Teaching PvP

A while ago there was a post over at WASDStomp asking readers if they think PvP can be taught. It got me thinking and here’s the result.

Yes and no. Let me elaborate:

Measuring how good you are at PvP (any kind, FPS, RTS, MMO,…) is usually done by who and how many people you can beat in what circumstances. Depending on how good a player is doing he will be marked as either having “skill” or not. And while this arbitrary mark doesn’t bear the same meaning outside of gaming as it does when used in connection with it, the two do resemble each other.

skill [skɪl]n

1. special ability in a task, sport, etc., esp ability acquired by training
2. something, esp a trade or technique, requiring special training or manual proficiency

(from Collins English Dictionary)
Although it’s sometimes used in this meaning in gaming aswell, most of the time it will be used as something that is inherent to a player and cannot be acquired through other means than by being born with it (“You’re either born good or you’ll never be good.”). This possibly stems from the fact that PvP gaming is very competitive and there’s rarely any physical contact between the two competitors so anything is fair game in order to appear superior. Indeed, sportsmanship is more of an exception rather than a rule.

The being born good thing is, of course, complete bollocks. Let me break down the requirements for a good PvPer:

1. Familiarity with the input and feedback tools

Fancy name for being able to use the mouse, keyboard, the screen and speakers/headphones effectively. In other words, you need to be gaming literate.

  • In MMORPGs this usually translates into keybinding skills, being able to strafe-kite, mouse turn and pay attention to visual and audio queues in the game.
  • In an FPS it’ll mean being able to use the mouse and keyboard good enough to fire fast, manage recoil, quickscope, switch weapons and watch for certain queues as hit markers, hiding players, noticing the sound of the grenade bouncing, etc…
  • In an RTS you’ll want to be able to assign and use keybinds, control your units, scroll around the map and be able to watch the map for visual queues. I guess the sound isn’t as important here.

All of the above can be learnt by studying and therefore it can be taught, but will require practice to master. And it will depend on the amount of interaction with a computer/console the user has had before and possibly his/her age (we all know it’s harder to learn the older a person is). There is usually a ceiling to the amount you can learn and some players will excel at certain areas (some people have an easier time spotting enemies, others can hear a silenced gunshot in the middle of a firefight, or you’ll find a guy who’s precision when controlling the mouse is impeccable) or just plain have better tools at their disposal. But most of the time the differences are negligible.

2. Reflexes

Pretty self-explanatory, reflexes denote the ability to react within a certain time-frame. The faster you can react, the better you’ll do. And without them developed to a degree you won’t be able to succeed in any kind of competitive gaming. Obviously some genres demand better reflexes than others. Usually the order will be FPS games, DotA games, MMO games, RTS games, descending by the amount required.

Reflexes aren’t something that can be taught. You do not learn to react within milliseconds. You acquire it through training.

3. Familiarity with the form you are competing in

An athlete has to know his sport inside out and a competitive gamer has to know his game inside out.

  • You need to know the map/terrain/zone so you can efficiently move about it and exploit positions of advantage or withdraw safely when you can’t.
  • You need to know the weapons/units/abilities so you can efficiently use your resources and have an insight on how your enemy is going to use his.
  • You need to know the strategies/builds so you can predict your enemies’ moves and counter them.

All of the above can be learnt. It can be learnt either by studying out of the game, memorising it and then using it when playing or simply by playing the game and practicing. However, games (similarly as sport) are very practical in nature and therefore learning the theory behind them usually doesn’t result in as much of an improvement as practicing does.

Simply put, there aren’t many people (if anyone at all) who could study a game without any contact with it or a similar game and master it the instant they play it. For most players a mix of both practical and theoretical training works best, with a much larger emphasis on the practical part. Foregoing theory will always work, but will usually result in a longer learning process (although a more fun one).

4. Multitasking

This category I saved for last because it’s importance varies greatly. The definition of  multitasking would be the ability to pay attention to several areas of interest at the same time and perform several actions at once. When playing an RTS it is vital to success, but in an FPS game the ability to multitask isn’t something you need to have developed to succeed, especially when playing alone.

In general I’d say that the need to multitask goes up when the amount of reflexes required goes down. The order would then be RTS games, MMO games, DotA games, FPS games, descending by the amount of multitasking required, with a possible rejiggling of DotA, MMO and FPS games depending on whether you are playing in a group or alone. Playing a group will always require more multitasking than when playing alone.

One thing to note is that any game will require an abysmal amount of multitasking compared to an RTS, simply because there aren’t as many actions available at a single point in time due to action limitations (rounds per second limitation means you can’t be shooting three people at the same time, global cooldowns limit the amount of abilities you can use to one per x seconds, etc…).

There is no need to emphasise that multitasking can’t be taught, it needs to be practiced.

The verdict

Going through the list of skills needed for the ability to perform adequately in PvP, you’ll notice a pattern. Things can’t be taught, but can be learnt by practicing. The only two things you could have someone help you with are the tools with which you interact with the game and the knowledge of the game itself. Both of which need to be frequently practiced in order to master them.

The final verdict is that, while you can have someone give you tips about the game and the exchange of strategies or discussion on perfecting them can help a player, you can’t have a teacher instructing and guiding you through the whole process. Ultimately, for any player that isn’t new to gaming or a certain game, the only way to improve his PvP “skill” will be by practicing.

Obviously, the above rule applies differently to different games. But even so, the only real instance of organised teaching of PvP I could find is GosuCoaching. This is a website where some of the better and more experienced Starcraft 2 players coach other players for a fee. You can see though, that they use the word coach and not teach. Their methods also seem to resemble sport coaching rather than teaching, which relies on players practicing in order to improve.

Digression on mastering PvP

The above evaluation of things needed to succeed at PvP only goes as far as taking into account skills that are needed to be able to actually participate in it or do “good”. Something else is required in order to become above average in competitive games.

A good PvPer should be able to imaginative, unique and adaptable. Running around doing the same rotation/build/strategy or taking the same route will only get you as far (unless you’re playing a horribly imbalanced game). Sooner or later you will meet someone who will be able to adapt to your strategies and beat you. At that point you will hit a brick wall with no hope of being able to improve, unless you can adjust whatever you are doing and try something else. It might not work, but through the process you will learn more about the game and eventually find a way to beat any opponent.

Experiment, think out of the box, adapt to the situation and you will prevail.

Good hunting.


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