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How to fix the problems with championship Pokémon

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Why does one of the biggest games in the world have such a small competitive scene?

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The Pokémon Company

Pokémon is one of the most successful video game franchises in the world, with 280 million copies of the various games sold worldwide as of last May. It handily beats franchises such as Call of Duty (~250 million), Counter-Strike (~50 million), Super Smash Bros. (~39 million) and StarCraft (~19 million).

So why has the official, competitive double-battle-format struggled to find the same success as other esports? The Video Game Championship (VGC) series has gameplay that’s easy to pick up but takes years to fully master. There are exciting moments where everything comes down to a single decision or prediction. There’s a shifting, nuanced metagame that evolves just like the Pokémon that populate it.

Most importantly, there are wonderful players with interesting stories. Watching them try to outplay each other in an attempt to fulfill a childhood dream shared by millions — to be the best — is the most enjoyable aspect of spectating these matches.

It’s just like any other esport in many ways. However, there are plenty of problems with VGC that are holding it back from reaching its true potential.

Gotta catch their attention

The biggest problem is that not enough people know it exists.

There are only a few thousand players across the three age divisions, and only around 18,000 people watched last month’s European International Championships. That’s an improvement over the 11,000 who watched the 2016 World Championships, but the smaller, regional events often peak at just under 3,000 viewers. League of Legends, meanwhile, pulls in millions of viewers and other esports attract hundreds of thousands of spectators.

The game clearly has visibility issues, but there are methods The Pokémon Company International can explore to help VGC reach a wider audience. It could stream more events to build a bigger viewer-base. TPCI always streams their handful of national-level events as well as Worlds, but dozens of regionals across the globe go unseen. Members of the community will often attempt to put on their own grassroots streams, but limited budgets and equipment make that a challenge.

It might also help to advertise outside of a few tweets the week before the event and posts on the official Play Pokémon site. There are in-game message systems in Pokémon Sun and Moon that alert players about new Global Missions, so notifying them about upcoming streams or events might also encourage more casual players to take an interest in VGC.

Adding a World Championship series ladder with the double-battle format and the proper Pokémon restrictions was at least a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t teach people that players in real life dedicate much of their year to competing at local, regional and international events. It doesn’t communicate the way players fight across the globe for enough championship points, which are awarded in varying degrees for good finishes, to qualify for the world championship.

Partnering with other esport events and organizations could also help. Fortunately, TPCI is experimenting with that again at this year’s Dreamhack in Leipzig, Germany. Expanding such partnerships would be even better for the game’s growth.

Getting the word out about VGC is just step one, though. The game’s next problem, its accessibility, is far more important.

Let the players play

A player has to spend hours breeding at least six Pokémon with perfect stats and the proper moves to seriously compete in a VGC event. That can take anywhere from an hour to an entire evening (per Pokémon), and even then players only have access to a single team. Most serious competitors change their lineup on a regular basis as the metagame evolves. That’s a huge turnoff that likely keeps many from even trying VGC.

Some claim, however, that breeding is simply part of the hours that go into training for any esport. That isn’t an apt comparison; League of Legends players dedicate vast amounts of time to mastering each champion, sure, but they do that by playing, and VGC players do the same when they change teams. What League players don’t have to do is spend hours, if not days, simply unlocking their champ. That comes with the push of a few buttons. Many VGC players want the same luxury so they can focus on playing instead of grinding.

To make matters worse, just coming up with solid team ideas can take just as long. Now imagine you’ve done that, spent the time breeding your team, took it online for testing and then realized it wasn’t that good. It can feel like such a waste of time that some might put the game down for good.

Fortunately, Pokémon developer Game Freak has taken a step in the right direction with QR code rental teams. Players will be able to generate QR codes of their teams that can be shared with the community. Once scanned, anyone can use an exact replica of the team on the online ladder. This will let the best VGC players distribute the fruits of their labor to anyone with the game, and it’s a feature that should be released early this year.

