What Is Zoning?
Zoning means acquiring and maintaining certain positions on the screen favorable to your character’s arsenal but disadvantageous and restrictive to your opponent. Rushdown, footsies, turtling, runaway, and all other major categories of tactical gameplans employed by fighting game players involve some aspect of zoning.
In some cases, these areas occupy enormous chunks of the screen. For example, take almost any Street Fighter character and draw an imaginary vertical line 1/3 screen distance away from their foot. If you put Dhalsim anywhere in the remaining 2/3 of the screen, he’s automatically got a significant advantage that you’ll need to overcome in order to hurt him.
Conversely, if you put Zangief anywhere within that same 2/3 area, he’s automatically got a significant disadvantage that you’ll want to preserve. Of course if Zangief finds his way into your nearby 1/3 zone without leaving the ground, suddenly he becomes quite scary.
In other cases, these areas can overlap in complex and subtle arrangements. For instance, Guile is generally dominant from long distance because he can throw Sonic Booms at will, and your opponent has to take risks to deal with them. If your opponent somehow reaches point blank range while carrying momentum, Guile’s in trouble.
However, the interval between these extremes is actually reversed. Guile has an advantage when your opponent is a few steps away as long as Guile’s still within c.MK range. That’s Guile’s best poke and it pushes opponents away when it connects, enabling you to throw Sonic Booms again. However if your opponent stays a few pixels outside of Guile’s c.MK range, that poke becomes unsafe, severely limiting Guile’s options. Therefore the entire strategic playfield looks like a fuzzy checkerboard.
In addition to character spacing, zoning also includes stage positioning considerations. For example, a runaway character like Vega is in pretty good shape if you can keep at least 1/4 screen distance away from your opponent. However, you have to resist the urge to constantly move backward during this process, because your choices become quite a bit tougher once you end up in the corner. Either you need a strategy to consistently move forward while keeping a safe distance, or you need to plan your escape from the corner before you reach it. In contrast, a hardcore turtle character like Honda might actually prefer to stay in the corner where you don’t have to worry about crossups.
The first step to understanding matchups is determining where your character has the biggest advantages and finding ways to establish that distance starting from every common scenario. How do you get there at the beginning of the round? How do you get there after you land a combo? How do you get there once you’ve been thrown? How do you get there after blocking a jump attack?
Of course, all of these questions are relative, because your dominant zones change drastically depending on which character you’re facing. Furthermore, they’re relative to your opponent’s status. Sometimes it’s better to occupy your second strongest zone if it locks your opponent into their weakest zone. You may be giving up your most damaging combo setup, but it’s worth it if you’re also keeping your opponent at a range where they have no combo opportunities at all.
Some of this sounds overly theoretical, but it’s simply a matter of trial and error. If you replay any matchup long enough, you’ll start to notice where your opponent needs to go in order to inflict significant damage. All you have to do is keep him out of that spot, or hurt him for trying to reach that spot. The most important thing is realizing when you’re at a disadvantage and trying to find ways to get out of there instead of getting stuck fighting uphill battles all the time.