Pokemon Video Game Championship 2011


Pokémon battles are serious business, and the annual Pokémon Video Game Championship traditionally represents the apex of cartoon animal gladiatorialism. This worldwide contest is fought out as a series of free-to-enter national (or regional) qualifiers, with the top players from each event invited to the world finals in San Diego. This year the UK national qualifier returned to the Birmingham NEC, and as DarkZero’s resident Pokémon Master I went along to meet the contestants and try to capture their emotions of the day in a way that normal humans might understand.

I would assume most DZ readers are familiar with the concept of Pokémon and how battles work, but here is a brief guide for the unintiated: ‘Pokémon’ is both a singular and collective term describing a diverse range of creatures with incredible abilities. The most well-known Pokémon is Pikachu, a chubby yellow mouse that can fire bolts of lightning from its rosy red cheeks, but there are hundreds of others. Pokémon players are tasked with travelling the length and breadth of the world while cataloguing each species and capturing wild Pokémon in order to train them up for battle and/or teach them the true value of love and friendship. During a Pokémon battle, rival trainers throw a sample of their menagerie into a virtual ring and attempt to beat their opponent’s team unconscious using whatever biologically improbable attacks they have learned.

Aside from the usual battle rules (each Pokémon makes one attack per turn, etc) there are always special restrictions that apply in official VGC matches. The main rules this year were that players could only enter the contest using copies of the newly-released Pokémon Black and White games, all battles would be fought in the 2-on-2 format (where each player commands two Pokémon at once), and – controversially – only Pokémon from the Unova region Pokédex would be admissible. For the lay reader, this means only the 150-or-so new species of Pokémon introduced in the latest generation of games, invalidating teams built around the 500-odd older species of Pokémon that experienced players will be familiar with.

The contest as a whole was divided into three age brackets: Juniors (ages 11 and under), Seniors (ages 12-15) and Masters (ages 16 and over). The Junior and Senior brackets each allowed a total of 256 entrants, while the Masters bracket allowed 512. In each case players were randomly seeded into a knockout tournament and gradually whittled down to two finalists, and at that point I jumped in with a few biographical questions and asked each player to describe what it was that made their team so great:

JUNIORS FINAL
Thomas
10
Pasta
1 year
Terrakion
Whimsicott
Hydreigon
Thundurus

“[My team is great] mainly because I’m hitting my own Pokémon! As Terrakion has the ability Justified, it raises his attack every time he’s hit by a Dark-type attack; Whimsicott hits Terrakion with Beat Up, which hits four times.”

Name
Age
Fav. Food
Experience
Pokémon
Christopher
10
Salmon
2 1/2 years
Hydreigon
Zoroark
Terrakion
Haxorus”In my opinion my team is strategically good, but you can never have the ‘best’ because you never know what your opponent’s Pokémon are going to be. I chose my team because it’s an all-rounder – mainly focused on attack, but with some good defence as well.”
Right from the start Thomas seized the initiative, getting in Beat Up and then using Terrakion’s Sacred Sword to knock out Hydreigon before she could make an attack. After one ineffective Flamethrower from Christopher’s ‘Haxorus’ (actually Zoroark disguising itself with Illusion), Thomas secured his team’s speed advantage with Whimsicott’s Tailwind, allowing Terrakion to one-hit KO all of Christopher’s remaining Pokémon with a succession of Earthquakes before they had a chance to move. Thomas won by complete rout; when asked how he felt, his characteristically understated response was simply to say “It went well.”

Here is your first lesson in competitive Pokémon battling: Generalist teams are ineffective. I know from personal experience that teaching your Pokémon too many defensive and recovery moves puts you at a disadvantage against heavy-hitting offensive teams – it limits your range of attack types, and in a serious competition your opponent will probably be hitting you for more damage than you can heal or protect against anyway. Thomas’ strategy was much more focused, taking advantage of Terrakion’s innate ability to boost its offensive power twice as quickly as any normal move would allow (and attack in the same turn!)

Aside from the Pokémon championship itself, there were a few other sideshows set up to entertain visitors. A winner-stays-on contest was running, although with a three win streak limit. A demo booth for the Pokémon Trading Card Game was staffed by administrators of PokéGym.net, taking on all-comers and walking interested parties through the new Pokémon Online TCG. Neither seemed to be offering any tangible prizes, but could help pass the time – as if the hundreds of national-level competitive trainers buzzing around the hall didn’t offer enough opportunities.

