The Competitive Pokémon Scene and the People Who Love it

Wolfe Glick faces off against Graham Amedee
Wolfe Glick faces off against Graham Amedee / Photo Courtesy of The Pokemon Company

Asking a random person on the street to name a video game would likely yield a wide variety of answers; “Mario,” “Tetris,” and “Grand Theft Auto” have all found their way into the cultural consciousness through one way or another. Another likely answer would be the highest-grossing media franchise of all-time, Pokémon, estimated to have brought in over 100 billion USD since the series’ inception in 1995.

That beats out the estimated revenues of Star Wars (est. $70 billion), Hello Kitty (est. $86 billion), and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (est. $35 billion).

From the trading card game, to the anime, to the games themselves, Pokémon is a franchise that spans multiple mediums and age groups. Pokémon Red and Blue kicked off the franchise, introducing the world to the classic 1v1 Pokémon battles that have become so commonplace to so many generations of gamers. Despite the competitive nature of the game’s mechanics, a competitive scene has only existed in its current form for a little more than a decade. To put that into perspective, Pokémon’s Video Game Championship (VGC), which crowned its first champion in 2009, has only existed for two years longer than League of Legends’ world championship. Despite the franchise’s revenue, the esports scene does not generate nearly as much publicity or prize money. In terms of viewership, competitive tournaments can garner hundreds of thousands of views on rare occasions, but that does not happen often.

A Brief History of Competitive Pokémon

Prior to the creation of VGC, the Pokémon trading card game (TCG) was the main event, having world champions dating back to 2004. This may seem strange, given Pokémon’s meteoric rise in the years after its release, the Pokémon anime debuted just one year after the game’s release in Japan. What’s less strange is that in the absence of an officially supported competitive circuit, players created their own. Out of the several communities that popped up in the early aughts by far the most popular and long-standing has been SMOGON. Officially established in 2004, the website claims to have sprouted from the Pokémon community from as early as 1999. One notable feature of this secondary community is that they do not use the official Pokémon games to play, instead, they use Pokémon Showdown, a simulator that perfectly emulates the battles of the newest Pokémon game without the hours of preparation that goes into playing competitively on a game cartridge. Pokémon Showdown offers a sleek and intuitive framework for players who prefer SMOGON to the official VGC format. And there are massive differences between the two formats.

The official VGC tournaments are not the typical 1v1 Pokémon battles that players go through the storyline practicing in. Instead, Nintendo sanctioned events are all double battles, which means 2v2. Just this change makes a massive difference. For example, team compositions that would work in a 1v1 format are utterly useless in 2v2. Different Pokemon are allowed to shine in different formats, and 2v2 tournaments can feature wildly different teams than anything that might be seen in a 1v1 match.

The main formula has remained the same, but everything with in it has changed since the 90s
The main formula has remained the same, but everything with in it has changed since the 90s / Photo Courtesy of Nintendo

If this all seems complex for what is billed as a children’s franchise, you’re not the only one.

Competitive Pokémon is a fully-fledged esport.

The amount of knowledge that goes into building a team, long before even setting foot in a battle, can easily take days. That is just for one team, for players who might want to switch between multiple teams, building up a Pokémon base could take weeks. It involves getting a Pokémon with the right IVs, training them up to have good EVs, breeding them to have the right nature, giving them the correct item, and oh so many more factors that go into just preparing a competitive team and all of this has to take place after beating the game itself. If your eyes glazed over in reading that, don’t feel bad. It’s an obtuse, complex, and sometimes hidden system that most casual Pokémon players will never encounter. But the dedicated community in this game is willing to engage in hours upon hours of preparation to compete.

Circling back to the secondary scene, SMOGON offers a competitive route for players who may not want to go through the preparation. Creating a dream team on Pokémon Showdown takes minutes, there is even an option to choose whether or not a Pokémon is shiny. Additionally, the SMOGON community has its own set of rules that players abide by. These rules are, generally, set by the community. The most notable change in comparison to the official VGC format, is the introduction of Pokémon tiers. Decided by the SMOGON community and how popular certain Pokemon are, tiers separate Pokemon by their relative strength. The best Pokemon, usually legendary Pokemon, are slotted into the “Ubers” tier and the worst Pokemon are put into the “Partially Used” (PU) tier. Again, it’s a lot to take in.

