Tuesday, January 19, 2021

DON'T Use Headphones In Bracket.

Recently I conducted a poll on Twitter to see what my followers listened to while in bracket matches at pre-covid majors. About 25% listen to game audio with headphones, 35% listen to music with headphones, and 40% don't use headphones at all. Throughout my time competing in tournaments I've gone back and forth among all three options, but today I am going to make the case that not using headphones at all is the optimal choice. 

Before we can talk about the different options, it's important to talk about and understand audio cues. The first audio cue that jumps to most people's minds would be Snake's C4: You hear him say "Now!" and then you know to dodge the explosion. Other audio cues you might use in game would include hearing parries and using attack sound effects to properly time your combos. However, there is another audio cue that many people don't think about, and that is controller clacking. I realized this as an issue for me back when I played Brawl. When I learned how to chain grab with Ice Climbers alone in my room, I unconsciously relied on the sounds of my controller clacks to time the grabs. Then when I went to my first few tournaments I found out that I could no longer chain grab consistently when I couldn't hear my controller over the loud sounds of the tournament. It wasn't until going home and practicing again while blasting white noise in my headphones that I started to be more consistent with chain grabbing in brackets.

Another thing that is important to note is that reaction time to audio cues is about 20 milliseconds, or about 1.2 frames, faster than visual reaction time. While this may seem like a win for using audio cues, you must also keep in mind that you can usually see the startup animation of the attack before the game plays the attack's sound effect. Because of this, I think in the context of Smash this 1.2 frame advantage is negligible. There probably aren't many situations in which reacting to something is significantly easier with sound cues rather than purely visual cues.

Jain, A., Bansal, R., Kumar, A., & Singh, K. D. (2015). https://doi.org/10.4103/2229-516X.157168

The next thing to talk about is how to stay focused or how to get "into the zone". I think this varies player to player. Some may use music to maintain focus, while others prefer to be immersed into the sounds of the game. I do agree that these methods are effective, but it is from this standpoint that I think that learning to play without using headphones should be preferred in the long run. I've seen countless times where someone complains after a match that they couldn't focus because the sound wasn't working at a set up or they had an issue that stopped them from listening to music during the match. Some sources of issues with music would include a music playlist ending mid match, your phone or headphones running out of battery, forgetting to charge your phone or headphones, forgetting your headphones at home, and a phone call interrupting your music, just to name a few. For game sounds I've even experienced times where the provided headphones and audio at a stream set up malfunctioned and the set had to be played without it. No matter how hard you try, there will always be some times in which the sound isn't perfect. On top of that, pools set ups at majors often don't have sound, and even if they did the stream set up and crowd is so loud that you couldn't hear it anyways without high end noise cancelling headphones. That's why it is important to not rely on music or game sounds to focus on the game. The best way to combat these issues in my opinion is to practice staying focused even among all the distractions of a tournament.

So how can you go from relying on music for example to playing well even with distractions? The simple answer that maintaining focus on the game is actually a skill that can trained with time. Think about training your ability to focus like lifting weights to train a muscle: whenever you notice you lost focus in game, you simply bring your attention back to the game. That's one rep. Each time you consciously bring your focus back to the game you will get a little bit better at staying focused. Over time it will be no problem to play at your best even in the most distracting situations. It's possible to emulate this kind of environment in your practice at home. Find a YouTube video full of distractions and play that in your headphones while playing some matches online.

At the end of the day, the way that you practice will be the most comfortable and effective for you in bracket. For example, if you practice while listening to music with headphones, then you will do best in bracket with headphones. If you practice with loud game sounds, then you might have trouble when they aren't available at a tournament. So when I am suggesting that not using headphones at all is optimal, I'm not saying that you will perform better without them. Instead, I am suggesting that it is important to practice without game sounds and music so that your performance isn't hindered when you inevitably run into difficulties at a tournament and can't listen to the sounds or music that you are used to. By not relying on certain audio set ups, you will be ready to play your best under any circumstances in bracket.

Looking for more articles in my Improvement Series? Check out my guide to overcoming skill plateaus


  1. that's a good point that we shoudl also practice game without the music & game effects. i also use it difficult to play without sound & music because i used to play games with full volume on. thanks for sharing such valuable post. i'm gonna practice the game without sound too.

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