The most striking thing about the contest hall was the complete lack of commercial activity. This must be the most lucrative room in the country in which to sell Pokémon merchandise, and yet for reasons best known to themselves The Pokémon Company (an independent affiliate of Nintendo) just don’t seem very interested in making money from the event. In some ways the minimalist organisation is quite touching – there is a sense that all the trainers hanging around outside of the competition, watching the battles unfold on TV screens, are truly passionate fans. It’s an attitude that seems in keeping with the spirit of the game, which frequently hammers home the message that love and friendship and hard work will always win the day.

SENIORS FINAL
Tayler
15
Pizza
12 years
Terrakion
Hydreigon
Thundurus
Vanilluxe

“They’re powerful, they’ve got good moves, and they’re a strategic team that builds up and then attacks them.”

Name
Age
Fav. Food
Experience
Pokémon
Edward
12
Pizza
7 years
Tornadus
Jellicent
Bisharp
Conkeldurr”They’re fast, and they can hit the opponent before they hit me. I take them out as fast as possible.”
True to his word, Ed’s Jellicent struck first with Water Spout (the favoured attack of Kyogre users in previous years), doing minimal damage to Hydreigon but almost knocking out Terrakion (who only clung on thanks to his Focus Sash). A Brick Break from Thundurus then cut Hydreigon down to around 40% health, putting Tayler on the back foot right from the off. Tayler’s response was muted with bad luck, as Terrakion’s Rock Slide missed Thundurus and barely affected Jellicent; Hydreigon’s Dragon Pulsescored a solid hit against the wobbly aquatic terror, but this was small comfort after such a devastating opening volley.Reeling into the second round, Tayler secured his Terrakion with Protect, presumably hoping to draw fire away from Hydreigon while she attacked. It didn’t work. One Brick Break later and she was out for the count, with Tornadus sent out to replace her – a smart choice, given its elemental resistances. Now running out of options for his near-dead Terrakion, Taylor finally opted for an all-out attack – a gambit that almost paid off! After Tornadus set up Ed’s team with Tailwind, Terrakion surprised everyone in the room by attempting a Quick Attack on Jellicent. It would have knocked her out before she could attack, punishing Ed for his hubris, were it not for the fact that Jellicent is a Ghost-type Pokémon and therefore immune to Quick Attack. Tayler’s friends could be heard groaning and slapping their foreheads at the back of the spectating crowd.His luck improved a little once Terrakion was put out of its misery. Thundurus landed a criticial hit on Tornadus with an Electric Gem-boosted Thunderbolt, scoring a one-hit KO. With Ed bringing out Bisharp and Tayler Vanilluxe, it was clear that the end of the match was drawing close; once Bisharp knocked Thundurus out with a quick Sucker Punch, it was all but over! Jellicent was switched out in favour of Conkeldurr (presumably as a safeguard in case Thundurus survived its attack) and Vanilluxe was left to sob out a single, forlorn Ice Beam before Ed finished her off and claimed victory.

I was glad to have interviewed Tayler first in this match-up, as I have a terrible poker face and I would hate for him to see my eyes widen in horror as he described his strategy. I have a similar approach to the game myself, and foresaw the coming bumrush with a clarity born out of experience.

Lesson two: Strategies are good, but they’re no use when you’re dead. This match was a foregone conclusion – a fast attack will almost always beat a slow build-up, even when you’re not making regrettable errors of inexperience. Inexperience! Tayler was apparently the most experienced trainer of all six finalists, claiming to have played Pokémon ever since the original game’s release. Even if he’s new to the Black and White games he should have done more research into what he might be coming up against; although in this case I doubt it would have helped.

I actually attended the 2010 championships as an aspiring contender, although I left without even reaching the registration desk. By far the main criticism of last year’s event was that it was too small, comprising of only two age brackets with 256 places in each – many trainers queued for hours in the rain only to be turned away. It was good to see this problem addressed this year (aside from having twice as many registration slots, I would assume that the age brackets had been calculated to balance out the numbers) although this doesn’t seem to be enough for some people.

