eSports. Sports with an E: it gets the nerds jumping. I’ve seen more posts about “growing the game” of Pokémon than I have for hot local girls in my area. People want Pokémon to be “eSports”, but nobody seems to know what exactly that means.
In fact, nobody really knows what “eSports” means. It’s a term looser than Tiger Woods, and aside from people taking it to mean large amounts of Dew-glugging probably men playing video games for money, it doesn’t have a proper definition. When people say they want to “grow the game” and be more “eSports”, they mean they want more money invested in VGC: they want more prizes, more advertising, more coverage. The key word is: more. But it’s… more complicated than that. More accurately, people want Pokémon’s competitive scene to look more like one of the traditional “eSports” games. So let’s look at what we have and compare it to some eSports examples: League of Legends, Counter-Strike and Hearthstone.
Model: £40 Retail Game
Strategic JRPG Series 1996-
Typical Major Tournament in 2016: Worlds: $46,500 prize pool distributed 1st-16th though all players get a (legitimately sweet) complimentary bag of limited edition merchandise, 106 players with invites earned through an extensive and costly CP system (average day 1 invitee paid ~£100 in entry fees alone and this has increased hugely for the 2017 season). Unlike the others, Pokémon has Junior and Senior divisions which split the budget.
How to Get Started: Raise at least one team of 6 Pokémon through Nature and IV-breeding/raising to lv100 and Hyper Training, EV-training and deciding on a competitive moveset. Playing effectively requires you know type matchups, the effects of hundreds of moves and the stats and types of at least most of the 802 Pokémon, and very little of this is explained ingame. Pokémon stats and move learn data and effect data are exclusively compiled on fan sites. Teams you make are only useful in PvP, whilst most of the game is PvM or collaborative. There are no balance patches. Competitive play is heavily-influenced by RNG with critical hits, misses, added effects, status rolls and speed ties all very relevant.
Pokémon is an extremely popular game series. It is, in fact, the origin of the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, so of course it is. I love Pokémon more than I love Yorkshire Puddings, and if you’re reading this, chances are you do too. Lots of people love Pokémon and lots of people want to “grow the game”. So let’s see where those people get inspiration: the burliest eSport, League of Legends.
League of Legends
MOBA (Derived from DOTA, Warcraft 3 fan mod 2003-) 2009-
Model: Free-to-Play (Cosmetic character skins and faster character unlocks available for purchase)
Typical Major Tournament in 2016: Worlds: $6.7 million prize pool, 16 regionally-based teams of signed players who qualify through the continental LCS championships, which in turn has competitors chosen from the ingame Challenger ladder: top 3 Challenger teams at the end of a season play against the previous season’s bottom 3 LCS teams, and the winners join the continental LCS league.
How to Get Started: Free to download, 134 characters to choose from, a selection of which are free each week. Other can be unlocked either through purchase or currency earned through playing. Each character has a fixed moveset and more are added periodically, with regular balance changes. No uncontrollable RNG, limited to critical hits, the power and rate of which you control with item equips.
LoL is, essentially, a lesson in both free-to-play games and eSports done right. To me, it’s the Schindler’s List of gaming: I respect the background and quality of the work, but I have absolutely no interest in playing it. I don’t like MOBAs, don’t have enough time to play it and can’t even load up Overwatch without “Darling stop playing that stupid game! You have real girlfriend, loser, she need attention!” so LoL is a lost cause. It does, all things considered, resemble a 197-minute-black-and-white monument to “this is good and necessary but I’d rather do something else”. Unless you’re single, digitally dextrous (Less likely if you’re single…) and unemployed yet sloshing around in Scrooge McDaddy’s moneybags, I couldn’t recommend you try to go pro in League of Legends.
Being a spectator, however, is excellent: there’s a reason why more people watch League of Legends than play it. We’re talking about a video game that’s filled out the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. Exceptionally high standards of play combined with the best in official streams (Riot are amazing at organising all this) and even a separate beginner’s stream for Worlds make LoL the benchmark in everything eSports. The downside is that players need to work extremely hard as a team to maintain their skill levels and by necessity are playing under contract with eSports organisations, so don’t actually see a lot of their prize money. Most importantly, however, the rewards are very top-heavy and contracts often exploitative so the teams that don’t come out on top often haemorrhage money and players can go unpaid- but more on this later.
