The tournament had hit a lull when I stepped into the main ballroom for the first time, but the floor was nevertheless a hive of activity. On the right side, dozens of TCG players of all ages rapidly shuffled cards as parents and friends looked on from a cordoned off area to the side. They were attended to by red-shirted judges in lab coats (official title: Pokémon Professor) and green-shirted volunteers who were there to moderate games and keep the event running smoothly.
That lab coat doesn't come easy. Anyone can sign up, but they have to take a test, pass a background check, and rise through the ranks to earn more responsibilities. Trusted professors will eventually become team leads. The job has its perks: One professor I spoke with was flown down from Seattle to San Francisco to work the event.
Adult supervision is especially important given the number of children attending the event. The TCG area in particular seemed to be dominated by them, and many others could be found running the floor in Charmander and Pikachu costumes. "The youngest kids are the cutest. They show such good sportsmanship," my PR told me as we came upon a pair of boys who couldn't have been older than seven or eight, each of them flipping cards on to the table at high speed amid a pile of Pokémon plushes.
The plush toys, for their part, were as numerous as the kids. They were spread among the competitors, spectators, and volunteers, bearing silent witness to the heated competition. For some competitors, they were a talisman - a bit of good luck from their favorite monster. Pokémon Go, on the other hand, was noticeably absent. I went down expecting to see at least a few people playing it on mobile, but the poor reception afforded by the lower levels of the hotel made it difficult to login, dashing any hopes of getting a rare legendary at the event.
Opposite from the TCG area stood the main stages where the most important battles took place for both games. They were streamed to the screens mounted around the room, the battles intermingling with promotional videos, rule reminders, and trophy presentations. At one point, the Pokken Tournament winners were presented with trophies by a pair of representatives from Bandai Namco, eliciting scattered applause from those paying attention.
Competitors who had already been eliminated lingered around the viewing areas and socialized. One of them was Tabea - a 26-year old German women who had traveled from Hamburg to compete in her first World Championship. She was effusive as she told me about her experience to that point, "It's just great. It was a dream of mine. I've been playing Pokémon for 16 years, and I'm here for the first time."
Tabea, who preferred that I only use her first name, had been playing competitively for several years ("At some point I started to breed Pokémon and became interested in competition," she told me), but had never made it far down the path to the World Championships. This past year, though, everything had changed. "This year I started to compete in Premier Challenges, Midseason Showdowns... I really got to know the people. Before I never even made the top cut, and suddenly I won a Premier Challenge and my first Championship Points."
Making it all the way to the World Championships is a difficult road to say the least. Thousands of competitors take part over the course of a season that runs from September to August where they try to earn Championship Points at a variety of events in hopes of earning an invitation to the World Championships. Those who do well are usually well-known within the community, hosting streams or mingling on competitive sites like Nugget Bridge.
Anyone who makes it to the World Championships is an extremely accomplished battler in their own right; but once they make it to the competition, reality tends to set in. Tabea admitted to me that her own tournament was, in her words, "a disaster."
"Only three people did worse than me," she sighed.
Still, she had her fun moments. "The event overall is great. There are just so many people. I talked to people from Costa Rica... there was a guy from Colombia who had sweets for all his opponents. He lost a lot of times but he still had fun, and it was great.
Nick Navarre was another video game competitor who had a relatively short tournament. Easily identifiable in his Smogon University shirt, he sat writing the brackets by hand as the quarterfinals got underway. A crowd would periodically form around him as other Smogon members dropped by to check how the tournament was going, where they would compare notes on the competitors and how they were doing.
Navarre himself had trained hard with Aaron Traylor, one of the quarterfinalists, but had been elimated in the final round of Day 1 after going 5-3. He was rooting hard for his friend Traylor, but he was most impressed by the American Wolfe Glick, whose team had dominated the tournament with Kyogre, Rayquaza, Hitmontop, Gengar, Raichu, and Bronzong.
