Head to Head vs Side by Side

A certain video has caught the attention of the FGC this week involving the age-old discussion of playing side by side vs playing head to head against your opponents in a tournament setting.

Analysis: Should We Stop Playing Side by Side (in Fighting Games)? by Core-A Gaming

The video starts off with a juxtaposition of Capcom Cup 2015 with past Capcom Cups, highlighting the fact that players at Capcom Cup 2015 were seated in a semi-head to head layout rather than sitting side by side like they did in past Capcom Cups. I say semi-head to head because the players were actually still able to see their opponent’s bodily motions through peripheral vision.

Itazan is a player known to make very apparent bodily motions when he’s playing. You can easily see him “churning” his stick when you’re besides him (or anywhere near him for that matter). This can be both an advantage and disadvantage to him depending on how you look at it. It can be seen as an advantage in that it intimidates his opponent because his opponent, visibly aware that Itazan is “mashing,” has no clear idea what Itazan is actually mashing (he can be churning a reversal SPD, he can be churning an instant U2, he can be faking a reversal SPD so he can bait a jump/backdash, etc.). The fact that his opponent is visibly aware of him mashing can also be a disadvantage because his opponent can adjust their gameplay accordingly if they see him mashing through peripheral vision. Regardless of whether it’s an advantage or disadvantage, it’s still a factor outside the actual game itself that players have to adjust to if they’re playing in a tournament that has side by side or semi-head to head layouts.

This discussion of Itazan as a player can also be contrasted with another famous Zangief player, Snake Eyez. Aside from their polarizing styles of playing Zangief, there’s another huge difference between Itazan and Snake Eyez outside the actual game itself: Itazan plays on stick while Snake Eyez plays on pad. In the age-old discussion of head to head vs side by side, the stick vs pad argument is often brought up along with it. A grappler player who plays on stick makes fairly visible stick motions when they’re performing 360s/720s (720s notably require the stick to be spun twice very quickly so it’s pretty obvious when grappler players go for ground/air 720s). In contrast, a grappler player who plays on pad doesn’t have to make any visible hand motions to perform 360s/720s because those motions are fairly simple to perform (at least when compared to playing on stick) on d-pads using only your thumb. Another advantage that pad players have is that they can play with their pads close to their bodies at waist level outside of the peripheral vision of their opponent, an advantage that can’t be enjoyed by stick players (because sticks, while being fairly larger than pads in general, also require a sturdy surface to play on).

Moving on in the video, Daigo Umehara himself speaks about how he has to adjust the way he plays when he’s playing side by side. If he pushes his buttons too hard while performing Hadokens, then his opponent can hear the sound and react to his Hadokens quickly. At Dreamhack Winter 2015, Reiketsu, the best Japanese Claw player, money matched Infexious, the best European Hugo player, before the tournament started. After losing  a set against Infexious, Reiketsu accused Infexious of looking at his hands while he was performing Poison’s fireballs. He believed that Infexious was reacting to his hand motions and responding accordingly (either with a jump, clap, etc.). Later on, they coincidentally ran into each other in the actual tournament after pools. This time, Reiketsu decided to change the playing environment outside the actual game itself.

Using a makeshift barrier, Reiketsu was able to hide his hand motions from Infexious. Regardless of whether Infexious was actually looking at his hands during the first set, there was no way Infexious could do it during the tournament. In the end, Infexious ended up defeating Reiketsu once again in a close 2-1 set. This is not the first instance that this has happened during a tournament match though.

We can see that other established international players like MadKOF and YOMI Dieminion have also used makeshift barriers to prevent their opponents from “hand watching.” While thinking about this discussion of head to head vs side by side, I distinctly remembered a discussion about Evo 2014 between Mago, Tokido, Momochi, Kazunoko, Fuudo, and Bonchan.

A short translation of the video can be found here: http://pastebin.com/4QdH21Lq

What I remember most from this discussion is when Mago talks about his Evo match with Sanford Kelly.

Mago: Because he’s such a dirty player!

Bonchan: Whoa, what happened?

