Pokemon as eSport

As an avid watcher of professional Starcraft I constantly hear of all the strengths and weaknesses of various video games as spectator sports. Starcraft, for instance, has tons of strategic depth and is also visually clear in many ways, but often times the complexity of a given player’s battle plan requires a commentator to explain it in detail, and differentiations in individual army units can be confusing for someone who’s never had experience with similar games. Compare this with soccer, where “kick ball into goal” is clear as day, or even fighting games, where life bars and graphical depictions of punches and kicks tell the story. So with all eSports, one issue is always, how far removed is the game from reality? If it’s too abstracted then it becomes a game mainly for the devoted or hardcore, which is fine, but spectatorship is the question here.

This got me to thinking, what about Pokemon? While Pokemon is pretty far-removed both in terms of its menu-based gameplay and the sheer number of Pokemon and attacks and the complex rock-paper-scissors chart that makes up the 17 types, I wonder if Pokemon can get around all of this by just being so internationally famous that a possible majority of people under a certain age have had some experience with Pokemon, be it through the video games or the anime or their friends/relatives telling them about how Rock beats Flying. If it’s a common-enough experience, then maybe there’s not as much immediate need for realism or explanation.

On top of that, Pokemon has always been quite robust when it comes to strategy, to the extent that not only have there been multiple tournaments over the years (see the recent Pokemon Video Game Championships for example), but there have been a number of sites dedicated to exploring strategy and tactics in Pokemon, whether that’s Smogon or predecessors such as Azure Heights. These forums manage to bring together the very young up to people well into their adulthoods.

Granted, there are a number of drawbacks and setback that could stifle Pokemon as eSport despite its popularity and penetration. The first is that it’s likely Nintendo would never entirely support a competitive Pokemon scene which fuels people’s salaries, especially because part of the appeal and atmosphere in Pokemon has to do with empowering players to feel strong and special and to bond with the Pokemon they catch and train. Ideally, a competitive version would just allow you to customize your Pokemon (and there have been online simulators over the years which allow this), but I doubt Nintendo would ever approve of such a thing themselves. The second problem is that Pokemon’s strategy and difficulty is purely in the mind, whether that’s coming up with ideas on the fly or memorizing statistics, and while plenty of games have those elements the fact that Pokemon is turn-based means there is no physical rigor involved. No one will mention someone’s fabulous micromanagement. No one will be impressed by 400 APM (actions per minute) when the game really only takes 1 APM.

In any case, while I’m not terribly optimistic of Pokemon Battling becoming a career, I still would like to think that some day there may be a game that is so commonly known that it’s a matter of course for it to enter a competitive realm accepted by many. I mean, more than League of Legends even.

I guess the only thing to leave you is an actual competition video of Pokemon, to see what people think.

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9 thoughts on “Pokemon as eSport

  1. I’m always glad to see the Pokemon franchise get a little respect as a truly strategic, competitive game. In a lot of ways, the real “game” in Pokemon is the same as it is in every other popular esport; it’s the mind-reading aspect, the rock-paper-scissors that really matters.

    In fighting games and RTS, perfect execution and APM are important, but it’s much easier to get to the top with great reading abilities and average (for a professional gamer… which is still ridiculous) technical skill than it is for someone with great technical skills and average reading abilities. Pokemon is a game that just consists purely in testing that reading ability. Fighting games make the rock-paper-scissors of attack-block-throw (and specials/counters/etc. depending on the game) more difficult by requiring split second timing, judgment, and reaction speed. RTS games make the rock-paper-scissors by forcing the player to play it against his opponent in many different ways simultaneously, from the strategic rock-paper-scissors of turtling, macroing, and cheesing to the tactical rock-paper-scissors of hard unit counters. And, of course, you’ve got to keep up that APM just to keep up with all of your decisions.

    Pokemon makes the rock-paper-scissors aspect difficult by just having so goddamn many different possibilities. Six pokemon with four moves each creates an incredible amount of permutations, and there’s a ton of background knowledge that you need to know just to be able to *really* play the game. You’re not really playing rock-paper-scissors if you don’t even know that rock is an option, and you can’t really be playing Pokemon if you don’t know off the top of your head what build your opponent might be playing after seeing one or two of his Pokemon’s moves.

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  2. I was disappointed to see that Hitmontop (Hitmontop is my favorite Hitmon) use only Close Combat. It could mix it up with Mach Punch and Hi Jump Kick (which Protect causes to recoil, but it’s still a fun move, especially if Hitmontop holds a Wide Lens).

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  3. Interesting idea – I would love to see Pokemon as an eSport. Anyone whose played it competitively even a little bit knows that it requires a lot of skill and strategy and A LOT of planning to get a good team. More of the work is actually training your team (and if you EV train to LV100, as competitive players do, that takes even more time) than actually battling. Then there’s all the memorization; not only do you have to know what your team can do, but all the possible moves, abilities, and strategies your opponent could use for any of the hundreds of pokemon used in competitive teams. Since Pokemon is turn-based, unlike fighting games that require split-second precision with the controller, you really need to think about what move to use next, more like in card games than video games actually. It’s a shame you can’t make money from battling pokemon competitively like you can in the games’ storyline ;)

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  4. Pingback: The Real Meaning of djWHEAT’s “Growing eSports” « OGIUE MANIAX

  5. Pokemon will never be an e-sport for one reason, and a very good reason.

    In its current incarnation there is just too damn much luck involved.
    I play competitively on emu’s all the time and even I have to tell myself to not take it so seriously sometimes after you predicted and outplayed another competitor perfectly and still end up losing because they get a critical hit or miss a 95% accuracy move 3 times in a row some other BS (happens quite often)

    For something to be a sport it should be a test of ability with no luck factored in at all, thats why the games which do become e-sports either have luck elements which aren’t game changing (like critical hits and para hax) or they alter the game so none of those mechanics are involved,

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