2013 in Review: The Year We All Became Pokemon Masters

It may not seem like it, but Pokemon X and Y marks a turning point for the series.

Article by Kat Bailey, .

It was just about four years ago that I sat down for an episode of Active Time Babble and attempted to explain the ins and outs of Competitive Pokemon -- the crazy strategy, the hidden stats... everything. At the time, I felt like I was blowing the lid off some crazy hidden subculture. After all, the term Competitive Pokemon itself seems almost oxymoronic. Who on earth gets competitive about Pokemon, of all things?

But unbeknownst to me, the wheels were turning over at Game Freak and The Pokemon Company. To them, Competitive Pokemon was the new frontier of the series, and now we can see the culmination of their efforts in Pokemon X and Y -- arguably the first generation to be primarily geared toward competitive play. All the sudden, Competitive Pokemon no longer feels like a joke; at this point, it's practically the game's raison d'etre.

From barely acknowledged to a whole generation's raison d'etre, competitive battling is more accessible than ever.

It's a shift that has been in the works for a while now, starting in earnest around the release of Pokemon Heart Gold and Soul Silver in 2009, but it still feels like a moment of validation for the competitive community. For years, playing competitively felt weirdly illicit, like hacking the game. EV Training was the Pokemon equivalent to Wavedashing in Super Smash Bros. -- a mechanic co-opted by the community for a purpose other than what it was designed for. Even now, Game Freak doesn't like terms like "effort values," preferring the more euphemistic potential.

The shift to a more competitive mindset for the series began in 2009, with the launch of the Pokemon World Video Games Championships . After various false starts and one-off events, The Pokemon Company finally hit paydirt with the Pokemon World Video Game Championship in 2009 -- right about the time that I was trying to educate my colleagues on the crazy world of Competitive Pokemon. Since then, the tournament has steadily grown, gaining acceptance with competitive communities around the world, and turning Pokemon into something approaching a genuine eSport. It may seem relatively minor when compared to the likes of League of Legends and Street Fighter, paying out a mere $3500 scholarship award, but trust me when I say that this event matters a lot to Game Freak and The Pokemon Company. A lot.

With the rise of the VGCs, Game Freak has done its best to codify and streamline some of the community's accepted training techniques. In Pokemon Heart Gold/Soul Silver, for instance, it became possible to fix a base stat when breeding a monster by attaching an item like the Power Anklet. In last year's Pokemon Black 2/White 2, the Join Avenue made it relatively easy to level up and train your monsters... provided you were willing to spend a lot of time farming money. It was still incredibly time consuming, but it was a step in the right direction.

Poor Froakie, Chespin, and Fennekin. They may get the spotlight, but Charizard and company are the real stars lf Pokemon X and Y.

For its part, Pokemon X/Y represents the next step in transforming competitive battling from a niche proposition to one of Pokemon's main activities. There will always be people who eschew battling for collecting and sharing; but with horde battles and various breeding mechanics making training easier than ever, even casual players are getting sucked in. From barely recognizable jargon, terms like effort values have become a part of the game's mainstream lexicon.

Game Freak has also used this opportunity to rebalance the monsters a bit and rein in some of the power creep from the past two generations. Many of the new Pokemon are weaker than the ones that came before, reversing the trend of stat inflation that had become apparent in Pokemon Black/White. But that doesn't mean that all of the newcomers are useless; far from it. It just represents a shift from raw power to something a little more subtle. Talonflame, for instance, may not seem all that strong, but its Gale Wings ability means that it will always attack first when using flying moves, making it extremely difficult to deal with.

They've also retooled older monsters like Mawile -- the tiny monster with the misfortune of having a set of jaws straight out of the Little Shop of Horrors growing out of the back of its head. Once a bit of filler from Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire, Mawile has grown in popularity thanks to its new Fairy typing and Mega Evolution, which bestows upon it a new form and much better stats. But like its newer conterparts, it's not a traditional sweeper; that is, it doesn't bulk up and crush teams with sheer speed and power. Instead, it knocks out foes before they can even act with a powerful Sucker Punch, or absorbs blows with its massive bulk and hits back even harder with Rough Play.

