Saturday, June 18, 2011

Practice: What I Preach

So, it may come as a shock to my readers (and anyone who knows me online) that I used to play baseball. That's right, this Lilliputian blogger and habitual nerd used to actually play a physical sport. And despite my stature, I was pretty good at it.

You may offer any explanation you want as to what led to my ability in the game, but I will always respond to one thing that heavily influenced my skill: Practice.

Practice is one of the most important aspects of improving your skill level at anything. Whether it be playing sports, playing an instrument, doing math, cooking, or any other activity where one can be "good" or "bad," practicing the activity will display improvements in one's ability.

My dad hammered one phrase into my brain, and the brains of any of my teammates whenever I played (he was usually one of the assistant coaches) -- you've probably heard this before, but: "You play like you practice."

When it comes to the competitive side of things, the attitude you exhibit in your practices carries over to the attitude you'll likely exhibit during games. Players who go through practice with a haughty attitude tend to leave themselves open to overlooking their opponents, or sometimes their own mistakes. Those who show no will to practice tend to likewise fail to show up (at least mentally) when it comes game time. Those who tend to goof off during practices tend to goof up in games. You see my picture.

Since this blog is most related to Halo, I'll use a recent example from MLG to demonstrate my point -- MLG Columbus. The winners of MLG Dallas, Status Quo, seemed a bit complacent between events. Despite two multiple team LANs being held at the LAN Network famed "Basement," Status Quo attended neither. Prior to Dallas, they LAN'd hard and prepared for the event they were fan favorites to come in and finish Top 3. Prior to Columbus, however, some of their players focused a bit more on other activities and the team did not LAN (although they did set up a LAN with their new sponsor, Red Bull, to take place prior to the third event of the season).

Status Quo finished a disappointing SEVENTH place in Columbus.

Now, I'll admit there are external factors (such as the formation of the fan-acclaimed "Godsquad"), but the fact remains that Status Quo went into Columbus with less quality of practice than they had for Dallas.

Skills need to be used in order to remain sharp. A skill that goes long periods of time without proper use is much like a car that sits in a driveway without being turned on. Eventually, when it comes time to use it, it simply won't work like it used to. (Trust me, I've had a car sit for months and then when it came time to drive it, the battery was dead.)

Keep your skills sharp by maintaining their use. Practice whatever it is you do.

Now, I mentioned "quality" of practice up there. Did you see it? I'm sure you saw it. I'll say it again just to be sure. You need to make sure the quality of your practice is rather high as well.

So what is quality practice? You're probably (I hope not) thinking "Audley, if I want to be a competitive Halo player, I should just search MLG with my team all day and expect to be the best, right?!"

No, shut up, you're wrong. In fact, I'm of the opinion that by just playing the game over and over, your improvements will be miniscule at best. I mean, how many Reclaimers and Inheritors do you see in Halo Reach that just outright suck?

I'll reference physical sports again, to demonstrate my point: in the off-season, how often do teams just play each other over and over as their method of practice? Compared to the other activities they do, it's a very small amount, right?

Baseball, most teams take batting and fielding practice in very stripped down circumstances.
Basketball, players will run up and down the court stopping at a farther line each time. Prior to a game, they take practice shots.
Football, the quarterbacks practice throws. Wide receivers practice routes. Linesmen push dummies around.

Everything gets dumbed down into what we call "drills." Elements of practice designed to improve a player's abilities.

I'll admit this next part comes slightly from something I picked up from Wikipedia (their source: Roberto Moretti) while researching for this Audley Enough article, but it is also something I've stressed to my own teammates when designing practice gametypes throughout Halo 3 and Halo Reach.

There are five processes in ensuring you are practicing quality...well...practice.

First, Identification. Learn what it is you are practicing, to make sure you know how to do it. You have to know what you are looking for in order to find it.

Next, Isolation. Isolation is identifying a single piece of the whole act. Then you move into stage 3, Repetition. You repeat this one process over and over until it becomes second nature. As an example, these two stages could be demonstrated by a beginning piano player playing scales. Once these scales become mindless dances of the fingers, the learner is ready to move on to more complex stages.

Step four, you Integrate your different individual actions together until you they work seamlessly together. This leads to the ability to perform more difficult tasks within your actions.

