I was a regional Pokémon competitive player when I was 11, you know, back in the days of Red and Blue. I had notebooks full of Pokémon stat formulae that I’d researched myself, all the strategy guides, a huge collection of the trading cards. I used Pokémon Stadium on the N64 to train – as well as letting you transfer and store loads of monsters from your Game Boy for easy comparison (and battle them in 3D, which blew my tiny mind at the time), Pokémon Stadium had an emulator that ran the Game Boy Pokémon games at 10x speed. I’d train up 4 or 5 of the same Pokémon to figure out which had the best stat balance, and put together teams out of the cream of the crop. I was nerdier about Pokémon than anything, back then, and I was a pretty nerdy kid.
When I heard that there was such a thing as the Pokémon World Championships in 2000 I became obsessed with getting there. I went along to a regional qualifier tournament and blazed through with my three best teams. God only knows how many hours I invested into them. Hundreds and hundreds.
The day before the regional finals, I transferred my A, B and C teams over from Pokémon Stadium onto my Red cartridge, ready to go, and left the Game Boy on the side next to my bag before going to sleep. In the morning, when I got up, my brother was sitting there with the Game Boy, playing away. I could see the flash of the red cartridge in the slot. I still remember the rising chill of foreboding that crept up from my stomach to my heart when I asked him what he was doing. “Oh, I just started Pokémon again”, he said. There’s only one save file on the old Pokémon cartridges. He’d just wiped my teams out of existence with the press of a button.
I don’t remember what I said or did, at that point. I don’t remember if I burst into tears or punched him or what. I do remember having to take my D team to the regional championships and getting obliterated in the very first round.
I didn’t play Pokémon again for over ten years.
There’s an element of personal redemption to coming to the Pokémon World Championships in 2014 - even if I’m here as a journalist, not a player. I'm here to observe, not on merit. Nonetheless, the opening ceremony brought a lot of ancient emotions bubbling up from the recesses of my memory, leaving me fighting to keep my face straight. Competitors cheer their nations as they flash up on-screen (we’re in Washington DC, so the Americans provide by far the loudest reaction). One dude standing a couple of metres in front of me is getting rather too into it, air-guitaring enthusiastically to the triumphant championship version of the Pokémon theme.
There are three age categories in competitive Pokémon play, roughly equivalent to under-12s, 12-16s, and 17+. The under-12s dominate here, as well they should, running around in Pokémon caps and t-shirts with their 3DSes in a cavernous hotel ballroom, overseen from above by a giant inflatable Pikachu. I see one dad giving his little boy a huge hug and a pep talk right before the first round starts; there are proud parents everywhere here, some of whom play the game with their kids. I think if I had a kid here I might actually die of pride.
It is, coincidentally, my 26th birthday today, which definitely puts me into the upper age bracket here (not counting the parents). Past the age of 13 or so, kids’ interest in Pokémon tends to drop off, but often it returns when those kids go off to university and suddenly find themselves with a lot of free time and perhaps a new group of friends with geeky inclinations. But even the Masters here are mostly under 21. It’s relatively rare to see anyone older.
The hall is portioned off into two competitive arenas, one for the Pokémon trading card game and one for the video game, with a grand stage in between that hosts especially interesting matches that are broadcast on Twitch. It surprised me to learn that the card game is much more popular that the video game in terms of the number of competitors it attracts, especially in the States. I meet people that run and attend local leagues; sometimes there are even rival leagues in the same American cities, I learn. The World Championships used to only feature the card game, between 2004 and 2009. There was a one-off Pokémon World Championships in 2000, when the game was still new to most of the world, but this has only been an all-encompassing annual event for 6 years. The height of Pokémon’s global popularity was already well in the past.
I was a keen card player, too, as a kid, more so than a collector, but it was always secondary to my fervour for the video game, and where I grew up in Edinburgh the competitive scene was non-existent. When I was about 17 I rekindled my interest in it and went to a local league in the south of England, where I was living at the time. The competitors there could have been roughly divided between three categories: little kids, people around my age who’d been kids when Pokémon was first a thing, and bearded 30-something men. Here, I’m recognising those first two demographics, but the third one seems to have morphed into “parents”.