Mawile is emblematic of a more nuanced approach to balancing on Game Freak's part. Rather than simply buff or debuff a monster's stats, they are giving individual monsters the tools they need to succeed in their particular niche. It's a similar approach to the one that Capcom is taking with Ultra Street Fighter IV, in which various moves are being tweaked to better meet the needs of each fighter's individual style.

Mega Mawile represents everything Pokemon X and Y is trying to accomplish. Not bad for a monster that used to be barely more than filler material.

For Game Freak, this approach is not without its drawbacks. Pokemon X/Y has face even heavily criticism than usual from some quarters for being too similar to previous generations, despite the new graphics engine and online updates. As with Street Fighter, it's not always easy to perceive balance changes with the untrained eye, which can make real upgrades seem insignificant. And the perception that Pokemon X/Y is more of the same is exacerbated by the fact that it focuses so heavily on older monsters like Charizard and Mawile.

Nevertheless, Pokemon X/Y represents something of a turning point for a series that has long been more social than competitive. It's the clearest indication yet that Game Freak intends to make the needs of the competitive community a priority going forward -- an idea that would have seemed insane just a few years ago. From now on, EV training (sorry, "training a Pokemon to its full potential") will be as much a part of the Pokemon experience as trading and collecting.

In a way, it's a little bittersweet to see Pokemon in the same category as Street Fighter and StarCraft -- hardcore competitive games fully supported by their respective developers. For the better part of a decade, competitive battling felt like my little secret. Now, that secret is definitely out. For better or worse, 2013 is the year we all became Pokemon Masters.

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Comments 12

  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #1 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    It certainly felt that way to me. I've never been into the competitive aspect of Pokemon, but the way X/Y streamlined its systems gave me the urge to look into all these breeding techniques. Suddenly I found myself thinking about raising the perfect Bellosom and how to build a team around her. Now I'm battling online thinking about the perfect team -- something I thought I'd never do.
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  • Avatar for Terpiscorei #2 Terpiscorei 4 years ago
    I went down the rabbit hole about four or five years ago, myself. I've kept up with Pokemon since its inception, but only playing the single player campaign, I never really grasped how the game could be interesting competitively. Then, one day, I found my way to Smogon.

    I'm now absolutely convinced that Pokemon is one of the most interesting competitive games out there. It's basically got everything I like -- planning, preparation, bluffing, mind games, resource management, all in the context of a great set of characters. Check out Shofu's videos on YouTube. (
    for example) It's really interesting to hear the thought process that goes on in a competitive battle.

    My biggest issue with the series is now that none of this depth is supported by the campaign. I think GameFreak could easily construct a single-player game that forces players to think about the deeper aspects of Pokemon and attempts prepares them for multiplayer. If they release a second set of games for Gen 6, I'd really like them to use that opportunity to make a harder game, though I'm certain that will never happen.
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  • Avatar for sam-stephens #3 sam-stephens 4 years ago
    This combat system has always been as deep as the ocean. But now that X and Y have convenient online features, the game has become very popular. Pokemon's metagame can still be really difficult to get into, probably because all of the important details (perfect IVs, EV training, traits) are all superfluous to completing the story. Learning is halve the fun though and it's great to see so many people (including myself) discovering how intoxicating the combat is. Definitely more than just a game of "glorified rock, paper, scissors."
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #4 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    I try to be a pokemon master every day.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #5 CK20XX 4 years ago
    It sure has taken the series a long time to embrace a lot of the features that hacking and third party utilities have brought to it. I'll actually be kinda sad to see the inevitable influx of hacked pokemon that Pokemon Bank will bring this generation.

    But, though Pokemon now talks the talk, it's been stumbling more than ever when trying to walk the walk. I mean, if it's a competitive game, it's more like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 than Street Fighter 4. It has power creep it needs to address; Smogon has had to make more bans this generation than it's ever had to before, plus the new Fairy type is a type that has no weaknesses for all intents and purposes. Game Freak's attempts to balance the game have been surprisingly ham-fisted. They're gonna have to make some major repairs to the system in Generation 7.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #6 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    The best feature is the robust on-line. No more local only or hanging out in the Pokecenter waiting for a fight; you get them calling you up or vice-versa. Friends, that guy you traded with from Finland last week, some random duder with "I WILL FIGHT YOU" as his shout out, it's easily the best convenience feature and the one true use of convenience features: to make the game truly better.

