The Pokémon National Championships and the Growing Pains of a Community

The Pokémon National Championships and the Growing Pains of a Community

The first attempt to live broadcast the U.S. Pokemon Championships didn't go so hot, but at least they're trying.

Imagine how soccer fans would react if over half of the games during the World Cup quarter-finals simply weren't broadcast —big plays from the top eight teams on the planet, all left without so much as a highlight reel to document their existence. We'd be putting out fires across Europe and South America for weeks.

Crazy as this hypothetical nightmare scenario sounds, it's not too far removed from what went down at the Pokémon U.S. National Video Game Championships over the weekend—minus the accompanying global inferno, anyway.

Here we see Aegislash going up against its arch-rival, Aegislash. Seriously, everyone uses this thing.

What's a Vee Gee Cee, Anyway?

For the uninitiated, the Pokémon Video Game Championship (or VGC) is the official league for competitive Pokémon players. Each year, fans from all across the planet compete in local, regional, and national VGC tournaments, with the most successful trainers by the end of the season securing invites to the World Championships. Prizes along the way include paid travel accommodations, Nintendo games and hardware, booster packs for the Pokémon Trading Card Game, as well as scholarship money.

While classic Pokémon battles involve two teams of six monsters locked in one-on-one, turn-based combat, VGC bouts eschew this format in favor of Doubles matches. This fast-paced rule set allows each player to field two of their Pokémon at any time, opening the game up for multi-target attacks and support moves you wouldn't otherwise see in Singles variants. VGC regulations also limit trainers to using just four from their full team of six during battle, and they forbid duplicate held items or Pokémon.

Being the final stop before the World Championships, the National Championships are a pretty big deal. Prior to this year, the only ways to catch the action from the Nationals were to either physically travel to the event itself or scour Youtube for bootleg, shaky-cam footage after the fact. Back in June, however, The Pokémon Company International announced plans to stream the U.S. Nationals live on Twitch for the first time ever, including commentary by a roster of well-known members from the Pokémon community. This was, on paper, very good news for fans of competitive Pokémon.

These six Pokemon carried Alex Ogloza to victory in the U.S. National Championships. From left to right: Talonflame, Aegislash, Ludicolo, Mega Kangaskhan, Politoed, and Hydreigon.

The Little Live Stream That Couldn't

Now here's where things get dodgy. Of the thousands of Master Division matches played during the three-day tourney, just six made it onto the Twitch feed. Obviously, it wouldn't be feasible to broadcast everything, and had the tournament runners decided to focus primarily on the final battles of the event, this might not have been so much of an issue. Instead, a seemingly random grab bag of fights made the live stream cut, ignoring three full games from the quarter-finals as well as one from the semis.

This slapdash approach resulted in some tragic omissions. At one point, three-time world champion Ray Rizzo lost in the quarter-finals against Alex Ogloza, the young man who would go on to win the Nationals the very next day. This could have been the story of the tournament, but not one moment of their bout made it to broadcast. During an interview with stream host Justin Flynn later that evening, Ogloza recapped what sounded like a tense, thrilling matchup—the sort of white-knuckle affair that could have gone either way up until the last second. And thanks to the poor coverage of this event, you'll probably never know how it played out unless you were there in person.

The mismanagement of last weekend's tournament stream extended far beyond basic scheduling, though. In between the small number of matches that actually made it to air, the feed would cut to an uninformative, mostly-static screen for as long as 40 minutes at a time. This made watching the event live—or just browsing the Twitch archive afterward—a tremendous pain. And while some of the commentators did a terrific job providing expert, on-the-fly analysis, others resorted to enthusiastically shouting, "What?!" then describing with minimal detail the events occurring onscreen. I'll take more of the former next time, please.

Over-centralization and the Big Picture

Other problems stem from the current state of the competitive metagame, or rather, what's holding the metagame back: a lack of variety.

The Pokémon Company's guidelines allow just 450 of the more than 700 available Pokémon to participate in these tournaments. Pared down as it might sound, that's still a pretty huge number of options. And yet, three of the top eight players at the National Championships showed up with nearly identical teams.

So what gives? According to data collected by Pokémon fan site Nugget Bridge, over 43 percent of trainers surveyed at the Nationals included a Kangaskhan on their team. That figure shouldn't be too surprising for anyone familiar with Kanga's Mega Evolution—a powerful new form added with X and Y that has turned this long-overlooked Pokémon into one of the biggest threats in the whole game. Many online communities have gone as far as banning it altogether.

The fact that such an overwhelming percentage of teams are using this one Pokémon is worrisome enough on its own, but that 43 percent doesn't exist in a vacuum. It also means that anyone not running Mega Kangaskhan on their team needs to come up with a reliable way of dealing with an opposing Kangaskhan. Not only that, but the players who do roll with Kangaskhan will most assuredly want to protect that asset. Before you know it, the whole team building process hinges on either setting up, preserving, or taking out a single Pokémon. And once everyone starts viewing potential candidates with such a narrow lens, those 450 options shrink down real fast.

I'd argue that this same ripple effect applies to Mega Evolutions in general, albeit to a lesser extent. Ever since Pokémon X and Y introduced these souped-up versions of classic monsters, trainers have grown to design whole squads around the Mega of their choice. The trouble with that is there are, at the moment, less than 30 Pokémon capable of Mega Evolution—and a whole lot fewer with any degree of competitive viability. Furthermore, many of the most effective Megas already enjoy a natural synergy with other popular Pokémon, contributing even more to the overly-homogenous team compositions we see at competitions like the Nationals.

It's encouraging, then, to see the developers at Game Freak address some of this by introducing another batch of Mega Evolutions with the upcoming Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire games. They could have easily gotten away with no-frills remakes of the GBA originals, but I suspect that they recognize the urgent need for a greater number of choices in the Mega department as much as anyone else. For once, we won't have to wait until the next generation of games for a few new toys.

The World Championships and Beyond

When it comes to the future of Pokémon competition, I'm optimistic. Though I can't say for certain if Pokémon X/Y's streamlining of breeding and training helped grow the competitive scene, anecdotal evidence suggests that plenty of new faces turned up for the Nationals this year. The Pokémon Company doesn't release attendance numbers for these things, but one of the stream hosts mentioned a record 500 participants in the Master Division alone. Meanwhile, despite its shortcomings, the live broadcast still managed to attract thousands of online viewers. They've captured people's attention here, even if they haven't necessarily earned it.

I know I sound like a sourpuss for the bulk of this editorial, but I honestly believe that the folks in charge could put on a hell of a show at the World Championships next month if they just give the fans what they came to see: the best players in the world going head to head, without excessive exclusion or interruption.

Nintendo and The Pokémon Company clearly want people to care about this stuff. All they need to do now is start treating it like it's worth caring about.

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