The Pokemon VGC community’s campaign for change

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.

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:

https://www.reddit.com/r/pokemon/comments/82knwb/why_dont_you_attend_pok%C3%A9mon_regional_championship/?st=JEHMQG11&sh=e30c83d4

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

Image result for pokemon vgc stream

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?

pokemon company international logo pokemon vgc community

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.



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Pokesports II competitive Pokemon logo

Pokésports II: Not Quite There, Not Farfetch’d

Segue, I Choose You

Last time we established the impressive growth of eSports along with the power of the Pokémon brand. This time we will cover what competitive Pokémon entails and how that translates into a successful eSports brand. Or does it?

Pokemon "Psyduck" holds heads in hands and shrugs.

Image courtesy of Game Freak

Pikachu, Team Rocket, and Ash’s inability to win anything of significance are common Pokémon themes. These themes however, have little in common with the world of Competitive Pokémon Battling. Trainers in the real world spend hours developing tricks and strategies using the hundreds of available Pokémon. Forming teams of six to compete in varying levels of Tournaments. From local Premier Challenges, to massive International Championships, Trainers battle each other for a chance to compete at the annual World Championship.

A Wild Pokémon Appears

Before a Trainer can even think about battling, they must decide which six Pokémon will be on their team. Teambuilding involves deciding stat spreads, natures, and abilities for each Pokémon along with the four attacks to be used in battle. This process is crucial to success as a Trainer. Once a match begins, the choices made during Teambuilding will effect the Trainers options in battle and can have a major impact on matchups.

Pokemon and Construction Workers gather together and grimace.

Image courtesy of Game Freak

While a critical part of competitive play, Teambuilding can also be long and tedious, involving countless in-game hours breeding Pokémon and practicing with different strategies. The tedious time investment Teambuilding requires is often cited as a major reason aspiring Trainers abandon Competitive Pokémon. Worst yet, Teambuilding provides no actual benefit to spectators since it all happens behind the scenes. In the end, many Trainers come away feeling the many hours spent breeding and leveling Pokémon is a needless time sink that prevents access to high level competitive play.

In all fairness, TPCI has slowly worked to make it easier to train competitive teams; slowly is the key word. Streamlining Teambuilding, or creating an independent system for tournament play is truly needed to help grow the competitive scene.

 

Double, What’s Doubles!?

Zebstrika smashes head into wall.

Image courtesy of Tumblr

While playing the games or watching the anime, you might think Pokémon battles were one on one matches. You would be wrong. All officially sanctioned Pokémon matches are in the Doubles format. A Trainer brings a team of six Pokémon and picks four at the start of each match. Each Trainer then sends two Pokémon at a time on to the field. For many fans this is a major shock compared to what they know and love from the series.

While this disconnect from the traditional series can be startling, it is not without it’s benefits. Double Battles provide a fast-paced style of gameplay compared to Singles matches. Many new strategies also become viable when there are two Pokémon on the field together. These factors help keep matches fresh and moving swiftly. Working to build awareness of just what Doubles is could help build fan acceptance through further ingraining them into the soul of the brand.

Another interesting change that could take place in competitive Doubles is the introduction of two Trainer teams. As it stands now, one Trainer controls both Pokémon on their side of the field. If, however, TPCI incorporated teams of two Trainers, each controlling their own Pokémon, we could see some new and interesting dynamics appear.

 

See You at VGC

Play Pokemon banner

Image courtesy of Play Pokemon

TPCI sanctioned Pokémon tournaments are referred to collectively as VGC. Given Pokémon’s place as a global brand, it is a surprise how few people are actually aware VGC exists. During the VGC season, Trainers collect points at Premier Challenges, Midseason Showdowns, Regional Championships, and International Championships. Collect 400 of these points by the end of the season and you will be invited to compete at the World Championship. The tournament structure is rather straightforward, but not without its flaws.

Tournaments can be plagued with poor organization and rule enforcement. Matches involve two Trainers sitting on either side of a table in front of their respective 3DS’s with a judge off to one side. Gameplay is then streamed from one of the Trainers so that spectators can join in on the action. As you can imagine, many of these things do not make for exciting television. Revamping how Pokémon tournaments work and what they have to offer is an absolute must. Especially considering the most successful sport in the world, the NFL, makes the majority of its revenue through TV and TV related contracts.

Team Rocket's James being showered in Gold Coins

Image courtesy of Game Freak

Worst yet is what is at stake for each Trainer. The prize money awarded at the end of each tournament is a sad fraction of what it should be. In an effort to grow the competitive side of the Pokémon franchise, wealth needs to be shared with Professional Trainers. If TPCI showed the willingness to invest into its own competitive scene, sponsors would react in kind. Regardless, $5,000 and $10,000 first place prizes for major international tournaments is really a shame. You can do better TPCI.

 

What You See is What You Get

Viewership, it all boils down to viewership. Sports and eSports live and die by the viewership numbers they bring in. This is a place where Pokémon has a built in advantage. Its exposure around the world and ability to resonate with all age ranges is a huge boon as an aspiring eSport. Combine that with Pokémon’s ability to merchandise means some serious revenue potential.

