According to Nintendo sales figures released this past January, Pokemon Black Version 2 and White Version 2 have sold nearly eight million copies worldwide. Of those millions of players, just three will be crowned as the greatest trainers in the world next month at the Pokemon World Championships in Vancouver, BC.
Getting to that point requires a substantial investment of time and energy from competitors around the world, who work their way up qualifying tournaments held at the regional and national levels. The travel mandated by the process would be taxing for an adult with a steady income; for the youths who make up the vast majority of the players in each championship, finding ways to make it to each leg of the process is exponentially more difficult.
Of course, the time investment that goes into participating in Worlds pales in comparison to the time required to master the art of high-level Pokemon battling; not to mention the art of catching, breeding and training each Pokemon on your team to their maximum potential. There's a lot of meticulousness to playing the normal game, balancing types and strengths as you hone your six-strong team to its utmost potential.
That planning is insanely more complex in high-level play, Pokemon Company International director of consumer marketing J.C. Smith told Polygon in a recent interview.
"Take that planning to an infinite level with competitive players," Smith said. "They're encountering random Pokemon, sure, but they're also trying to find the perfect stats for their teams. The competitive player looks at, 'Okay, this Pokemon is going to be used for this purpose, it needs to be really strong defensively to take a beating while the other Pokemon in a double battle is attacking' — things like that."
The mechanics behind training are so esoteric that they're hardly surfaced at all in the actual games. Players can guide how a Pokemon's stats evolve using a system called Effort Values, where each monster beaten grants an undisclosed number of points towards increasing a certain stat. It's hard to keep track of, but a breeze compared to Individual Values, a metric of a Pokemon's preternatural stat growth potential that can only be maximized with thorough breeding, luck and a brain-melting mathematical algorithm.
"It's been compared to a chess match..."
Then there's each Pokemon's native type, the rock-paper-scissors core of the franchise, which becomes a vital consideration in tournament play. Most matches in the official Pokemon championship are double battles, meaning you need to keep the game's chart of strengths and weaknesses in mind to ensure both of your Pokemon are able to cover one another against your opponent's duo. You also have to make sure that each have individual moves capable of dispatching the type they're weak against.
"They're also not just trying to find the perfect Pokemon, they're looking for the perfect array of moves to cover their strengths and weaknesses," Smith said.
It's a surprisingly deep game at high levels — deeper than even The Pokemon Company is able to relay to the game's more casual followers.
"The game all of a sudden has all these different layers to it, and it amazes me that a player can think through all these different steps," Smith said. "It's been compared to a chess match in that there's set things you can do, but in chess, you don't get to attack 25 different ways with 50 different moves. How players are able to work that through is something they do over the course of a year, and continues to evolve as new strategies come out.
"It's not something I can boil down easily, as you're now seeing," Smith added.
The Road to worlds starts in the digital space with meticulous training — not just for your monsters, but of your own strategic skills in battle. In the real world, the path you take to get to Worlds is up to you.
To receive an invitation to Worlds, North American competitors must take part in smaller tournaments around the country where Championship Points are distributed. They need to collect enough points to secure themselves one of 12 invitations available to send players with the most points to Worlds; a moving target that means they'll have to battle at every opportunity they get.
Securing enough points to earn a seat is no small order.
A square 400 Points — enough to almost certainly gain access to Worlds — is the top prize at the National Championship for each of the tournament's three age brackets: The Junior Division (for players born in or after 2002), Senior Division (for players born between 1998 and 2001) and the Masters Division (for all older players). Everyone else will have to place at a handful of other regional tournaments (which award up to 120 points) throughout the year, or participate in online matches through Black and White 2's Global Battle Union (which award a comparatively paltry max of 10 points).
Securing enough points to earn a seat is no small order
All-expenses-paid Travel Awards are granted to each National tourney's top player (or top four for U.S. players); everyone else has to pay their own way to Worlds, and there's no free ride to any of the lower championships. Making the rounds is a necessity for anyone with Worlds aspirations, meaning serious contenders — who depending on their age bracket may also need to be accompanied by an adult — have to factor in substantial travel costs.
"It never ceases to amaze me how much time people spend on their hobbies," Smith said. "When it comes to Pokemon, people get very serious about it, and they have been since the very beginning of the brand."
There's also a tremendous emotional investment that goes into the process; a fact which a page on the official Pokemon website — titled "Parents Guide to Pokemon" — warns of.
"Due to the competitive element in tournaments, we recommend that parents discuss issues of winning and losing, pressures of competition, and good sportsmanship with their children," the page reads. "It is important to be a good sport — win or lose. The Pokémon Company International believes that children should be having fun in the process of competing, regardless of the outcome. It is, after all, just a game."