Mago: Yeah, well, do you guys have experience in playing side-by-side with the other player? Sanford is probably an expert in pulling dirty tricks in that area, it’s crazy. So you see, when you share a screen, you usually first make sure you and the other player are on the same footing by providing some personal space between two seats, euphemistically saying “This is my area”. But Sanford ignored all that, and the first thing he did when he came up to the stage, he pulled his chair and leaned all the way toward the monitor. He even started playing like that.

Bonchan: So he was sort of covering the screen, if you were to see it from behind?

Mago: Well, it didn’t go THAT far, but he was basically clinging on the monitor table. I thought, what the hell, is he nearsighted?

Bonchan: Some people have weird playing habits. There are even people who bring their own tables [on which they rest their sticks].

Mago: Yeah, but Sanford wasn’t like that.

Bonchan: Come to think of it, PR Rog plays really close to the monitor also. The thing is, Balrog players need to keep some buttons held for doing turn punches and stuff, and all their effectiveness is lost if they reveal their fingers and buttons too much. So that’s why they tend to sit slightly ahead of the other player to hide their fingers.

Mago: So they’re covering their fingers with their bodies?

Bonchan: Yeah, like that.

Kazunoko: Then you’ve got to sit close to the monitor with him, you know?

Mago: So yeah, [hiding buttons] happens when you play with international players. But Sanford had the opposite idea. He intentionally SHOWS his hands in the open. That’s the reason he sits so up close to the monitor. So what he did was… well, before that, he always sits on 1P side. He sat there and angled his chair toward me, making a position where I can see [his hands]. When I sat on my side, inevitably his hands are in my line of sight. Then during the match, I knocked him down, right? So I went to go for some oki mixup, but I see him insanely wiggling and mashing his stick. (making the CLICK CLICK CLICK noise)

Bonchan: He was like, I’M MASHING NOW. (laugh)

Mago: Yeah, and I was startled. It scared the hell out of me, so I aborted my oki [and tried to block], but then he just grabbed me. I was like, what is wrong with this guy. You guys would hardly have noticed it from just looking at a tape. He got me with that like 5 times in a row, and I thought “This guy doesn’t play fair”.

Tokido: Ah, so that’s where you’re coming from. [I’m surprised to see] there are people employing such dirty conducts. But I guess players overseas are used to that kind of stuff. Just the other occasion I played Wolfkrone, he was doing this (swinging arms) and almost hit my face with his elbow.

Mago: But yeah, these behaviors are interesting. (laughs) More often than not, international players intimidate you with sound, so we need to learn how to deal with it.

Tokido: Yeah, even though a lot of people might not be aware of it, you inevitably use the sound your opponent is making, to some extent, as a cue to your advantage when you play side-by-side. Given that, silent buttons and pads are beneficial.

Mago: The reason I use silent buttons is I hate bringing the “reading” and “strategies” outside of the game. Like, pretending doing something you’re not going to do or faking out your moves… Players [like Sanford] seem to know how to incorporate them into their games, but I’m not really good at doing them. So as long as my button sounds are not giving the other players some clues for my actions, it’s good enough for me. I can play in a “normal” manner this way. But yeah, studying these practices exploiting the sound is underway. Anyway, back to Sanford. In the 3rd game 2nd round, when he did the insane wiggling again, this time really going for a DP, I blocked it and he hanged himself. After defeating Sanford, I think I faced a T. Hawk player. I beat him uneventfully. Really nothing happened there. And that got me to top 32.

In this discussion, Mago, Bonchan and Tokido bring up a number of players including Sanford Kelly, PR Balrog, and Wolfkrone. Mago starts off by saying how Sanford uses “dirty tricks” while playing side by side. Japanese (and Asian players in general) are all used to playing on head to head setups because of the huge arcade culture in Japan (and Asia in general). Western players grew up playing side by side so that is what they are used to. Mago believes that Sanford utilizes side by side advantageously by pretending to mash a reversal while being knocked down. When Mago has Sanford knocked down and is about to perform an okizeme, Sanford intimidates Mago by intentionally showing Mago that he’s “mashing” and then takes advantage of Mago’s fear by doing something else (like waking up with a button or throwing him) instead of performing an actual reversal. This sort of situation is somewhat similar to the situation discussed in Core-A Gaming’s video (their example of Daigo vs Justin Wong in the infamous Evo Moment #37). Justin Wong intentionally mashes in Daigo’s sight while Daigo is parrying, hoping that it will throw Daigo off his rhythmic parrying. Any fighting game player has surely met someone who has done the same to them; a player that severely mashes during one of your long difficult to execute combos hoping that you will drop it because you see them mashing (there’s a fear placed in your mind that you cannot drop your combo or else you will be punished). Tokido intervenes by saying that Wolfkrone almost hit him in the face while they were playing side by side (which can actually happen if players play too close to each other while they are side by side).  Bonchan mentions PR Balrog because he believes that PR Balrog sits in front of his opponent when he plays side by side so his opponent can’t see him releasing his buttons for Turn Around Punch (which is an important tool in SFIV Balrog’s arsenal).

