It all started with a question. A simple question that proved difficult to answer. A question that would open mountains of discussion, outrage and pessimism. This discussion would become about how we, the community, can alter the future of Pokemon VGC for the better.
Regional numbers down
The original question that sparked this whole thing was the question of why tournament attendance has dropped drastically in the last few years. Aaron “Cybertron” Zheng tweeted a poll that attempted to answer this question with the help of his fans.
To my followers, I’m curious – how come you don’t attend Pokemon Regionals? Would love more insight in your responses too!
— Aaron Zheng (@CybertronVGC) March 7, 2018
The two most popular answers were that regionals are “too expensive” (41% of the vote) and that they were “not worth travelling for” (36%). This poll then led to a massive reddit thread on r/Pokemon asking the same question. This is where the answer to this question becomes a lot more complicated.
Either before or after you continue reading I highly recommend you check out the post to get yourself up to speed in the discussion. Huge shout out to Jen Badamo (one of North America’s best judges and TO’s) for putting this together:
Not worth it?
One of the most popular answers to this question is that regionals simply aren’t worth the time and money that it takes to travel, prepare and compete. In recent years, regionals went from being completely free to enter to now up to $60 for some depending on when you register. Let’s face it, we as a competitive community were a tad spoiled and newer players don’t know how good we had it. The thing is, venue fees for other Esport events is common (at around $40-$60) with most events charging an extra entry fee for entrance into tournaments. But why is this such an issue for Pokemon? Well, it’s because regionals themselves aren’t comparable to other Esport events, they’re mainly just tournaments. Reddit user ShreyasCR remarked on the fact that, “It’s really disappointing to walk into a Regional to only see lines of tables. The only difference between a regional and an MSS is the number of players, but there is nothing extra to spice up the event.” Basically, the regionals experience isn’t marketable at all, with even casual fans of Pokemon being alienated from an environment that only focuses on the competitive side of an entire multimedia franchise.
To be fair, I would argue that these entry fees are justified for events that exceed the regional level. At events like any of the four International Championships and Worlds, you get the full “event” experience even if you’re not a competitor. You have the live audience and stream to watch some of the best players in the world battle it out, but you also have side events plus a tournament that you can compete in. Regionals feel like just tournaments, not “events”.
Also, I think it’s fair to say that Pokemon has one of the highest barriers of entry to any competitive game. It’s not like a fighting game or a MOBA where the core gameplay translates pretty well to what’s being played at the Esports level. Pokemon has a unique divide between its casual and competitive audience where newer players essentially have to figure everything about how the VGC format works on their own.
And not to mention that raising a competitive team takes a lot of time. Imagine that you’re a player that spent weeks breeding, soft resetting, raising and testing a full competitive team only to win two out of eight or nine sets at a tournament. That’s beyond frustrating even for veterans who also dump a lot of time and money to travel to these events. Unfortunate results like these sometimes aren’t even attributed to bad play or teambuilding, bad luck can also create a horrible event experience, and that’s where Pokemon’s unique quality of frustration comes from. With not a lot of helpful, official resources out there to help players get better, new players aren’t going to want to stick around.
If you wanted to go even deeper, you could even complain about the way the tournament circuit itself works. The current system makes it so you have to travel to many events to earn an invite, with earning results early in the season (like at the European International Championships) being crucial to earning said invite. That’s more time, more money and more frustration to get to the biggest event of the year. I’m not a fan of the argument that VGC is “pay to win” since doing well at tournaments still requires a lot of skill and luck that money can’t buy you. Still, it becomes an enormous time and money commitment if you’re not one of the players who is snowballing through Championship Points after earning stipends from your early season success.
Speaking of the tournament structure, the local scene barely exists in some areas. Aside from the fact that many regions and players don’t even have tournaments that are close to them (which doesn’t allow for any real-life tournament practice), local tournaments aren’t really worth much to players trying to earn an invite. Premier Challenges and MidSeason Showdowns have best finish limits (unlike regionals and internationals) with PC’s only awarding 15 points for a win and MSS’s only awarding 50. Attendance matters at these events not only to develop the local scene, but also for players to even earn points from the event.
I know, I’ve been going on a long time, but there’s still more.