While Pokémon is not lacking fans, viewership is one of the weaker aspects of the competitive Pokémon scene. There is only one thing responsible for the lack of competitive viewership, get ready for it. Competitive Pokémon is boring to watch. That’s right, I love you TPCI but this is the major hurdle that stands between the niche that competitive Pokémon maintains, and the runaway success it could be. That is not to say boring matches can’t be fixed.

Changes to the way matches work, such as two Trainer teams and shorter turn timers, could serve to alter match dynamics. Ultimately though, new approaches to broadcasting the matches are needed most. Being a Turn-based Strategy Game at its core, creative methods for animating action between turns and capturing that with exciting camera angles and transitions would serve to keep momentum building throughout matches. Add on exciting commentary to complete the package.

Pokemon battle in an arena between Bisharp and Emboar.

Image courtesy of Bulbagarden

Ultimately TPCI should work to make watching a Pokémon match more like sitting in an arena and watching powerful monsters battle, and less like watching two Trainers take turns picking what to do from one trainers perspective. If a dynamic, and exciting broadcast of exciting Pokémon matches can be achieved, fans will watch. The rest will be history.

 

Wrap It Up Will You

A massive fanbase and established competitive scene puts Pokémon in a great position as a potential eSport. The ability to attract young new fans, as well as merchandise, invites lucrative sponsorship potential. With these things in mind, TPCI must make some changes.

Making these changes could lead to a formula of success only seen in the traditional sports world though. Capitalize on this, TPCI, and you could redefine sports for generations.

Until next time Trainers.

 

Missed the first issue? Check it out! Pokesports: Power of a Brand and One Fans Plea

 

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Gary Oak driving away.

Image courtesy of Game Freak

Pokésports Crest

Pokésports: The Power of a Brand and One Fans Plea

The Year of eSports

One of the big showings this year at CES Conference is eSports. Being a relatively new phenomenon, eSports is experiencing a surge of growth. Reporting a 2016 revenue of 493 million dollars. On top of that analysts project annual revenue to surpass 1 billion dollars by 2019.

Customers enjoying food and eSports at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Image courtesy of youtube.com user sapphiRe

Furthermore, recent studies have shown eSports rise in popularity. Now they are rating as high as Baseball and Ice Hockey among American Millennial Males. Turner Broadcasting is even getting in on the action with ELEAGUE, a professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive league. First being aired on TBS. Then picked up and shown in Buffalo Wild Wings throughout the United States.

Building a Brand

Half a billion dollars is still relatively small for a global industry. While poised for growth, eSports lacks a strong brand. That brings us to Pokémon. A 20 year old series revolving around Trainers capturing, raising, and battling monsters in the game world. Pokémon already has an existing competitive tournament series referred to as the Video Game Championships (VGC) with multiple tournaments each year culminating in a World Championship. However, Pokémon is generally not thought of as under the eSports umbrella. As an effect both Pokémon and eSports find themselves as somewhat of an odd couple. Both could benefit from being with the other, but neither will make a move.

The reason for the odd relationship between Pokémon and eSports comes down to marketing. The Pokémon Company International (TPCI) has not really worked to market the competitive aspect of the franchise. Even though Pokémon commands a massive following worldwide, competitive Pokémon still remains rather niche. While TPCI does little to nurture their growing competitive community.

Massive crowd cheering inside arena during Nintendo eSports tournament.

Image courtesy of Nintendo

Nintendo is showing signs of moving into eSports with the launch trailer debuting the new Nintendo Switch. The time has come for Nintendo, Game Freak, and TPCI to take a long and serious look at what they have with the Pokémon brand and its ability to translate into massive growth potential inside the eSports market. This would not only benefit the coffers of those companies, but serve as a springboard for the already fast growing eSport movement.

Perfect Match

The Pokémon brand carries a significant amount of weight. Generating 2.1 billion dollars annual revenue in 2015 and expected to report higher returns for 2016. Pokémon GO, an augmented reality game for Android and iPhone, launched in 2016. Going so far as to produce revenues of over 1 billion dollars in its first year. That’s right, a Free To Play app for smartphones generated double the revenue of the entire eSports industry, simply due to the Pokémon brand. Now consider an actual concerted effort to market Pokémon as the next big eSport.

I challenge you to imagine a world where Pokémon reaches its full potential as an eSport. A world where, just like football and basketball today, a kid can become a professional Trainer. Making a living mastering what is essentially a game of 3D chess, constructing teams out of 100’s of available Pokémon. The fanbase and brand power is undoubtedly there and I would hazard a guess that many corporations would get in bed with the Pokémon brand in the realm of sports. VGC Tournaments already look like what they show off in the Nintendo Switch trailer.

Large crowd gathers for competitive Pokémon tournament.

Image courtesy of Kotaku

This series I will dive into what it would take for Pokémon to become a respected eSports franchise, what that would look like, and the overall impact of such an event. Everything from the structure of the competitive community to the way matches are broadcast will be examined. With hope TPCI takes these points to heart and gifts the magic of Pokémon to future generations. A world of dreams and adventures with Pokémon awaits! Let’s go!

Opening scene from G1 Pokémon games.

Image courtesy of Game Freak

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