Counter-Stike: Global Offensive
Team FPS Series (Originally a fan mod of Half-Life) 1999-
Model: £11.99 Steam Download, though widely-pirated (Cosmetic weapon skins available for money/trade with other players, and some are worth lots of money)
Typical Major Tournament in 2016: DreamHack: $500,000 prize pool, minimum winnings $2,500, tournament between 8 teams of 5, 6 of which are invited teams of known, signed players, 2 through open qualification ($10pp open entry fee). Tournaments are all organised by eSports associations and aren’t run by Valve.
How to Get Started: Standard FPS setup: guns are unlocked per session through gameplay. You don’t “own” guns, only their cosmetic skins. Game is frequently balanced and updated. Minimal RNG, limited to the spread of inaccurate weapons, which aren’t really viable anyway.
CS:GO, which fortunately isn’t a shooting version of Pokémon Go (That’s called “Walking around East Oakland with Rina), is popular amongst people who like to wear tracksuits, squat, and fall off tall buildings. Young Russian men, spurned by their country’s brutal and unyielding flower-based mating rituals, instead turn to collecting expensive imaginary gun paint. After a mediocre launch, the game began to thrive after the introduction of these skin-based microtransactions and soon people became involved in a huge skin trading network. Before long, websites sprung up where, to boost viewership of matches, players could bet their own skins on matches against an online skin casino, widely promoted by streamers and YouTubers, “growing the game”. All was well and good. Until it wasn’t, when it was revealed that the whole time, videos of big wins were almost all made by the site owners, popular streamers had been paid to show simulated gambling and stay quiet and, basically, the entire thing was rigged and very very evil. Therefore, it turned out that most of the game’s growth was based around a scam designed to extract cash from viewers. This is an important lesson to learn.
Both of the games so far have been minimally-RNG-influenced with an exceptionally high skill ceiling. So, nothing like Pokémon. Where to look next? Hearthstone, of course!
Competitive CCG (Based on the Warcraft universe, 1994-, comparable mechanics to Magic: the Gathering, real life TCG) 2014-
Model: Free-to-Play (Card packs available for non-essential purchase but rotations/adventures are basically a ~£20/year pseudo-subscription fee to be competitive)
Typical Major Tournament in 2016: Worlds: $1m prize pool between 12 players who earn invites based on ingame Legend ladder ranking (Similar to Challenger in League of Legends) and placing in independent (but reporting to Blizzard) open tournaments. Hearthstone’s competitive scene began with independent tournaments which are still frequent and offer >$100,000 prize pools, but their qualification is usually invite-only and based on popularity.
How to Get Started: You begin with basic cards, earned through levelling up each class on the lower ladder. Some of these are good, but it takes time to unlock them all and in order to succeed competitively you need to spend money on at least the current adventure (£13.99/$20 each), since the weekly free packs and daily challenges don’t add up to enough to build a strong collection. Competitive play is heavily-influenced by RNG, even moreso than Pokémon in card draw and uncontrollable card effects, most controversially seen in Yogg-Saron which casts a large number of random spells and can easily turn games in either direction, yet is still seen in high level play (Explained very well here by my good friend Will).
Hearthstone is the closest eSport to Pokémon. Strategic, collectable and RNG-based. That said, compared to Pokémon, on a scale of d e e p to shallow, Pokémon is Evangelion Episode 26 and Hearthstone is Milo Yiannopoulos’ paddling pool, filled with a thin layer of tears.
Once you’ve got your cards, you’ve got them, and if they change or phase out you get a refund on their crafting cost. Pokémon, meanwhile, you have to train them and each Pokémon can be trained in very different ways. Hearthstone’s only decisionmaking is in what to play and when; Pokémon’s is that and more. Pokémon you can prepare for bad matchups, Hearthstone (unless you’re in a tournament, where you usually bring 5 decks) you just have to pray you don’t get them. So whilst the ladder format is lame and annoying, and takes hours and hours to reach legend, the tournament format is much better and the multiple-deck idea is one that could possibly see use in VGC.
Otherwise, controversy is remarkably similar to that of Pokémon. One somewhat banterous coincidence was that the uproar surrounding Yoshi’s well-intentioned but horribly-crowdfunded Invitational (which has since switched to Geico) was that his proposed structure, in which he would be both organiser and player in an exclusive cash tournament, was very much like this car crash of a Hearthstone tournament, wherein the loved-by-casuals-hated-by-competitors streamer and known viewbotter P4wnyhof, whilst being both player and organiser, deliberately applied tiebreakers and rulings incorrectly so his own team squeaked into the top cut when they shouldn’t have, before being caught and disqualified. Hearthstone even had its own version of the Nugget Bridge Invitational’s infamous “five move Volcarona”, when a semifinalist brought two slightly different builds of the same six Pokémon to switch between according to matchup, and got caught out by viewers, which was equal parts clever, unsportsmanlike and hilarious.
