Originally posted February 1, 2022
Esports is a rapidly growing industry, and Pokemon is the highest grossing media franchise of all time - so why does the overlap get such little attention?
Pokemon’s competitive scene can be split into a few subdivisions: the Trading Card Game (TCG), Video Game Championships (VGC) and some spinoff titles such as Pokemon GO, Pokken Tournament, and Pokemon UNITE. These games are played at a competitive level at real-life events, and in online tournaments during the pandemic.
Currently played on Pokemon Sword and Shield, VGC has a lot of potential as an esport. Its chess-meets-poker inspired gameplay makes it intricate and strategic, while its wealth of colorful character designs and flashy animations make it fun to watch for even the most casual spectator.
How does competitive Pokemon work?
To anyone who has played through one of the most recent Pokemon games, watching a VGC match may be parts familiar and parts confusing. Functionally, the gameplay is much the same, but VGC uses a Double Battle format, where each player has two of their Pokemon on the field at a time. This means there are far more moving parts in a battle, and creates more complex scenarios to solve. Although players are introduced to Double Battles within the main story of Pokemon Sword and Shield, the games don’t showcase the strategic depth this format has to offer.
VGC can be split into two skillsets, which the strongest players must master both of: teambuilding and battling. A strong battler using a weak team of Pokemon will struggle to win, and vice versa, so a balance of a good team and strong player is where success lies.
Battling in VGC is incredibly easy to pick up, but difficult to master. The fundamentals can be learned through watching tournaments and playing through the games’ main story, but at a high level, the game has a lot of intricate components to learn.
That being said, getting practice is now easier than ever thanks to the introduction of Rental Codes - players are now able to rent competitive-ready teams from other players by entering a 16-digit code into their game, and can immediately start playing on the ladder with them if they choose. The community has produced a goldmine of resources for new players, including a compilation of Rental Codes for teams with tournament success, which can be found here: Victory Road VGC.
Many players find one of VGC’s biggest flaws to be the time it takes to obtain the Pokemon you need for your team in-game. However, VGC is blessed with a battle simulator, Pokemon Showdown, which allows players to quickly build or copy a team and practice with it against other players. The ability to test teams minimizes the hassle of raising Pokemon in Sword and Shield, since you can make sure you’re happy with an idea before committing resources to it.
Teambuilding adds a wonderful layer to VGC that very few other esports have: meaningful customization. In a similar way to TCGs like Hearthstone, VGC allows the player to construct a team of 6 Pokemon to bring to all their battles, including choosing their Moves, Abilities, Held Items, and stats. This is really what allows VGC to stand out amongst other strategy games, as most viable Pokemon can be run in a variety of different ways, adding yet another layer to the game.
This customization aspect also allows you to choose exactly how you want to play the game. You can opt to build a strong, tournament-ready team featuring some of VGC’s all-star Pokemon like Incineroar, or you can go down the more casual, fun route and battle using your favorites or silly gimmicks. Both are perfectly acceptable ways to play and allow VGC to be a customizable experience in more ways than one.
During the pandemic, all VGC events have been held online. A handful of official tournaments, called Players Cups, have been held by The Pokemon Company International (TPCi). Otherwise, grassroots tournaments have been thriving, with events held by organizations such as Victory Road defining the scene.
Outside of the pandemic, though, events are very different. In the west, VGC tournaments are part of the Play! Pokemon circuit, again organized by TPCi. There are different levels of event, ranging from local events such as Premier Challenges and Midseason Showdowns (often called PCs and MSSs, or just locals) to Regional and International level events. Each year of the circuit culminates in mid-August with the World Championships, for which players can qualify by earning Championship Points for performing well at other events.
Tournament matches are played in a best of three format, and the events themselves are run in a Swiss format. This means that all participants will play a set number of rounds (dependent on player count, usually between 6 and 10) and those with the best records will move on to a single-elimination Top Cut bracket.
Regional and International level events tend to consist of 100 to 500 players of varying skill levels, while 2019’s World Championships had 8000 attendants (although only 890 of these were players). Tournaments of the same importance for more popular esports, however, bring in audiences of at least three times this.
Why isn’t VGC more popular?
VGC’s small playerbase can be attributed to a multitude of factors. The first, and perhaps biggest, is how little the casual play experience teaches you about Double Battles and many of the mechanics utilized in VGC. The games have made strides forward over the last few years, including Gym Leader Raihan in Pokemon Sword and Shield, who fights the player in a Double Battle using Pokemon that abuse weather mechanics.
The introduction of Rental Codes, as mentioned earlier, also greatly reduced the entry barrier by removing the teambuilding hurdle entirely for new players. However, this still isn’t enough, and getting started in VGC continues to be a daunting and confusing experience for many.
Some players also attribute VGC’s lack of popularity to Pokemon’s random chance mechanics, lovingly referred to as RNG, or when getting unlucky, ‘hax’. Missing a game-winning attack can feel devastating when it’s out of your control, and some players consider this to be a fatal flaw in a competitive game. Other players argue that mitigating luck within your teambuilding and battling is a skill in its own right.
Why should I give VGC a chance?
Despite its flaws, VGC is a hidden gem. Pokemon’s battle system has so many layers to it that matches are beautifully intricate and strategic, and a well-earned win is incredibly fulfilling. Beyond the game’s strategic merit, though, is a thriving and fun community, built on the foundation of a game about the importance of friendship.
The community is very inclusive, especially when compared to other esports - an online grassroots tournament circuit known as the Hatterene Series has flourished in the last year, inviting only women and non-binary players. Hatterene Series has helped to create a safe space in the community and bring attention to various women and non-binary people within the community who may not have been given the chance to get into the spotlight otherwise.
VGC is heavily collaborative, too: building a team with a group of friends to participate in a tournament is common practice, as multiple people’s ideas help to create far more robust compositions. So, in a way, having friends is a skill within VGC - how cool is that?
On a whole, Pokemon VGC is a fun and rewarding competitive game that needs better integration into the Pokemon games’ main story to reduce its entry barrier. This increase in accessibility would make it a more viable esport. The game doesn’t need to be a huge esports hit to be worth your while though, and we recommend you give it a try!