    Now to get back to getting a 31'd up Aurorus bred...
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #7 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    @CK20XX Fairy only effectively has no weaknesses, because the competitive community never used Poison and Steel moves. So Fairy both addresses and creates a niche in the metagame. Not a bad move by Gamefreak when you look at it that way.

    I also take Smogon bans with a grain of salt. There is a lot of smart analysis there, but I find it hard to take some of the bans seriously. Like how they ban evasion, but defend stealth rock to the bitter end.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #8 CK20XX 4 years ago
    @DiscordInc I hear you about Stealth Rock. I absolutely hate that move. Entry hazards are supposed to be something you gradually pile on to wear down your enemies, not something you throw out once to strip half the HP of certain pokemon. It polarizes strategies by forcing you to pack spinners or pokemon with no rock weaknesses.

    Fairy though... I can't agree. The community has never used Poison and Steel attacks because they weren't useful for anything, and they still haven't started using them because the 6-pokemon 4-moves-each formula is far too restrictive, making it easier to hit Fairy-types for neutral damage. Instead of adding balance, Fairies have added unnecessary complexity to the game. Game Freak should have rebalanced what they already had instead. Would it have been that big of a deal to make Ice types resistant or immune to Dragon attacks, for instance?
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #9 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    @CK20XX They probably could have accomplished the same thing by changing types, but generally that's something they've tried to avoid. The last time they changed up the weaknesses was in second generation, and even then it's hard to tell what were balance changes and what was correcting coding errors (like Psychic's Ghost weakness).

    Speaking of second gen, I'd be curious to learn if there was a similar level reaction to the introduction of Dark and Steel. There's a lot of parallel to the introduction of Fairy: both gave a major nerf to a popular offensive type (Psychic) and a buff to a completely marginalized one (Fighting). I remember posting on a Pokemon forum at the time, and I don't remember complaining how that was going to break the game.

    Now I haven't done a lot of online battling, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but it seems like the problem right now is a lot of old strategies can't deal with Fairy Pokemon. So when someone gets swept by an Azumarill their first reaction is that Azumarill, and by extension Fairy is broken. Nevermind that that Azumarill is largely the same Pokemon as before with the same limitations. Fairy is definitely going to complicate the metagame, but I fail to see how that can be anything but a good thing.

    Actually, I do have an anecdotal battle story that may or may not have any bearing on this discussion. This weekend I went to MAGFest, which featured a Gym challenge where they had staff members representing different gyms, including. I was using borrowed Pokemon, but I had a Mega Mawile and an Alakazam with a Dazzling Gleam so I figured I could take him out. Instead the only Pokemon I took out was his Flygon, and I did it the old fashioned way at that (the format was double battle with four Pokemon, in case you're curious). I asked the guy afterwards if he had any problems with Fairy, and he said not really. I mentioned challenging him to another one of the gym leaders and he mentioned that the dragon one had lost maybe three times the entire convention.

    Now obviously that guy prepared his team with the assumption that he was going to be seeing a lot of Fairy types. Still the fact of the matter is he was probably able to beat a lot of challengers using Fairy types composed of a team using the type that Fairy was intended to nerf. If he can do that, then I don't see why someone making a more diverse team can't include something to deal with Fairy.
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  • Avatar for sam-stephens #10 sam-stephens 4 years ago
    You are absolutely right. Typing is important, but not as important as the specific role a pokemon performs for it's team. These kind of complaints happen with any kind of new iteration of a popular competitive game. With time, players will either learn to adapt or discover that the changes made matter little at the highest level of competition.Edited January 2014 by sam-stephens
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #11 CK20XX 4 years ago
    @DiscordInc Cool story, bro. But I'm very well educated on Pokemon's technicalities, so I better warn ya, I can fanwank about this a lot.

    Staff members at gym challenges tend to not be very challenging players. I've been to a couple myself and know even more people who share their experiences with me, so I think it's safe to say that lack of skill is why the dragon gym lost so much. People have actually been finding that despite Fairies being immune to Dragon attacks, Dragons can easily demolish them anyway because Fairies generally don't have high stats when compared to Dragons, and Dragons only really carry Dragon attacks for the STAB. They're not super effective against anything except other dragons, so they always have a good pool of backup moves for destroying would-be dragon slayers.

