Does a Pikachu lose legitimacy if you didn’t organically breed and train it yourself? What if you hacked a copy of a game and created it? Both are virtual, but is one less valid? I don’t think any of the great philosophers pondered the ethics of hacked Pokémon, but these questions have long served as the center of debate within the ranks of the world’s best competitive Pokémon players.
During the 2023 Pokémon World Championships in Yokohama, Japan, a number of players were disqualified for using hacked Pokémon. In a recent interview with gameland.gg, one pro player estimated as many as 90% of players in tournaments use hacked Pokémon. To some, this reveal is scandalous: These are supposed to be the world’s best players. Why would they need to cheat? However, the debate brings up genuine questions about the challenges of training and catching Pokémon fit for competitive play. It also brings up questions about the strictness of the rules behind competitive play, and the way that current versions of Pokémon, including Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, lack certain gameplay features that would benefit top competitive players.
Why do so many competitive Pokémon players cheat and hack?
First, it’s important to note that competitors are not using hacks to create Pokémon that surpass the limits of what’s mathematically or strategically possible in the game. A Pokémon’s stats vary within a set range based on a number of factors — take a Pokémon like Dragonite, for example, and its speed stat. The slowest possible Dragonite will always be faster than the fastest possible Slowbro, because the range of Dragonite’s speed stat is higher than Slowbro’s. If you hacked a Slowbro into your game that was faster than a Dragonite, that would be clear-cut cheating, because it’s not possible to achieve by playing the game normally.
A high-tier player wouldn’t hack the game to create a Slowbro that can outspeed a Dragonite. Instead, they will hack in a Dragonite that has the best stats a Dragonite could possibly have. You could get this Dragonite legitimately in the game, but without hacking, you’d have to spend time and a lot of in-game resources on training the Dragonite and maxing out its stats. One Pokémon might not take much time to train, but pro players are often iterating on an idea dozens of times across all six Pokémon they’d have on their team, which adds up to hours and hours spent making the Pokémon rather than battling with them.
Scarlet and Violet contain quality-of-life features that making acquiring and training tournament-ready Pokémon easier than it was a few years ago — items like mints and Bottle Caps let you adjust a Pokémon’s stats more easily — but they still take time and in-game money to get, and earning more money in Scarlet and Violet can be a massive grind. Add in the fact that securing certain Pokémon might take a lot of trading between different versions of the games and Pokémon Home, and it just adds up. So instead of doing all of this, many top trainers will use programs like PKHeX, a popular save file editor, to create specific Pokémon with precise stats.
So is the cheating good or bad?
It depends on whether you consider the labor of catching, breeding, and training Pokémon to be an essential component of a competitor’s performance. It’s worth noting the best players aren’t great solely because they have a perfectly built team. Many players could undertake the hours and hours of work required to create a “perfect” Pokémon. What makes a top player is the ability to read, predict, and react to different strategies that a challenger is using. Put another way: It would be like playing chess, but you had to take a ton of extra time to carve out the pieces themselves, in addition to experimenting with different strategies.
Since these “cheats” or hacks are used to make Pokémon with legitimate stats, it’s arguably OK for players to hack in Pokémon. This hacking doesn’t detract from the actual tactical play required of competitors during matches, nor does it give competitors a strategic advantage.
This seems to be the commonly shared position. In the interview with gameland.gg, a regional champion and top-20 contender at the 2022 World Championships, Brady Smith, estimated that as many as 90% of pro players use hacked Pokémon. It would certainly save these competitors a lot of time. Many competitive players balance the hobby with other responsibilities, like full-time careers or having a family, and don’t have time to devote to training all their teams by hand. Still, it can be hard for players to speak out, because it could impact their standing in official tournament play.
As evidenced by the disqualifications at the 2023 World Championships, The Pokémon Company has becoming increasingly stringent with enforcing its hacked Pokémon policy. According to the official competitive rules, “The use of external devices, such as a mobile app, to modify or create items or Pokémon in a player’s Battle Team is expressly forbidden.” Players who are found to have hacked Pokémon or items will be disqualified from tournaments. However, enforcement has been irregular. Some of the players disqualified from Worlds made it through regional tournaments without issues, and the practice of generating Pokémon has been around for years.
Regardless of how a person may feel on the matter, it seems now it is best for players to avoid using hacked Pokémon when they can.