Pokémon isn’t for professionals. Some competitors in the recent Pokémon Battle Tournament weren’t competing for a share of a big money prize pool but a trip to Alton Towers. Oh, and a first round bye to the Pokémon Video Game National Championship. Taking place in Manchester this weekend, again players won’t be competing for cash but the opportunity to travel to Washington DC to compete against the best Pokémon players from Japan and the US in the World Championship this August. It is all about the glory and meeting up with fellow Pokémon players in what is one of the friendliest communities around.
But that doesn’t mean that the best players won’t take the tournament seriously. Ahead of the big event, we spoke to Oliver Reilly and Lee Watson, the top performers at the recent Pokémon Battle Tournament to find out what they are expecting from the Pokémon Video Game Championship and to discover what makes Pokémon stand out from other eSports.
How excited are you to be competing in the Pokémon Video Game National Championship?
Oliver Reilly: The Pokémon Battle Tournament was my first experience of the Pokémon battle scene. I have never been to a VGC event before so I am incredibly excited and a little bit nervous. I came out of nowhere to win the Pokémon Battle Tournament so everyone was quite surprised when I won. There were plenty of other players that were favourites to win. I hope to get as far as possible and maybe have the opportunity to be able to go to the World Championships in August.
Lee Watson: I competed at last year's UK nationals in Birmingham, but before that I hadn’t really considered playing Pokémon beyond a casual level. My record was 6 - 3 (49th place out of 333 competitors) which was not good enough to make the top cut. However, I'm happy with how I performed for my first tournament. The community in particular made it worth going back, with a strange juxtaposition of friendliness and competitiveness that is hard to find elsewhere.
What lessons have you learned from the Battle Tournament? Are you making any changes to your team?
LW: The team I used at the Battle Tournament was relatively solid, but I am definitely making some big changes to it. Without giving too much away, there are some holes and inefficient stat distributions that are easily exploitable by high level players, which showed during the Battle Tournament. Despite this, it is important to remember that no team is flawless and I will have to recognise my weaknesses. Knowing the moves that your opponent needs to make to control the game is a good way to avoid any unnecessary risks and tilt the game in your favour.
OR: I’ve learned that you should be able to adapt depending on what your opponent decides to bring. You should be careful at first, making more conservative decisions in order to work out what your opponent is carrying in terms of moves, items and strategies. The one game I lost at the event was because I wasn’t able to figure out what my opponent wanted to do quickly enough. I’ve got lots of ideas for new teams, but for now, my team will remain much the same, with one or two changes in Pokémon and smaller changes to EV spreads and movesets.
What are your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to Pokémon battling?
LW: I prefer to play a balanced style as much as possible. Players often lean towards playing either too offensively or too defensively during games, which is one way to give the opponent the space to gain the upper hand. I try to control the game through defensive play in order to open up the chance for my heavy hitting team members to cause damage.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done and I have a habit of reading the game incorrectly and settling for a move that turns out to be worse in the long run. Sometimes I rush decisions; a recipe for disaster when combined with the previous issue. While I feel that I can make some very good plays from time to time, my inconsistency is my undoing more often than I'd like.
OR: I always like to be able to set up during a match. I will bring in Meowstic to set up screens, and Tyranitar to Dragon Dance and sweep, but my team is relatively versatile. Of the team I used at the Battle Tournament, any one of Tyranitar, Mawile or Aegislash had the ability to sweep a team, so I wouldn’t need to rely on one of my team members carrying the match for me, like you might see if someone is using a Mega Kangaskhan, for example.
My main strength, I think, is to use my team to counter any potential threat or strategy that my opponent is trying to implement. However, I think my main weakness is that I need to improve upon my ability to predict what my opponent is going to do.
Are there any players that you need to watch out for at the VGC?
LW: The European circuit is very strong at the moment. Just within the UK, players like Ben Kyriakou, Benjamin Gould and Barry Anderson are well known for being strong performers. Plenty of excellent players from around Europe will travel to Manchester too, such as the recent champion of the German Nationals, Markus Stadter, who went undefeated through the entire tournament.
Then there's the current world champion, Arash Ommati of Italy, a player definitely worth watching. There are plenty of names here that I've missed, all of whom are more accomplished than myself and will be a massive barrier to the success of any competitor. That is even without taking the rest of the world in to account. It is shaping up to be an amazing tournament season.
What do you think makes Pokémon stand out from other eSports?
LW: The community is much closer from top to bottom, creating the kind of atmosphere that many new players are able to grow and thrive in.
As far as the game itself is concerned, the difficulty curve is one that you don't really find elsewhere. The game is easy to just pick up and play, but it becomes much more difficult at the higher end of the competition. You don’t need as much skill as in games like League of Legends or Starcraft. Pokémon's difficulty comes from the mental side of the game. The mind games that you have to play with your opponent can make or break your game, as well as providing the entertainment factor for the audience.
OR: Many other eSports games were designed to only be played competitively. What makes Pokémon interesting is that it is a relatively simple game that has a strong competitive element. Now, the Pokémon Company is doing much more to support the competitive scene, which is great to see. It’s obviously not like most other eSports, because it is nothing to do with reflexes and all to do with strategy. I don’t think it’s like any other eSport out there right now.
The UK Pokémon National Video Game Championship takes place in Manchester on May 24-25. If you want to take part, go here for all the details.