My coach sounds delighted. "That's it! Nice one!" he cheers. I just beat him at Street Fighter 5 by throwing out my critical art on wakeup - something he suggested just five minutes ago. It would be a surprise attack, he said. Most people don't expect it, even really good players. I think he's proud I knocked him out.
I'm halfway through my 45-minute coaching session with Fireproofflame, a 17 going on 18-year-old Dubliner who's trying to help me get better at Street Fighter 5. He's spent the last 20 minutes or so beating me up, but all the while he talks to me, explaining how certain things work, suggesting strategies, moves and combos.
I'm playing as Birdie, Street Fighter's donut-loving, chain-wielding British punk rocker. Fireproof is Zangief, Street Fighter's famous Russian wrestler. I am struggling, but Fireproof has some tips for me. He suggests I drop a banana on the floor - one of Birdie's unique moves - and back off. No harm in that, he says. Or perhaps roll a can along the ground - another of Birdie's special moves - and walk up to Zangief behind it. "As Zangief there's not much I can do when you drop the can," Fireproof says over party chat as we duke it out. I give it a shot and yes, the can forces Zangief to halt his advance. I tentatively move in behind it.
My coaching session was set up by the people behind New Challenger, a Discord (chat client) that has grown rapidly since it sparked into life in the summer of 2016. New Challenger was designed as a place Street Fighter fans like me can improve their game, but it has a higher purpose: to help newcomers get into the game, to help explain how it works, and to give them a chance to experience the thrill of a live tournament.
The Discord is coming up on nearly 4000 members, who range in skill level from Rookie all the way up to Gold tier and beyond. Posts pop up 24 hours a day from users all over the globe. Special skill-capped tournaments are held on a regular basis, offering players a chance to put their training into practice. These tournaments are sometimes streamed on Twitch, with wannabe professional commentators explaining the ins and outs of the action. All the while, a 20-strong group of coaches answers questions and plays sets against those who ask for one-on-one help. Everything is free. Everyone involved is a volunteer, helping to grow the Street Fighter community for the love of the game.
It was an innocuous post on the Street Fighter subreddit by a Canadian who goes by the name Vinager that started it all. Street Fighter 5 was his first game in Capcom's long-running series since 1992's Street Fighter II: Champion Edition. He was, as you'd expect, a bit out of the loop. "The matchmaking wasn't the greatest," he tells me. "I didn't know what to do."
Vinager posted on r/StreetFighter to ask for a sparring partner, someone in his region who he could learn from. He ended up getting 15 responses and 10 private messages in one night from redditors who all offered to play. The next day, while at work, Vinager told a friend of this surprise response, and lamented the fact he couldn't play with everyone who got in touch. His friend suggested Discord. "Of course, I was like, what's a Discord?"
Vinager's Street Fighter Discord opened on 28th June 2016. After weeks of promotion on r/StreetFighter, the number of users swelled to 1600. As we speak it's up to 3600. "It's growing really fast," he says. "Too fast." In just half a year, Vinager's New Challenger became the largest beginner community in Street Fighter 5. "I didn't expect all this," he says.
New Challenger is lively to say the least. The popular coaching channel is packed with questions ranging from the basic to the complex. These questions are usually answered within minutes. But the more interesting answers are those responding to the kind of questions you'd think Street Fighter players would scoff at, such as, "I can't get a Dragon Punch out, any tips for the input motion?" To my surprise, no-one takes the piss.
Mountlover is a 27-year-old from Virginia who works as a coach, tournament organiser and commentator for New Challenger. Vinager sings his praises, calling him incredibly knowledgable about the game. Mountlover tells me about his coaching technique.
"Step one, I'll play them once and see, okay, where is this person in terms of their skill level? Do they have to learn the basics? Have they picked up some of the fundamentals on their own and they just need to learn some tricks?
"Then I'll think, where was I when I was at that level? When I was at that person's level in fighting games, what were the things I needed to know the most? I'll go through that with them and try to explain it to them in a way they can understand. I'll try to avoid using obtuse language."
