What Makes The Best Players Different
As someone who has been playing with and against world-class competition for a while, it’s become clear to me that superior tactics and strategies are not what separates the absolute best from the rest.
That’s not to say they don’t have excellent tactical and strategic sensibilities — by definition, they possess both. None of the teams or players in the top 10 of a given game are “bad” at playing it.
They know how to move, coordinate, and plan their attacks or defenses against any given opponents.
Sometimes there are big skill differences, like when a squad of veterans forms a new bronze team and demolishes everyone at the bottom of the rankings.
In these cases it’s safe to say that skill and accumulated experience are behind a win or a loss. This is a common situation in the lower echelons of any competitive game.
But when you watch top competitors play against each other, blowouts become far less common. Everyone is good at the fundamentals and motivated to improve on a continuous basis. Any skill-based edges that exist are tiny, if they exist at all.
In these cases, we like to focus on flashy moves and tactical flourishes that catch opponents off guard. This is a natural impulse: flashy play is fun to watch and it gives us something tangible to point to when we talk about who’s good and who isn’t.
And yet even that isn’t really what determines the winners from the losers. Who goes home with the gold and who has to settle for silver isn’t as easy to see as a squad wipe or a sneaky cap.
What’s the x factor then? The answer is the mental game, which is much harder to gauge and understand from the outside. The mental game doesn’t work for our highlight reel-centric way of thinking, but it’s what matters the most in evenly-matched games.
But before I expand too much on that concept, let’s talk about some competitive fundamentals.
Competition as a Skill
An often-overlooked fact is that competing is itself a skill, one that you can only really refine by competing. It has very little to do with the straight-ahead in-game actions you take within a competitive setting, since those can be practiced anytime.
Competing introduces a whole new set of problems. These problems can only be experienced and improved upon by experiencing the pressure of real competition.
Anyone who has been nervous during a match other people are watching knows what I’m talking about. You play one way when it’s casual fun, and during competition you transform, Jekyl and Hyde style, into a totally different player.
When you stop and think about it, this is a bizarre dynamic: you’re playing a game you play all the time, and during casual play you feel fine. But when you slap on the metagame of competition and everything changes.
You’re being watched and, most importantly, being judged on your performance. There are eyeballs on you, and it’s impossible not to think about that to some degree.
None of us want to be on a highlight reel getting styled on by an opponent so they can get some glory points, and yet that’s the risk we take anytime we play a game that other people watch. On the flip side, you could be the one collecting the glory points, so we’re all willing to make that risk-reward trade-off.
Because this trade-off exists, we’re all battling our own psychological battles during a match. Whether we feel great or terrible, we have to figure out how to act while under all of these competition-related pressures.
What we’re coping with in either case is what’s commonly called “tilt.” Tilt is a term from poker, and it means that a player is going too far in one direction emotionally.
Negative tilt is when someone gets so upset that they start making bad decisions, and positive tilt is when getting too high on your own ego produces the same problem.
Either way, the problem is identical whether we’re dealing with negative or positive forms of tilt: you’re making bad choices. Those bad choices made in the heat of a tilted moment can be the difference between winning and losing.
The real battles between players with roughly the same level of skill are occurring in their minds. There’s a push-pull dynamic, with each side working to get the other tilted, all while trying to avoid getting tilted themselves.
This is especially complex and challenging when you’re dealing with a team game like Onward or baseball. With one-on-one games like chess or boxing, the only tilting you have to account for is your own and your single opponent’s.
In team games, you have to think about your own level of tilt, plus your team’s overall level of tilt, plus individual teammate’s level of tilt, plus all of that on the other team. This is why just bringing together great individual players often isn’t enough to create a great team.
With all this in mind, let’s return to my original question: what is it that separates teams with roughly even skill levels, especially at the highest echelons of competition? It’s mastery of this dynamic.
Top teams are experts at managing their own psychology during the stresses of competition, as well as making moves to off-balance the other team’s mental state.
Battles at the top often come down to whoever loses this intense back-and-forth — in many cases the deciding factors can be spotted in mere moments where there’s a tiny window of psychological breakdown on one side.
