Defensive Play: Exploring Why So Many Hate It
Yes, I’ve been gone for a long time. I’ve had a lot of things going on for the last several months so sadly I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time as I would have liked to blogging. Thankfully it’s mostly out of the way, so I can get back to writing.
So a lot of things have come and passed since I last wrote, and although I wanted to cover them at the time, I feel as if many of those topics were best left discussed when they were more relevant. In any case, one thing that has stuck out since the beginning of my venture into the Smash community has been the topic of defensive play, or rather, the overwhelming disdain for it. This is something I’ve found especially interesting because it’s certainly not something limited to Smash alone, and not even competitive videogames, but rather, it seems to span out to the sporting world as well. So the obvious question is, why do so many people dislike defensive play?
I know what you’re going to say, and it’s only half right
The quick answer everyone will give is that they find it flat out boring to watch, but that in itself is a result of the overall reason why people dislike defensive play. Those that those that dislike it do so because they feel it’s representative of a lower level of skill. This belief, while misguided, is not entirely unfounded. I’m going to just generalize defensive playstyles into two categories for the sake of this discussion:
Standard Defensive Play: a mindfully conservative playstyle emphasizing low risk tactics and baiting opponents into punishable situations. Requires an in depth knowledge of spacing, matchups, and options to execute successfully.
Cagey Defensive Play: an extremely risk averse playstyle driven by lack of familiarity with the game and matchups, or the opponent being faced. This playstyle emphasizes using only the most rudimentary safe tools, maintaining spacing in the safest zones, and essentially almost never committing to anything, even potential punishes.
The latter is often seen repeatedly used by a player who has a low level of skill in a game, although it’s not uncommon to see good players employ this at the beginning of a first match with another good player. Having said this, it is also often a manifestation of a more intelligent player with a low level of developed skill when used repeatedly, It takes someone smart to know that they’re not very good, whereas an idiot will just rush in. It is usually the playstyle seen at the very beginning of a game’s life cycle due to unfamiliarity. Unfortunately, many people have difficulty distinguishing between cagey and standard defensive play, and ironically those who malign defensive play are usually those of a lower level of ability, because they are unable to recognize the skills being employed by skilled defensive players.
At the lowest end of the spectrum are players so bad, that they can’t even deal with basic safe pressuring tools, resorting to the much enjoyed term of “cheap” to describe a tactic they can’t overcome. Let’s step outside of Smash and see this in a traditional 2D fighter setting. Say a character with a straight horizontal projectile such as a fireball. How long have awful players criticized Street Fighter as “fireball spam” calling the tactic cheap, when it is just a standard zoning tool that a lower intermediate level player will be able to navigate around? How long have MMA and boxing fans criticized fighters who focus on conservative tactics and trying to win by decision instead of knockout?
Criticism of defensive play is very common among spectators and low level players in all forms of competition, with offense and action always being celebrated. Obviously offense is what we love to see, but there’s a question I want to ask: is offense really exciting to watch if it’s just a result of sloppy defense?
Strong Offense Means Breaking Through Solid Defense
The height of offense can only be displayed when the level of defensive play is extremely high. Great offense is defined by one thing more than any other: creativity. The tougher the barriers placed, the more a player will have to rely on creativity and skill to break through it. A strong defense also tests a trait that isn’t necessarily one most spectators want to have to display, and is also, in my opinion, the least developed skill in the Melee metagame: patience. The thing is, I feel that patience should only be for the player, because as a spectator, the inherent tension of a match situation should be enough to keep you intrigued, if you know what’s actually going on. Of course, I suppose that may be a bit unfair to make such a blanket statement, to say that matches can never be boring, but quite honestly, high level defensive play just isn’t, because not only is it actually impressive to see executed, but it also brings up the constant question of how the opponent will get through. Remember Hungrybox’s ledgecamping at EVO? Funnily enough, it didn’t even end up working. I personally enjoyed the story of the matches, where after taking to the ledge, his opponent’s patience would pay off, forcing him to adapt and rethink the way he played.
To be truly able to pull off offensive play, you also need a strong foundation of defensive play anyway.. You will never be able to express offensive ideas unless you’re able to cover the bases of defense. Defense forms the backbone of your offense, being mindful of your opponent’s offensive threat is what allows you to fight back with offense of your own. If you’re too inept to mitigate basic offensive pressure, then none of your amazing combo and tech read ability will ever amount to anything.
Ultimately, Smash is about both defense and offense, as with competition in general, it’s the personal balance of said tactics that defines each player’s style. When it comes to Smash, certain characters are more suited to a specific style, some have the tools to do both equally effectively. It’s up to the players to find their own personal style, develop BOTH defense and offense, and understand the balance of the two that works best for them in a given situation. This is something that will come to players after many hours of practice and hard work, many defeats and much frustration. The weak will crumble to the defensive walls quickly, they’ll call tactics cheap and lame, they’ll say it takes no skill, but there’s only one truth in Melee and competition: skill wins
and defense takes skill.
Now get to training.