First Look at Pokemon VGC
The Elusive Esport
When you think of Esports what games come to your mind? Maybe you're thinking of action-packed 1v1 games, such as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Street Fighter V, which require individual wit and skill to overcome an opponent. Some of you may have thought of games like Overwatch or Dota 2, both of which demand proper communication and teamwork to capture an objective to win a game. You may have even thought of card games like Magic The Gathering or Yugioh. However, one game that I rarely see, and one that I've neglected to delve into for years, is Pokemon.
Early History of Pokemon VGC
Starting in 2009, The Pokemon Company has been hosting tournaments for their video games. These events involve tournament organizers that host premier events where players can win prizes and points which can qualify players for the Pokemon Video Game Championships (VGC). Even though I played the trading card game in official competitions before, I never attended a VGC event.
I’ve never tried VGC because I was used to singles. For anyone unfamiliar, the Pokemon VGC format has a different ruleset than what is seen in the regular game. Battles are doubles, which means each player has two Pokemon in command at the same time. Each player is also limited to choosing four Pokemon to start with from a roster of six. These and many more restrictions were absent whenever I played regular Pokemon with my friends or on Pokemon Showdown, a fan-made simulation that emulates Pokemon battles. Many strategies don’t mix between the regular game and VGC format. However, now that Pokemon Sword and Shield is out I decided to give Pokemon VGC and competitive Pokemon a shot.
The tournament I went to took place in Golf Mill mall and was hosted by a store called Pastimes. I walked into the venue shocked by the huge space with various tables and a stream setup already set. Before I could register there were a few things I had to do. First off, I had to create my team info sheet with information on my team. The next step caught me off-guard as Pokemon Sword and Shield has a built-in method to join local tournaments. The process locked my team so that I couldn’t change it mid-tourney and allowed me to battle my opponent with specific codes. The process was well-explained by the tournament organizers, so don’t be worried if your going in blind. Once the roster was set the competition began.
Now, before my first match started, the host welcomed everyone and asked how many people have participated in a Pokemon World Championship. To my shock, I saw the majority of the people raise their hand, I predict 80%. I never thought that this many veteran players would be at this one event. When he asked whose first time it was playing in a VGC tournament, a small amount raised their hand, including me. While I was nervous by the number of prestigious players, I was also excited to see how I faired with people that have more knowledge in the game than I have.
With that reality check, I played my first game. I ended up losing in a close match. Once the match was over I realized one problem that I had with the event. See, the tournament was a Swiss bracket. In a Swiss tournament, every player plays a set amount of games against opponents of similar skill. This tournament, in particular, had six rounds. This is the best way to determine the most skilled players that deserve to be in the top 8. My only problem is time.
See, in a Swiss tournament, every person has to complete their match before the next round begins and with a game like Pokemon, these games can last a long time. Every match is a best of 3 and every game has a time limit of 15 minutes. This means at max a game can last up to 45 minutes if both players make it to a game 3. I would consistently wait for nearly 30 minutes after every game I played. I debated playing another game on my Switch for the long wait time. The tournament started around 11 am and ended near 5 pm. The event took a total of 6 hours to conclude which I was not expecting. Thank goodness I had no other plans in the day.
A Fun, Yet Slow Experience
This isn’t an issue with the way the tournament was run, but just the game itself. Unlike other games where quick thinking and communication is needed, Pokemon requires slow, critical thinking. It requires full knowledge of the game and being able to predict what your opponent will do next. I lost most of my games, not because of the team I created, but for my poor decision-making or my lack of knowledge in certain parts of the game. In the games I did win, I was able to make bold decisions on which attacks to use, when to Dynamax, or when to switch out. It was nice to play against people that had similar strategies to mine and others that tried something completely different. Every opponent I faced had a different strategy which kept my wits up as I had to figure out how to counter them. This led to intense games that showed me the reason Pokemon VGC is still played to this day.
Everyone I played at the tournament was also nice and willing to give me advice about the game. Compared to other games, playing among Pokemon players was a very welcoming experience and I would go back just to play against those people again. As I said before, the tournament organizers were excited to assist newcomers. Outside of the game, people were trading, battling, or playing other Pokemon games for fun while we waited. It’s an exciting experience that any Pokemon fan should try out.
Not for Everyone
Sadly, competitive Pokemon isn’t for everyone nor is it a fun Esport to watch. When I was watching the stream setup, I was able to sit in suspense wondering what kind of predictions or responses both players have for their opponent. If I knew nothing about Pokemon, and just saw the stream, I would be bored or confused. For the majority of the stream, I was seeing Pokemon standing still waiting for the players to make a move.
This is why I believe competitive Pokemon struggles in being an engaging spectator sport. It’s able to keep its core audience interested through its players who have unique strategies and make difficult decisions. For example, is it more important to use a defensive type move like Protect to predict an attack or is it more important to attack or switch out? These are thoughts that are in the mind of Pokemon players, but it’s difficult for outsiders to understand these fundamentals.
In the end, I had 3 wins and 3 losses and placed 23rd place out 35 people. While it was not the best run, it was better than I expected for my first outing. While it’s not for everyone, I would recommend any Pokemon fan to go out to one of these events and try it out. For my first VGC tournament, I enjoyed my time. The few problems I had were due to long wait times between rounds. If you plan to go to one of these events be sure you have the entire day free since the event is likely to take several hours.
If you want to look up Pokemon events for the video game or trading card game, be sure to go to the event locator at Pokemon’s official website. For help testing out a competitive team, I recommend Pokemon Showdown, which is a simulation for Pokemon battles. Also, Pikalytics, which tracks the most popular strategies in competitive Pokemon. If you’ve always been interested in competitive Pokemon I would give these local events a shot.