Finally, you find more tasks that further your abilities as you work toward mastering your craft, Escalating your abilities..

So for the Halo players out there... the Identification stage: Halo Reach as a whole.

But what do you isolate? Most players will immediately focus on their DMR or Sniper accuracy. This is the most basic skill in the game, and it's something that will constantly be in question. It's also one of the skills that will deteriorate the quickest from being out of practice.

The dexterity that is required to aim in first person shooters is all related to muscle memory and hand-eye coordination. These will simply be learned from maintaining a fairly consistent practice schedule. Players who play a lot will typically have a more steady aim than players who take long breaks, then game hard for a few days, rinse, and repeat.

However, there are several other skills that need to be isolated in order to improve as a whole.

I'd like to hail MLG pro player Naded here for something I saw him doing at Columbus as a warm-up, that I thought to be very clever. While most players play a free for all to warm-up, Naded was in a game alone, on Zealot, running around with Sprint and/or Evade practicing different jumps and escape routes around the map. He displayed a very deep knowledge of the map (despite rarely getting to use any of these in a game). He made sure all of those routes were fresh on his mind prior to beginning a series against an enemy team, while also remembering to look at important sight lines (such as top landing to holograms) and ensure he knew where he could see from where he was.

So, Audley, can you name some of these skills that need to be isolated?

All right, for the MLG fans that may be reading this, here's a brief list of INDIVIDUAL skills: Routes, More Routes, Routes Still, Sight Line Studies, Flag Routes, Slayer Routes, Bomb Routes, Escape Routes, Grenade Angles, Grenade Bounces, A Few More Routes, Strafing, Juking, DMR/Sniper Accuracy, Routes Again But With Evade Instead of Sprint, Now Routes with Jetpacks, One More Routes for Good Measure. If you're wondering why I used that one word (If you missed it, I mean ROUTES) so much, I suggest you go back and read the last few Audley Enoughs from before my hiatus.

Now, for your TEAM skills: Sight Line Studies, Routes That Allow Similar Sight Lines from Different Positions, Communication (again, see an older Audley Enough), DMR/Sniper Accuracy, Set-Ups, Routes to Set-Ups, Routes that Counter Set-Ups, Angles that Annoy Set-Ups, Communication, More Sight-Line Studies, and just in case you have a blind person, a final Sight-Line Study.

By Sight-Line studies, I of course mean knowing where EACH AND EVERY POSSIBLE SPOT ON THE MAP can see and be seen from. In MLG, especially in Halo 3 and Halo Reach, team shooting is way more important than your individual ability to win a one on one battle. Additionally, being able not to BE shot is also important, when attempting to flank or run a flag/bomb to their goal.

A team will build chemistry by playing with each other (although some teams have natural degrees of chemistry based on their individual playing styles -- see Dallas '11 Believe the Hype or Anaheim '09 Carbon). However, a team that studies sight lines and routes that can be taken together will use this practice as a catalyst (yes, pun intended) for a quicker chemical reaction.

For those of you that instead play Big Team, and wonder what kind of skills should be practiced... One of the drill maps I had made for Master Theory back in Halo 3 involved a small team attempting to team shoot a Warthog or Banshee (depending on the map/gametype) to death using only BRs or ARs (again, depending on gametype) in order to practice taking down vehicles. The catch was that the Banshee or Warthog users did not have teammates to clean up -- it was a simple drill designed to improve the ability to shoot at vehicles in order to disable them (as well as improve the vehicle pilot's ability to evade heavy focus). To prevent camping and stand-offs, it was a Territories gametype in which territories were placed at each of the standard set-up points, and the round would end if the vehicle allowed the set-up team to capture each territory.

In Reach, back when Countdown was in Big Team, I had made a very plain, nondescript map to go along with a gametype where players spawned with Armor Lock and had the goal of "Out-Armor Locking" each other as their only way of EFFECTIVELY killing one another. I unfortunately never got to test this to see how well it worked, but it was a minor skill that determined a lot of encounters on the early BTB stages of Countdown.

