Artwork by Ken Sugimori. Charizard is owned by the Pokémon Company.
Pokémon is evolving, and I am not talking about your Pikachu turning into a Raichu. The series, and the entire gaming industry itself, are evolving into a legitimate sports scene, with all the fantasy leagues, gambling and internal drama associated with mainstream athletics. Pokémon is one entry in the wide pool of eSports; games that include League of Legends, DOTA2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. With a prize-pool of $20,770,640.00, mostly contributed by fans and players of the game, winning the annual DOTA2 International tournament can make a player a millionaire. The prize-pool for an official competitive Pokémon tournament, referred to as the Video Game Championships, or VGC, is comparatively small, at only $10,000.00. But the numbers don’t lie: it pays to be good at games, and the road the becoming a Pokémon master is much more difficult than grabbing your Charmander and beating the Pokémon League.
Before we can delve into the inner mechanics of Pokémon that drive the competitive scene, it is important to understand what makes a video game competitive. Understanding the nature of the game you are playing will make you better at it; this goes beyond just understanding the programming behind it, but also the aspects of competition that goes on between two or more players. Similar to physical sports, they are driven by player-versus-player competition. There are five defining characteristics though that define competitive games: skill, knowledge, variety, consistency and luck. These characteristics can be directly compared to sports like baseball and chess in terms of their importance and how they are displayed throughout the game.
There is one statement I want to make before diving into the nature of a competitive game: for a game to be truly competitive and fair, the better player should win the greater majority of games. What makes one player better than another is their skill, knowledge of the game, how they use variety and consistency to their advantage and how they deal with luck. A better player uses the core principles of the game to win.
Skill can be defined as the physical execution of an action and decision-making during the course of a game. In baseball, this is seen as the action of swinging a bat as well as knowing when to swing. In this example, both physical execution and decision-making are at play. In traditional, physical sports like baseball, football and hockey, proper physical execution requires continuous training and practice. This is also true for some games: in DOTA2, learning key combinations and improving clicking accuracy requires constant practice. However in Pokémon, like chess, the physical execution of the game requires very little player action. Instead, the focus of the competition is on decision-making. That means knowing what move to use, knowing when to switch Pokémon or when to keep fighting. This too requires practice; the more we expose ourselves to different problems, the more refined our decision-making becomes. We learn when it is time to play safe or when we need to take a risk; how we can win the game and how our opponent wants to win the game.
Knowledge is the understanding of game rules, mechanics and characteristics. That means knowing how every piece in chess moves or even something as simple as what direction you run between bases in baseball. This one is seems pretty self-explanatory, but for competitive Pokémon, knowledge is the biggest barrier of entry for new players. Pokémon is a game of incredible depth. If you want to become good at the game, you have to understand each and every Pokémon’s stats, abilities, potential moves and typing. You have to know what each move does, what abilities do, how the types interact with each other. You have to know what items do and how that can completely change a Pokémon. For example, there is an item called a Choice Band; a Pokémon holding a Choice Band has its attack power increased, but it is locked into only one attack until it switches out. Knowing that allows for an opportunity to play around it. If your opponent is locked into a Fire-type move, you can respond by switching to a Water-type, which takes less damage from Fire-type moves, since you know that your opponent either has to use the same move again or switch Pokémon. Becoming good at Pokémon requires a lot of reading and memorization, but if you enjoy the game then it is like riding a bike: once you learn it, you never forget it.
Variety is the presentation of multiple choices for a player to make over the course of a game. In chess, this is being able to choose which piece to move first as well as having multiple pieces which move in different ways. In baseball, this is having different players being able to go in different positions in the field. Variety is key to any competition, because it is what allows you to outplay your opponent. It is critical for a game to have a wide variety of options to choose, as the more variety you have, the more avenues are available for you to win.
