Cybergame Players Need Coaches Too!

16th May 2009

Single Player First Person Shooter Maps and Mods for Half-Life 1, 2 and Episodes 1, 2 and 3

This article was origianlly published 02 February 2005 and I have posted it on the frontpage again today for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s connected with the next poll question and secondly because I felt it deserved more attention. Enjoy.

My Assertion

CYBERGAME PLAYERS NEED COACHES
The rest of this post will try to explain why cybergame players would benefit from having coaches.

Playing tennis requires a certain combination of abilities, the same as playing Counter Strike. The exact abilities and combinations are different but the principle is the same. If that’s true then how those players improve should also be the same.

Few people are capable of making objective observations about their performance, especially during the heat of battle. What you need is a coach who can help you understand your strengths and weaknesses and also facilitate your improvement.

I want to be clear at this point, I’m talking about all levels of ability, from the beginner to the fulltime professional.

You may be wondering why I’m writing this, well put simply I don’t believe the best way to improve is to play online a lot and watch other players. Both of those activities are useful but only as part of greater plan.

What do I know?

I’m currently teacher but I’m really trained as a Sports Coach. The sport in question is unimportant except to say that it was an individual sport. (Was that reference to Tennis a clue or a misdirection?) I reached a moderately high playing standard and my regular practice partners included the World Number One and others within the top twenty in the world. I coached international players as well as National Junior Teams, I mention this not to impress you or make my head bigger but to hopefully illustrate that I have some experience in the topic!

I’m interested in how people learn new skills, including playing FPS games and using game editors. I should also mention that I don’t play any online games or much attention to the CPL or other professional tours, so I could be way off base!

General Game Professionalism

Having a professional attitude is not the same as being a professional. Being a professional means you make you living doing something, having a professional attitude means you approach things seriously. Approaching things in the correct manner can make the difference between reaching a high level of performance and stagnating. The players who improve the fastest normally have very clear goals, preferably S.M.A.R.T. ones (See Appendix), and a very clear plan of action.

Staying with tennis for a moment, it’s impossible to think of a professional player who doesn’t have regular contact with a coach and physical trainer plus maybe a few other advisers. Once Cyber Gaming reaches the same level of sponsorship, prize money and spectators as tennis then it will also have to become more professional in all aspects of its operation. That’s not a criticism of how the sport is currently run because I am not qualified to say, just a comment about the player’s themselves.

Of course, normal sports have one advantage over their Cyber cousins in that it’s often easier and more enjoyable to watch. But maybe you disagree. The one and only time I’ve watched a pro FPS match was from a video made about the Four Kings Vs a Swedish team. Besides the annoying commentary, it was all from the first person perspective. Whilst this may be interesting some of the time can you imagine watching a tennis match only from one person’s perspective? You miss so much. I’ve digressed, back to the topic at hand.

Misconceptions about coaching

Being a great coach is just as difficult as being a great player. The skills are different but the dedication required is the same. There is a huge misconception that to be a good coach you needed to have been a good player, it’s simply not true. However some players do respond better to coaches who have reached a high playing standard but generally it’s not necessary. Where experience counts is being able to relate to the player when they are in high-pressure situations.

I specifically remember playing a tournament and struggle to assert my authority on the game. I had beaten this particular player a few times before but today didn’t seem to be my day. During a game break a friend of mine, whom I could beat without breaking into a sweat, asked me a simply question. “Why are you….?” He was being genuinely curious rather than sarcastic, as was his wont, but his question made me reconsider exactly how I was playing. Up until then I hadn’t realised what I was doing but more importantly why I was doing it. The match resumed and I won! Thank you Richard.

There are two points I’m trying to illustrate:

  • Coaches have to be good observers, who then ask the right questions at the right time.
  • Coaches don’t always have to teach, they just have to create situations that allow the players to learn by themselves. (This is especially true when the player has a higher playing standard than the coach).

A coach is actually a number of professions in one person and depending on the income level and professionalism of the competitor they work with, may specialise in one particular area. I’ve worked with a player who had a Physical Conditioning Trainer, a Coach (me) and a Match Tactician. A natural progression for most players is that they need to work on being able to move and perform the basic actions required and later they need to focus on playing the right shots (read actions) at the right time.

Being a great player doesn’t automatically mean you can be a great coach! Often these players have trouble empathising with their students and that clearly is bad. So, if you run a clan and beat most players you know don’t automatically assume you will make a great coach!