"He uses what is usually a very offensive archetype in Kyogre and Rayquaza and plays to timer stall his opponent," he explained. "Those two concepts don't usually mesh unles you're using the specific teammates he's using on his team. It's really creative and the team is really, really good."
Along with others, Glick had steamrolled his way through Day 1 and 2. Though it superficially used many of the same monsters as other teams - Rayquaza and Kyogre were familiar sights throughout the tournament, Navarre felt it was important to look below the surface. "The teams that have done really well are a lot more interesting than a lot of people expected. Heading into the tournament I thought it was pretty bad, but Wolfe's team just kind of came out of nowhere and is dominating the tournament. Everyone complaining about the lack of diversity really don't know what's going on."
To tell you the truth, I was one of those people who didn't really understand the significance of what Glick was trying to accomplish. Much later, I found a complete breakdown of Glick's team (linked above), and things came a little more into focus. Wearing an Assault Vest and carrying the Lightning Rod ability, Raichu could absorb a large number of attacks while irritating opponents with Fake Out - a priority move guaranteed to keep one opposing monster from moving for a turn by making them flinch. In the tradition of Pachirisu, Raichu had come out of nowhere to stand toe-to-toe with Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire's legendaries and win.
Markus Stadter was running this team as he began the quarterfinals against Aaron Traylor, who sat on stage wearing a bright pair of stars-and-striples paired pants. Traylor had managed to beat him the day before, but Stadter was ready for Round 2. Traylor brought with him Cresselia, Xerneas, Groudon, Salamence, Bronzong, and Smeargle - a team similar to the one that had served him well in a previous tournament - but it wasn't enough. Traylor did his best, but Stadter took two rounds to advance to the Master Division Semifinals, where he ultimately fell to Glick.
As they played, most of the crowd filtered toward the chairs that had been setup near the stages. They cheered at the momentum swings, some waving flags from their native countries when the camera fell on them. Glick and Stadter emerged from the quarterfinals with the American Jonathan Evans, who would eventually make it to the finals, and Eduardo Cunha - a Portugese player who elicited enthusiastic chants from those present.
By the end of the night, the tournament was nearly decided. The semifinals and finals would take place the next day to determine the overall championship, which ended up going to Glick. I walked out of the ballroom, and as I went I saw a mother hug her child - a boy of around ten - and say, "I'm so proud of you." On the way back up the stairs, another set of parents carried a child wearing a Pikachu hat up the escalator.
"Did you have fun?" One of them asked.
He nodded sleepily.
A new outlook
I'll admit to having fallen out of love with Pokémon over the past couple years. I played a lot of Pokémon X and Y, but I tired of the Mega Evolutions, and I wasn't a fan of the lack of endgame content in Omega Ruby and Sapphire. Unwilling to take the time to learn a wholly alien metagame, I figured that my time with Pokémon was finished. I would focus on Hearthstone instead.
But my day at the Pokémon World Championships has made me reconsider my previous stance. For one thing, Pokémon isn't just for kids these days. True, there were a lot of adorable kids competing, but I was comforted to see a lot of adults in their 20s and 30s competing as well. We may associate Pokémon with our youth, but great game mechanics can keep dedicated gamers playing for a very long time. That's the secret ingredient that has kept Pokémon from having much in the way of real competition - at its heart it's a fantastic competitive RPG.
I'll also admit to being taken by the community. During the tournament, competitors who had been eliminated chatted amiably while watching the final games. Throughout the hotel, kids play the TGG and showed off their binders full of cards. It was charming, and I was reminded of how much enjoyment I had once found as a member of the Pokémon community.
And anyway, I kind of want to compete in this tournament.
The forthcoming release of Sun and Moon will be an interesting opportunity to refresh and start training up a new team. In all probability I won't win so much as a single Championship Point seeing as I don't have nearly the time I once had to devote to Pokémon. But then again, I was really good at Pokémon at one point, and nothing cures the feeling of malaise like a fresh and interesting approach.
So mark it down: I'm going to try and make it to the Pokémon World Championships myself. This may have been my first trip, but hopefully it won't be my last.