Tokido brings up the subject of silent buttons and how they can be beneficial for preventing things like an opponent listening to the sounds of a Hadoken motion. This is actually something I’ve seen Laugh, a top Korean player, take advantage of when he plays side by side. I’ve seen Laugh utilize an interesting button setup for his stick: his regular 6 buttons that he uses for LP, MP, HP, LK, MK, and HK are silent buttons but his 2 side buttons that are normally used for PPP and KKK are disabled while being regular sanwa buttons that make noise when you press them. What Laugh would do when I’ve seen him play is intentionally make fake Hadoken motions while pressing his disabled buttons which makes his opponent think that he’s actually throwing a Hadoken because they can hear his buttons. Then, he would just antiair his opponents when they jump towards him thinking that a Hadoken was coming. I’m not sure if Laugh still does that to this day but it was something I took note of when I watched him play side by side against other players.

Mago finishes this part of the discussion by stating how he hates using strategies “outside of the game.” I personally agree with Mago’s opinion on this and I’m sure a lot of competitive tournament players think the same way as Mago. We, as competitive tournament players, already expend so much mental/physical energy when we are playing our games and these “outside factors” are just another nuisance we have to pay attention to if we are playing side by side. If tournaments were to use head to head setups, then we would not have to deal with any of these “outside factors” discussed in this analysis.

However, I am not ignorant to the costs, amount of equipment, time and space required to actually make our tournaments head to head rather than side by side. We are already severely limited space-wise when it comes to our major tournaments (mainly because of how many different games/pools are being run at the same time). We would also need double the amount of monitors we use during pools if we were to do head to head because every pool setup would require two monitors, one for each player. It’s either that or we run less pools at a time (which would greatly extend the amount of time it takes to finish pools at a major).

If we realistically can’t utilize head to head setups during pools at our major tournaments, then can’t we at least use head to head setups for the stream setup? It’s only one setup that would have to be made into a head to head setup and it would be for all the high profile matches that are featured on stream. I thought about this and realized that even if we were to do that, there would be a group of complainers that would argue about uneven playing conditions. Everyone who goes to play on stream would be playing in a different environment than the people who are playing in pools because the stream setup would be head to head while the pool setups are all side by side.

Side note: We actually do a head to head setup for the stream setup for NLBC while doing side by side setups for all the other matches. Nobody has really complained about it ever since we started doing it. 

In the end, it is logistically terrible for tournament organizers to try and turn all their tournament setups into head to head setups. There’s also a certain social aspect that people believe will be missed if we switch to head to head setups (friendly/antagonistic banter before/during the match). I personally don’t believe that aspect will be missed because in the rare instances where we do play on head to head setups, players still greet each other before the match starts and still interact after the match ends. I’ve seen instances where players visibly taunt their opponent even while playing on head to head setups. Hopefully, in the near future, we will reach a point where head to head setups can become realistically possible for tournament organizers. I hope that in 2016, one of our major tournaments will try and use head to head setups only! Until then, I will continue playing side by side just like everyone else.

TL;DR version: There are many outside factors to take into account when you play side by side against your opponents in a tournament setting. These factors can definitely affect the results of a match. However, it is logistically terrible for tournament organizers to try and make all their setups into head to head setups (at least at the current state the FGC is in). I personally believe that we should play on head to head setups and I am not a fan of utilizing strategies “outside of the game.” I am well aware of all the trouble that comes with converting to head to head setups so until it becomes a reality, I will accept playing on side by side setups. 

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