This year’s Pokemon World Championships in Boston was the biggest in Pokemon history, measured by both turn-out and prize values. Competitive Pokemon itself, however, remains a relatively quiet scene. Is it just for kids? Is it an eSport? The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle. Pokemon is in a competitive gaming category all its own.
I talked to two competitive video game players while at Worlds, brothers Aaron and Brendan Zheng. Aaron, 17, is a partnered Twitch streamer and finished in the Masters top four at this year's Nationals event, while Brendan, 13, was the Juniors division World Champion in 2013 and is a veteran of the scene — he’s been playing seriously for five years already.
Pokemon Is for Kids… Right?
Competitive Pokemon in both its video game (VGC) and trading card game (TCG) varieties comes in three age divisions: Juniors, Seniors, and Masters. This year, Juniors are born in 2004 or later, Seniors are born between 2000 and 2003 (ironically, since that mostly doesn't include seniors in high school), and Masters are anyone older than that. Aaron competed in Masters this year, while Brendan was a Senior.
Unlike other competitive games, there’s never millions of dollars in cash on the line in Pokemon. No one plays to earn a living, and new, excellent players are emerging all the time. It’s mostly kids and very young adults, and entire families came to Worlds to support competitors — there were more than a few infants in attendance.
“There’s no other game where you’re gonna see 12 year olds competing,” Aaron said. “I think it’s good, because I used to play in the younger divisions, and so it helped me build confidence in myself as a player.”
The younger kids I saw at Worlds this year were clearly confident and very impressive. Kotone Yasue, a 10-year-old Juniors VGC World Champion from Japan, played brilliantly in her championship match. Her team showed a lot of foresight. One of her Pokemon had a move, Trick Room, that allows slower Pokemon to move first for a few turns, so she bred another Pokemon on her team to be slower than normal in order to really take advantage. She was also the only female champion and the only girl in the finals (out of 12 competitors total) for both the VGC and the TCG.
Pokemon events in general are very friendly to children and families, since the games are largely geared toward kids and online play made safe for younger players. Nearly all of the competitors are very young. As a result, instead of cash prizes, competitive Pokemon grants scholarships to winners. I spoke to J.C. Smith, Director of Consumer Marketing for the Pokemon Company International, about the reasoning behind that decision.
“Scholarships are important because it’s really about making sure it’s the right crowd of people, and I think scholarships attract a group of people that want to play for the love of it,” he said.
Pokemon Can Pay for College... But So What?
At Worlds this year, the first place TCG winner received $25,000 in scholarship money, and the first place video game player won $10,000. That's $15,000 and $6500 more than last year's World Championships, respectively, and that means more to competitors than just motivation.
“I don’t think any of us play Pokemon for the prizes. It’s not like other eSports where you actually make a living off of [it]. Like, League of Legends players train hard and they’re getting paid a salary to go to these tournaments,” Aaron said. “At the end of the day, none of us are playing Pokemon for the prizes.”
Brendan echoed his brother’s sentiment: “I don’t think [the scholarship money] is the main reason why I play Pokemon. The main motivation is just proving to myself that I can become a World Champion. The scholarship is more an extra. I’m not playing Pokemon just for the prizes, I’m playing Pokemon to meet new people, to get a new experience.”
Aaron later explained that prizes do have a purpose, just not the motivational one we’d think of first. “I think Pokemon is finally recognizing [the competitive scene]. It’s not like other companies like Riot or Blizzard where they’re putting in millions of dollars because that’s what they do, that’s how they grow their game. Pokemon’s organized play is just one section of their entire brand,” he said. “But now we’re seeing a lot more scholarship money going into it.”
He added, “I do think prizes are part of it because then you can sell it off: ‘Oh, look at this tournament, it’s a Pokemon tournament with millions of dollars on the line.’” To Aaron, prizes make competition more legitimate in other people’s eyes, even if most of the players aren’t there for money.
Competitive… or Not
Competitive Pokemon is unique. Sure, the top players work hard to win, and yes, losses result in tears and disappointment like any other competition, but camaraderie and friendship was undoubtedly put first at Worlds. As I was walking with Aaron, several other players stopped him to say hi or introduce themselves. There were players from all over the world at the event, and they spent their down time befriending each other.
“I think Pokemon isn’t something that you have to be good at, you just have to go to these tournaments, and you can meet new people and talk to them. I’ve made so many new friends from Pokemon,” Brendan said when I asked him about his favorite part of playing Pokemon competitively.
Aaron provided some insight as to why there’s an absence of fierce, harsh competition. “I think for Pokemon especially, since all the top players can be easily beaten by other players, it’s not like other games where there’s a very defined top five or top 10, like these guys can’t be touched by anyone,” he said. There’s definitely an element of chance in Pokemon battles — for example, a lot of moves have a small chance of missing, and that can and will make or break a game. Some teams also fare better against certain Pokemon than others, so player-to-player matchups matter as well, not just skill.
“Pokemon’s a game where there’s luck involved in it,” Aaron said. “It’s a game where top players lose all the time, and I think that makes it exciting, because then newer players will be more incentivized to join the game.”
Aside from three-time champion Ray Rizzo, no one has really dominated the competitive scene. Rather than engaging in high-stakes competition between elite players, the players I saw and met at Worlds all seemed to understand that they could do their best and still lose, and that it was okay. All of that stems from Pokemon’s origins, and that’s what sets Pokemon apart.
“The game was created to encourage communication. It was the trading with the link cable on the original Game Boy, it was trading cards. It’s all about bringing people together,” Smith said.
“It’s not cutthroat, it’s collaborative.”
Even with college tuition on the line.