    Since Fairy has failed to check the main type it was meant to check, that paints it as a frivolous addition to the game. I know, I sounded like I was arguing like it was broken last time, and in some ways it is. (Try making a mono Fairy team including a Granbull with Earthquake paired with a Togekiss and see how many people you steamroll in the Battle Tower.) But despite how it also checks the ridiculously overpowered Fighting types, it's still a fairly bad addition to the game at this point and at the very least will need a couple generations before it finds a home with the other types.

    To be fair, Dark types were similar when they were introduced. They had no STAB moves worth using because most Dark types were statted for physical attacks, but Dark attacks were considered special, not physical, so they were always kinda weak even when used with STAB. Probably the main thing that put Psychics in check back then was how Gold and Silver weren't as poorly programmed as Red and Blue were, meaning that Psychics became weak to Ghosts like they should have been in the first place. It wasn't until Generation 4, when individual attacks were split into Physical and Special categories, that Dark types could finally make effective use of their STAB and start terrorizing Psychics everywhere. Steel never generated much of a fuss either because despite its many resistances, it was weak to several popular types. People got the idea that it was meant to be the ultimate defensive type and went with it because its vulnerabilities could be exploited without much hassle.

    But in contrast, Fairy attacks are designed to be effective against some powerful types, like Dark and Fighting, while the Fairy type has only two weaknesses, neither of which matter cause Poison and Steel are rarely seen attack types and continue to be so. Basically, Fairies can hit hard, but there's no fair way to hit them back, which is a standard formula for making something broken in a game. If the developers REALLY wanted to encourage players to use Poison and Steel attacks more, they shouldn't have made Fairies weak to them and then stopped. They should have gone a step further by, say, making Water types weak to Poison as well, because Water is generally considered more OP than Dragon is and it makes sense for marine creatures to be vulnerable to toxins and pollution. Game Freak has already proven that they're willing to mix up type integration with how they took away Steel's resistance to Ghost and Dark this generation, so why did they stop there when there's still more fixing to do? And while they were at it, they should have given Fairies a third weakness to a much more common type. (Ice, perhaps?)

    And the more stuff they add to the game, the less the six-pokemon-four-moves-each battle formula can handle it. It was conceived for a different era, where there could only be 255 pokemon and moves at most due to hexadecimal limitations, but now we're up to over 700 species and who knows how many moves. What's really sad is that there are a lot of strategies that are possible with the vast amount of content in the game, but most of them don't matter because the battle system is so restrictive, so you have to keep going back to the tried and true if you want to win. Each time new stuff is added to the game, I can feel the gameplay groaning like a building straining under its own weight and I wonder when it will get to be too much and collapse. Imagine the freedom and creativity that would be unleashed if the shackles were loosened even a little.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #12 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    @CK20XX Just to clarify, this wasn't a sanctioned Pokemon event Gym challenge. This was purely on the convention's initiative. The people who run MAGFest tend to be on the more hardcore side of gaming (just look at their challenge lists) so I'm guessing they were all good to challenging players. Not really my main point anyway.

    Anyway, I still think it's way too early to make any final verdicts on whether Fairy is broken/useless/whatever. They were introduced to shake up the metagame, so it's understandable if people are having problems finding a role for it. And if it does turn out that Fairy is too weak this generation, then they'll buff it like they did with Steel and Dark after their introduction.

    Who knows? Maybe since they can actually update the game maybe they will release patches that rebalance the game?

    Also, while I will admit that there is almost too many pokemon and moves in the game at this point, I'm not sure if changing the pokemon or move limits is a good idea. Yes, it could allow for certain Pokemon to be more usable, but more likely people would keep using the same Pokemon who'd be now more versatile. After all, why start using a new sweeper that couldn't cover all of it's matchups before, when you can keep using the one that could and give it a bonus move?

    Edit: Did some casual lurking on the Smogon forums and it doesn't look like they seem to Fairy is broken or underpowered. The only bans they've issued so far are for Mega Kangaskhan and Mega Gengar.Edited January 2014 by DiscordInc
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