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.

A Brief History of Pokemon Battling

Pokemon’s been a big part of my life, and I can’t count the number of hours I devoted to playing it and formulating teams to engage my friends both online and off in vicious combat. And pretty much just as I and everyone else bought Heart Gold and/or Soul Silver, a new series is coming out in the form of Pokemon Black and White.

As with every new Pokemon game, people will come out to complain that the game “is pretty much the same thing,” and while I can see where they’re coming from, I always engage this question first from the perspective of multiplayer battling. There, despite the fact that only a handful of changes and new moves get made from generation to generation, and the numbers themselves don’t change that much, those additions result in fundamental, sweeping changes to the metagame.

So, I’m going to briefly summarize each generation’s trends in terms of 1v1 (2v2 might be for another day).

The original generation, Red, Blue, and Yellow, was characterized by an almost frightening level of luck vs skill. Double damage-dealing critical hits were plentiful, speed ruled, and even the most well-thought-out plans could be laid to waste within a few turns. Here, out of 15 Pokemon types, Psychic was by far the most dominant, and everything worked towards either using Psychics or using Pokemon that could potentially defeat them. In a way it was the most frightening generation of games to play.

With Gold, Silver, and Crystal, the addition of the concept of “held items” which could do things like heal status ailments one-time or recover a bit of Hp every turn, a host of techniques that could repair or prevent damage, and two new typings with lots of immunities and resistances, the game became a lot more defensive. This was also the first and last time the games would actually modify the base stats of Pokemon compared to a previous game, which also contributed to the emphasis on defense. Games lasted many, many turns longer than the typical RBY match, and the path towards victory was gradually chipping away at the opponent’s team in just the right way.

Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald, Fire Red, and Leaf Green is noted for both its extreme offense and its extreme defense, with the attacker slightly favored. The reason this was the case was because the way leveling up and gaining experience worked now, a Pokemon could not be completely offense-oriented without sacrificing defense or vice versa, and so overall Pokemon were either a lot more frail or a lot less powerful. The game also introduced the concept of “abilities,” constant effects which would apply to the Pokemon regardless of their actions, things such as the ability to levitate and avoid ground-based moves and creating weather effects upon entry, which would add subtle, yet profound changes to how Pokemon worked with the other members of their team. All in all, complex plans leading to overwhelming victory were common here.

Now we’re at the current generation, Diamond, Pearl, Platinum, Heart Gold, Soul Silver. I haven’t played this one nearly as much as the others, so my observations are not as keen, but I’d say the biggest change here was the complete revamping of the concept of “Physical” and “Special” attacks. Where once these designations were inherent to the Pokemon type of the attack, resulting in the existence of  “physical” Fire moves and “special” Fighting moves, for example. So because the defensive side of Pokemon did not receive a similar reworking, it became a lot more difficult to actually use defensive Pokemon, predicting when and where to send them in and when to withdraw them. That said, however, stalling and playing defense can still work, and work well. This is probably the most “balanced” generation in terms of strategies.

And all through this, I had a ton of fun exploiting holes and weaknesses, both technical ones and psychological ones, and trying out every Pokemon I could. I was never anywhere close to the best player, and probably have no chance, as my desire to learn and experiment tend to override my desire to win.

So there you have the path of evolution for Pokemon Battling. Who knows where it’ll go next?