However, too much variety can make a game too complex or imbalanced. For example, imagine if every single pawn in chess moved differently, or if every pawn had the be captured a different number of times before it could be removed from play. This makes the game incredibly confusing and less approachable for players. Despite having hundreds of moves and Pokémon, the Pokémon games control variety by either banning some Pokémon from competition (an extrinsic control, since it is a decision made outside the game) or by making some Pokémon directly weaker, or “outclassed,” by another Pokémon (an intrinsic control, since it is part of the game’s design and mechanics.) The best example of this is that Bulbasaur is directly outclassed by its evolution, Venusaur. As such, for the casual players enjoying Pokémon for the game of collecting and adventuring, Bulbasaur is awesome, fun and cute. They can play with Bulbasaur all they want. At competition levels, Bulbasaur is not a factor of play because Venusaur exists. Just use Venusaur. By designing reasons not to use certain Pokémon, the game designers have made the competition level of play more accessible to players because there is a reasonable amount of variety, rather than having to prepare for every single Pokémon in the game.
Consistency is tied directly with rules of the game and can be defined in two ways: first, having the same number of choices available across multiple rounds or games, and two, having your input have the same result every time. For chess, that means your chessboard always starts with the same pieces; in baseball, your bases are always in the same places. For Pokémon, this is where rules of the game and design mechanics come most into play. Every Pokémon can only ever know between one and four attacks. Every Pokémon can only hold up to one item. You can bring six Pokémon to a tournament, but you can only use four of them in each battle. Consistency maintains balance in a game. If you could use six Pokémon in a battle when your opponent could only use four, the game is immediately imbalanced because you have a distinct advantage. The rules must be consistent for both players; whether they not to use that to their advantage is up to them.
The second part of consistency is more related to game design. Consistent input means that whenever I press the A button, my character jumps. This can be contextually sensitive; for example, if I press the A button next to someone, I talk to them, but if I am not next to them, I jump. Imagine how frustrating it would be if you were playing a game and you go to jump, and instead you talk to someone who is standing fifty feet away from you. In Pokémon, this means that every time I tell my Pokémon to use Fire Blast, it uses Fire Blast. There can be other external factors that interrupt this action, but I want to know that my Pokémon is using the move Fire Blast, and that if it fails it is not because the game decided that it was going to use Thunderbolt instead.
The final characteristic of competitive video games is luck; it is the chance for an event to occur less than 100% of the time. This is what separates eSports from traditional sports. Imagine if every time you caught a ball in baseball, you had a 10% chance to gain a point for your team. Or if in chess, every time you capture a pawn with a pawn, you have a 20% chance for your pawn to turn into a queen. There would be public outrage. Yet luck is a generally accepted, and still often detested, part of competitive video games. Luck has its origins in the single player gaming experience and, since competitive video games are still games, it has transferred alongside other gameplay aspects into the world of competition. Luck is Pokémon’s critical flaw, and is a topic I hope about to write about in the future, but for now I will talk about how competitive players deal with luck.
Let’s take a look at the move Fire Blast again. Let’s say your Charizard knows Fire Blast and Aerial Ace. Fire Blast deals a lot of damage, but it has a 15% chance of missing the opponent, dealing zero damage. Aerial Ace is weaker, less than half the power of Fire Blast, but it will always hit the opponent. It cannot miss. Ever. Now let’s say your Charizard is facing a Pikachu, your opponent’s last Pokemon. Every Pokemon has Hit Points (HP), and if a Pokemon’s HP reaches zero, it is knocked out. If all your opponent’s Pokemon are knocked out, you win. Your opponent’s Pikachu is at exactly 1 HP. Fire Blast would deal 100 damage to Pikachu’s HP, and Aerial Ace would only deal 20 damage. Should the player with Charizard use Fire Blast or Aerial Ace?
The answer is Aerial Ace. Any attack would deal enough damage to knock out Pikachu, so why risk a 15% chance of Fire Blast missing and potentially losing you the game? The sign of a good Pokémon player is that they manipulate luck in their favor. They know when to play it safe and when they need to make a risky, or “lucky”, play to win the game.
These are the basic elements of a truly competitive game. Any game can become a competition, including coin tosses, rock paper scissors or tic-tac-toe. Next time you play these games, think about if they are truly competitive. Playing a good game of Pokémon, having a close battle with a friend, can be rewarding and fun. In a series as cosmopolitan as Pokémon, it can be a way of connecting players around the world. Whether or not you want to become the world’s greatest Pokémon battler or want to go a few rounds with your friends at a game like Pokémon, chess or baseball, understanding the games we play will only make us better at them. And when we become better, we force our opponents to become better as well, which makes the games both more fun to play and to watch.