At the Pokémon World Championships in Washington DC last weekend, a couple of thousand people came together to compete or spectate in the Pokémon trading card game and video game competitions. The great majority of those people were kids and their parents - little dudes and dudettes in Fennekin hats and Pikachu t-shirts. It was incredibly heartening, over the course of the weekend, to meet so many loving families who played these games together, and to see how supportive these parents were of their championship-material children. It made me really hope that Pokémon is still around if I ever have kids, though sod's law dictates that if I ever did have children they would probably be super into sports and pop music rather than any of the geeky stuff that I’d be enthusiastically encouraging them towards.
I found the experience genuinely inspiring - and, at times, moving. Here are some of the families I met.
(Yep, Adam's the one on the left)
Adam, 10, came third in the Junior division at the British nationals in the video game tournament, and this is his second year in the Worlds. His incredibly proud dad isn’t just cheering him on - his other son has managed to qualify for the trading card tournament, too. Witnessing him give his wee boy a massive hug an a pep talk before he headed into the first rounds almost made my heart burst.
“It’s nerve-wracking - you’re more nervous than them, because obviously you don’t want them to get disappointed in themselves,” his dad tells me. “They’ve already done very well to come here, so you don’t want them to go out in the early stages. Once you pass the first round, then at least if they lose, it’s OK - because they’re all very, very good here.”
Adam’s dad doesn’t play much Pokémon himself - he’s rubbish at it, he says. “I play sometimes - when they want to test something or practice and the other one’s doing homework, I’ll give it a go. I’m not very good, but it’s better than nothing!”
The hours of investment that are needed to make it this far in competitive Pokemon are intimidating, even for a kid with plenty of time. Adam’s dad says his kids spend a lot of time practicing. When his trading-card-playing son needs to practice, he’ll sometimes play himself, like a chess student. “He’ll play a turn, go to the other seat and play another turn, because there’s nobody available to play with him,” laughs his dad.
Joni, Caroline and the Fishers Pokéleague
(One of the Fishers Pokéleague kids competes in the Trading Card Game rounds)
Joni helps to run a Pokémon trading card league in Fishers, Indiana with a chap called Kevin - it’s one of many in the surrounding cities, she says. She is an accredited Pokémon Professor, which is a genuine real thing that you can qualify for and involves a very demanding test. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Joni’s 3 kids are all here at the Worlds, one of them competing - there are 2 other kids here from their league, all with their families in tow. One competitor’s younger sibling, Landon, aged 5 is sitting with a DS, getting to grips with the basics.
“It’s fun to do as a family - the kids started playing, and then my husband started playing, so we can all go along to a league on a Saturday and spend the day together,” says Caroline. “Everybody knows our yellow t-shirts. Actually they have learned to fear out t-shirts, I learned yesterday!”
Joni was also competing in Masters division herself, but she lost the first round. “It’s interesting to see what the kids go through,” she told me. “My son won at regionals, so I’ve seen him do really well and I’ve seen him bomb and do really poorly.”
I do wonder how the kids - the littler kids especially - deal with failure. When Steve Hogarty went to the British nationals, there were a lot of crying children. It’s got to be devastating for them to get all the way to the finals like this and then fail. “Most of them, because they’ve been doing this in different state and regional competitions, they’re getting better,” Caroline reassured me. “It gets a little bit easier to deal with losing. All of ours are around 10, so they do better with their emotions.
“They’ll come back from a game they’ve just played and introduce us to their new friend. Even just in the United States, they make so many friends. It’s kind of like a big family.”
(Keilan is the tallest - that's Adam from earlier on the far right)
I’ve met a great many people at the Pokémon Championships and a great many families who’ve come together, but it’s not as easy for some competitors and families as others. 11-year-old Keilan lives with his mum, who isn’t exactly a fan of Pokémon and doesn’t agree with him playing. His dad, Steve, sees him a couple of days a week, during which time they have to get in all their training and preparation. Despite that, Keilan was British Junior champion the last two years. This is his last year before he enters the Senior division, from ages 12 to around 17.
“It’s hard for him, because his potential is huge, but he doesn’t get the opportunity to play as much as some of these other kids - he misses tournaments online and stuff because he’s not with me,” says Steve. “But despite that, he’s the highest ranked player in all of Europe.”
I ask Kielan what it is he loves about Pokémon. The answer is simple. ““Winning trophies! And plushies,” he says, after a moment's consideration.
Keilan and his dad play other games together - Mario, Minecraft with his sister - but Steve helps to train Pokémon for him when he’s not around. “I play Pokemon as well - I am awful, I am absolutely woeful,” laughs Steve. “I can breed them and train them, but I can’t battle them for toffee. I don’t know what it is, I just don’t get any better! No matter who I play, I get beaten.”
Steve ended up having to fight hard in order to be able to bring Keilan to these championships in Washington for the weekend. “It’s fantastic to be here,” he says. “At the end of the day it’s tough when they’re battling, because you have no idea what’s happening. It’s brilliant when they win, but it’s heartbreaking when they lose.”
Steve tells me that he was diagnosed with cancer last year, which has further limited the time he gets to spend together with his son. “My time with him is very limited. And with me being in and out of hospital and that, he has no time for practice whatsoever. He’s got the ability, he just needs the support,” he says, turning to his son.
“I mean, with all the hurdles you’ve got, I think you’ve done amazing. And you won’t have all this next year, because I’m going to be better, and your team will be better, and you’re going to be focused and ready for it. The seniors won’t know what hit ‘em.”
Mark, Paul and Barbara
(Mark competes in the Senior division's final round on the big stage.)
Mark is an obviously very intelligent 14-year-old from my home town of Edinburgh, and both his parents are here to watch him compete - he made it all the way to the finals of the Senior division, the first British person ever to do so. “I sort of brought the team to do well against what I thought I would see here from waching the US nationals and the European nationals - I didn’t really have a strategy, I just reacted to what they were bringing,” he says. “I just play a lot - I make a lot of teams and some of them aren’t very good, but I’ll make one for every event.”
His dad, Paul, has ended up getting into Pokémon too. He entered the last-chance qualifier for the Masters division himself this year, but didn’t get through. “When [Mark] qualified for San Diego [in 2012] I started to look into it,” Paul confides. “He got me into it. It’s really complicated, absolute chess… there are so many aspects to it, typing, moves, team selection. It’s good for them, definitely. The ones who are good at it are clever people normally. I reckon they’re all probably top percentile, academically I mean.”
I wonder whether there are many kids in Scotland who play Pokémon, nowadays - honestly, it was hard to find much competition when I as growing up, let alone now, fifteen years later. “Aw, there’s no-one!,” smiles Mark. “There are pretty much no video game players, a few card players. I mostly play online.”
Disclosure: The Pokémon Company paid for Kotaku UK’s travel and accommodation at the Pokémon World Championships. Photos author's own, or courtesy of The Pokémon Company.