I’ve played fighting games for quite literally my entire life. Starting back in the early 2000s as a kid, I used to sink hours into playing with friends or through arcade mode in games like Capcom vs. SNK 2, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and of course, the Super Smash Bros. series. It was a simpler, much more innocent time — a time when mashing buttons was prevalent and training mode was a foreign concept. And then I discovered the fighting game community and realized that I was hot trash.
Have you ever thought to yourself, I want to get better at games, but I don’t want to destroy my life? We’re here to help with a special week dedicated to all things video games and health.
One day, as if it were fate, I was surfing YouTube and ran into two videos. One of them was made by esteemed fighting game content creator Maximilian Dood as part of his “Assist Me” learning video series, and the other was a video of a match from Evo, the largest fighting game tournament. Both featured my favorite fighting game of all time, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Suddenly, I was thrust into a new world. I realized that if I wanted to improve, I basically had to treat gaming like homework. And my lord, I wanted to go for some extra credit badly.
While I eventually dropped Marvel 3 from my playlist out of frustration (that game was not kind to the younger me, and I still had no clue how to use training mode), that experience led me into a greater world of competitive fighting games. I started going to tournaments beginning in 2015 and was dead set on that classic “git gud” mentality. But although I started growing my fundamental skills, I never truly found my stride. There was never a time back then when I’d truly call myself good, or even OK. And to be honest with myself, that continued for a loooong, long time.
From then until Street Fighter 5 came out, I went nonstop on fighting games and took them maybe a bit too seriously. I was grinding training mode combos like it was my job, but for me, that still wasn’t enough. Although I was definitely growing my skills in the genre little by little, the lack of large leaps in play level was alienating and frustrating. I was straight-up obsessing over my growth and forcing myself to play in hopes of growing to the level of all the players I’ve looked up to for so long. Thanks to that obsession, I ended up falling into a spiral of tying my self-worth to my skill level in a video game and, ultimately, burning out on truly enjoying my time playing games — even with my friends.
So, what did I do? Well, years after I finally fell off of Street Fighter 5, I took a yearlong break from the entire genre. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it just happened because I was so burned out. Yeah, I’d play with friends here and there, but my days of training, playing ranked matches online, and entering tournaments ended for an entire year. A year later, when I returned to the genre, I legit wanted to slap myself, because I realized that this break was what I had needed all along.
In a TeamUSA interview, family physician and TrueSport Expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa brought up how important it is for young athletes’ mental health to take breaks in sports. Gilboa explained how overtraining can end up tying one’s identity to that sport and one’s success in it: “We don’t teach them how to do a sport sustainably. They think that the only way to be good is to do something to the exclusion of everything else. […] We narrow an athlete’s sense of identity so profoundly that if they aren’t an athlete in that one sport, they have no idea who they are.” In other words, they’re losing the sense that the journey is just as important as the destination. And that rings just as true in the world of competitive gaming.
It’s not just me who’s had this experience. I’ve seen similar types of burnout happen to players so many times in the world of fighting games and competitive gaming as a whole. Yet unlike in traditional sports, few gamers see over-competing as an issue. When you want to get better at a video game, you might think the best way is to be in your room alone running through the same training mode drills for weeks straight, or losing matches all day trying to get better. Like physical sports, this begins to take a mental toll.
I learned this the hard way and ended up in a bad spot with the genre for quite some time. But like magic, when I returned from my break, I found that I was better than ever. Suddenly, something clicked, and I was doing well in my new favorite fighter of the generation, The King of Fighters 15. I was looking at situations differently, I was recognizing patterns, I was making reads, and I was winning against people who are actually good in the genre. And when I started even getting a hint of burnout, I took another break.
Breaks are important for growth. Whether you do it by playing another game, trying another activity, or just going about life while away from your task of choice, you have to know when to hit the off switch. And that doesn’t just go for fighting games or competitive gaming. Taking time away from something that requires tons of time to learn may sound like a weird thought, sure. But it’s something that may end up saving your mental health — while also helping you get better in the process.