For Pokémon trainers who want a more open and inclusive contest – or who disagree with some of the unique restrictions of the official championship – there is a growing number of unofficial tournaments popping up that in many ways sound more appealing. One such contest is organised by 1-Up Events, and features conveniently regional heats all around the UK that feed into a national final later in the summer. Pokémon purists would argue that such tournaments represent a more ‘realistic’, no-holds-barred battle experience, but I would take these claims with a pinch of salt. Pokémon is a game that is rife with cheating and hacking, and personally I wouldn’t even bother entering a contest that didn’t have a rigourous cheat detection system. On that note, it’s worth mentioning that half of the Senior entrants in 2010 were barred from entry, forcing the organisers to eventually reopen registration in order to make up the numbers.

The nexus of competitive Pokémon battling is a website called Smogon University, which pushes the idea of ‘purist’ Pokémon battling to the extreme – it is a community that whittles down battle strategies based on the assumption that all Pokémon will have idealised stats and any theoretically-possible combination of moves, some of which can only be obtained from obscure, one-off download events that no normal trainer would have access to. This is the point where ‘fair’ Pokémon battling begins to slide into the hypothetical realm of hackers, using tools like PokéSav to – in effect – genetically-engineer their perfect team. It puts a huge handicap on ‘honest’ trainers, which is why the security checks in the official championship are so welcome. Adhering to the spirit of the game may be noble, but it can put you at a very real disadvantage.

MASTERS FINAL
Ashley
17
Pasta
4 years
Chandelure
Jellicent
Krookodile
Amoongus

“It’s not actually my team, I just got it from someone who can build good teams – they helped me. And practice, I guess.”

Name
Age
Fav. Food
Experience
Pokémon
Ruben
18
Everything
7 years
Thundurus
Scrafty
Tornadus
Terrakion”My love!”
There was a palpable feeling that the room was against Ruben. Having flown over from Barcelona – weeks before the Spanish national championship – he knocked out last year’s UK champion in the semi-finals, and a number of trainers I spoke to were displeased by the prospect of a Spaniard representing the UK on the world stage. However, our pre-match interview turned me around on the matter, and immediately established a face/heel relationship between the two finalists.It was clear that Ashley had no emotional bond whatsoever with his Pokémon – an attitude which I genuinely find quite upsetting once I’m in the zone – and I very much pinned my hopes on Ruben’s burning passion to win the day. This battle meant something! I went over the facts in my head, noting with some concern that the previous two finals had been won by younger, less experienced players with a fondness for Italian food, but it ran deeper than that. This was a clash of philosophies between the cynical stat-tweaking of Smogon and the spirit of love and friendship that the Pokémon world represents.Battle commenced. Ashley sent out Chandelure and Jellicent (an interesting combination of Fire/Ghost and Water/Ghost typings) while Ruben summoned Thundurus and Scrafty. Wisely, Ashley’s first move was to withdraw Jellicent and deploy Krookodile instead, whose Ground-typing nullified the immediate threat from Thundurus’ electric attacks. Scrafty’s first move was Protect, which successfully drew Ashley into tipping his hand and wasting a Heat Wave. By the end of the first round, neither player had landed a blow.

The atmosphere became more aggressive as all four Pokémon began to exchange blows, with everyone picking up damage but nobody gaining a clear upper hand. Presumably disappointed by his slow progress, Ashley decided to mix things up in the third round with a double substitution and sent out Jellicent and Amoonguss. It may seem like an odd decision, but when Thundurus looked set to take down Krookodile with what appeared to be Hidden Power (Ice) and instead just bounced off Jellicent’s elemental resistances, it seemed like a smart defensive move. With Scrafty using Protect again, this gave Ashley a safe switch-in that put him in control of the match.

To prevent Thundurus from immediately tearing down Jellicent with a Thunderbolt, Ashley’s Amoonguss used Rage Powder to draw in his opponent’s attacks like a magnet. The mis-matched elemental typing of these redirected attacks meant that Amoonguss emerged in rude health while Jellicent was free to fire off a full-power Water Spout that KO’d Thundurus, grievously wounded Scrafty, and swung the balance of power even further into Ashley’s favour.

