Playing your Game – The Importance of Planning and Practice

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Humble Beginnings

“What the f*#k are you two doing?”

The year was 2008, the game was Halo 3, and one of my best friends and I were at our local LAN center playing in the iGames 2v2 circuit. The circuit consisted of 500 something teams from 200ish different LAN centers all over North America, over 6 weeks or so. It was $10 per man each week, and top 24 went on to playoffs. The settings were jank, and our luck had run thin. Our first match of the day was against one of the better teams from our own LAN center. If we lost, we were out for the season, and we had just gone down 0-1 in the series. Our cash, our pride, and our fledgling reputations were on the line. Stepping out in front of the store, the two of us had all but given up on ourselves.

We didn’t go to school with these guys, we were unknowns, nobodies two 15 year old Randoms. All the other teams knew each other, and everyone was watching to see what would happen here.

Were we good enough? I bet they think we’re trash, and we just got smoked on our best map, how can we come back on our worst two?

The thoughts kept pouring on during our break between games, quickly going from bad to worse. Our salvation came from the least likely source I could ever imagine.


Seeing as the two of us couldn’t drive yet, my teammate’s cousin would bring us there each week. We’ll call him Cambridge… for brevity’s sake.

Sarcastic and wisecracking, Cambridge was a cigarette smoking, WoW playing twenty something year old who kicked it with the other twenty something CS 1.6 and HL2DM pros who pretty much lived at the store. Other than driving us to the place he didn’t seem to pay us any heed, at least until our darkest hour, when he arrived to beat some sense into us.


The Turning Point

Seeing us lost to the cancer of doubt, he grabbed us by the scruff of our shirts, marched us down the plaza, and launched into an expletive filled tirade that snapped us to our senses. Because its been 11 years, and because of the colorful choice of diction, the following is paraphrased.

“What the f*#k are you two doing?”

We looked back at him, stunned.

“For the last five weeks you two have been beating the sh*t out of these teams, talking to each other, and having fun. Now look at you, just because you can see these guys you start playing like a couple of f*#king p*#%ies? No, no f*#king way man, you two guys are playing like a pair of headless chickens.”

We started looking at one another, nodding, each line putting that fire back in to our hearts. But what he said next will stick with me for the rest of my life.

“It stops now. Think about all these other matches, every time we won its because we played our game. That whole map we were playing their game. Quit f*#kin’ doin’ that, and walk back in there and start playing ours.”

Cambridge produced two cans of Red Bull, and handed each of us one, and told us to get the f*#k back inside. Because of this rousing speech, the two of us knew we still had a shot. That raggedy hobo warlock had taught us just how valuable a plan could be.

Names Ring Out

Instead of playing apart and extremely conservatively, we started communicating again, and playing our aggressive high pressure hammer and anvil style. I wont bore you with details but in many ways that speech is what began my career. Driving the fundamental and methodical approach that carried me through ten years and 5 different titles. Having that little comfort tucked in the back of my mind goes a long way towards staying calm, always knowing I have something to fall back on.

We took the series 2-1 in an explosive game 3 that cemented our reputation and 100% contributed to getting on teams early in my career. All five of the teams from our LAN center placed top 24 in the playoffs, with us taking 12th.

Coincidentally my friend and I began our careers in an arena 2v2 tournament, its fitting that my career ended with him in an arena 2v2 tourney some eleven years later.

Though that tournament was never really relevant during MLG’s golden era the concept of Playing Your Game was directly correlated with my highest placings at majors. So how can this concept apply to you?

Having a Game Plan

It starts with setting goals. Lets say you want to be a pro Apex Legends player, but right now you’re just an amateur. Key word amateur, not beginner, you understand the game and have won more than a fair share of games. You’ve developed a playstyle and skillset that fits you and your team, and can be built on. Lets say for our sake that pro here means you enter and place in high tier paid tournaments. First things first, you’re going to need to learn how to get in to these tournaments and scrims, this is not the guide for that.

Assuming you’ve made it this far and are out of pugs and into scrims, lets briefly discuss what the goal here is. Your goal should not be to win scrims, now before you close the tab, you’re not trying to lose them either. Instead your goal should be to use each scrim to improve specific weaknesses, and to tighten up Your Game. In our Apex example, this is loot paths, rotations, angles, communication, etc. It can also be micro improvements to mechanics like aim skill, jukes, and so on. What are your win conditions and how will you get to them, every single time.

On the other side of that coin, your goal should not be to show up and win your first pro tournament/major. Again your not trying to lose it either, but be accurate about how your career will scale. Aiming to reach higher and higher each time, while still doing your best to win always. You’ll be up top soon enough.

The goal of this practice is to get Your Game running so tight, your execution so close to flawless that you have a consistent game plan that you run without fail. ALL TOURNAMENT LONG.

All of your practice sessions will be focused on this concept. Set a reasonable time frame like one to four weeks, then use a tournament or major as an evaluation tool. If there are more frequent tournaments great, choose a few within the time frame you set, and evaluate; use the others as better quality scrims since people try harder.

After each cycle, make the necessary adaptations and adjustments to Your Game; based on what you learned from watching your replays from the tournament, compared to replays from your latest scrims.

tfw no loot

Making Changes

If during your scrims things aren’t working or are clearly sub-optimal, then go ahead and change them then. Remember the idea is to get Your Game as tight as it can be.

