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As Pokémon reached its 25th anniversary, the series managed to do so as the world’s biggest games franchise. With tens of billions of dollars in estimated revenue, the games, anime and various merchandise have proven the Pokémon Company’s ability to find widespread appeal almost anywhere they touch.
The one exception? Esports.
Competitive Pokémon has existed since the original games let players battle with a link cable, but the 2008 Video Game Showdown was the franchise’s first major tournament. Players across the U.S. and Japan competed in double battles to determine the best trainer across two age divisions. Since then, the single event has evolved into the Video Game Championships (VGC), a series of local, regional and international tournaments that culminate in the World Championships every year.
Yet, despite more than a decade of competition, Pokémon VGC doesn’t even show up among the lowest tier of esports games according to The Esports Observer. So why hasn’t Pokémon’s widespread success in other areas propelled the franchise to the top? It doesn’t help that most people don’t know the scene exists, according to longtime competitor and Panda Global VGC professional Aaron “Cybertron” Zheng.
“[Pokémon is] not like other games, where the base game is what people are playing competitively, because the base game of Pokémon is the in-game, casual story,” Cybertron said. “Unless you really wanted to play competitively, the game doesn’t lead you down that path super well.”
While many Pokémon games throw double battles at the player throughout the single player story, only one looked like anything close to a serious VGC battles. Players must go out of their way to explore post-game areas like the Battle Tower to even get a taste of real double battles without venturing online.
According to Cybertron, this is a problem that sets VGC apart from most other esports titles. In games like League of Legends, even a new player in the lowest spot of the ranked ladder is experiencing the same core gameplay as the professionals. Casual games of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate may lack the same skill expression as a tournament grand finals, but the two are much closer than the gap between most of the Pokémon experience and VGC.
To play VGC, players can’t just pick six Pokémon and battle until they’re among the best players. Obscure mechanics in the series, which no game explains outright, make certain Pokémon more powerful than others. As a result, players have to spend hours breeding and training each member of every team they ever want to use. To League Championship Series shoutcaster and VGC fan Julian “Pastrytime” Carr, these systems create barriers of entry players must overcome to get into the esport.
“I think at some point, everyone accepts that the having-to-literally-get-Pokémon part isn’t fun,” Pastrytime said. “It’s still fun playing the story and doing all that, but once you’re at the point where you want to play this game competitively, it’s not fun, and it’s not an interesting skill to test at all.”
All the above reasons are why commentator Rosemary “Nekkra” Kelley relied on her group of friends to get her into competitive Pokémon in 2014. Without them, she said she would never have known that side of the franchise existed, let alone how to build a competitive team and get better at the game.
But Nekkra also pointed out that even after players jump the hurdles and start competing, the scene lacks some elements of the esports vibe that other scenes she works in possess. After all, the only players signed by major esports organizations are Cybertron and Wolfe “Wolfey” Glick, and there are few personalities that transcend their primary audience. As an example, Nekkra said she knows who people like Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng and William “Leffen” Hjelte are despite not following League of Legends or Super Smash Bros. Melee.
Finally, Cybertron, Pastrytime and Nekkra all agreed that even the act of watching Pokémon VGC is challenging for newcomers. Unlike CS:GO or Rocket League, where the end-goal is easy to figure out, the turn-based, chess-like nature of Pokémon makes it hard to understand the game’s strategic depth. However, Cybertron said this isn’t a unique problem for VGC, nor is it insurmountable.
“If you fundamentally don’t know what’s happening in Pokemon, you have no idea about the skill expression that’s going on,” Cybertron said. “But to be honest, I feel like that’s the case for most other games as well.”
The scene’s evolution shows promise
While Cybertron, Pastrytime and Nekkra had no issues identifying VGC’s accessibility issues, they were just as quick to acknowledge how each one has shrunk over time. The franchise has introduced items, like Bottle Caps, Nature Mints and Ability Patches, which make it possible to get almost any Pokémon into fighting shape. Additionally, players can generate rental codes for their teams and share them across the internet so others can try them out online.
Beyond that, being on a console like the Nintendo Switch is a huge upgrade when it comes to making YouTube content or streaming on platforms like Twitch. In the past, hopeful creators had to purchase rare, expensive, modified 3DS systems if they wanted to capture any game footage at a high enough quality. Nekkra said this shift has led directly to more people showing off and watching VGC than ever before.
“I think that in itself is one of the reasons why we’ve seen one of the largest influxes of new players that we’ve ever seen for the game,” Nekkra said. “New system, better accessibility in the game and a lot of creators that are very positive and very entertaining to watch.”
The competitive circuit itself has improved, too, according to Cybertron. Back in the day, events were best-of-one, single elimination tournaments with no real prizes beyond a potential trip to a country’s national tournament or the World Championships. Now, players compete in more competitively rigorous best-of-three, Swiss rounds before the top finishers face off in a single elimination bracket. Players can even win thousands of dollars in prizes, and there are far more opportunities to compete than ever before.
“If that [old] circuit still existed and only 12 players from North America made it to Worlds, that’s just super, super grueling,” Cybertron said. “I’m all for a slightly bigger Worlds than a smaller Worlds.”
Increased accessibility has also helped bolster the community’s trove of resources, according to Pastrytime. Since so much information is hidden in VGC, continued efforts to help newcomers is essential for the scene’s continued success.
“One of the great things about the VGC community is it’s very welcoming, very helpful and has a ton of really excellent resources out there, whether it’s YouTube content or websites,” Pastryime said.
What is VGC’s final form?
With so much advancement during the last few years and the Pokémon Company’s track record, is it only a matter of time before VGC rivals the titans of the esports industry? The experts are split on the matter.
Pastrytime said there are some fundamental issues with the game that relate to the core of what makes a good esport in the first place. For example, while League of Legends developers can regularly adjust the game to create a competitive environment for players across skill levels, that isn’t possible with a cartridge-based game like Pokémon. Riot Games can also advertise their own esport events in the game’s online portal in an effort to drive interest in the competitive scene. Game Freak, which develops Pokémon, has fewer avenues to do the same.
Then there’s the fact that, regardless of incremental improvements, any barriers of entry for a game as complex as VGC will bottleneck the number of potential players. To truly break out of its niche, Pokémon needs a big push from both the developer and the community. While the latter is ready, Pastrytime said the former still has more work to do despite their positive steps.
Cybertron offered similar sentiments, citing the fact that VGC just isn’t as big a money maker for The Pokémon Company as the other arms of its business. He said he understands why esports aren’t a bigger focus for the company and doesn’t blame them for not prioritizing the competitive scene, even if he still wants as many people as possible to play VGC.
“The fact that it’s just so far removed from what the Pokémon games are about makes it tough for me to see it growing significantly,” Cybertron said. “Sword and Shield was a big boom, and Dallas Regionals had the most ever people at a modern regional, so I’m optimistic. But I don’t know if it’ll ever get super, super big.”
Despite seeing a potential limit on the growth of VGC, Cybertron said that was ok. In his experience, the smaller size of the community has let him make more focused competitive content and interact with a positive audience.
Only Nekkra expressed an unrestricted belief in the potential of competitive Pokémon, based on the community’s development during the past few years.
“As the hopeful optimist that I am, I always believe that there’s room to grow for Pokémon esports,” Nekkra said. “As we get more influencers and creators involved in the scene, people might be able to bring in a different audience. I think that’s what is so exciting about the potential growth of Pokémon esports.”
General editor and ASU Cronkite (e)sports journalism master’s degree holder. More than anything, Jason wants you to watch Pokémon VGC.