The point I’m making is that the reason Pokémon isn’t an eSport is that it was never meant to be one. Whilst Pokémon has a bigger playerbase than any of these games, it was designed as a primarily single-player JRPG with multiplayer functions. The point was the collecting and trading, and sometimes battling with your mates, and to have it simple enough for anyone (i.e. children and grandmas) to play it. There was too much to learn with too few resources for most people to turn competitive, and raising a team was difficult and boring.
Those times are (arguably) over, with competitive being nursed by Game Freak and TPCi more than ever, and that’s wonderful. But the fact remains that the barrier for entry into competitive Pokémon is far too high. Not many take time to learn the specifics of 822 characters and hundreds of moves: when you step back and look at exactly how much information a Pokémon player has to memorise, it’s unsurprising that hardly anyone plays competitive. More importantly, however, is that when it’s on a screen, hardly anyone uninitiated has a clue what’s going on. Ask a parent or grandparent to watch a livestream and they’ll probably have no idea what is happening (Though this has improved drastically since Gen 4’s static sprites and lame animations). Ask a typical Pokémon player what’s happening, meanwhile, and they’ll probably say they don’t care because everyone uses legendaries and it’s unoriginal. Stupid and uninformed? Yes, very. But like it or not, Pokémon games’ core demographic isn’t competitive players: it’s anyone who plays Pokémon, and most of those people aren’t competitive. These people aren’t playing the same game we are: they think of Pokémon as a singleplayer RPG that kids can finish in which you make friends with Pokémon and raise them through the story, and legendaries are strong ’cause they’re rare. And they’re not entirely wrong: it’s just a different, more prevalent side of a huge fanbase. These are the people who are leaving YouTube comments, these are the people who watch shiny hunting, these are the people we need appeal to if we want to “grow the game”.
And if we want to “grow the game”, there needs to be some fundamental changes in how the game works. You might notice something in the games I’ve listed (and there’s many more the same): all of the others were designed from the ground-up to be competitive. Most importantly, the two biggest were derived from officially-annexed fan mods made to reduce barrier to entry and make their respective games more competitive.
Pokémon also has a competitive fan mod: it’s free and it’s called Pokémon Showdown. Nintendo have been sleeping on battle simulators for 15 years now and I’d call it criminal if I didn’t know better: it’s that they don’t know what to do with them. Unlike Blizzard and Valve who knew to find their biggest fans and absorb their ideas for massive profit, Nintendo is a century-old Japanese company run by old men who don’t have a clue how to adapt with the times. You know, the kind of company who thought Miitomo was a good idea. If we’re going to have VGC become eSports we’re going to need an official version of the game dedicated only to battling, with as little barrier to entry as possible and all of the mechanics actually explained, or we’ll keep being stuck with the same relatively small community, being hated on by the myopic and uncompetitive fanbase-at-large who, to reiterate, don’t look Pokémon in the same way a VGC player does. The “legendaries and hacking” debate (See also: dogs barking at fireworks) couldn’t happen in any other game, because the other games don’t have an uncompetitive fanbase.
So for that reason, we’re not going to see huge changes until the game itself is more accessible, and the casuals understand that they’re watching a competition.
Please Do Not Feed the Daddies
Until then, the main thing to remember is that eSports, like many things, exists to make money. It’s no coincidence that it’s risen in the age of DLC, blind pre-orders and microtransactions. So for the sake of the rest of us, make sure you spend your money sensibly, because, honestly, just don’t be stupid, and whatever you throw money at sets a precedent. If somebody’s putting up a presumptive “$1000 for Sejun to play, yeah, get involved but only with your wallet” type of crowdfunding, please do us all a favour and don’t contribute, or it’ll be everywhere. It’s due this kind of complacency that I had to sell off my literal wall of bespoke reptile tanks to pay for Internationals, ’cause I’m poor and can’t afford this game any more. I got gentrified out by “cool hats”.
Additionally, eSports is a new field, and has about as much regulation as a South London chicken shop. So players’ legal protection is about as powerful as the Pengest Munch kid… man? (He’s actually my age…). For this reason, none other than the infamous Martin Shkreli, someone who literally causes people to get bankrupted and killed by cat poo, got his mush in the scene, and promptly set about not even paying his players, and getting away with it. Quite ridiculously, the until-then respected organisation and anti-cheat software providers ESEA got caught hijacking users’ computers for bitcoin mining, which is practially a story from an Ancap Smiley meme. There’s even been cases of tournaments being set up that hadn’t actually been paid for, which is literally the minus-animal-people plot of the dreadful Matthew McConaughey-is-a-Simon-Cowell-koala-kill-me-now movie Sing and don’t ask why I’ve watched that. She… made me.
