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.

Showdown! At! The Internet! Pokemon Battling Nostalgia Ramblings

I’ve recently been talking to an old friend in the competitive Pokemon community, and I was surprised to find out that he and other people I knew from back in the day were still playing competitively. In fact, a bunch of them are going to the Pokemon Video Game Championships this year in Indiana, and though I definitely can’t make it, it’s kind of re-lit the fire in me to do something with Pokemon, especially when I’ve seen what he’s been up to.

Known in the Pokemon communiy as Fish, his team is the one on top, if you want to see some intense and exciting turn-based combat.

At the very least, I want to have a well-conceived team or two around in case anyone wants to battle me. I don’t know how long it’ll take me, especially because I haven’t even opened my copy of Pokemon Black yet, but I think it’ll be a worthwhile endeavor.

I definitely want to use Durant, as I’ve been waiting for an ant Pokemon since the original games.

Thinking back on my years of playing Pokemon, I began to reminisce about the original RBY era and its competitive scene. I talked a little bit about RBY-style battling here, but I’m not sure if my description did it justice in terms of how unique RBY battling turned out to be, relative to subsequent generations of Pokemon. RBY was the era where the only way to cure a status ailment was through the use of Rest, when every Pokemon could have all of its stats maxed out to their personal best. The result was a game where Pokemon were neither overly frail nor excessively defensive.

The best example I can think of is a scenario where one player is switching in a weakened Rhydon on a weakened, paralyzed Alakazam. Alakazam could have predicted a switch and thrown out a Thunder Wave to paralyze the incoming Pokemon, but because Rhydon is immune to electric attacks, it can effectively block the Thunder Wave and avoid its paralyzing effects. From there, a fight which would normally be won by Alakazam’s superior speed and nasty Psychic attack has a different consequence, as paralysis reduces Alakazam’s speed by 75%, well below Rhydon’s, and so now Rhydon has the first shot, and its superior attack does tremendous damage to Alakazam’s poor defenses, possibly to the point of knocking it out. But if Alakazam decides to switch out, Rhydon can throw down a Substitute for 1/4 of its health to take damage for it while it Earthquakes from a safe position. The permanency of paralysis is key here, as in later generations status ailments can simply be whisked away by the effects of moves such as Heal Bell and Aromatherapy.

RBY was by no means a balanced game in terms of diversity. Only about 10-15 Pokemon were considered viable for competition (barring Mewtwo and Mew, who were usually banned due to being way, way, way too good), but it had a certain kind of intensity that wasn’t quite present in later games, and it’s something I wouldn’t mind coming back, though I know it’ll never happen.

When people lament changes in sequels despite the fact that the original game’s system was the result of various limitations and oversights, I can relate to knowing that something is unreasonable and yet still feeling that it’s right. I’m not going to talk down the other generations of Pokemon Battling, though. There’s always a special place in my heart for that original 151, but I still look forward to having fun with a list that is now 646 creatures long.