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At the Pokémon National Championships: Is This the UK’s Friendliest Competitive Gaming Event?

Is Pokémon an eSport? Maybe not, but the Nationals prove that this is one of the warmest, most welcoming competitive communities in all of gaming.

by Chris Schilling
31 May 2016, 7:30am

All photography courtesy of the Pokémon National Championships

Is Pokémon an eSport? I pose the question in the press room at this year's Pokémon UK National Championships and a lively debate ensues. Someone suggests it doesn't quite have the depth in its competitive metagame – the same monsters show up too frequently in the later rounds. And yet the variety in potential move pools and the different strategies and combinations that emerge helps keep these battles tense and absorbing. It's still capable of surprises, too: the UK-based winner of the Seniors bracket at last year's World Championships triumphed largely thanks to his use of a rarely-seen Machamp. But maybe its turn-based nature rules it out as an eSport. After all, most successful competitive games take place in real-time. What sports are turn-based? "Chess?" I decide against asking whether that's even a sport, and the conversation turns to other matters.

Besides, in the end, the question may be moot. Pokémon certainly has a competitive element, and this event is designed to let people play it in a tournament environment. But this is my fifth consecutive year of attending the Nationals (twice in Birmingham, twice in Manchester, and now once in Liverpool) and each time it feels as if it's more a gathering of Pokémon fans where there just happens to be a competition happening at the same time. That isn't necessarily a criticism: there is a relaxed, informal vibe that helps contribute to a warm and convivial atmosphere. Marti Bennett, a writer and former competitor, sums up why she regularly spends a fortune on travel and hotel costs attending this event. "It's about bringing people together," she says. "That's my favourite thing about Pokémon."

As someone who worked on Nintendo magazines for several years, I've gained an understanding and appreciation of the Pokémon games, but I wouldn't class myself as a hardcore fan. My son, on the other hand, has invested 600 hours in Pokémon Omega Ruby alone, though he considers himself more of a collector than a battler; we attend the event because he enjoys spending time with fellow Pokémon fans and watching them play. This year, he's decided to go dressed as Harley, a flamboyant purple-haired trainer from the animated series. The response is genuinely heartwarming. A young man nods approvingly as he passes by: "Sick cosplay, dude." "That's so cool," says a girl of similar age, looking up from her 3DS. Several people approach him for photos; he duly obliges. (Later, he tells me with typical understatement, that he was "bombarded by paparazzi". I'm not sure a teenager with a Squirtle backpack counts as paparazzi, son.)

Beaming at his newfound celebrity, he sits down opposite his best friend to play a few rounds of the new-to-Wii U arcade fighter Pokkén Tournament. This marks the debut of Bandai Namco's game at the Nationals, and The Pokémon Company has called upon record-breaking fighting game master Ryan Hart to provide commentary. As with the main tournament and the Trading Card Game finals, it's all being broadcast via Twitch, the first year the UK Championships has been streamed live.

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Laid-back, friendly and approachable, in many ways, Hart is the ideal choice to cover a Pokémon fighting game. Ten minutes before he's due to cover the second round of the tournament, I manage to grab him for an informal chat. We end up talking until someone interrupts us to say he's due in the commentary box. He has, he tells me, been playing Pokkén solidly for about a week in the run-up to the event, learning the characters and their move pools, watching streams of players to gauge strategies, patterns and even common mistakes. "I've been having a lot of fun with it," he tells me. "I think it's a very clever twist on a fighting game."

I wonder if Pokkén could become a major player on the competitive fighting game circuit. Hart is certainly impressed by its balance. "A Sceptile player won the last major tournament, [and that] was said to have been a mid-to-low tier character. Which might show that people have got the whole hierarchy wrong, but probably [means] the developers have done a good job of balancing the game." So what main differences does he see between Pokkén and other fighting games? "Obviously the demographic is a lot younger," he says. "One thing Pokkén brings to the table that other fighters don't is coming to tournaments [like this] is like a family day outing. You've got parents who'll bring their kids along and then spend the day at the venue."

I thumb the stop button on my iPhone's screen, aware that he's got a job to do, but the conversation continues as he explains why Pokkén is a positive step for the genre's accessibility. "It's good to have a fighting game that's really encouraging new players," he says. "I mean, some of these young players have incredible reflexes – these could be the fighting game players of the future." He chuckles quietly. "I should probably have said all this while you were recording." He walks off, and I furiously scribble down every word I can remember.

Friendly, accessible, encouraging: it's clear the spirit of Pokémon extends to Pokkén. If there was any unease about how a fighting game community would mix with the wider Pokémon fanbase, it's quickly apparent that this particular Venn diagram has a huge overlap. And yet despite Hart's presence and the Twitch streams, I sense a slight tentativeness on The Pokémon Company's part in pushing the event too hard. Entry numbers are lower than anticipated, resulting in long waits between rounds. We hear murmurs that it simply hasn't been publicised enough.

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In a way, that's perhaps understandable. Most other eSports have been designed for competition, while the competitive element is just one facet of Pokémon, a game primarily designed for its players to trade and collect monsters. The Pokémon Company has to balance supporting the competitive scene while ensuring the series doesn't just become known as a game about battling, in order to maintain its inclusiveness. After all, it's precisely that kind of atmosphere that has allowed new players to develop and thrive in a welcoming environment. It is, as Marti said, all about bringing people together – in this case, one of the warmest and friendliest game communities there is. Whatever the Nationals' shortcomings as a competitive event, in that regard it's an undoubted success.

@schillingc

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