3 Areas of performance

There are three main areas of a person’s performance:

  • Physical
  • Technical
  • Mental

For this particular piece we can ignore the physical, for obvious reasons, and to simplify things we will replace Mental with Tactical.

Often, although not always, the higher the playing standard the more the coach focuses on the tactical. Beside a few outstanding performers most of the top twenty tennis players in the world are able to hit every shot perfectly. The difference comes from choosing the right shot at the right time. This depends on how well they are playing, how well their opponent is playing, the surface and other environmental factors (Wind, sunlight etc ) If outside)). I love hearing players say things like “I lost today because I couldn't get my backhand working?”. Often that’s because their opponent didn’t let them get it working!

The Basics of Skill Acquisition

When learning a new skill there are definite steps to work through and they can be condensed into the following:

  • Introduction – Why this skill is useful, times you may need it etc.
  • Demonstration – A basic overview of the different movements involved.
  • Explanation – A little more detail. Break the action down into component parts.
  • Activity – The pupil starts to actually perform the action.
  • Summary – Summarise the salient points required by this particular student.

The above is really an overview of a lesson rather than how to acquire a new skill but is still relevant here and I wish a few more online tutorials followed a similar pattern. Those eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the first letters spell I.D.E.A.S. This may prove useful in other activities you are involved in.

For those interested in a more detailed description of skill acquisition there is a heading under Appendix describing each stage.

Possible Implementation in Gaming

OK, so how does all this talk about learning new skills actually fit into play games like Unreal Tournament 2004?
Well, firstly potential coaches make themselves available for hire. At the beginning, the chances of money changing hands is slim but let’s not worry about that for now. A pupil would contact a coach via a coaching board (See Appendix) and they would discuss the pupil's goals and requirements. Once they both have a clear understanding of the objectives the real work would begin. The following points are just ideas and may not be useful in all situations.

Real Situations

The coach would observe while the player competes against similar standard players on typical maps etc. Often what a player thinks they need to improve is completely different from the reality. As mentioned earlier, ??few people are capable of making objective observations about their performance, especially during the heat of battle.?? Even those with training often find it difficult to analyse their performance.

Practice Maps and Situations

The action would move onto one-to-one server where the coach would create situations to highlight areas of improvement and also to give the pupil a chance to practice this new skill under controllable situations. After a suitable period of practice the action could be moved back to a public server where the pupil can put into practice their newly acquired skill. This process could be repeated with increasing levels of difficulty. Don't forget there are more details in the Appendix.

Videos

Watching great players perform is both motivational and educational. However you have to know exactly what you are looking for to really benefit. Guided Videos would provide this. There could be a library of videos designed to show different skills and tactics from different points of view. There seems to be a plethora of frag videos online, so it shouldn’t be too hard to piece together something worthwhile.

Master Classes with the Pros

Even though I mentioned it at the beginning most readers will think I’m only talking about beginners when I write about coaching. Well, you’re wrong, even the best players need coaches, but sometimes the way you promote something affects people’s perception of it. Master Classes are for seasoned players who would like to get some tips from well-known pros. This would boost their profile as well as being a useful marketing tool for their sponsors. Typical topics for Master Classes include tactical analysis of previous high profile matches and question and answers sessions.

Resistance within the Gaming Community?

Often younger players resist tuition for many reasons, especially as there is no established coach set-up for them slot into. For coaching in cybergames to work there has to be visible success stories of players greatly benefiting from coaching and also the major gaming websites need to put the correct spin on things. In many ways gaming has something that a lot of other sports don’t have and that’s a community. This community already spends a lot of time, effort and bandwidth on helping its members. Thousands are helped daily with problems ranging from hardware to software; it shouldn’t be hard to get the community behind this.

Conclusion

OK, you had the assertion now it’s time for the admission.

I COULD BE COMPLETELY WRONG.

But I don’t believe I am. There’s only one way to find out and that’s for a few experienced players to make a commitment to coaching others and they may find they learn a lot themselves. As long as they start with traditional teaching methods that have worked millions of times before, they can then branch out and develop new techniques specifically geared toward cybergaming. If anybody is interested in experimenting then let me know I’m happy to be a beta-pupil.

APPENDIX

Below are a few points in more details that readers may be interested in.