It’s making me painfully aware of the passage of time. It was 15 years ago that I started playing Pokémon. Most of the people in this room weren’t even born.
Throughout the intensive first day of play, during which hundreds of competitors must be whittled down to twelve finalists, Pokémon Professors in long white coats stalk the aisles, poised to resolve conflicts. (A Pokémon Professor is an actual real thing that you can be, and involves passing a very demanding test; if you manage it, you can officiate at local and national Pokémon tournaments). For the video game, it’s relatively easy: what the game says, goes. On the trading card side, both translators and Professors are regularly roped in to settle disputes between 10-year-olds with quivering lips. I’m seeing surprisingly little tantrum-throwing, even from the smallest children. I guess when you’re good enough to be at the World Championships of anything, you have to be used to competitive play. Even if you’re six years old.
Pokémon play at this level tends to be very defensive in the video game division. Although there is no “best” Pokémon, there is a relatively small selection of tournament favourites that you see over and over again: Mega-Khanghaskan, Mega-Charizard, Rotum, Aegislash. They are usually equipped with roughly the same tactical combinations of moves and Abilities, with codified counter-responses. But you do get a few wildcards in there, and a few braver players willing to go against the collective team-building consensus. There’s a good chance that any one of these Pokémon will take another down in one hit, so there’s a lot of switching out and liberal use of defensive moves like Protect.
Near the end of the first day’s play, I sit down to spectate in front of one of the screens at the edge of the cordoned-off video game arena. I don’t know which of the eight or so pairs of battlers in there I’m watching, but I’m sitting right behind a group of university-age competitive players who seem to know every Masters competitor’s style. One of them, Alex - cute, cheerful, about 22, wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt that we Brits would call a wifebeater but which appears to be perfectly acceptable attire for young men in the States - was USA national champion this year. Sadly his World Championship hopes are already over.
“I went 3 and 3”, he tells me, wistfully. “I started off against the Japanese national champ, I beat him and was like, YEAH! I beat three-time World Champion Ray Rizzo on the stream. And then… no. Game 3, my opponent… he’s pretty good, he had a couple of things on his team that were really good against my archetype, which is Rain… Ludicolo really takes advantage of the rain, and he played his own really bulky Ludicolo with counter-rain, on top of having Mega Tyranitar to change my rain away from me. It went to game three, but I didn’t beat him. I was in a good position, but I couldn’t do it.
“Then I played this guy who’s kinda known for using really weird teams. His whole archetype is running what nobody else is going to run. My rain-boosted hydro pump from Modest Polytoed didn’t one-shot his Gengar. And then his Gengar could one-shot my Ludicolo.
“At that point I knew I couldn’t make it. Once you get those two losses it’s over.”
There’s an element of chance to Pokémon, whatever level you play at; spectators make pained noises when there’s a successful Freeze, Paralyse or Critical Hit. To mitigate it, they play best two-out-of-three rounds in every match, and they play Swiss so that nobody is singly eliminated until the final round. It’s this element of randomness that makes it compelling to watch, but it’s got to be incredibly frustrating for the competitors.
Alex seems admirably accepting of that element of the game. “There’s all these luck factors in there, so even if you’re the greatest, anything can happen. You sometimes have people you’ve never seen before win the whole thing. That’s kinda the nature of the game. It’s not chess in that if you have a perfect strategy, you’re going to win. Here, you can set everything up perfectly and something crazy could happen to you. Really the game’s about who can play the most consistently over the tournament.
“I lost nine games in the nationals and still became champion. In this game, you can’t go undefeated. It’s really frustrating for some people - you see a turnover rate from people who get super frustrated like that and stop. But then again, it’s Pokémon! It’s only a game.”
The second day of the Championships is given over to the finals. They’re played on-stage and broadcast one after the other, first the trading cards, then the video game. The space that was previously split up into arenas is now a sea of chairs, occupied by cheerful spectators. There are considerably fewer people here today than there were yesterday. (Perhaps some of them were sore losers.)
In the first final, two Japanese boys battle each other for the Junior TCG championship. They play so fast I can’t keep up, constantly shuffling and reshuffling their hands while the other takes his turn. The spectators seem to know what’s happening, though, and dutifully gasp and applaud. Afterwards, the winner – little Haruto Kobayashi – sits in a booth between the two American casters who have been commentating this event, looking very tiny and a somewhat scared, answering questions through a translator as bright lights shine in his eyes.