In addition to the skills required for MLG, Big Team players should practice Vehicle routes, angles to teamshoot vehicles, and a shitload of sightline studies if they wish to improve. If you don't understand why this can't be done in normal gameplay, I ask -- is it easier to find out where all you can see in a game where an enemy Sniper is shooting at you, or in a game where you can stop, look in all 360 degrees around you and all angles above/below you? (Easy question. I won't even answer it for you!)

In addition to all of these individual skills, there is also the necessity to practice the most important part of a game -- the opening. I personally find there to be more gain to gotten out of practicing the first four minutes of a game than any of the remainder, regardless of the game type. (The exception to this would of course be for sequenced versions of King of the Hill, where certain hills are not spawned until much later in the game.)

The initial push for power weapons will often determine the pace -- but beyond that, there is also the set-up for the first respawn of power weapons. Even if you are behind after the opening, securing an enemy's Sniper two minutes into a game, or securing the next set of rockets can turn the tide of a game. If you cannot secure the second set, why should the game drag on to give you a chance at the third set? Rinse off the bad game, and repeat it. Try to adjust what you messed up in the opening, and see if the snowball carries you to your second spawn. Keep making minor adjustments on those first few minutes of the game until you can carry momentum throughout.

Of course, Halo is a bit more dynamic than sports like Baseball or Football, since players are temporarily removed from the game for a short duration -- so a lot of these fundamental practices cannot be executed in-game. Beating up on randoms in playlists is a fine way to ensure you all know your roles from the start, but it will rarely reveal chinks in an otherwise fine suit of armor. Scrimmaging other teams -IS- necessary to see how practical what you've practiced can be outside of practice.

Some situations may not ever repeat themselves, some may reveal themselves deep into a game's growth and become commonplace. But the more you expose yourself to the potential of these situations occurring (once your fundamentals are flawless, of course ;) ) the more you can prepare yourself for meeting them a second or third time.

Film review is an important part of practice in competitive gaming as well -- although I'll save that more in-depth subject for a future Audley Enough, I'd like to point out its relevance. Whether you're watching film of opponents or watching film of yourself, you are improving your abilities. I'll even (probably mis)quote Sun Tzu here, "Know your enemy and yourself, find victory in a hundred battles. Know yourself, but not your enemy, find victory and defeat in equal measure. Know neither your enemy or yourself, find defeat in every battle."

It's a lot easier to learn from your mistakes if you are able to see your mistakes played back to you. It's a lot easier to find weaknesses in an opponent's playstyle if you are able to take a break and see your opponent's playstyle up close.

I'll save anything further for a future Audley Enough, going more in-depth on what to look for out of film review, or at least what I personally look for, but I still felt the need to highlight it here.

I've covered so far that practice can improve competency, and it can improve chemistry. However, there is one more C-word that should be the goal of your practices. Confidence.

If your practices aren't building confidence, something needs to be re-done. A practice that destroys confidence is a poor practice. I'll admit I've made mistakes that caused confidence to drop after a practice. The leadership of a practice should be sure participants stay focused on the goals of practice -- even in defeat, positive gains are made. If you're practicing against a tougher opponent, find out what it is the opponents are doing right. Or better yet, find out what they're doing wrong. Look for the Achilles' heel and attempt to exploit it. If that doesn't work, then you know next time what NOT to do. If it does work, then you've... well, I was going to say you have your opponents on their heels, but I doubt Achilles really stood on his heels when he got shot there. Regardless, you've found a way to force the opponents out of their comfort zone.

In the case that these opponents happen to be your practice partners (everyone in StarCraft 2 has a practice partner, why don't Halo teams?), you've likely found mutual benefit for both teams in the process. You've exposed a way to break a set-up, while they've discovered a hole in the hull of the Titanic.

However, if practices are absolutely not working out to build confidence in the players involved, it is imperative that the practice set-up be shifted in order to find a better way for the waning side to benefit as well. A confident team is a strong team. A team that doubts themselves or each other is a disaster waiting to happen.

So again, practices should build competency, chemistry, and confidence. Practices should teach both fundamentals (the basics) and situationals (the what-the-fucks). And to avoid being out-of-practice, practice should keep muscle-memory sharp and skills refined.

Audley Enough, you'll find a team that practICEs enough won't be as cold come time to perform. And on that terrible note, I'm going to end this Audley Enough. Good luck getting that one out of your brain.

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