S.M.A.R.T. Goals

This is just one of many useful techniques used to ensure that player reach their full potential. To often people think only about the end result and not about the process required to achieve that result.

  • S Specific – Don’t just say I want to be a great player, be specific. Target a tournament or particular match.
  • M Measurable – There should be an ability to clearly say “Did I achieve this goal, Yes or No”. Did you win the tournament? Yes or No.
  • A Attainable – Saying you want to win every tournament for the next ten years is unattainable. There are too many factors outside your control that would determine these things.
  • R Realistic – Almost the same as above but not quite. This is more on a personal level. Based on your current skill level, time available for practice, age (yes, that’s important even in Cyber Gaming!) and other factors, is you goal realistic. It’s attainable for me to win a CPL championship in 2006 but it’s unrealistic considering I’m a noob player.
  • T Time Based – For this to work there should be some time restrictions involved. “I want to be World Champion” should be “I want to be world Champion in UT2006 by 2007”.
Coaching Services

I have to admit I get carried away with things and this post is no exception. In my chosen sport there are four levels of coaching certificate, along with associations, conferences and special advisory boards. Now I know it’s a little early to be talking about this kind of stuff but there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a recognised coaching award with a yearly conference to present new ideas and discuss interesting issues. I also personally don’t see why coaches should be paid for their time and effort but maybe being an ex coach who made his living from teaching players has clouded my view. Things are different on the Internet.

Perhaps the first place to start would be a forum where potential pupils and coaches could discuss things and maybe offer their services. All it would need would be somebody like Beyond Unreal to add a new board called Coaching to start the ball rolling. My only concern would be that the
Counter Strike community would then start another board, and whilst I accept that different games require different skills and tactics, I think players would benefit more if it was contained within one new community. If enough players think it’s a good idea I may be persuaded to buy a domain name and host it for a year to see how successful it could be. However it probably needs one person to really commit to the idea and spend a lot of time on it. Email me if you are interested in pursuing this idea further.

Just for fun here’s a few possible name ideas:

  • cybercoaching.com
  • gamecoaching.com
  • FPScoaching.com (Actually this has already been taken by a lifestyle coaching company)
  • learntowin.com
Skill Acquisition Process

Below is a basic outline of the process a coach and pupil would go through to learn a new skill. I have continued the tennis theme to allow real world examples. Remember this is a simple introduction to the subject and shouldn’t be considered complete or totally accurate. There are many factors to take into consideration when coaching.

Different sports often require different approaches, as do different students, but as a simply guide the following process is used to acquire new skills. The point at which you progress onto the next stage is dependant on many factors, but you would not wait until the student has perfected the current skill before moving on otherwise their progress will be quite slow. Another point worth mentioning is that this process may need to be repeated a few times, on different occasions, until the student is more comfortable with the action. Lastly, the process described below is starting from the assumption that the skill is completely new to the student and depending on the playing standard of the student certain stages may be omitted.

  • Introduction
    The skill has to be put into context and the students needs to understand why they are learning this particular skill. It is at this point you explain the why as well as the how.
  • Demonstration
    Let the student see the action performed perfectly without having to worry about any outside forces. This is the time to highlight specific areas of interest.
  • Student performs the action
    The coach would try, depending on the action, to ensure that the student has the simplest complete task available. For example in Tennis this point would be where the student practices a forehand swing WITHOUT the ball. Small adjustments may be made at this point ONLY if there is a serious flaw.
  • Introduction of the ball
    The coach now introduces the ball by throwing it vertically allowing to bounce in an almost perfect place for the student. Changes in the swing/action would be made by the coach.
  • Make things a little harder
    This time the coach throws the ball in slightly different places forcing the student to make adjustment to their position.
  • Make things a little more realistic
    The coach now moves to the other side of the net and either throws or hits the ball towards the student. This “feed” of the ball should be a reproducible as possible. Again adjustments may be made to the technical aspects of the swing.
  • Let’s speed things up
    The coach would now begin to hit the ball a little bit harder giving the player a little less time to perform the action. The key word is “little”. You are not trying to force the student into mistakes
  • Time for some slight variation
    The coach would continue hit the ball to the student but may reduce the speed a little. However, the coach should ensure that the ball does not bounce in the same spot any more and the student has to move around a little. Between this stage and the previous one the coach may have increased the pace of their shots giving the students less time to manoeuvre. A second shot could be introduced now or an occasional variation on the first shot. For example the coach may hit six shots to the students forehand followed by one shot to their backhand. This is quite a back difference for the student and their thinking processes. Often the coach has to ensure that the forehand shots all land in more or less the same spot to make things easier.
  • And so the Changes Multiply!
    There are a number of variations that the coach can introduce at various stages. Speed, spin, angle etc. These variations need to be made progressively to give the student time to improve. At any time the coach can go back one stage until the student is more comfortable.
  • Time for some competition!
    It is around this time that simple games can be played where there are points involved. In my sport we could this “Condition Games”, games that have quite restrictive rules that force the player to do limited things.
  • A real game, at last!
    After a few simple condition games the student may be ready for a normal game where they can try out their new skill. Often the coach will control the game to ensure that the student has ample opportunity to practice.
  • No holds barred
    This preferably would take place with two players of a similar standard allowing the coach to witness how the player copes in, what is for them, a pressure situation. Video may be made to help illustrate certain points during the next lesson.

