Spend time on any forum for a competitive game and you’ll hear the term “skill” thrown around a lot. “This game takes a lot of skill,” “that class takes no skill,” etc. In my observation, the most vicious flame wars are caused, in part, by the opposing sides have different definitions of skill. Since it’s impossible to agree on “what takes the most skill to use” if you can’t even agree what “skill” means, these arguments can go on forever.

In videogames skill is all too often used to describe solely the physical skills, or as I prefer, the execution required to be successful. Whether it’s twitch aim in a FPS, APM in an RTS, or quick reactions and flawless combo timing in fighting games, execution is an important skill in most competitive videogames. Execution is far from the only skill required, of course, and it’s not always the most important one either. Ignoring the mental skills in favor of focusing on the physical skills does competitive gaming a disservice.

For one, some games don’t require as much execution to win, and even games that do require it there are usually a few weapons, classes, characters, etc. that don’t rely as heavily on execution. Too often, these are derided as taking “no skill.” While there’s certainly something to be said for brevity, saying they “don’t require much skillful execution,” is far more accurate. Unless of course said game/character/weapon/faction doesn’t require any other skills, which then begets the question, “why are you arguing about a clearly broken game?”

At the highest levels, most games are decided not by who has the better execution, but by who makes the smarter plays

Much as the types of physical skills differ between genres, so do the mental skills. Physical skills tend to get get all the attention because they’re easy to observe and easier to measure. Even the most casual viewer can spot a missed headshot, but how many would notice improper positioning as easily? Obfuscating matters further, oftentimes terms for mental skills are misused, or are instead replaced with other terms that actually encompass multiple skills. To be fair, these skills do intertwine frequently, but I’ll do my best to detangle for them you. I find that the mental skills required in just about any competitive game can be broken up into 4 categories:

  1. Strategy: Although the term is often misused, strategy refers to long-term planning. Strategy is the plan you start with before the match even begins. It’s making decisions early in a match that will pay off during lategame. Strategy is most prevalent in traditional RTS games (it’s even in the name!), as well as MOBAs. It exists in FPS and fighting games as well of course, but not nearly to the same degree as other genres.
  2. Tactics: Whereas strategy is long-term planning, tactics refers to the moment to moment decision-making, especially in combat. Knowing when to dodge or block, when to extend to secure a kill, these are tactical decisions. Much as tactics is the flip side of strategy, the games that favor skilled tactics are flipped as well: fighting games use it the most, followed by FPS, MOBA, with RTS games trailing behind.
  3. Yomi: A Japanese term that translates to “knowing the mind of the opponent,” Yomi is when you won not because you knew the game better, or had superior strategy and tactics, or because you had flawless execution, but because you knew exactly what your opponent was going to do and were able to counter it. Popularised by the fighting game community, yomi is naturally most prevalent there, but it does show up in other genres in varying degrees.
  4. Game knowledge: This covers both knowing the intricacies of the game itself, as well as how the game is typically played at the highest levels. These can often be completely different, particularly in games that were not designed for serious competition (Team Fortress 2, Smash). Game knowledge also includes knowledge of the current gamestate, including current health totals, time left, enemy locations, etc. Present in all types of competitive games, but often in completely different ways. Fighting games have matchups to learn and frame data to memorize. MOBAs have a staggering amount of characters to learn with several abilities each, alongside learning all the different items. RTS players will have to learn unit and building costs, upgrades, abilities, as well as various maps. First Person Shooters have weapon and map knowledge at the least, while others add even more to learn with different classes or upgrades. Game knowledge is a crucial skill in any worthwhile competitive game as it informs the decisions made with other skills, but it’s usually hard to notice at the highest levels of competition where most players will have roughly equal game knowledge, although one player not paying close enough attention to the current gamestate can have dramatic results.  

Strategy is how you plan to win the match, tactics are how you plan to win an encounter, game knowledge is what you know about you and your opponent’s capabilities, and yomi is what you know of your opponent’s habits

As I mentioned above, often times the various mental skills tend to intertwine in various ways, where the knowledge gleaned from one skill informs a decision in another. Let’s look at some basic examples:

FPS: You know that you want the high ground when you next face your opponent (strategy), but sensing that he’s expecting you to bee-line there (yomi), you take a roundabout way there (game knowledge, tactics). Once in battle, you use your knowledge of the current gamestate to decide (tactics) when it’s safe to take the high ground by rocket jumping (game knowledge, tactics).

Fighting game: Your best combos are when you have the opponent in the corner (game knowledge), so you refuse to give any ground and pressure him until he’s cornered (strategy and tactics). Now that’s he’s cornered, his options are limited (game knowledge, tactics), which makes him easier to predict (yomi).  

MOBA: Based on observations made over countless hours of play (to acquire game knowledge), you’ve planned your items and skill points ahead of time (strategy). Using those skills and items properly in combat is tactical (often informed by your game knowledge), and you often manage to land your skillshot ultimateLY by predicting when and where an opponent will blink (yomi). If you instead save your ultimate attack for a team fight you suspect will be coming soon, you’re thinking strategically again (likely informed by your knowledge of the current gamestate).

