This article aims to provide an overview of a framework for the decision-making process, as well as practical advice for improving decisions in esports and gaming.
Reid “x0tek” Johnson
Reid “x0tek” Johnson began his esports career in 2003, playing in a World Cyber Games qualifier for Age of Mythology. While he was disqualified in this first event due to his young age, x0tek’s later career tells a different story. From turn based strategy games to tactical shooters, x0tek’s nearly 20 years as a competitor would bring multiple world and national titles across a variety of games. With the advent of the pandemic in 2020, x0tek took time away from competition to explore coaching. Since then, he has:
- Coached the first Egyptian team to ever top an international esports professional league, Team Anubis, in CrossFire
- Coached then-Australian juggernaut the Soniqs in Valorant, reaching top-ten in the North American rankings
- Coached Cloud9 White’s game changers roster, winning a national championship and becoming the first all-womens team to break into the top 40 rankings of a major esport
What Will You Learn?
- The Anatomy of a Decision in Gaming
- Training Decisions in Esports
- In Game Orientation
- Esports Decision-Training Flowchart Model
What makes a good player?
While the exact answer depends on the game in question, several core principles are echoed in every domain.
No superstar has a large deficiency in any avenue, and often excels in each.
And yet not all are equally understood.
When we look to mechanical skill, the path to improvement is often obvious. Deliberate practice, targeted either to improve weaknesses or bolster strengths.
When we look to mentality, what we really look at is a set of mental skills. And so, these can be deliberately practiced in a well-understood progression.
But when we turn to gamesense, we’re often left uncertain.
“Having an off aim day can be rough, but with good gamesense you always can have good games and find consistency. So gamesense literally makes the difference between good players and pro/best players. Put yourself in good positioning and you won’t be required to have crazy mechanics.”
– Adil “ScreaM” Benrlitom, Professional CSGO & Valorant Player
We can see that some players have an uncanny level of decision-making. Seemingly able to make the correct play in all situations, working on nothing but instinct, their awareness unmatched.
But why? What makes these players so special? How can coaches and players push their knowledge even further? Perhaps more importantly, how can you help other players reach this level?
Traditional wisdom would suggest that the secret is to study footage, to play the game as often as possible, and to try to always learn from mistakes. And yet, traditional wisdom still leaves many players behind, still stratifies groups of players into those who “get it” and those who struggle.
Many players make the same mistakes repeatedly. Or they improve, but more slowly than their peers. They will study footage endlessly, unable to seamlessly apply the knowledge. Coaches are often left hoping a lesson will sink in, rather than having a systematic way of practicing the situation.
This article aims to provide an overview of a framework for the decision-making process, as well as practical advice for improving decisions.
In 1976, U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd wrote an article titled “Creation and Destruction”. In it, he lay the foundations of a simple model to explain decision-making. He argued that, within any situation, a series of steps must be taken to reach a decision.
To this day, his simple “OODA loop” has tremendous influence in legal circles, the financial industry, and the military. It stands as an excellent dissection of competitive decision-making in all avenues, including esports.
Let’s dive in a bit further as to what each step means.
You take in data, seeing what is happening to you and around you. These data can be based on pre-match preparation, or simply in-game actions. These observations are then continuously fed into the next step, interpreted by your “mental models”.
You relate this information to your own mental models. Are you aggressive in these situations? What have your past experiences taught you? Do you have time to consciously weigh your options? It is important to note that this stage is defined by your inner mental models and preparation.
You pick from the options your internal mental models have deemed valid. There are many decision-making processes and algorithms, and most athletes have different approaches here. However, some decision-making methods are superior to others.
You execute your decision. This is what most of the training prepares us for, on the “execution” side of decision-making.
Each new action sends information back into the first step, providing more context for future decisions. Often, several of these loops will be running, either consciously or unconsciously, at the same time.
“What is strategy? A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.”
-Col. John Boyd, Air Force Fighter Pilot & Military Strategist
Astute readers of the above graph will notice one remaining arrow not yet discussed. That arrow is “implicit guidance & control”, and is an important facet of decision-making. This is both the holy grail and a false promise of decision-making.
Boyd realized that it was possible to bypass an individual’s decision-making process entirely. Through sufficient training, you can remove the orientation and decision step, observing and reacting almost seamlessly. This enables you, through preparation, to instantly respond, without the delays of thinking – an enormous advantage in any competitive environment.
This is the “holy grail”, because this enables players and teams to achieve levels of decision-making far beyond their experience or current abilities. Many teams in Valorant, or Counter-Strike for example, will spend hours dry-running specific strategies or pre-set plays. When these plays are triggered, it allows players to simply focus on the execution, ignoring many “orient” and “decide” aspects of the game. This can speed up decision-making, creating world-class level performances in any individual or group.
However, this is often a false promise. Bypassing your players’ decision-making processes in favor of heavier guidance can undoubtedly improve their performance. But in the long run, the cost can be enormous. Ultimately, learning itself requires testing, asking questions, trial and error. Learning requires being allowed to make the wrong decisions, and to make them often. Without that ability, your team can stagnate as individuals. Further, your star players may quickly become limited by the constraints of heavier guidance. Heavy structure that may benefit a team of amateurs could utterly derail a team of seasoned veterans
Each aspect of OODA provides an opportunity for improvement. Each element of the loop can be isolated, and each can be trained.
Improving execution, or the act aspect of OODA is fairly well understood – deliberate practice, combined with visualization and preparation. As is that of improving observation, or awareness, as it largely relies on building pattern recognition & identifying proper attentional cues. Decisions are straightforward to train, through building confidence and practicing a lack of hesitation. Guidance and control is achieved through using superior tactics or players to give explicit “if X, then Y” instructions. Feedback is the process of constantly learning, and identifying what you could have done better, improved by cultivating proper mindsets.