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8 Comments

  1. john

    i agree, I sometimes seem to be dragged into the job of coach with my friends. how do I do this, I cant do that, ect.. sure wish I got paid for it. hehe. pizza and beer or sodas well I guess that does count doesn’t it.

  2. Jasper

    I have read all this and it is brilliant – when applied to the real world.
    In the gaming world, excepting HL, there are games that need a walkthrough. All the HLs,however, are intuitive and have visual clues and action clues.
    All the HLs and better mods do not need coaches. I play them all many times with different strategies – that is what makes them fun and demanding.
    A typical example is the multi strider and hunter map in “Offshore” which I have played many times with ever more dangerous strategies. Yes I used strategies that did not work but no harm in that. I would hate to have someone coach me when the fun is finding out for yourself.
    I have also QUAKEd amd DOOMed and the same applies as that for the HL frachise.
    The answer to the question – for me, NO, NEVER.

    1. Jasper, this article was specifically written for Mp players, so it doesn’t really relate to SP. However, as you will see later today when I post this week’s poll question, strategy and ability are two different things.

  3. Jasper

    Oops, sorry Phillip. I only do SP-FPS. I thought that was your bag too..
    Delete this when your done!

    1. No need to apologize. I do only do SP-FPS but I believe the principle is the same for sp skills.

  4. Lars

    Wow Phillip, you really have put some thought into this.

    Clearly, coaching is a worthwhile and meaty occupation in general.
    I guess my main question would be, is it worthwhile for video games? If you’re going to get serious about developing skills and strategy and physical conditioning, why not go outside and play a sport that actually benefits your body?
    Coaching and being coached seem to require a significant commitment, and few people are going to see sufficient benefit out of video games to put in that committment.

    Obviously I’m not part of the CS community or a clan…

    1. Lars, in answer to your first question I suppose only the individual player can answer that and my answer is “yes, it is worth it.” In answer to your second question why can’t you do both? I don’t see a problem with saying that you enjoy playing video games, either competitively or not, and want to improve yourself.

      I am not suggesting that players give up other real sports or even spend a lot of time practising. It’s possible to improve from just 15 minutes 2 or 3 times a week with some focused practice.

      I am also not suggesting that SP players require coaching but try and imagine a COMPLETE beginner to FPS games, probably somebody older than a teenager too. Imagine how useful it would be if somebody were there to help them, either in person or virtually. I also wanted to run a planetphillip co-op server to allow new players to join and watch/try/learn/play with others.

      Not even formal coaching but just playing with others in an SP game is enlightening.

      SUre, some of the younger PP readers think that they know everything but until they get older and try something new they won’t really understand what it’s like not to naturally adapt to new situations.

      What’s wrong with wanting to improve at everything you do?

  5. Ol" Scratch

    When I looked at a demo of the original HL, I was still very much into the DOOMs, Duke Nukem3D, and Redneck Rampage, and I had trouble even getting past the first bit; so, I didn’t get into it then.

    But, I found a copy of HL at Half-Price Books for about $10, and took the plunge–and if the demo had the training program the beginning of the game has, I would’ve gone on with it much sooner than I did.

    Some games absolutely REQUIRE training (not the level that Phil is talking about)–see Crysis. Others, not so much. But I see Phil’s point, if you’re wanting to be a “pro”, having a good trainer is a must, unless you’re exceptionally gifted AND able to discern your weaknesses and work on them to make them strengths.

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