RTS: You plan to rush (strategy), but you don’t want to go in blind so you send a scout to your opponent’s base first (game knowledge). When your opponent doesn’t seem to respond at first, you use the scout to attack his workers (tactics). He responds by sending some of his units to chase the scout out of his base (yomi), where your units are waiting in ambush (tactics).   

Of course, knowing the different types of skills required in competitive games isn’t quite enough if you want to have a debate on the subject. You’ll also have to understand “skill floors” and its opposite “skill ceiling.” In simplest terms, the skill floor defines how easy it is to learn enough to be effective. The skill ceiling is the threshold beyond which any additional skill is either impossible to achieve, or at least stops adding to gameplay effectiveness.

A game (or character, class, weapon, etc.) with a low skill floor and high skill ceiling is often described as “easy to learn, difficult to master.” A character with a low skill floor and low skill ceiling will likely be popular with novices as they can be effective with little practice. Many times these are intentionally designed as a “first order optimal strategy,” allowing new players to quickly become effective to keep them interested in the game.

As players hone their skills, many will gravitate towards a character that rewards their increasing talents with greater effectiveness. If the game as a whole has a low skill floor and ceiling, it will likely attract a large audience, but high level play will either fail to materialize, or will look quite different from casual play. The best example of this is Smash Bros, where the competitive scene raises the skill ceiling by removing random items and dangerous stages.

Randomness, especially in large amounts, tends to compress a game’s skill gap, as weaker players will benefit more from luck than experienced players.

On the flip side, something with both a high skill floor and ceiling will have niche appeal, only enjoyed by the most dedicated players. Most popular competitive games will typically have an overall low skill floor and a high skill ceiling, but with characters, weapons, etc. with varying skill floors and ceilings.

As much as any discussion about skill in general is worthless without defining exactly what skills you’re talking about, the same holds true for skill floors and ceilings as well. Consider an FPS with a hitscan sniper rifle and a rocket launcher. The sniper rifle relies almost entirely on execution skill with practically no skill ceiling, but likely has a low skill floor and ceiling when it comes to all the mental skills, as learning the minimum will come quickly, and learning more will do little to increase your effectiveness. Meanwhile, because the rocket launcher fires a projectile, having better aim is less rewarding because the rocket will take time to hit its target. No matter how good your physical aim, your target can dodge it if they see it coming. Instead, you’ll need to use yomi and game knowledge to predict where your opponent will be when the rocket reaches them, as well as strategy and tactics to determine how to best close the distance and limit his avenues for escape. The sniper rifle doesn’t necessarily take more skill to use so much as it greatly rewards a high level of one type of skill. No one design is superior, and a good mix is best in any asymmetrical game. Some characters will reward those with flawless execution, while other characters will allow players with poor execution but detailed matchup knowledge or yomi to succeed.

As you can see, because many tend to only think of execution when discussing skill in competitive games, they tend to write off anything with a lower execution skill ceiling as “casual,” even if that allows for higher skill ceiling in other areas to be more effective. Compare Street Fighter IV with what we’ve seen so far of Street Fighter V. SFIV has a high skill floor for execution, requiring combos with very strict timing (one frame, in many cases) to be effective. It also allows players to mitigate risk through option selects (most notable crouch teching) and largely invincible backdashes. With SFV, Capcom is lowering the execution floor (and ceiling) with shorter combos with more lenient timing and removing a lot of option selects and “get out of jail free cards” in order to place a greater emphasis on proper tactical decisions and mind games. Neither approach is necessarily better, but valuing certain skill types more than others will result in games that play quite differently.

While skillful execution is easier to notice and often exciting to watch, I find brilliant displays of the mental skills required by competitive games far more interesting. Or more accurately, seeing a high level player properly execute a winning move based on a skillful display of a mental skill is highly entertaining. This holds true outside of videogames as well, as sports that rely almost entirely on physical talent (track and field) aren’t nearly as entertaining as ones that require more strategy (football).

To bring it back to videogames, what makes Evo Moment #37 (seen above) so amazing isn’t that Daigo successfully parried the entire super, it’s that he had enough yomi to know the super was coming, and enough game knowledge to know that it’s impossible to parry that super on reaction. It’s these types of skills, and the decision-making that comes with them, that makes games interesting. If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around that, imagine two games: one requiring only physical skills, the other requiring purely mental skills. The purely physical game might just be “press a button repeatedly faster than your opponents,” and would be likely be boring to play (Mario Party notwithstanding) and certainly to watch. A game of purely mental skills would be a board game (or a turn based strategy game). Which would you rather play? Which would you rather watch?

Evan Hitchings

I've been playing both boardgames and videogames my entire life. I grew up in a boardgaming family, and started competing in boardgame tournaments when I was 9. I prefer games with direct competition and and player interaction.