You start detecting which skills are truly high value, and which ones aren’t.  Arguably, the ability to prioritize high-value skills is a skill in itself.  Recognizing high-value skills and mastering them first gives you more output than somebody who picks low-value skills.

Let’s also repeat: any decision which will influence the outcome of the game (assuming the decision is not pure chance) is considered part of the game and therefore a skill.  In fighting-games, for instance, you can’t say that a player who almost wins with a lower-tier character is the better player, because selecting a character is part of the game.  Specific skills with D-Tier are, in all likelihood, lower value than specific skills with A-tier.  Are they so low value that it become fruitless to pursue them?  Are there more universal, non-character-specific skills in the game which will allow you to triumph with the lower tier anyhow?  That will depend entirely on your game.  However, in games where it’s relevant, you can’t be a “better” player if you don’t win, because you are constantly making the low-value decision to pick weaker options in the form of your character.  It’s harsh, but it’s true.

Again, we need to establish that you can’t be “better” than somebody if you have access to the same options but pick inferior ones.  Every decision in the game contributing to victory or defeat is part of the game, and can be trained as a skill.  A skill’s value is relative to the game; the ability to predict and out-guess an opponent may be the primary keystone skill in Rock-Paper-Scissors, but less valuable in a different game.  You can’t decide which skill is more important until you’ve evaluated how much it actually impacts your odds of victory.  Likewise, we can’t decide that somebody is better than somebody else if they have mastered a bevy of impressive tricks that aren’t high-value enough to win.

Another tangent: having said all that stuff, I have tremendous respect for people who take the risk to push the boundary of lower-tiered characters (or builds, or options, or what have you).  It’s easy to say, “aha, if I pick that which is obviously best, then I will be better automatically!”  But again, a skill only demonstrates itself; it’s not until you’re actually winning more often that you can say you’ve made meaningful improvement through your new decisions.  If your habit is “pick better characters” and not “improve my in-game skills regardless of character,” then you will probably only be able to improve as long as somebody lays out the path for you.  Maybe you’ve got the fundamentals that will propel you to victory when you have access to better tools; maybe you’ll be one of the many tier-obsessed who thinks a better character equals a win.  If you’re in the first group, props to you.  If you’re in the second, I predict that you will eventually get stuck, and people will laugh at you.  Then again, people will also laugh at somebody who masters a low-tier character’s little gimmicks and tricks rather than understand what really makes one better at the game, so you’ve been warned.


That’s all fine and good.  That’s the real discussion of “better” or “worse;” what skills do players possess, and how do they interact?  What does this tell us about the game?  What can we expect to see when they play?  That’s part of the analysis and understanding of your game, and it’s super great.

What actually happens when we begin a conversation about “better” players?  Usually people just become very silly.  Rather than examine winning and losing, or really getting into the specifics, many people will decide which things they like, settle on those as the high-value markers of “real” skill, and go from there.  This is handy, because it lets you decide in advance who is best, and you can never be proven wrong; even if somebody is losing, it’s okay, because they’re “better,” deep down.  It’s also fairly useless when it comes to improving one’s understanding of the game.

What we like most about a game does not always correlate to its most important skills.  What we want to be high-value does not always equal high-value.  Most people who begin golfing want to hit far-reaching, grand-slam drives, but in reality the game is decided by accuracy, control, and consistency.  Big swings are fun, sure, but unless you are in a distance competition, it’s not actually the measurement of victory.  It’s a skill which may lead to victory under proper circumstances. It's not the highest-value.

Confusing what we like with what’s “better” is pretty common, when it comes to competition and competitors.  There isn’t even anything wrong with liking and preferring lower-value skills; even though basics and fundamentals always trump flash, I enjoy watching flash and speed and trickiness as much as the next person.  I particularly enjoy it when somebody finds a way to combine their fundamentals with flashiness and be really amazing.  Even so, you need to have an honest attitude about what skills are more likely to cause victory, otherwise you will grind away at the skills that give you fewer returns.  When the time comes, people will be arguing whether you are better or worse than somebody else, and the only thing that won’t be confused is the bracket, because you can’t trick the bracket.  Brackets and result lists don’t care about who we call better.  They care about who won.

Thanks for reading.  See you next time.

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