However, the orientation aspect is largely opaque…an internal black box, with little insight into how to improve or even what it really means. Yet it is arguably the most important stage of decision-making, as our worldview and mental models shape every decision and observation we make.
Orientation is a stage that is largely unconscious in the moment, and one of the utmost importance. We build our orientation daily in our training and practice and everyday lives. It contains our mental models, our beliefs, our views of the world and of ourselves. Virtually every single decision we make in the moment stems from these mental models. Every wrong decision, every right decision, in some way comes from this process.
“It’s amazing what you can learn about someone when they get caught in the rain! Some will run with their hands over their heads, others will smile and take a deep breath while enjoying the wind. What does this say about one’s relationship to discomfort? The reaction to surprise? The need for control?”
-Josh Waitzkin, National Chess Champion & World Tai Chi Champion
In this, a coach or competitor must work tirelessly to understand themselves and their team. Without this knowledge, it becomes difficult or impossible to help guide them toward a set of mental models which assist in competition.
A players’ orientations and mental models can range from the specific, “I believe that if my opponent does X, it means they are going to play aggressive” – to the general, “If I lose a few rounds, I am more likely to lose the next because it means I’m playing bad”. It can relate to how well they play in a given game, to how confident or valuable they feel as a person or a teammate.
As such, the specifics of improving these mental models can vary broadly. However, the process of this improvement involves a simple methodology: recognize, reflect, correct, and repeat.
This might look like the following:
“I keep playing aggressively even though I know it’s a mistake, but these guys shouldn’t be good enough to punish me.”
When you have identified a decision you believe could be improved, think carefully about which mental models were used to make that decision. Did you believe the opponent would play passively, but instead they surprised you with aggression? Did you go on tilt because your teammate snapped at you? Be as specific and in-depth as possible, as this will help identify the mental models at play. It’s okay if they seem illogical or silly after the fact – often our emotions and views of the world aren’t based on perfect logic.
“I’ve played these guys a dozen times and always crushed them. So I should be crushing them effortlessly again. I believe that beating someone in the past means I will beat them again in the future.”
Our brains are logical machines, and cannot help but rationalize their choices. Those rationalizations however are often based in flawed logic. By reflecting on your mental models, you can identify the underlying reasons you believe what you do. The more specific and more in-depth you go, the more valuable your reflections will be. Perhaps you made a tactical error, because you didn’t believe your opponents were good enough. But perhaps you have a more deeply rooted sense of entitlement that needs to be addressed.
“Just because I’ve beaten someone before, doesn’t mean I’m entitled to again. They can always get better, I can always play worse. I need to focus on playing my best every time.”
Once you have identified the flawed logic in the “reflect” phase, it is important to replace that mental model with a more appropriate one. By identifying the correct logic, you begin building a new mental model of approaching the game. This can be general, like in this example, or hyper-specific to the game, such as a tactical or strategic mistake. It is important that the correction in logic be one that you believe in, and that truly does make sense.
The final stage is that of repeat. You repeat the correction at the start of each match or practice session until you no longer see the mistakes occurring, and it has been ingrained in your mental model of the world.
Remember, learning is a process, so don’t be surprised if this takes days or weeks to sink in. Acknowledging a problem or mistake one time often is not enough to fix it. Approach this as you would developing any other skill, focusing on improvement over time rather than instant mastery.
It is important to note that each stage of the OODA loop works in tandem with one another. If you are incapable of executing properly, it may take up too much of your attention for you to work on your awareness. If you are unable to stay aware and observe calmly, your decision-making is based on flawed observations. If your decisions take up too much mental effort and hesitations, your execution may falter.
When you have identified that a decision could be improved, it is important to first ask in which area of the OODA loop did your decision break down. Were you angry, tilted, and thus made a stupid play you normally wouldn’t? Were you overwhelmed, unable to process the new information flooding your way? Did your execution stumble? Often, multiple areas of your OODA loop will fail simultaneously, as they are so interlinked.
Once you have identified the area you wish to improve, you can begin.
The OODA loop is a fantastic model for understanding decision-making.
The “orient” aspect of OODA is often overlooked or misunderstood, yet it is among the most important stages in the process.
A simple way to improve this stage is via the following 4 steps:
Recognize, acknowledging which mental models were at play.
Reflect, analyzing the underlying logic of those mental models.
Correct, applying more appropriate logic to build stronger mental models.
Repeat, repeating these mental corrections as often as possible until they sink in.
No part of OODA is truly in isolation. We have limited attentional space. A deficiency in any one part of the decision-making process will hamper the rest as well.
Players often know when they make a mistake, particularly when studying footage afterward. The key to preventing future mistakes isn’t simply acknowledging them, but fixing the root cause of the error.
Creating dedicated space in practice can be an incredible tool for helping players or teams reflect on the reasons behind their decisions. Make it habitual.
The OODA loop also applies to your opponents’ thought processes! While understanding a team’s specific tactical preferences can be beneficial, understanding their worldview and orientation helps more effectively in the moment.
The Mental Game of Poker – Jared Tendler
A book on the process of fixing mental mistakes, largely based on a cognitive-behavioral therapy model. Viewed through the lens of Poker.
The Playmaker’s Decisions – Dr. Leonard Zaichkowsky
A book on the process of athlete decision-making, how it develops, how to coach it, and how it operates at world-class levels.
Destruction and Creation – Col. John Boyd
An article on the process of breaking down and rebuilding mental models, arguing that this is among the most important stages of improving decision-making.