Tier lists: What they are, what they aren't and how to better understand them

Even if you know the tier list for your game of choice, you might need some help to figure out exactly what they mean

Posted by Nicholas 'MajinTenshinhan' Taylor • November 12, 2017 at 12:34 p.m. PST

One of the main things I worked to prove in my earlier article about how a game's balance affects its competitive potential was that tiers are inherently fluid, and shift with a game's lifespan as more discoveries and developments are made by players.

Now that the nature of tiers has been established, we need to advance to the next step - how to actually understand what tiers mean.

It might sound absurd at first that someone who is plugged in to competitive fighting games might not understand what tiers mean, but it's actually not so far-fetched in reality. I think most people who play competitive fighting games know tier lists, but knowing tier lists and understanding them are not at all the same thing.

There will be a lot of ground to cover here, and I will be bolding several central points related to understanding tier lists, but there are two points in particular that are extra important. These two points will be at the beginning and at the very end of this piece.

To understand matchups listed in a tier list, think back to your physics classes in school. I realize that this sounds strange at first, but stay with me, here.

I'm sure most of you have had physics class at some point in school. When you start to learn about physics, teachers will often put any physics equation in front of you into ideal conditions, such as imagining an object is in a vacuum (no, not a vacuum cleaner) when you calculate said object's force, mass or whatever might be on today's curriculum.

Basically, you get to discount any natural conditions that would affect the object in any real situation, such as wind resistance, simply because this makes it easier to understand and learn, and you only really need to bother with all that annoying, yet ultimate essential, stuff if you decide to pursue a career in physics.

Now, here's the kicker - fighting game matchups work the exact same way, because whatever number you put onto a matchup also assumes ideal conditions. Namely, that both players are of identical skill and possess identical knowledge of this particular matchup, a condition that is almost impossible to actually occur.


Ah, I see, Alex's velocity is directly proportional to how quickly he's going to lose...

What this means is that a 6-4 matchup is only a 6-4 matchup if both players have a fully formed understanding of why it is a 6-4 matchup, and are also on the exact same skill level as eachother.

This becomes even more murky when you start to factor in both player's condition on this particular day, their mental state, their confidence level, their preparation... Much like with physics, once you decide to make this into a career, all these external factors show up to muddle perceptions for you, and what seemed easy suddenly becomes difficult.

To be clear, this does not mean that matchup numbers are not accurate. The matchup itself stays as static as game knowledge and current discoveries allow, but the part about "equal skill" is extremely unlikely, if at all possible, to actually occur.

Tier lists assume that players are at the highest possible skill level currently known. When tier lists are put together, they are done so by analyzing matches and opinions from the very top players in the game, meaning that they reflect reality at the top levels of competition.

If you are reading a tier list, or a matchup chart, and are not at the highest possible skill level, odds are that this does not reflect your reality and that it won't unless you level up.

I'm sure we've all either referred to characters as "scrubkillers" or something similar, which is a perfect illustration of this. Some characters excel at lower levels, or even mid levels, but are not nearly as strong at higher levels. Although not exclusive to grapplers, they are often a good example of this phenomenon in fighting games.

However, the reverse is also true. It's not at all uncommon for characters to be either too complicated, or their strengths not readily apparent, at lower levels, but shining extremely brightly at higher levels.

This also leads to big differences in community-voted tier lists and top player sourced tier lists. If we look at a tier list made collectively by GRPT|Haitani, RB|Bonchan and GRPT|Fuudo compared to the tier list as voted on by the EventHubs community, a lot of it lines up similarily, but what jumps out at me instantly is the huge difference for one particular character - Ibuki.


No, Ibuki, I actually main you.

Ibuki is a character we've seen many times at top tournament level, but she isn't that common of a pick in general. In the latest online stats released by Capcom, she comes in 18th place out of 28 characters.

It's not uncommon for characters to be more popular at higher levels than lower or vice versa, but the huge discrepancy here points towards the assertion that Ibuki simply isn't as much of a threat until you reach very high levels. Once you get there, though, she might be the best in the game, or at least one of the best.

Try to put tier lists into context when you analyze them, and leave your ego at the door. With matchup charts and tier lists, we're most often applying them to players like FOX|Tokido and PG|Punk. You might just not be there yet.

Being lower in the tier list doesn't mean that everybody above wins against you. I know, this one seems incredibly obvious, but it's still something that needs to be said.

A tier list isn't a straight up character ranking as such, it doesn't mean that #5 will beat #6 necessarily.

A perfect example of this in Street Fighter 5 is Birdie. Whatever tier list you look at, he's almost certainly below Karin, yet most players would agree this matchup is horrible for Karin, to the point where top Karin players such as PG|Punk, Mago and Method|Packz will often go to a different character if faced with him.

Another thing to take into account with lower tiered characters, that is just as important, is matchup inexperience. The higher level a player is, the more likely it is that they play way more against other top tier characters.

This means that low tier characters gain a secret advantage of the opponent simply not knowing how to fight against you as well as they know higher tier characters.

Obviously, characters tend to be regarded as low tier for a reason, so this secret advantage might not be enough to bridge the gap, especially not in the long run, but it is something that tends to come into play with rare picks, even at high level.

Here's a historic example of both of these two things coming into play at the very same time - back at EVO 2013, when Infiltration decided to pick Hakan, giving PR Balrog a matchup that was both bad for him and one he was inexperienced with.

Player skill is always king. This is by far the most important thing of all when judging the tier list of a game.

A perfect player to bring up here is Kuroda, the 3rd Strike legend. This is a man who was so incredibly good at the game, that he startered entering tournaments with characters considered practically unusable, such as Q, and still won.

This has led to a lot of discussions, at least in my neck of the woods, where people say "What about Kuroda?" whenever you point out that a character isn't really viable competitively.

"The simple truth is that no matter what a tier list or a matchup chart tells you about a match you're about to play, in the end, the more skilled player is favored to win."

Here's the thing about Kuroda - he's better than everyone else is. I know it sounds absurd when "everyone else" consists of other 3rd Strike legends, but let's be honest, it's true.

It's the same as when you bring friends over to play a fighting game you're serious about. Odds are, you can pick any character in the cast and destroy them with them. That's what 3rd Strike is like for Kuroda... sometimes. Because another thing about Kuroda is, just like every other person in any field on the planet, he doesn't always win.

There are tons of highlight videos showing Kuroda doing incredibly things in matches, but what you won't see if your only Kuroda intake is his highlight videos are the many matches that he's also lost.

Kuroda may very well be the best 3rd Strike player to have ever lived, and even if he isn't, he's done some absolutely amazing things with characters that nobody else has. But that isn't a testament to the character - it's a testament to the player, the game and the dedication said player put in.

The simple truth is that no matter what a tier list or a matchup chart tells you about a match you're about to play, in the end, the more skilled player is favored to win.

There's an unmeasurable amount of factors that affect this, many of which are gauged specifically by the matchup chart, but at the end of the day, it's nothing more than a guideline to what you can do to tip the match in your favor.

Even if you play the most lopsided matchup ever seen in the history of fighting games, unless it's an unarguable 10-0 that cannot be escaped, if the skill gap is wide enough, then you just might end up losing anyway.

Hopefully this article has helped deepen your understanding of tier lists and their function, and if not, at the very least I hope I entertained you for a few minutes.

Embedded video courtesy of PS3GamingHD.

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