Sports

Inside the Heart of Competitive Pokemon Darkness

Your humble correspondent travels to the most adorable, violent sport there is to find out what the fuss is all about.
April 18, 2017, 1:30pm
Corbin Smith

Joshua Smith is a handsome, bearded 30-year-old in a Mewtwo baseball cap. He's come from Central Washington to Portland, Oregon, to compete in a Regional Pokemon Video Game Championships Masters Tournament at the Portland Convention Center. Joshua played Pokemon when he was younger, from the Red edition up until Crystal, but then he stopped. This is his first in-person VGC event. He has, however, been playing at Smogon University—a site that hosts competitive Pokemon games online—for the last year after getting hooked back in once Sun and Moon, the most recent editions of the long-running and much beloved turn-based RPG series, came out. Joshua isn't a particularly intense patron of any other video games, hasn't really played anything of note in "about ten years."

Read More: Meet the Bill James of Esports

But in the last year, he has directed his considerable personal intensity toward the tactical grind of competitive Pokemon, unleashing—unballing?—his monsters to beat the shit out of other monsters to acquire marginal tactical adjustments, so much that he has even submitted himself to the instruction of an online coach, a veritable Pokemon Guru, whom he describes as an "awesome guy in St. Louis."

Depending on one's perspective, this is all rather strange. This would also be a matter of opinion: according to the organizers, 450,000 people competed in Pokemon events worldwide in 2016. But even to an outsider like me, the more I learned about the competitive structures wired into this game by spending time around people like Joshua, the more I came to realize that they're just like any other competitive hobbyist out there, looking for some complicated series of systems to master. It just so happens that theirs is a Japanese electronic cute monster-fighting throwdown.

This is Pikachu. He's adorable. He's here to beat the shit out of your monsters. Photo by Corbin Smith

As I strolled up to the entrance to the tournament at the Oregon Convention Hall, a not-inconsiderable piece of me felt like I had made a gigantic mistake. From the outside, the hall rattled with the chatter of children, that high-pitched dull roar, the type you hear when you walk past a Chuck E. Cheese in the mall.

There were some people selling Pokemon merchandise at the entrance, including a very handsome green baseball cap with a gentlemanly young owl sporting a dapper bow tie. The middle of the hall was makeshift island of risers, staffed by gregarious red-shirted grownups.

Advertisement

There were a total of six tournaments playing out over the weekend: a juniors, a seniors, and a masters tournament each for the video game and the card game. Juniors and seniors hewed to what you'd expect of the Pokemon—which is to say, children. It was the masters tournament, populated by older teens and honest-to-god grownups like Joshua, tucked away into the back corners of the hall, that I was here to investigate. What drove a grown person to play Pokemon in these troubled times? What hidden depths were bringing people to the convention hall to grind away on the biggest video game trend of 1998?

The masters competitors could be found in the back corner of the hall, seated across from one another at folding tables. There were 130 of them on the video-game side and they were dead ringers for competitive poker players on television: quiet concentration, slouched posture, eyes covered by hats—albeit ones featuring those gentlemanly young owls instead of nationally ranked college basketball programs—and jotting notes on paper. Some indulge in brief cross table talk, but most settle for a handshake and some post-match chatting. A five-year-old child ran up and down the aisle, back and forth, to nary a reaction.

It's serious business and is arbitrated accordingly. Judges stalk around, looking over people's shoulders for signs of cheating. I asked the head judge for some down-low dirt on cheats, info on how they do their work and what kind of stuff he may have seen. He told me nothing and seemed nearly offended that I might be willing to release this poisonous information to a public already overwhelmed by machine-created Pokemon maleficence. I was disconcerted by his reticence, but I had to recognize his life context—as a man who dictates the rules, cheating at Pokemon was more serious for him than it was for me, an outsider writing about a Pokemon tournament for an internet publication.

Advertisement

After matches, the players submit their match slips to the organizers, and have some downtime. After the first match I saw, some stepped outside or got something to eat, others gathered around a screen in the middle of the hall showing a Twitch stream operated by NuggetBridge, an online competitive Pokemon community, staffed by two in-hall announcers sporting snazzy headsets and a fella operating and monitoring the stream from a laptop. Fellow VGC competitors hung around and watched the matches on the big screen, interjecting the occasional collective "OOOH!" or "OH MY GOD."

I spoke to James Harding, a young man with an impressive stab at a chin beard, who came all the way from New Hampshire to stay with relatives and compete in a regional event. The money would be nice, but he was here for the national points, a hearty collection of which are required to make it to the world championship in Anaheim. James had been competing at smaller events around his home, with similarly low point totals on the line. Doing well in Portland would allow him to collect a bushel in one fell swoop. He had a ways to go.

"I think you need five hundred points to qualify for worlds, and I have three right now," he told me.

Three hundred, or three points?

"Points. Three points."

But really, he said, he was just there for the experience and the meet-up opportunities.

***

In the early days, Pokemon's game mechanics didn't differ all that much from your standard RPG. You wandered around the map and used your monsters to cave in other monsters' faces in order to gain experience points, which raised your stats and unlocked moves.

Advertisement

That changed in the game's third generation, when the developers ingrained deeper strategic mechanisms into every cartridge: Inherent Values and Evolutionary Values, commonly referred to as IVs and EVs. These determine, through a relatively simple formula, what your attack, special attack, and speed, and defense, special defense, and HP are at a given level. The first trio of values dictate your character's offense, while the latter determine what's colloquially known as bulk or bulkiness. Since every Pokemon in the tournament is automatically leveled up or down to level 50, these inlaid values form the statistical properties of every competitor. In essence, IV and EV provide the foundation for how Pokemon works as a viable esport.