Things were not going well for Ruben as he sent out Tornadus. Amoonguss used Rage Powder again as Ashley tried to repeat the success of his previous turn, and Tornadus’ Acrobatics – boosted with a Flying Gem, no less – should by all rights have taken her out in one hit, but the audience gasped as her Coba Berry kept her standing with a mere 12 hit points. Scrafty’s Protect defended against another full-power Water Spout, while Tornadus’ hit points – and my faith in humanity – were reduced to around 45%.

To make matters worse, Amoonguss began the next round by using Protect, ensuring that any attempts to finish her off would be made in vain. Ruben however had commanded Tornadus to attack Jellicent. It seemed strange that he would choose a move like Acrobatics, which was never likely to kill Jellicent in one blow, but in hindsight I suspect his motive was to weaken Water Spout before it rolled his whole team over. Predictably it was the next move out, but with Jellicent having lost half her health it was too weak to kill either of Ruben’s Pokémon, who were by now hanging on by the skin of their teeth. As Scrafty’s Crunch took Jellicent out of action, a faint glimmer of hope began to emerge – Ashley had misjudged Ruben, and wasted an critical opportunity for Amoonguss to attack. Was the pressure getting to him?

Jellicent was replaced with Chandalure – still injured from earlier in the battle – and with all four Pokémon in the ring now close to fainting, both trainers were playing defensively. Scrafty’s Protect and Amoonguss’ Rage Powder made a double knock-out difficult for both sides, but Tornadus produced a surprise Tailwind instead of attacking. Ruben must have known that Chandalure was about to finish him off – by another Heat Wave, as it happens – but chose to sacrifice Tornadus in order to boost his team’s speed as he prepared to reveal his final Pokémon. Outnumbered again, and with Scrafty on his last legs, the stakes were high! Fortunately, he had an ace up his sleeve.

With a crash, Terrakion dropped into play. This could be it! A well-placed Earthquake could take out both of Ashley’s Pokémon in a stroke and turn the tables! But unfortunately, Ashley’s response was to switch out Chandalure and bring Krookodile – almost on full health – back into the game. Terrakion actually used Rock Slide, which (predictably) took down Amoonguss but did very little damage to his Ground-type partner. I was disappointed to say the least, but then Scrafty did something slightly brilliant. An unexpected Drain Punch at the end of the round KO’d Krookodile and restored about 30% of her health. The thing is, as a Fighting-type move, Drain Punch would have had no effect on the ghostly Chandalure. Suddenly it became clear that Ruben had anticipated the switch, and had successfully planned for a double KO anyway!

With Terrakion unscathed, Tailwind still in effect and Ashley’s last remaining Pokémon critically injured, the match was as good as over. In a textbook finish, Scrafty set up Protect just in time for Terrakion to drop an Earthquake and finish his opponent off. OR SO WE THOUGHT! As Ruben jumped out of his chair and bowed to the audience, a Catalonian flag draped across his shoulders, there was an outcry among the spectators. Chandalure had survived the Earthquake with 1 hit point remaining!

It was astonishing. An icy shock ran through me as I thought of ways Ashley could still win the game – could that thing know Dark Pulse?! Fortunately my fears were short-lived. As Ruben jumped back behind his DS and resumed battle, Chandalure had nothing to contribute except another Heat Wave, doing minimal damage to Terrakion and nullified by Scrafty’s Protect.

With one last Earthquake, Ruben swept the board and won the match. The forces of truth and love had overcome Ashley’s team of heartless mercenaries, and all was right with the world! And fortunately I didn’t hear anybody complain about having a Spanish champion – one thing I think everyone in the room could agree on was that Ruben had earned his victory.

So, there you have it. Your final lesson is that, despite what modern cynics might have you believe, victory in battle really is determined by the strength of the bond you share with your Pokémon. One of the things I like about the VGC finals is that both winner and loser receive near-identical prizes – all six finalists took home a 3DS and a medal, and were invited to compete in the world finals with free flights and accommodation for the trip to San Diego. I hope you will join me in wishing them all luck.

FULL DISCLOSURE: The lovely PR representative who accommodated my ridiculous requests on the day gave me a Pokémon plush toy as I left the conference hall. I might have worried about its effect on my journalistic integrity, but for the fact that it was a plush toy of Zekrom, which is one of the ugliest Pokémon ever devised.

Finally, the movie embedded below is described in the official press release as “A super video which captures all the excitement of the Championships!” Take it from me: it does not.