Streams and uploading of VOD’s
Recently, a well-known YouTube channel known as “jt pkmn” was removed from YouTube after several claims were made against their channel. This channel essentially uploaded matches from grassroots and official tournament streams without any permission from the original streamers. This individual was also monetizing the videos which is absolutely not okay. The takedown of this channel was both a good and bad thing, with the takedown hopefully leading to more good.
Let’s start with the bad. As a journalist and also someone who plays VGC, I relied on these VOD’s being easily accessible so that I was able to catch tournament matches I may not have been able to see live. I liked this channel simply for the idea behind it, but I was not in support of it stealing all of its content. Now, hundreds of uploaded battles are gone from YouTube which is a huge blow to the resources available.
Now for the good. The good thing is that this channel was punished for stealing content, and now that presence doesn’t exist. Imagine being a grassroots streamer who is casting the entire weekend only to return home to all of their content already uploaded with thousands of views on each video. What’s the point of re-uploading them to your own channel then? It’s easy for some to point fingers at these streamers and even Pokemon themselves for not uploading VOD’s immediately, but you have to consider the position these people are in. Along with casting, these people often times have full-time jobs and…well, a life besides Pokemon. Many efforts right now are focused on creating a system for future tournament VOD’s to be uploaded, and all these people ask is that you give them a little bit of time. I recommend checking out this tweet from Duy Ha (official Pokemon caster/commentator) that preaches a simple, yet honest message: “support your streamers”.
Now let’s address tournament streams themselves. One of the biggest turnoffs for viewers of all experience level is the viewing experience of a typical Pokemon VGC tournament stream. Unlike most other competitive games, Pokemon has a significant amount of downtime between the action. This goes for in-game with time between turns and animations to the tournaments themselves having long breaks in-between rounds. A big concern for commentators and streamers is how do you fill that downtime? The official streams do a decent job with videos, graphics and even some analysis segments from the casters. Still, the time between matches can still feel large at times, and I think what people want is more from the casters. More on-camera content from the casters seems preferable to just scrolling graphics and repeated videos to most viewers, and even things like match analysis or even another streamed match could fix this problem.
Let’s go back to the point I made about the divide between the casual and competitive Pokemon fan base. There is a humongous task that rests on the commentators to explain what is happening in a match so that it makes sense to newer players or casual players. When a viewer who isn’t familiar with VGC tunes into a tournament stream they’re going to be filled with questions like, “Why am I watching a double battle right now?” Casual players are familiar with battle mechanics, but are likely unaware of a ton of other battle mechanics that are really never brought up in a casual play through. There brings up another question about how we can make content more appealing to a casual or newer viewer? A question that still raises debate as we go forward.
Where is the Pokemon Company in all of this?
Largely absent. What all of this boils down to is the lack of communication players have with The Pokemon Company International (the organization largely responsible for Play! Pokemon tournaments). Most people in the community feel like we’re just screaming into a void as issues like this seem to keep popping up every single year. A recent controversy deals with how players that placed higher than the Top 32 at the Oceania International Championships didn’t have their Championship Point totals recognized in consideration for travel awards to the Latin American International Championships. That’s unacceptable, and many players are outraged that this problem likely will not be resolved. Again, it’s easy to point fingers, this time at TPCI, and say that they don’t care about their competitive scene. I disagree. Think about it, if TPCI didn’t care about VGC, we’d still have best-of-one, single elimination events until Worlds. It’s clear that TPCI is paying attention, but not taking enough action. Instead of spamming them with support tickets, the community wants a reliable mode of communication between TPCI and it’s player base. Instead of relying on them to do things, why can’t we just work together?
The situation, admittedly, looks bleak at the moment. The hashtag #PokeFraud is being seen more and more on Twitter from the community, which is not a good look for us. All we can do now is keep talking. Discussing, not arguing. Campaigning, not complaining. If enough voices speak up, we will be heard. Things can, and will change for the better if we keep up this discussion in a productive way. In the meantime, support your streamers, TO’s and everyone who works above and beyond to make the competitive Pokemon experience worth remaining in. When you’re at tournaments, be polite and social with your opponents and anyone you happen to talk to. In order to survive we need to keep bringing in new players and retaining our veterans.
It has been a long week, but I’m remaining optimistic for the future. Regardless of how you look at it, big change is coming to VGC, and I believe we can and will evolve.
Featured Image from ESL Australia on Twitter
Images from Pokemon (Twitter/Twitch) and The Pokemon Company International
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