Improve Your Gaming Performance In 4 Simple Steps

Up until about a minute ago this post was to be entitled ‘Principles Of Learning And Their Application For Increased Competitive Gaming Success’. Then I realised that no one wants to read something that sounds like a PhD thesis, even if it does reference video games. Instead you now get a spam email style slogan intended to pique your interest in an idea that’s been floating around the back of my mind for a while now…

How To Play Better. And Better.

And Better.

As a musician and teacher I’ve come to understand a thing or two about the ways in which people acquire new skills and continue to develop them over the long term. It also occurs to me that this knowledge may be of benefit to those seeking to be more competitive in their chosen gaming fields. I, for example, would love to develop pro skills in games like Street Fighter, Counter Strike or DOTA 2, but I’m also realistic about the amount of time I would have available to commit to the project. As such I have to regularly remind myself that these goals must remain ‘on the shelf’ for the foreseeable future as I focus on more pressing matters like earning a living.

The only multiplayer games I’ve ever played semi-competitively are Pokemon and to a lesser extent StarCraft and Hearthstone. Looking back on the periods of time spent coming to grips with each of them, my development as a player has been far more satisfying when aligning my practice with the four principles of learning that you’ll find beneath the divider.

For those who find themselves in the position of introducing someone to complex systems such as music or MOBAs, these concepts can inform the way you guide your friend in tackling their new challenge and help set them up for success. Teaching someone else is also a highly effective method of reinforcing and even extending your own mastery of the subject matter (effective teaching should require that you function in the upper tiers of Bloom’s famous Taxonomy) and is therefore worthwhile for both the mentor and student.

Finding a good teacher is always a solid first step when commencing something new, but regardless of whether or not you have a mentor available the following concepts should assist you in ‘leveling up’ as efficiently as possible. Some may seem pretty obvious, but if you take the time to consider how you can apply them to your gaming – or non-gaming for that matter – pursuits, you may find that there’s unexpected value even in things that seem self-evident.

1. Intrinsic Motivation
People learn most effectively when they are motivated by a strong personal desire. My knowledge and skill acquisition is going to be far better when studying First Person Shooters than when studying accounting, as I genuinely want to be better at Counter Strike but feel neutral towards accountancy. If you’re reading this then you’re probably brimming with intrinsic motivation because you understand the joy of gaming and/or have a dream of competitive success. You will therefore be far more likely to invest time and energy in honing your craft as the potential outcomes are of significant inherent value.

Extrinsic motivation (doing something for external reward or for someone else’s sake) can also be beneficial, but it will always play the role of the dark side of The Force in the motivational hierarchy. Classroom teachers primarily strive to grow intrinsic motivation within their students to propel them through the subject matter, but will readily employ long term extrinsic strategies (e.g. fostering positive working relationships that can over time yield intrinsic motivation) and short term extrinsic strategies (e.g. scratch-and-sniff stickers, detention) to initiate or help maintain a greater rate of progress.

The best advice I can give for anyone needing to improve their gaming chops but lacking the motivation to do so is to get on YouTube and find some amazing players to inspire you. Same goes for any of my music students that are reading this. Back in my day we didn’t have this amazing resource. Go and use it!

2. Visual, Aural and Kinaesthetic (VAK) Learning
Different people learn most effectively in different ways. This is one of those plain-as-day truisms, but also something that can accelerate or slow your progress towards gaming supremacy depending on how you apply it.

One of the widely accepted ways in which researchers have refined this idea (courtesy of Barbe, Fleming et al.) is that you absorb and retain information more or less effectively based on whether the concepts are being presented visually (you’re watching), aurally (you’re listening) or kinaesthetically (you’re physically doing). This blog with its 100% reliance on text and images is a good example of visual presentation but offers nothing in terms of the aural and kinaesthetic ‘modalities’. Let’s Play and tutorial videos may be such a popular and effective teaching resource because they are pumping out visual and aural teaching simultaneously, which if followed by the viewer going and putting what they’ve seen and heard into practice rounds out the VAK trio nicely. Fisher’s handy teaching model based on the ‘I do – we do – you do’ sequence guides students along a similar path, but adds the central shared component before sending them out on their own. It is encouraging to see online gaming communities such as Smogon University facilitating mentorship programs that exist to provide shared, guided practise time that would be otherwise unavailable to many gamers due to distance.

[Check out this link for further info including a quiz to determine your learning strengths according to the VAK model]

Now to zoom in on the implementation of this whole VAK concept with regards to gaming. While the optimal strategy for improving your skills may evolve as you progress, it would be good to have an idea of which tools and resources are likely to benefit you the most based on your own learning style.

Here are a couple of examples in which gamers aiming to develop skills with an unfamiliar hero in DOTA 2 tailor an approach that makes better use of their available time. The plan of attack for an aspiring player who suspects their learning style is visually dominant might go something like:

  1. Research (including making notes/diagrams) their chosen hero’s standard build order and gameplay tips.
  2. Run and re-run the early stage of the game in bot matches with reference to the notes, implementing and experimenting with their hero strat until ability and purchase progressions are being executed comfortably and consistently. Preferably maximise income while minimising deaths in the process.
  3. Finish session with a low pressure full game and consider how those early game actions flowed into the middle and end game stages. Add a couple of reminders to the notes page for next time so as to maintain learning momentum.

An aspiring player who feels that they learn better by listening or doing (aural or kinaesthetic dominance respectively) may break their practice session down a little differently:

  1. Get a quick rundown of their new hero’s standard strategies with the help of high-value/low-time-cost tutorial from YouTube.
  2. Jump right in with a training or full game mode in much the same way as the previous example, but dedicating a larger portion of the session to this hands-on work.
  3. Finish with a low pressure full game and reflect on what worked well and what could be improved on in future.