It's an important warning for players to take to heart; after a year of traveling, competing and earning Championship Points, players who didn't secure enough points to be invited to Worlds can still attend the event, voluntarily throwing themselves into a single-elimination tournament affectionately referred to as the "Grinder." Of the dozens of competitors at Worlds who enter the Grinder, only four from each age bracket will survive, letting them join the invited players who will compete for the grand prize.
Top finishers for each Worlds can secure seats at the following year's Worlds; but even that's not enough to ensure consecutive victories. With each new iteration of the game comes new rules, regulations and winning strategies for high-level competitive play. Every year, everyone starts over.
"To put a fine point on it, the community of players is constantly, constantly playing the game," Smith said. "The video game changes every year or two, depending on which video game we're using as part of the format. That's tough enough as it is, training up the perfect team, practicing against your friends and other competitive players and online tournaments — all this helps them make a team they know can withstand a variety of other teams other people are putting together."
It's an almost impenetrable process to get through, but it's one that The Pokemon Company is hoping to make more accessible by increasing its efforts to attract casual observers to high-level play. Last year, the company experimented with streaming and shoutcasting for the World Championship, something they hope to do more of at this year's event.
"It never ceases to amaze me how much time people spend on their hobbies."
"Last year we did some streaming," Smith said. "The key to a good stream at this stage in the brand is being able to boil it down to its basics but also talk about the depth of strategy of what's going on as the battle's progressing. We're trying to find that balance, and spend more time explaining the game while people are battling, as well as giving them an opportunity to understand that complexity, giving them time to wrap their heads around it as they're seeing it live, instead of seeing it on the stage."
Smith said The Pokemon Company sees the value in streaming as an audience-building and educational tool. However, though streaming is a possibility at live events, hardware restraints with the handheld make user streaming nearly impossible.
"We'd love to be able to have more of that happening organically, but with the video game, it's very difficult, because it's handheld. There's no natural connection. A lot of eSports games are PC based or console based, and there's a natural connection for sharing that over the internet. With the handheld, there's Wi-Fi, sure, but you can't have that direct link with a PC to start streaming what you have. It's certainly possible, but a lot of people don't have access to it.
"We're trying to solve that, so other people can share their gameplay and their strategies more easily with others."
THE PROFESSIONAL DIVIDE
When asked to define Pokemon championships place in the professional eSports community, Smith is quick to couch the terminology.
"Professional is a strong word," Smith said.
The championship community sprung up not out of a desire for high-level competitive play, but out of any kind of competitive play from the Trading Card Game player base — a necessary assembling, as you can't play the card game by yourself. The group expanded, and became formalized by the Pokemon Company, which quickly realized that it should also be hosting a similar tournament for the video game's players.
"We took that model, which is different from the path most brands take," Smith said. "We wanted to start grassroots and build from there, and we're doing that. I wouldn't say it's traditionally an eSport, but it is an electronic game you're playing competitively — there's brackets, championships, winners are crowned."
"That's sort of the feel-good piece of what Pokemon is."
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Pokemon Championships and professional-level eSports is the lack of cash prizes at the former. While eSports teams and players in Major League Gaming bouts can win takes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the world's greatest Pokemon players can hope to win, at the very most, several thousand in scholarships.
"We also give out 3DS systems, merchandise, trips — some of the most coveted prizes are just trips to the next event, where you can go and have your expenses paid at the next level of the competitive environment," Smith said. "eSports, I mean, there's a whole lot of discussion about how much money people are making and their careers, things of that nature. It doesn't have that same vibe. It feels more like a community of people getting together, enjoying each other's company and playing Pokemon. That's what we really like about it. It just feels right."
That "vibe" originates in the participants at Championship events, Smith said, a community that has grown and matured since the competition's inception. What was once the fancy of just dedicated, younger players has expanded. Entire families are getting into the sport, becoming closer with other families taking part in the Championship — even the event's organizers themselves.
"We get to know these people, the more people that come in," Smith said. "We see the dads playing; they go to enough events and see people playing and say, 'I want to try this.' There's the little brother who comes in because his little brother is playing. We have this community of people whose natural inclination is to teach the others how to get good. I like that. It's not cutthroat. Even at Worlds! Some of these top players are playing their best friends. They're still going to beat them, but it's not nasty. There's a handshake, a good game, then they hang out afterwards."
For Smith, that's the prize. The lack of glamour, or exposure and huge winnings might limit the potential audience for the Pokemon World Tournament, but that's never been what the Pokemon brand was about.
"You look at what motivates people, it's fame and fortune," Smith said. "If you can get both of those while doing something you love, I can see why it would be attractive. In the Pokemon community, you can get that fame among the community and audience, but the fortune is not what we think it should be about. We want it to be about communicating, trading, battling — the core tenets of the game.
"That's sort of the feel-good piece of what Pokemon is," Smith said. "We don't want to get too far from that."
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