Experts Step in to Help

This is the simplified version of a Pokemon team, and it still looks complex. With items, moves, and types all chosen to perfectly fit together
This is the simplified version of a Pokemon team, and it still looks complex. With items, moves, and types all chosen to perfectly fit together / Photo Courtesy of @TheDecoKing on Twitter

Luckily for newbies, the dedicated community are not just players, they are educators as well. Aaron “Cybertron'' Zheng creates content, casts competitive games, and competes as well.
Zheng has a long history in the Pokémon scene, and one thing that Pokémon has excelled at is keeping its player base around. Those who come to love Pokémon in childhood often become lifelong lovers of the games. Compared to other esports, the community is small, but the players are passionate. The largest content creators in the Pokémon competitive community tend to have less than a million subscribers, but in the broader Pokémon community, there are several content creators who have broken the million subscriber barrier.

Zheng is a legendary player who has two national titles and five regional titles. He uploads daily to his YouTube channel, chronicling his ranked matches in the official VGC format. Throughout the videos, he will provide commentary, and explain what exactly is going on in the game. His introduction to every video, “Hey guys, Aaron ‘Cybertron’ Zheng here” has become a welcome and familiar sound to his nearly 130k subscribers. It has even become something of a meme within the community. When he is not competing, making YouTube videos, or honing his Pokémon strategies, he can often be found commentating over other’s games. The Pokémon Company hires a myriad of skilled players and commentators to cast the official tournament games, Zheng happens to be one of them.

“I would say I’m definitely beyond my prime from years ago,” he said grinning. “If I don’t do well then I’m like really bummed because I would’ve casted like a really sick finals.”

Zheng has been involved with the scene since 2008, where he originally intended to compete in the Pokémon card game. A young Zheng found success in both tournaments, after being encouraged by his friends to compete in the video game as well. However, he was forced to choose between the two at the next stage of the tournament. When only the video game competition offered to fly him out to Florida to continue in the circuit his choice became clear. From there it’s been competitive history for him. But it was not just him that had the competitive spirit in his family, his younger brother Brendan “Babbytron” Zheng took home the Junior Championship title in 2013. Aaron’s fondest memories of Pokémon came not from his own competition, but from being able to cast his own brother’s games. He even got to cast his brother’s qualifying match for the world championship which he said was his favorite moment in the competitive scene.

Companies and Communities Clash

The fun outward facing Nintendo often does not reveal the inner workings of the company and its practices enforcing its IPs
The fun outward facing Nintendo often does not reveal the inner workings of the company and its practices enforcing its IPs / Photo Courtesy of E3

However, it is not all sunshine and rainbows in the Pokémon community. Nintendo has a long history of making controversial choices in regards to many of its franchises. The release of Pokémon Sword & Shield brought its own controversy when it was announced that not every Pokémon would be obtainable in the game. This “Dexit” controversy has since petered out, but the competitive Pokémon community has found its own cause to rally around. In November 2020, popular Pokémon content creator “pokeaimMD” uploaded a video to YouTube titled “Pokemon Sword and Shield has a BIG Problem.” This video featured many of the most influential people within the community, from content creators to tournament champions, and all of them sounded off on one issue. The insubstantial time limit in single battles. 

To explain, Pokémon’s official format is, of course, the double battle, but players can still compete in the typical 1v1 format online in Pokémon Sword & Shield. However, in Sword & Shield, the time before a match would automatically complete was set to 20 minutes. In other formats this functions much like a chess timer, players are forced to play within certain constraints to keep the game going and to make sure that one player cannot just keep their opponent waiting for no good reason. The failure in this time limit comes with many of the new additions that came in the most recent entries. A new feature, Dynamaxing, allows players to make one Pokémon on their team turn gigantic. This animation takes 40 seconds to play out, and both players can do it once. According to pokeaimMD, most 1v1 or “singles” games end without a conclusive result, an issue that many in the community felt umbridge toward.

"Hey guys, Aaron "Cybertron" Zheng here"
"Hey guys, Aaron "Cybertron" Zheng here" / Photo Courtesy of VGCpedia

Zheng had a rather bleak and short view on the subject, “I think we’ll have to wait for the next game.”

In regards to any change being made in the current generation. The Pokémon developers have been reticent to patch their games in the past, and the competitive community seems resigned to waiting for the next release. This is par for the course with Nintendo, as in the past, their reaction to community demands, fan games, content creation, and esports has not been up to the standard set by other developers. Every few months Nintendo makes headlines by striking down a website hosting fan edits of games, sending cease and desist letters to fan organized tournaments, or simply failing to support esports scenes for some of their most popular games. In the most recent controversy, a Splatoon 2 tournament was unexpectedly canceled. Players suspect that this was due to their public support for a canceled Smash Bros. Melee tournament. Nintendo is well within its rights to do any of these actions. However, the company’s draconian measures to enforce copyright law on their IPs while other companies like SEGA embrace fan creations have earned them the moniker “Nintendosaurus” in some communities.