Unfortunately, these rental teams weren’t taken far enough; they aren’t usable at live events where they’re needed most. If TPCI were to release an online tool that let players generate codes for the exact teams they wanted, anyone could try out any team in minutes. And, since QR teams can’t be used in the single-player quest, it wouldn’t violate any perceived “spirit of the game.”

The meaningless grunt work of breeding would be removed while the strategy and competitiveness would remain.

Communicate with the players

Once game accessibility is solved, the next step is to solve the remaining problems with the competitive circuit itself. That starts with The Pokémon Company International’s poor communication skills. Announcements for everything from upcoming streams to the entire season’s structure can and have come out much later than necessary.

In fact, last season, players didn’t know how many championship points they needed to qualify for travel stipends to the most important events of the year until a couple weeks beforehand. That’s a big problem when a season starts in September and U.S. Nationals, for example, is in July.

Without that information, no one had any idea when they can afford to stop traveling to events. Since there aren’t any sponsors to fly players across the country, travel is one of the biggest barriers to a successful VGC season. Being able to save your money by competing in events only until you’re qualified would be a welcome addition to the season.

That particular problem seemed gone early in this season, as TPCI announced it was flying out a handful of players from the four major regions (North American, South American, Europe and the Asian/Pacific) to each of the International Championships. The lingering concern, however, is that while the information for Europe’s tournament came early, there’s still no info for the other three international events. The top players are being forced to play part of their season blind.

Players also lament that the only way to give feedback to The Pokémon Company is by submitting a support ticket to the Pokémon website. There should be a point of contact for the players and the media to help answer these questions. I’ve been personally told by players familiar with The Pokémon Company and even a current employee that any attempt to get in contact for a story will be ignored. It just doesn’t seem to be a priority for anyone involved.

Many players believe TPCI doesn’t care much about VGC. To change that, all The Pokémon Company needs is a community manager who can assure everyone that someone is listening. The risk is low and the potential rewards of a better-known competitive scene are great.

Tweak the tournaments

Finally, the tournaments themselves could use a few adjustments to support the player consistency required for a major esport. Random chance is an unavoidable part of Pokémon. Whether it’s a move’s chance to miss or land a critical hit, even the best players, teams and tournament runs can be undone with bad luck. But there are ways to minimize how much control is given to luck in the competition itself.

Right now, tournaments are broken down into (usually) two phases. The first phase is called the “Swiss rounds,” where all competitors are paired off based on their performance. Players with three wins, for example, play others with three wins. The amount of rounds depends on attendance, but it’s usually seven to nine. Also, for the larger tournaments, players with two or fewer losses advance to a second day of Swiss rounds in an attempt to further narrow down the further.

The second phase of the tournament is called “top-cut,” where either the eight or 16 (again, depending on attendance) players with the “best” records play a single-elimination bracket tournament. This second phase is where bad luck can come to haunt players.

For the most part, those that qualify for top-cut generally did best during the first phase of the tournament, and most players agree that a top-tier player shouldn’t drop more than a couple games in Swiss rounds. However, while some players with two losses advance to the next phase, even more miss the cut off because of weaker “resistance.”

Resistance is what separates players with the same record, and it’s based on the records of a player’s opponents throughout the day. The problem many players have with this is that a player doesn’t have any control over who they face. It’s frustrating when a great player misses out on top-cut because they randomly played people who did poorly and thus don’t offer the same level of resistance.

The fix to this is simple and something TPCI already does when advancing players to a second day of Swiss: Let everyone with two or fewer losses compete, or three or fewer losses if records from day one Swiss carry over to day two. Most players agree that is fair and would allow high-performing players to compete in the hardest part of the tournament while minimizing the role of luck in determining who moves forward and who is eliminated.

Now, this all doesn’t recognize how far The Pokémon Company has already come with VGC. It helped carry VGC from the days of no live-streams (or even chairs at events) to a much better state.

The company just needs to address a few more issues that, once fixed, will hopefully help it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the largest esports in the world. It would help those of us who already love the game to share that love with more people, and would bring a larger audience to the world of competitive Pokémon, which is an exciting world indeed.


Jason Krell is a freelance journalist, VGC player and editor for the Trainer Tower.