Listening to top players talk about how they became so good can become somewhat repetitive: practice, then practice some more, then continue practicing. From the sound of it, champions know their games inside and out, to the point where execution and technical knowledge become nearly irrelevant. Instead, matches are battles of wills, nerves and minds, each coming down to a few key moments where one player finds/forces an opening and deals massive damage. Case in point: Kokujin is clearly no slouch, yet guessing incorrectly against Makoto is a fatal mistake.
However, this level of ability comes at a price. Pyrolee is a great SFIII player, but on the first Denjin Video podcast he mentions that he has no interest in other fighting games, or even versions of the game not played on a physical CPS3 board. He has honed his skill to the point of inflexibility; playing anything other than 3S under ideal arcade conditions is a non-starter. Mike can engage opponents incredibly well on his terms, but even small deviations will greatly affect the quality of play.
To be fair, he could still annihilate me blindfolded, with one arm tied behind his back, on a Dreamcast pad. On the other hand, I think the necessity for this level of devotion is somewhat detrimental.
Unless you’re Alex Valle or Justin Wong, playing a fighting game well is a monogamous affair. Its vaunted depth is as much a liability as it is an asset; the sheer number of systems and variables to learn in any given fighter demand years of undivided attention. That the classics hold up so well under such scrutiny is amazing, but it makes the skill divide rather steep. To compete in tournaments means, at the very least, knowing locations of invisible boxes, the durations of various stun states, inscrutable priority values, movement arcs, spacing, recovery and a million other things that govern gameplay. Without an intimate understanding of your character and how they stack up against the rest of the cast, you do not stand much of a chance.
Part of the problem is that fighting games, while strategy intensive, are not like Chess; you cannot explain the rules to a new player and reasonably expect them to read the board. Understanding how to counter an opponent in Guilty Gear requires far more than merely extrapolating from piece positions in front of you. The actual backbone of Street Fighter is largely invisible; images of two brawlers interacting rarely represent the framework of colliding rectangles and number crunching that rule the true game.
In the end, there is probably too much information at work for sprites or models to convey without severe over-stimulation. Knowledge of these values and behaviors is only gleaned from countless hours spent with the game. When one sixtieth of a second can spell the difference between victory and defeat, determined players will always train themselves to react perfectly to every possible situation; only then is it possible to match wits at a tournament level. It is simply unfortunate that it takes so much effort to and creates so specific a skill set.
I am sure many people are willing to tell me that spending time is the point, that the drive to improve is what separates “casual” from “serious” players. This argument has merit, but at some point it must be worth picking up a new game rather than practicing even more for increasingly diminished returns. If people were willing to branch out more instead of dedicating themselves to absolute perfection in one area, I think the genre would be in a better place today: more players crossing between communities, sharing play-styles and strategies to give worn-out titles new life, increasing sales and lowering the entry barrier due to weaker, but more general, skills.
However, this mentality will never take hold. The desire to be number one is especially ingrained these games and their fans; as long as someone can gain an edge by slowly chipping away at the frame data, they will. Ultimately, without the passion and dedication of hardcore players though the arcade death spiral, it is doubtful the genre would be even a shadow of what it is today.