The VGC community has largely been insulated from major controversies over the course of its existence, but issues like the 1v1 timer are not unheard of. The safety of the VGC community may be due to the split nature of Pokémon’s development. Three separate companies collaborate to release the main Pokemon games, GameFreak (the original Pokemon creators), Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company. It seems that The Pokémon Company largely handles the esports side of the game, as tournaments are run through their apparatus. That is perhaps another reason that the VGC community has been able to avoid troublesome run-ins with Nintendo.

Unfortunately for the Pokémon community at large, conflict with Nintendo has been unavoidable. Pokémon is one of the most popular games for fans to make “ROM hacks” out of. These “ROM hacks” are edits of original Pokémon games where fan creators use assets and game mechanics to create their own versions of Pokémon. Some of these hacks go as far to be completely unrecognizable as hacks of Pokémon FireRed or Pokémon Emerald. They typically have their own stories, user-created maps, and even custom Pokémon in some games. Nintendo has taken a more active stance against these fan games, removing them with DMCA takedowns and cease and desist orders.

Given Nintendo’s stance toward Pokémon fan creations and their recent history, it would not be out of the question to someday see litigation going after the most popular unofficial Pokémon competitive community, SMOGON. To many, SMOGON and Pokémon Showdown are essential institutions that provide opportunities to test competitive teams and communicate with fellow players. The hours of time necessary to get a team up and running on the Switch can be difficult for many players to justify. Pokémon Showdown lets players build a team in minutes and battle with that team seconds later.

Gabby Snyder Speaks on SMOGON

Gabby Snyder is a caster, competitor, and streamer who, like Zheng, has a storied history in the competitive Pokémon scene. Like many Pokémon players, content creation and Pokémon casting/competing is not what Snyder does for a career. For her day job, she is a senior software engineer. When not working on software though, Gabby can often be found workshopping Pokémon teams and climbing the ranked ladder on her Twitch stream. It bears mentioning that the Pokémon community values its diversity, Snyder proudly displays that she is an LBGTQ+ ally on her social media. In a discussion with her, she spoke highly of the existence of choice for Pokémon players. 

“It’s really cool to see that there’s so much passion in this game at a competitive level…I’ve seen a lot of content creators from the singles side of the world come into VGC recently which is pretty neat. It’s definitely breaking down barriers.” 

Snyder reminisced about the early Pokémon community when SMOGON was first becoming influential. She said that at that time (around 2006) there was a split in the community, and she even participated in it. Jokingly, she revealed that she was a staunch doubles player in the distant past. Now though, any grudges or holds have faded away. That is the overwhelming sense that one sees in viewing the Pokémon community, a welcoming place for people who enjoy playing the game.

The Future of Pokémon

A Pikachu outbreak seems like a good idea, just make sure to pack some rubber gloves
A Pikachu outbreak seems like a good idea, just make sure to pack some rubber gloves / Photo Courtesy of

What it seems that Pokémon players value is choice. This could be said about many games, but the relationship to choice takes a different form in the Pokémon series. It is the most successful media franchise in history, with that comes expectations within the community. Oftentimes the focus is not on the competitive community. More often than not, their desires have been sidelined. That is not to say that it is an entirely negative relationship, Pokémon Sword and Shield made some of the greatest advancements for the VGC community. For the first time, Pokémon had a ranked system and rankings built into the game. In the past, the only way for players to prove their mettle was through impromptu battles or official tournaments. Although, a ranked system being added for the first time in 2019 makes it seem like Nintendo has earned the moniker “Nintendosaurus.” Besides a ranked system, a myriad of additions in Sword & Shield made it easier to get into competition. The process still takes hours, days, or even weeks to do it without cheating, but it is certainly easier in the newest entries.

There is sometimes a fear among developers that too much choice will split a player base and eventually lead to a game’s decline. Pokémon is different. SMOGON did not split the player base, it flourished into a vibrant community for players who want to play a different way. The current crossover between SMOGON and the VGC that the community is seeing can only be a positive development. 2021 marks Pokemon’s 25th anniversary. Many fans are predicting remakes of Pokémon Diamond & Pearl. When asked what she would have if she could have anything for the 25th anniversary, Snyder answered a Pikachu Outbreak. While only in Japan in the past, Pikachu Outbreak is a yearly celebration where hundreds of Pikachu mascots infest Tokyo for a week. Once the pandemic abates, Snyder wants the Pikachu Outbreak to spread to major cities in the US as well.

This is the Pokémon community. Competitive or casual, it is full of people who love the cute, cool, or scary monsters that have slowly taken over the world. The community is proud of its internal diversity, the community even held its own Women’s Cup in 2020.  One can only hope that it continues to grow and remains wholesome.