I’ll first address one of the biggest obstacles when considering purchasing a fightstick, which is the price. These fightsticks, or “arcade sticks” can get quite expensive. You can find some fightsticks (hori mini) for as little as $40, or something more in line with what you’ll typically see from a Madcatz Tournament Edition stick, which is around $230. Don’t get me wrong, there are other fightsticks within the $100-$150 range, but then still, fightsticks are much more expensive than typical controllers! They’re half the cost of the console you’ll be playing on! Gamers on a budget will not have a good time breaking that barrier of entry, especially considering most of the recommended full size sticks are $150+. If you intend to get into using a fightstick for gaming, you may want to skip getting an “entry level stick” and just get one mid tier one and stick with that, especially considering you can swap out individual parts like the gate restrictors, buttons, or the actual stick shape.
As to the question of whether a fightstick will make you better in fighting games depends on a few factors. On its own, the stick itself will not make you a better player. However, if you grew up playing games in arcades, and have a solid feel for performing moves with a stick, adjusting won’t be as much of an issue. Obviously, if you’re more comfortable using a fightstick vs a pad/controller, you will perform better.
Nostalgia aside, there are some real world differences when it comes to using a fightstick vs using a pad/controller, and transitioning to an arcade stick for someone who isn’t comfortable using them is difficult. It will take a lot of practice and determination to become fluent in ”fightstick”. For starters, getting your fingers used to pressing the buttons differently will be tricky, but the button layout is an arcade sticks greatest strength. Having access to 6-8 buttons on one hand across 1 plane is invaluable for linking together combos that utilize various buttons that would otherwise be attributed to several planes on a controller, from the top left, top right, and face buttons. It’s not like using a controller is inherently difficult in that regard, but the fightstick makes pressings buttons much more convenient. Once you get used to placement, it makes sense, similar to using a keyboard for typing.
The area that I still struggle with in regards to transitioning from pad to fightstick, and arguably the fightstick’s greatest “weakness”, is movement. I use “weakness” because for certain motions, it’s easier because you have more defined movements due to the increased range in motion (qcf). However, I often find myself jumping by accident when trying to dash, or input certain commands that I typically don’t do when using a controller or pad. This is where only using one thumb, with more limited range can actually be an advantage versus using a much wider range of motion for movement. Just by matter of physics, if your thumb only needs to move a total of 1 inch from the left side of the d-pad to the right, you naturally only have to be concerned with moving that thumb a certain distance, whereas on a fightstick, you’re likely either using your entire forearm, or wrist to do those same motions. A stick has a wider range of motion, but more potential room for error since it’s a fairly free form motion, and not attributed to a digital button, but rather an analog position.
Overall, I’ll say this. If you want to feel like you’re at an arcade when you play fighting games, or you like the idea of being able to access all of your buttons on one even plane, then consider a fightstick and be ready to overcome quite a few hurdles as you attempt to become proficient with it. If you love the idea of having that nostalgic feel, and love the sounds the buttons make when you press them, and the ever so satisfying “click” you hear when you shift the stick around, then get yourself a fightstick. If you have the extre money, and are curious as to why so many pros use the fightstick (they just like it), pony up and put some money down. If you’re anyone else, consider sticking with a controller. And to anyone saying “there’s no difference, just a matter of preference,” you may be amongst those who have been using a fightstick for a long time and don’t really see a difference in how you play. but I can assure any newcomers, there is a difference, and there are strengths and weaknesses.