Mountlover says he's helped New Challenger Discord users go from Rookie rank all the way up to Gold. "It's usually the younger players who take better to coaching and improving," he says. "Some of our youngest members who are 16, 17 and 18, they'll learn things really quickly. You'll go into a coaching session with them and say, I want you to practise this, and they'll just pick it up right away. Those are the star pupils."
Keeping on top of the Discord, coaching and helping with tournaments is a big time commitment, Mountlover admits. In fact, after our interview, he plans to host an hour-long coaching session with a player to see how they're coming along. But he loves the work. "It's fun, honestly," he says.
New Challenger's early days success, I suspect, has a lot to do with the fact that Street Fighter 5 itself does little to teach newcomers how to play. It does little to teach those familiar with the franchise how to get better, either. Sure, there are combo trials and basic tutorials, but there's nothing genuinely helpful, nothing that holds your hand and guides you through the minefield that is competitive play.
"Capcom never really implemented any kind of easy tutorial system in the game for teaching new players the fundamentals," Mountlover says. "We're picking up the slack and doing that for them."
Street Fighter has always suffered from this problem. Fighting games in general have, too, but it's particularly frustrating with Street Fighter 5, because this is perhaps the most newcomer-friendly Street Fighter ever created.
Most players agree Street Fighter 5 has the the smallest execution barrier of any Street Fighter game ever released. Every other Street Fighter game has had what are called one-frame links. This is a combo or move in which you're required to press a button within a time-frame of one sixtieth of a second in order to execute. If you're one frame too early or one frame too late, you drop the combo.
"This is one of those things that's a huge debate within the fighting game community itself, because it's not really reasonable to expect humans to be able to do that 100 per cent of the time," Mountlover says.
With Street Fighter 5, Capcom added an input buffer, so in 99 per cent of cases, this kind of split-second timing is no longer necessary. If you're a little bit off and you press the button a frame or two too early or too late, the game will detect that and give you the link you were going for. This combined with other subtle mechanics makes Street Fighter 5 perfectly suited to rookies, while retaining the depth veterans demand.
Unfortunately it's a missed opportunity, because Street Fighter 5, like other Street Fighter games, does not properly explain itself. So what can newcomers do to learn Street Fighter? Back in the day, if you wanted to improve your game you'd have to find someone else to play with, either couch co-op on a console or down your local arcade. Nowadays, with arcades an endangered species and couch co-op taking a back seat to online play, newcomers have YouTube videos and unwelcoming forums, and that's about it.
"People go onto GameFAQs and ask questions and they receive a lot of ridicule from other players," Fireproof says, "just for posing a question like, how do I stop Zangief when he's just walking forward and blocking? How can I open him up? It's that kind of level, where it's not quite Bronze, not quite Silver, it's somewhere in the middle, around the Ultra Bronze area where the majority of my coaching seems to come into effect. That seems to be the level where most people hit a stump and are unable to progress."
Mountlover goes as far as to say New Challenger's popularity owes as much to the rise of Discord as the hot new tech as it does "Capcom failing us as a video game developer". This "perfect storm" was sparked by Street Fighter 5's catastrophic, bare-bones launch and slim online feature set.
"You can get into a lobby with a friend and play them, but the way you have to do that is so obtuse," Mountlover complains. "You can't just invite them through Steam or the PlayStation Network. You can't go to people who are already your friends and easily find them and add them. You sort of have to ask them, hey you! What's your Capcom Fighting Network ID? Oh yeah, what's your rank? Who do you play? Okay, then I'll send you an invite. How do you spell that? It's not easy or intuitive."
Discord, on the other hand, is easy and intuitive. "I joined it because it was a convenient place to find people of a similar rank and region and just play with them casually," Mountlover says, "because it was surprisingly difficult to find people you could have a steady connection with."
My one-on-one coaching continues, and I can feel myself improving with each round. Fireproof tells me how to punish Zangief's V-Trigger because he can see I don't know how to do it, and then he praises me when I manage to put the advice into practice. He suggests I use Birdie's standing light kick instead of his jab because it's faster, and to practise confirming combos off of it so I end up doing more damage. If I land a sweep, rush down after the rolling can. Birdie's opponent has to block or jump on wakeup and you can act accordingly.
