This Friday kicks off 2012's Pokémon U.S. National Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana, running through July 1st. As competitive players duel it out on copies of Pokémon Black Version or Pokémon White Version, it's all for the opportunity to win that coveted invitation to August's World Championship in Hawaii. That event is expected to draw players from Spain, Germany, Italy, France, the U.K., and Japan to battle it out for global supremacy in the long-lived franchise.
Now it's likely that if you're one of the hardcore heading out to Indianapolis this week, your tickets are booked and you've tested your strategy and your reviewed your lineup a few times. But for everyone else who might be on the sidelines looking in (like your author), J.C. Smith, the Pokémon brand's director of consumer marketing, took some time out to chat with me about the ins and outs and the tourney, what to expect, and some tips on what it takes to be a champion.
It's been nearly 20 years since Pokémon first started working itself into our culture (16, to be exact). And here we are, about to talk strategy and global tournaments with the most recent entries in the series selling two million copies in two weeks. For Smith, during his time with the company the highlight of the franchise has been seeing a crowd of a thousand spectators respond to last year's opening ceremonies. "It was just such an energy level with 1,000 people there... and just seeing everyone so excited and amped up, seeing a sense of international community from 26 countries."
Name: Ray Rizzo (defending two-time world champion)
Gamer Alias: Ray
Preferred Pokémon: Snorlax
Gameplay style: Risk management. I like to find a balance between playing too conservatively and too aggressively. Even if I have a good hunch on what move my opponent will make, if the reward for predicting correctly does not outweigh the risk of predicting wrong, I will choose a safer move.
The Pokémon Video Game World Championships in their current form are a relatively new thing. Originally called the Pokémon Video Game Showdown, they morphed into their current incarnation not too long after Smith joined The Pokémon Company International back in 2007. "We had an event in L.A. and an event in New York, and those winners were invited to play the world," Smith tells me.
The first Video Game Showdown took place in 2008, when "the world" typically just included Japanese gamers. Since then, the tournament has added five European countries along with the online Global Battle Union. Those are Wi-fi matches in Pokémon Black and Pokémon White.
But the real meat and potatoes of the competitive scene is the Championship which Smith's group coordinates along with other Pokémon Play events around the country. That means coordinate League events for casual competitive players not necessarily looking to reach the heights of Nationals or World.
Still, the big deal is the World Championship, Smith tells me, which is comprised of the best and brightest among the competitive Pokémon scene. Japan handles their tournaments differently than their U.S. counterparts with a very different method for competitors to get to Nationals and ultimately to World, focusing instead on Global Battle Union play. Standouts here can earn an invite to a live event, Japanese Nationals which could in turn net them a chance to compete in the World competition.
In the U.S. it's more live event-driven, with bi-annual sets of Regional events taking place across the country—one in the fall, the other in the spring. Ultimately, there's a total of 15 of these, which sends winners to Nationals. That doesn't mean Nationals is a closed event—if you weren't one of the lucky few to win at regionals to get flown out for the big event, you can show up and register this weekend's competition.
Name: Wolfe Glick
Gamer Alias: Wolfey
Preferred Pokémon: Regigigas
Gameplay style: My play style is solely built around prediction. My strength lies in knowing what moves my opponent will make and moving in order to counteract that.
Smith tells me that a lot of what you see in these tournaments—from the structure onward—came from what their company learned through years of trading card game (TCG) tournaments. They took that knowledge and shaped the U.S. Championships in a way that would be reflective of the game's audience.
As for the sometimes esoteric rules of Pokémon battling: last year's two releases will be what everyone is competing in this year with the added twist that players can now import their Pokémon across any generation into their Pokémon Black and White games. Smith explains that this is a four-fold leap over last year up from the baseline 150 Pokémon available to somewhere around 600 this year.
That means players will have to be more discriminating when choosing groups of Pokémon: cognizant of shared strengths and weakness, and ready for the strategies that potential opponents might throw at them. It's like playing chess, where you know how a knight moves, but now you've got to account for it attacking you vertically, too. "[The players] have such a nice diverse group of Pokémon with their strengths and weaknesses to pull from. That's gotta be overwhelming when they're first coming up with their initial set of strategies for testing at these local events." For Smith, that means that part of a would-be champion's core strategy is a mix of anticipation and knowledge: knowledge of how the many Pokémon operate and anticipation of the kinds of moves opponents might deploy with their decks.
Name: Marco Sandoval
Gamer Alias: Nickscor
Preferred Pokémon: Togekiss
Gameplay style: Unpredictable. I never go for the obvious move or choice.
Smith says that for spectators and the event organizers, the variability of decks means that matches are equally variable; often there's no telling what a player may pull out of their sleeve to score a last-minute win. Among those spectators are some of the games' developers, over from Japan to observe how players are creating strategies for competitive play. This means that if you're going up against someone in the Masters group, there's a chance that the outcome of your battle may be studied and have an impact on the next game in the series.
That's the shape of competitive Pokémon play. If you're not playing this year, you can always keep your eyes peeled for regional events taking place next year. And again, if you happen to be in Indianapolis this weekend, you can always feel free to test your mettle.
The National Championship runs from June 29th to July 1st. For registration information about Nationals, head over to www.pokemon.com.
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