Let’s consider some ways tilt can be generated in a game, starting with one of my favorite methods: repetition.
Few things piss off an opponent more than beating them with the same, simple pattern over and over again. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard seasoned players talk about how “lame” or “cheap” it is to do the same things repeatedly after they’ve been killed by someone doing just that.
The first question that should always be asked in that situation is, “If it’s so dumb and predictable, why can’t you stop it?”
Maybe it isn’t as stupid or simple as you think it is. Maybe it’s effective for a reason. Either way, nobody competes for the title of “most creative player” – we’re all competing to win. And if there’s a simple, efficient pathway to victory, then it’s your obligation to utilize it.
Not doing so doesn’t make you smart or innovative, it means you’re not playing to win.
People love to talk smack about repetition though. In the last game I played in, for example, the commentators even mentioned that my team uses the same setups on every map.
While that isn’t true for reasons I won’t get into here, it’s worth mentioning that we won the match in question decisively. No doubt the other team did their homework on us, and yet we still prevailed.
Another example from Onward is Izzy, last season’s MVP. Her role on Globochem is simple: act as bait by constantly peeking corners, then kill whoever is foolish enough to swallow it (either by shooting them on a double-peek or giving a callout to one of her teammates).
People lose their minds over her brutally effective playstyle, which I can’t help but find hilarious.
The anger turns into unfounded accusations of cheating, lag, etc. but that anger is more accurately described as frustration at not being able to stop something so predictable.
The key takeaway here is that you can know what’s coming and still not be able to stop it. Being both predictable and unstoppable is perhaps the greatest superpower for pushing an opponent to a tilted state. Nothing crushes morale like preparing, planning and training to stop a team’s bread and butter, only to get steamrolled anyway.
To be sure, variation is an important element of strategy. You don’t want to be too predictable. But sometimes being predictable is the right choice, if only because it’ll drive your opponent crazy.
Another fundamental way to get your opponent tilted is by forcing them to be patient.
Aggressive offense, when done correctly, generates an incredible high for those who are enacting it. Few things feel better than sweeping in on both flanks simultaneously and devastating a defensive position, or opening up a hole in their lines and rushing in for a successful cap.
People hoot and holler about exciting offensive plays, so there’s also a social element attached to it. Everyone wants that incredible cap or kill on the highlight reel so they can generate that sweet, sweet social capital for themselves.
Because of all these factors, people get impatient. They want the gunfire to start cracking off, they want the explosions to rumble, they want to get the rush started and they want it all now.
This is why a common pattern for losing teams or players is they start to say “Fuck it, let’s just rush” when the game isn’t going their way. It feels good to do that, to “go out on your shield” even if it’s the wrong thing to do.
And it is, almost always, the wrong thing to do. But you can tell yourself you did something courageous, even if you didn’t win. That’s the trap.
You can use all of this against other players.
If you’re on defense, play games with their head. Hang out in unexpected spots, peek out occasionally and pick them off. Throw their smoke grenades back. Do whatever it takes to make them wait just a little longer to start the fun part.
If you’re on offense, you can also play games with them. The Onward EU teams are masters at this: they’ll crawl across the map, waiting for someone on the defense to get antsy and expose themselves. When they do, they take them out and then go back to crawling in many cases.
Then they get close and BAM! the whole map explodes with gunfire and smoke. Teams that aren’t equipped to wait out rounds like this tend to fold under the pressure.
In general, you can think of this a lot like blocking in fighting games. It’s pretty frustrating to play someone in Mortal Kombat and have them block the whole time, only to turn around and destroy you when they stop blocking.
Another example is the rope-a-dope strategy utilized by Muhammed Ali against George Foreman. Ali sat and took Foreman’s punishing punches until Foreman was gassed out, then he moved in for the kill.
As one pro gamer put it:
Keep blocking, and eventually the other player will get so frustrated that they’ll start blocking with their face.
You can also get a team tilted is by setting traps that play into their style. Every team has a specific “character” to it (which is a topic I cover in my video about playstyles) and that means every team has preferences. You can pander to those preferences as a way to bait them into making mistakes.