There's something brilliant about being coached one-on-one in this way. Not only am I having a huge amount of fun, I can feel myself getting better. This 45-minute session is more useful, I reckon, than the hundred or so hours I've put into the game on my own so far.
Mountlover explains it in a way that relates: "Imagine a carpenter learning for the first time what a hammer is properly used for. That's what it's like when you're learning fighting games. For the first time it's apparent this is what this tool was designed for, whereas before you were just doing whatever worked."
Fireproof, who balances New Challenger coaching with studying for his Leaving Certificate exams, talks plainly and slowly. His patience with me belies his years. But he doesn't let me off the hook, either. I can tell he can see right through my game, identifying weaknesses in mere minutes. But I can also tell he wants me to get better, because he gets something out of all this.
"The satisfaction comes from helping someone," he says. "It's enlightening to have someone go through the game like that, and show you in a matter of minutes what could take you hundreds of hours to learn on your own."
I ask about his coaching technique. "If I notice if someone is struggling with, say, Zangief's stand fierce punch button, I'd repeatedly do it over and over again, and if they still get frustrated with it after losing two rounds, I'd message them and say, you know when I'm doing this move, you're able to low sweep me, or you're able to block it when it's not charged because I'm minus four and you can punish it. It's just little things like that, where I focus on specific things and tell people how to play better, rather than just saying you need to play the matchup more or you should know all this data."
No-one involved with New Challenger makes any money from it. While there is a donate option, all money received goes back into the Discord. "I had one guy donate $40," Vinager says. "I was like, what would you like it to go toward? He's like, it's for you. You can put it toward the website or a tournament, buy yourself a six-pack, whatever you want. It went toward the website. Right now that's our main focus."
This approach is in stark contrast to the coaching service currently offered by established Street Fighter pros such as Ryan "Gootecks" Gutierrez and Justin Wong, who will charge around $100 for a one-hour session. New Challenger doesn't pretend to offer coaching from fighting game superstars, but what he does offer should be useful for most players - and of course, it's free.
After my coaching session I'm encouraged to sign up for one of New Challenger's Underdog tournaments. This is a skill-capped online tournament for 0-3999 League Point players, that is, Rookies up to Silver. I'm nervous at the thought of playing in any kind of tournament, but reckon this would be a good chance to find out whether this coaching lark has helped me get better or not.
So I practise my combos and work on my setups. I go online and find myself winning. I'm having a decent time of things, rising up to Ultra Silver in the week before the tournament. Fireproof is a magician, I think. He's a genius.
On a Friday evening I log into the Discord and sign up using the Challonge tournament website. I spot my username (wyp100) in a little box drawn against another player's ID and all of a sudden things feel very real. Just before my first match begins I see a Discord message from Fireproof: "Try your best Wesley! I believe in a top eight finish." I do not share my coach's optimism.
The tournament itself starts badly, with a loss that sends me straight into the losers' bracket. Tournament nerves, I reckon. I shake those off, winning my next two games. I then find myself in a match for a place in top eight. At this point the tournament organisers ask my opponent and I to hold off on playing our match. They plan to stream it on Twitch. Not only that, a couple of commentators are getting ready to do their thing. Oh god.
The video, below, shows off the New Challenger EU Underdog Tournament I took part in. My final match is the first one streamed.
I'm a bag of nerves as my opponent makes short work of my slow, lumbering Birdie. Ibuki's fast moves and mind-bending mixups are too much for me to handle, and I go out of the tournament. I'm upset with myself for not making top eight, but delighted with the experience. What a wonderful, thrilling thing to be able to take part in a Street Fighter tournament against others around your skill level, having been coached by someone who's actually rooting for you. For a moment there, I felt a little bit like Rocky.
Vinager hopes one day to sponsor a player from the New Challenger Discord, sending them to one of the big live tournaments such as Evo in Las Vegas. Wouldn't it be great, I suggest, to see a player who joined the Discord as a rookie rise up the ranks and then do well in an actual tournament against actual pros?
"That would be the ultimate story right there!" Vinager replies. "That would be a huge goal. I don't know if it's the goal. I just want to see it grow. The more people the better. If they're looking for help, our doors are open."