IVs are built into every Pokemon at acquisition, be they products of the wild, encountered and beat up and stuffed in a ball in some tall grass, or born from an egg bred in a daycare center.

EVs, meanwhile, are earned when you beat the shit out of a specific Pokemon. Beat the shit out of a Arcanine, a big-ass flaming tiger, and you'll get an uptick in attack EVs. Stomp a Clefable if you're looking to jack up your HP. Slap a Dustox out of the air if you're looking for a boost in special defense, and so and and so forth.

Twist them together in just the right way, and you can roid out one of these things:

This thin, shielded bird is Tapu Koko, an Electric/Fairy type. In the narrative of the game, it is the spiritual guardian of an island, or something like that. It has no gender. (But who does, really?)

Tapu Koko has been a common competitor in the Pokemon scene since Sun and Moon were released. It began as a classic flash-and-dash fighter, fast and powerful but prone to early knockouts. Recently, though, the tactical winds have blown this noble shield-wielding weirdbird into something more formidable.

Advertisement

"Sometimes top players come seemingly out of nowhere with the same Pokemon everyone's used to, but built in a completely different way and people have no idea how to deal with it," says Ben Emerzion, a competitor who explained most of this to me. "People started experimenting and building Tapu Koko to be a little more bulky, so it could actually take hits and not just, you know, die immediately."

And so, through the magic of value grinding, a really fast, really strong monster is now stout defensively, too. You can probably win a lot of battles with that, and so I wasn't surprised to see one at work in the quarterfinals, when a Garchomp controlled by Max Douglas threw a Poison Jab at a Tapu Koko owned by Conan Thompson. (Poison moves are particularly strong against Fairy-type Pokemon, for literary reasons that are beyond the reach of your reporter.) The Tapu Koko withstood the hit and lived to dish out more damage.

One of the Twitch announcers gasped as the other breezily observes the prominence of "such bulky Tapu Kokos" in the current metagame, the colloquialism for the trends in tactics that dominate play at any given point.

The slow but inevitable shifting of the metagame, constantly changing like mid-range jumpers in the NBA becoming coveted and dismissed and re-coveted over and over again at warp speed, paint the background of the game and form the narratives at every tournament. Players bemoan common choices, belittle pedantic strategies, and gasp when something different happens. And they obsess over ways to engineer that shock value—to build the next bulky Tapu Koko.

We told you the owl is a gentleman. Photo by Corbin Smith

Building values is very tedious, and involves a shit-ton of in-game grinding and egg-sorting. Some competitors find personally sailing the winds of metagame unnecessary and prefer to focus on building tactics. So, they find workarounds.

Alberto Lara is a competitive, quick-talking, excitable 20-something who made the cut at this tournament and has won two previous regional tournaments. He told me his interest in the game is rooted completely in the probabilistic management challenge the game presents, and that he has his friends do the EV training for him. I asked if he pays them for this task.

Advertisement

"No! They're friends!"

I then asked him if they like doing this.

"I dunno, ask them," he replied. "They're not here. I focus on the training, and getting better. That's what you gotta do. You gotta focus on playing the game, not getting the right Pokemon."

Alberto isn't quite as casual about wins and losses as the other people I spoke to. He's been playing competitively since 2007 but he hasn't won an event for about two years. I asked if he was OK, with a jokey sing song and he jetted off the base: "No! I'm hungry!"

You want the blood!

"Yes, exactly. I'm not satisfied with just having good placements. I want to win."

I asked Alberto why he plays Pokemon competitively. "It's a lot of fun," he said, before going on to explain this particular interpretation of fun. "The game is a pie chart, and it's about making sure that you're making the right play. A lot of people say that there, 'Oh, that was a bad play,' stuff like that. I genuinely think there's almost no such thing as a bad play. When you have four Pokemon on the field, they all have four moves, so there's sixteen moves on the field, basically."

He explains his mental process in competition. "He has like around, I would say, a thirty percent chance to pick these two moves, a ten percent chance to click these two moves, a five percent chance to click these two moves, and you add it up to a hundred percent and basically make your read based on how likely you think you're opponent's gonna do that. You basically play the game booking on kind of thirty percents, forty percents, trying to make the right play, so you can hopefully outsmart your opponents."

Advertisement

And that's when it occurs to me that the poker similarities run a lot deeper than personal aesthetics. Because that's what high-level Pokemon play is, at its heart: a customizable, constantly evolving game of poker, played on an uneven, constantly shifting and countervailing field, growing and collapsing and regrowing over the years, a game of tactics and strategies and bluffs that has no fixed point of strategic origin.

After speaking with Alberto, I stepped out of the hall and took a walk around the center before the eighth and final round of play for the day. Convention Hall D, where the event was happening, is a giant grey box, lit by the most oppressive fluorescent light arrangements I've ever seen, giant squares of bars marked by dots in the corner. By the end of the day, their foul white light had given me a terrible headache. I couldn't imagine what the people who combined that with staring at a small screen all day were feeling.

When I stepped back in, the entire hall had taken on the character of my headache. The kids, with their screaming and their improvised games of bouncy-ball ball soccer, were all gone, leaving only the masters competitors. The crowd around the screen, once standing and cheering, were now slumped over on chairs.

The low buzz of children was gone, replaced by the dim murmur of exhausted teenagers and hobbyists poking away at screens. The guy manning the laptop for the Twitch stream was closing his eyes. He seemed to be slowly falling asleep in his seat. Finally, I felt, I was seeing the truth of high-level Pokemon dueling for what it really was: an exhausting, skull-splitting mental game that burrows into your face and presses you to warp the limits of a piece of software to stay one step ahead of the mook sitting across from you. Beautiful game, really.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Max Thomas by the name of Max Douglas.

Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.