NOTE: Practice sessions won’t always be this long or consist of the same steps; try to keep things fresh for the sake of your motivation levels. The full games shouldn’t always be low pressure situations as there are great benefits to regularly performing under manageable stress levels. The reasoning here is to give yourself the chance to focus on executing as well as possible when mastering the techniques and to create reliable habits. Having the pressure of overly challenging opponents pushing you to the limits from the outset may distract you from learning and slow your initial progress. Once you’re nailing the basics consistently then feel free to go hard.

As gaming is a practical activity requiring a great deal of repetitive action and experience (for thorough in-game knowledge as well as keeping on top of the whole metagame deal), the differences in learning modality are most influential in the initial stage of information collection. Visual learners are likely to store what they find a lot more effectively if they follow up their reading or viewing with some form of note taking. The notes could consist of words or diagrams as either will boost knowledge retention significantly. Note taking is unlikely to be a great deal of help to someone for whom seeing something on paper or screen doesn’t help it stick firmly in their memory, however my teaching experiences suggest that almost everybody is capable to some extent of creating lasting mental pathways via any of the VAK modalities and that a considered, flexible approach will yield good results. The most important thing is that you’re putting in the effort, reflecting on your progress and adjusting your practice accordingly.

3. Goal Setting (SMART Targets)

The above examples take it for granted that the aspiring gamer has clearly identified what they want to get out of their practice time. Sometimes, especially when you have a strong grasp of the subject’s fundamentals already, it can be hard to isolate the exact elements of knowledge or technique that are limiting your progress. Having a teacher or mentor handy can help avoid this predicament, but there is another common teaching concept that may help you clear this road block unassisted and get rolling once more towards victory.

Smart Targets

Somewhat predictably, given how widespread the use of this mnemonic is, there are many variations for what each letter of the acronym stands for. The version above is borrowed from my annual Performance Management documentation and opens with the two factors that I think are of the greatest value to those seeking to maintain consistent gaming improvement, be they beginners or highly experienced.

S for Specific: As mentioned above, isolating the specific aspects of your performance that can become points of focus in your gaming should be the first port of call. Continuing with the DOTA 2 scenario, this may relate to last-hitting, hero positioning, spell timing, build order or any number of other ‘one percenters’ that contribute to your teams eventual success or failure. If you can’t identify the limiting factor in your game for yourself, ask a player you respect for advice. It’s a safe bet they’ll be willing to offer it.

M for Measurable: This is the flipside of identifying your current focal points, as there is little use to putting in all the time and effort if you haven’t got an appropriate way of analysing their efficacy. Win/Loss or Kill/Death/Assist numbers tend to be readily available in game but if your current focus is on something subtle, like support spell timing, sourcing useful feedback may require a bit of creativity. Sadly not everyone has access to the vast reams of advanced analytical data frequently used in professional sports of the traditional kind, but a running tally of things like last-hits or creep denies isn’t beyond the amateur player with a smart phone. Of course not everything can be collated easily in numerical form, but there has to be some challenge to this after all. How do you measure your improvement at creep stacking? It can be done.

UPDATE: According to a reliable and well informed source that also happens to be my brother, “There are websites like Dotabuff that allow you to review your stats as well – so in some cases tools are already available. They display averages, GP/M, XP/M, last hits, denies – the lot.” So in the DOTA 2 case at least, your advanced analytics wish is my command!

If you set quality goals and can gauge how successfully you’re meeting them then you’re already a step or two ahead of most casual gamers.

4. Positive Self Reflection As A Habit

The concluding sentence of Point 2 contains what is possibly the most valuable concept you can take away from this post. It is a process that will assist you in gaming, music making or most any other aspect of your life that you would like to see personal improvement in.

Execute – Reflect – Adjust – Repeat

Provided you have well chosen SMART goals this cycle of self reflection is guaranteed to expedite their achievement. Sadly I’m yet to discover any short cuts, and forgetting to go through with the Reflection and Adjustment stages will limit how quickly you progress. That is why the words ‘As A Habit’ in the subheading are crucial. Having made the conscious decision to apply the whole cycle to your practice, I would recommend writing your adjusted focus points down somewhere obvious as a reminder for next time so as to avoid the natural mental backsliding that occurs from day to day and session to session. As a musician I’ve found this simple strategy to be a valuable time and memory saving measure.


There’s a handy line of positively-weighted reflective questioning that goes something like: “What are two things that worked well for you and one thing that you could improve on next time?”. This is a great prompt as students tend to be very quick at identifying what didn’t work but struggle to notice many of the things that are working better now than they were yesterday/last week/last year. An emphasis on positivity is something I would encourage anyone who is serious about their learning to cultivate in their thought processes. My experience as a musician and human being suggests that you will always screw up in some minor or major (unintentional pun) way, but that shouldn’t be what defines you in that moment or devalues your journey as a whole. I’ve also found that maintaining long-term intrinsic motivation is mighty hard when you haven’t yet developed the ability to recognise and appreciate the small successes that when viewed together illustrate the improvement you’ve been striving for, so try to make positive recognition a conscious step in your self reflection.

I’m looking forward to one day following this up with an eSports coaching feature or summary of how things went when I got the chance to put all these ideas into action. According to scientists you are at your competitive gaming peak at the age of 24 so I’m unlikely to make it to the elite tiers, but it can be informative and fun if nothing else. If you’ve found something useful in this post or have something you’d like more information on I’d love to hear about it through the comments. Good luck, have fun!


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