For example, if other team is more aggressive, you can reorient your defense to let them cross certain lines just so you can enclose more of them in your killbox.
Or maybe they love playing shields and rely heavily on their shield players to carry them to victory on offense. You can lull them into a false sense of security by letting the shield get deep into your defense and then C4ing them with a sneaky plant.
They’ll think they’re in the promised land, and then they’ll be out of the game.
Building up confidence and taking it away is always a good tilt-creation strategy.
Let’s not forget about positive tilt, which is when you let your inflated ego get in the way of your decision making. This is often overlooked, but it’s very important to understand.
Overconfidence is the key to come-from-behind victories. A team gets a big lead, then blows it because they take their foot off the gas at the end. We’ve all been there, and it’s devastating for team morale.
The military even has a term for it: victory disease. Armies have fallen after routing their enemies because they back off at the critical moment, when it’s time to deliver the finishing blow.
It’s important to keep this in mind both when you’re winning and losing by a large margin. If you’re losing, you need to stay focused and see if you can massage their ego. Feed them fake tilt, talk in the open about how shitty the situation is, appear to be losing your cool.
If you’re winning, you need to ignore that victory margin until it’s over. Doesn’t matter if you’re way ahead, you need to continue to stomp them until it’s over.
This is a particular problem in Onward, because you have to play 3 maps no matter what happens. Many teams will destroy on the first two maps, then lose the last one because they get too relaxed.
That’s a problem, because MMR (Match Making Rank, which is how teams are ranked in competitive play) is affected by the total score. You might lose an important spot in the rankings (especially for playoffs) just because you backed off at the end.
Signs of Tilt
There’s an endless number of ways you can get an opponent tilted, and I don’t have enough time in a day to cover them all. But we do need to go over what it looks like when tilt starts to rear its ugly head.
You can tell the other team is getting tilted in a few ways. If you start to see them play more recklessly (like the aforementioned “fuck it, let’s rush” strategy), then they’re probably tilted.
If you can hear them getting angry as they die, saying things like “Bullshit!” or “What the fuck?!” as their last words, then they’re probably getting tilted.
If they accuse you of cheating, of using lag to your advantage, or otherwise making unfounded accusations of manipulating the game, they’re probably getting tilted.
If they’re normally jovial but have suddenly gone silent, they’re probably getting tilted. In general, if they start to behave in a way that’s the opposite of their normal state of being, they aren’t feeling right. And that means you need to move in for the kill.
Hearing or seeing any of this is a good thing if you see it happening on the other side. Tilt is like a mind virus, and it infects entire teams even when it only starts with one player.
But this also means you need to also be incredibly vigilant about tilt hitting your team. If anyone on your team (including you) is getting angry, accusing the other team of cheating, going silent, etc. everyone on the team needs to collectively shut it down. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that none of that matters, and it’s time to get back into a winning mindset.
You don’t want that spark to turn into a fire that burns down your chances of winning.
Do whatever it takes to stop tilt from taking hold. Controlling your own psychology comes first — you can’t tilt the other team if you’re infected by tilt yourself.
Finally, some people like to pour gas on the fire and talk shit when they hear tilt happening on the other side. I don’t personally like this approach, because it makes you look like a tool and people tend to take it more seriously than they should. Even if you’re just trying to joke around, people don’t forget about it when you push their buttons in vulnerable moments.
I suppose there’s some strategic legitimacy to trash talk, but I’ve found you can win just as easily without it. None of the top teams do it in my experience, or at least don’t do it enough for that to be a defining characteristic of their play. That speaks volumes.
If you do elect to be one of those people, don’t be surprised when people start to hate you. Most competitive communities are pretty small, especially at the top, and reputations are hard to repair in the long run. Be careful how you manage yours.
And before anyone says anything, yes, I’m aware people like Conor McGregor exist. Talking shit can bring in big money for large-scale sporting events in today’s hype-infused world.
So in some sense, it is a valid strategy — to make money and become (or stay) famous. But if you just want to be a better competitor, you don’t need to do it.
I also have a course about the nature of competition called How to Win that you might enjoy if you’re into this subject.