Between the second and the third finals, I’m standing near the stage waiting to interview a Scottish kid who’s made it to the final stages when I notice a crowd forming behind me. There’s a man in a purple shirt who looks about my age, signing hats and trading card boxes and play mats with a sharpie. Young people stand at a respectful distance, waiting their turn – I hear a girl thank him for everything he’s taught her as he signs her cap.
Someone tells me that he is Jason Klaczynski, three-time TCG world champion, who has been playing and winning at international Pokémon trading card tournaments since… yep, 2000. His celebrity in the community is huge. When I look him up a feel an absurd twinge of jealousy. [It turned out that he was not in fact Jason, but Josh Wittenkeller, a Nintendo-focussed YouTuber and famed TCG commentator.]
By the time the video game finals begin, the hall has pretty much filled up again. It might not be as popular division to play competitively, but it’s seemingly by far the most popular division to watch. It’s fast-paced, unpredictable, and tense. Individual matches are usually over within ten minutes, and sometimes hinge on a single unfortunate stat effect or failed bluff or poor decision. It is thrilling.
One competitor – Se Jun Park, of the Masters division – is a clear fan favourite. Three 18-ish-year-old boys behind me are discussing his potential strategy. Se Jun Park has evidently made a name for himself by using unconventional strategies, breaking the accepted competitive rules and livening up the competition as a result.
As I’m listening in, one of the boys belches loudly and disgustingly and I have to fight the urge to turn around and glare in vaguely maternal disapproval. Past about the age of 11 the Pokémon competitors’ community is something of a boys’ club; female Junior champions, of which there have been a few, rarely return for the Senior and Masters divisions. I suspect this is because kids can be extremely cruel, and I know from experience that the stigma attached to being a serious female Pokémon player at that age is even greater than it is for the boys. Everyone is welcomed and accepted by the Pokémon community itself, which is one of the loveliest in video games. It’s the world outside that makes things difficult for them.
The Masters final is a shocker. Se Jun Park wins with Pachirisu – a little squirrel dude that has had pretty much no record in competitive Pokémon up to this point. As he comes out on stage he waves a little Pachirisu plushie in front of the roaring crowd, and the little guy goes on to absorb everything that rival, gigantic Pokémon throw at him, leaving the rest of Park’s team to dismantle his American opponent. He goes two matches to nil, and wins the Championship.
An hour or so later, six pleased-looking boys and young men stand slightly awkwardly on the stage as confetti flutters down upon the crowd, holding their extravagant Pikachu trophies. This tournament is big on ceremony. There’s been a lot of ear-splitting music and mood-establishing montages and enthusiastic comperes revving up the crowd. I wonder if it was like this back in 2000. I suspect it was all probably a bit low-key.
When I finally started playing Pokémon again after that ten-year break, it was Black and White that brought me back in. It was partly because it styled itself as a new beginning for the series, with 156 new Pokémon and none of the weirdo ones that had sprung up since I stopped playing Red and Blue. I felt like, hey, perhaps it was time for a new beginning for me, too.
Pokémon taught me a lot as a child: perseverance; hard work; patience; strategic thinking; how to lose gracefully; the valuable lesson that if you invest your time and energy into something, it will reward you. That last idea is at the heart of Pokémon, for me. Take care of this creature, and it will grow big and strong, and eventually it can take care of you.
A lot of people think kids are stupid, but they’re not. They can get so incredibly good at things, develop such a deep and focused understanding of them. We patronise them with simplistic games with a colourful licence slapped on them, but it’s games like this - games like Pokémon - that prove timeless. They’re the ones that harness kids’ energy and passion and intelligence, rather than pander to short attention spans and trap them in a Skinner box of compulsion.
These games help children to grow. They helped me grow, when I was young, and the thing I wanted most in the world was to compete in the Pokémon World Championships. Coming here in 2014, as an adult, has shown me that there are still children all over the world for whom Pokémon is a huge part of their upbringing.
You know what? It’s never too late.
All photos author's own. Disclosure: The Pokémon Company provided Kotaku UK's travel and accommodation at the Pokémon World Championships.