Come tournament time you should already have Your Game LOCKED IN. From the second your first game starts, that’s what you’ll run. Don’t try and be the hero, don’t go rogue; you stick to that plan like your life depends on it. Your tournament life does. I want to make a distinction here. If in the heat of the moment, say you’re getting third or fourth partied; then make some kind of adaptation as needed, but run Your Game once you’re out of the fire. Don’t die on that hill.  Small adaptations in the moment are fine, but the plan remains the same; stick to your win conditions, they will carry.

There is a small exception here, which is receiving some last minute Intel from a source you trust, maybe. I’ll throw in two examples to elaborate.

CEO 2015 somewhere deep in losers:

Czech is matched against Gimr. At the time I wanted to learn Game ‘n Watch so coincidentally I had been watching a bunch of his games on YouTube. Czech knew this since we were roommates, and asked for the low down, habits and such.  Seeing as this was half a lifetime ago, neither of us remember if what I said was useful in context; but to quote the man himself:

“It would help if I remembered what the specific Intel was. Regardless though, priming my brain and also feeling more confident after receiving it definitely helped.”

Die old man.

He went on to win the series. Now for the bad.

Easily one of the sickest venues I’d been to at that point

MLG Orlando National Championships 2009 (actually took place in Jan 2010):

Losers 4, warmup stations are hard to come by and it’s been nearly 4 hours since our last scrim/warmup. We’re tired, nervous and excited, and at our first major; the intercom buzzes and they call our heat.

“Downright Clutch and Flatline to station 18.”

Flatline was at the time the 16th seeded team (back then top 32 was Semi-Pro, top 16 was Pro) and we were a well practiced but lacking in major LAN experience squad who made a last minute roster change.  Our new pickup did not play like us, hadn’t had time to learn Our Game but was a talented individual player. Like really talented. I like playing big names, the hype is something else to me, and in a lot of ways I practically lived for it.

One of the younger guns on the squad however, did not feel the same way; he took the knowing look between our coach and I on hearing the name as a bad thing. He gulped and said “They’re pro aren’t they?”

Predictably he was jittery and nervous in game one.

Despite that less than stellar showing he was able to rally in game 2. Our co-ordination was shot, most of our set-ups were mis-executed, and there were some headless chicken moments. There were some pretty brilliant moments as well, it was a good experience overall. Ultimately we lost 2-1 in game 1 of Capture the flag, and 50-47 in Game 2 slayer where we had two streaks of nearly 10 unanswered kills, back to back. Did his apprehension cost us the series? Absolutely not, ironically it was the fact we hadn’t had time to develop Our Game 100% with the new roster, as both games were actually close, the second game especially. But this is a good illustration of how not sticking with the plan can hurt you.

Communication and Changes

During the tournament itself, in between matches and talking with other pro players, teammates, etc; do not make the mistake of trying to change your game because of something you saw, or heard.  Just make a mental note, or even better a physical one for later. If it isn’t a microscopically small thing that will tighten up Your Game then it can only loosen it. Emotions can and often run hot during these times, and it can only hurt you to deviate at this stage.

Pro League of Legends player Doublelift is a big advocate of this concept, trying to change the program will eff you up. (For a source on this, you’ll have to go back to one of his post 2019 Spring Split series YouTube videos where he’s playing Varus I’m afraid I lost the link.)

Your post match Pow-wow’s with your team keep the dialogue on Your Game and off of individual mistakes; the one who made them will know. This ensures everyone is taking the pressure well and reassurances and morale are high. This is one of the major side benefits of this kind of practice, not only does it fill the dead time, which can often be hours of nerve wracking boredom; but it enables you and the team to stay focused and save energy when it counts.

While coaching at a Halo 5 WC event in 2018 almost none of the amateur teams were doing this, including my own. Everyone was either in their own heads or off doing their own thing. Except for the ones who made it through to late Saturday and Sunday, who could be seen together nearly the whole time. Extremely focused, and extremely relaxed. Just some food for thought.

The calm before the storm

Having a meticulous game plan allows for better long term progress, and also helps with nerves. Who cares what name you face, you’re still running the exact same shit you spent months/weeks running. In the heat of the moment, nothing else matters.

Big Changes

Once the tournament is over it’s time to evaluate how Your Game needs tidying up, added too, or whole parts of it sent to the chopping block. These kinds of changes should only come after:
– Speaking to better players who you were up against, or watched your matches
– Reviewing footage and notes of your games and of select opponents
– Comparing notes with your teammates
– Comparing all of the above with replays of your most recent scrims

Now look to change Your Game (though don’t go totally crazy, aim for gradual change over time), and come next tournament simply repeat the process.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully you see the benefits of this kind of mentality, and its intended application. Obviously it’s applicable outside of FPS games, and I would argue more effective in genres where an entire series might only take a few minutes.

I wanted to highlight a few more aspects that may not be clear the first time you encounter this kind of idea.

This mindset does not limit you from doing cool shit and making plays, the reality is quite the opposite. The better the quality of your practice, the tighter Your Game becomes, and the more room you have to pop off and make plays in the right conditions. Which will be almost always, since the fundamental strategy of Your Game is always running tight in the background.

What I advocate isn’t designed to limit the way you play, rather to enable it; Don’t try and pop off or do crazy shit till you’re in the .01% of the .01% just mercilessly apply Your Game instead.

Finally, if you’re one of the thousands of amateurs who’s stuck in the pump and dump mindset, this is really worth giving a shot. Building structure into your practice is one of the important factors that keep teams strong into and beyond the honeymoon phase. It may not be quite this formal, but its better than jumping ship every few weeks when you hit a wall.

– FeNriR


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