My point here is that eSports is rampant with exploitation and underhanded tactics used to to take your money. Companies know that they’re dealing with, in the most part, young and naive people who think they’re getting into a “dream job” of professional video gaming, so often waste no time in dealing them murderously bad contracts where players aren’t allowed to switch teams (a “noncompete clause”) and have to forfeit all winnings, sometimes to a company that then doesn’t pay out and disappears. Therefore, you should only consider signing up for a team if the contract is reasonable and the company is reputable.
On top of this, no Pokémon player needs a team quite like the other games, since our tournament entry is thankfully open and accessible. This is something we have a lot better than the other games.
And Finally, the Other Issue
VGC has some amazing players and stories. The recent push for “storylines”, however, has met with equal parts ire and agreement.
It’s a good sentiment, but it’s without a doubt that Monk has unintentionally sent out a clarion call for egotism in Pokémon. Amusingly, the example of content he uses is by someone widely-derided in the UK for, amongst other incidents, getting angry at losing round 1 of a PC and saying to his opponent “Do you know who I am?!” (Who by the way is one of the loveliest people in the world and did not know who he was), then demanding the TO give him special treatment because “My fans need content”. This kind of behaviour needs to be laughed at, not endorsed.
On top of that, though we may be in the era of “alternative facts”, there needs to be an effort to make sure storylines are, you know, actually true. I think the most relevant example of this at the moment is in the current “Player Profiles” for the Geico invitational. Most of them are great and show off top players and their stories. Enosh, Sejun, Markus and Alex are all excellent dudes and players I’ve had the pleasure of practising with. Aaron, for all his dopeyness, is a straight up genuine lad and top tier player. His biggest crime is having a geography teacher’s haircut, and possibly not giving Mohsyn “bcaralarm” Bharmalm enough credit for his famous 2013 Worlds team. But then again, Bharm was at the time a crazy kid with a completely irrational fear of people hiding tomatoes in his backpack (Long story) and I already know he’s going to swear at me when he next sees me (So long as his mum isn’t there), so who cares.
Of course, the one I take issue with is the entry for “The Epic Hero”, which has the credibility of a toilet stall penis drawing. I’ve known the guy for 6 years; I don’t have a problem with him personally, but this profile is full of BS. Some of the problems are just funny, like omitting the part where literally everyone, for several months, told him the 2013 team was bad and needed changing. His philosophy of “there’s no such thing as losing to luck” is, again, a load of balls. I know that because I’m the one who taught him to play like that. It’s a training aid, not an actual truth. Of course you can lose to luck, it’s Pokémon.
The part I really don’t like is that part of this “storyline” is a blatant character assassination on someone who didn’t really do anything wrong. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that maybe Jon did what he did because he had a reason to. Plus, ironically, Wolfe is the biggest team-scouter of them all and this whole anti-scouting thing is a seething pile of hypocrisy. Nobody should care about scouting. It’s bound to happen over the course of a tournament: people play and people talk. How he has the gall to crusade against anyone when he had Jon’s team scouted at Worlds and has the biggest network of scouts in the game is frankly obscene because, again, Wolfe is the only person who really cares about scouting. Just as those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, perhaps don’t complain about scouting you if you’re the kind of person who goes on your friend’s DS pre-tournament to see their EV spreads then speed-creeps your own to beat them (This being a completely different occasion). At that point, claims of losing sleep over friends “double crossing” you by scouting come off as more comical than factual. If anything, the best narrative to take from this is of a plucky challenger who rose to the top to become the monster he thought he was fighting: a victim of his own hubris. Now that’s a storyline.
Oh well. But it needed saying. Fortunately I know Wolfe, he’s not really a bad guy, more lives in his own alternate universe, and he will learn from it eventually. Let’s just remember to stay sane about “growing the game”.
- Pokémon isn’t the same as established eSports, and if we want to compete we’ll need a purely competitive version of the game, e.g. an add-on Showdown mode (so it doesn’t conflict with full game sales).
- We need to be careful that we’re actually “growing the game”, not just Scrooge McDaddy’s eSports moneybags.
- Likewise, VGC has a wonderful and diverse selection of players, but peeps need to take care in promoting the right people, not egomaniacs who will ultimately make the community suck.
So let’s just keep having fun and see where it goes.
Enjoy your next pee,