I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking, “Oh, a children’s game? How can this be anywhere near as nasty as, say, a real fighting game or Call of Duty?”
Well, my friend, you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. Competitive Pokémon is serious business, where winners taste the sweet ambrosia of victory while the losers fall into the deepest pits of shame and despair for their failure.
And how can any of that surprise you when the animé does nothing but push the agenda of improvement, of strength, and of ultimate victory?
Competitive Pokémon can be just as hardcore as any other eSport - nay, even real sports. There’s just as much math, just as much psychology, and just as much poop throwing.
Yes, I said it - poop throwing. That happens in other sports. Right? I may not be as up to date on sports etiquette as I’d like.
Anyway, here’s 15 nasty facts about tiny virtual cock-fighting. I mean competitive Pokémon. I always get the two confused.
Before you can even attend a tournament, you need some Pokémon to fight with. It would likely not have the right moves, the right nature, or the right ability. All these factor into making a GOOD competitive Pokémon, and the only way to ensure you get the right stuff is to do it yourself by breeding.
But breeding sucks. First, you need to find the Pokémon, then you need to ensure they have the right moves, and if they don’t then you have to breed Pokémon just to get the moves. Then you can start breeding the Pokémon with the right moves together with Pokémon that have the right nature. And you have to be holding an Everstone or else that nature might not get passed down. And then you have to worry about IVs and having a perfect IV Ditto to make your bred Pokémon as good as possible.
And after you’re done all that business of actually breeding your champion to be, then you gotta train him up. Training has its own set of pitfalls, and while later generations have made this part easier it is still an hours-long grind.
Your Pokémon’s stats are ultimately determined by their EVs. You can have 510 total EV points and a maximum of 252 in any single stat. This means you can put your 252 EV points into Attack and another 252 into Speed and have a dangerous glass cannon that can outrun and out-hit everything on the field, but die if someone manages to exhale heavily on it. Or you can put those points into Defense and HP and be super tanky. Or you can spread them all around and be a jack of all trades, but terrible at everything.
Getting those EVs in the first place requires training, which you can do by playing the training minigames, or you can go out into the world and actually fight. But you can’t fight just anything - only certain Pokémon will give certain EVs. Also, they only give 2 at a time (or 4 if you have Poké-AIDS - don’t ask), so it’s also a big grind.
Tell me, punk: do you feel lucky?
Well, you better, because competitive Pokémon is a game with just as much luck involved as skill. Nearly every move in the game has a random percentage based chance of something happening - either causing a debilitating status condition, or making them flinch, or even one-hit-KOing them (although those moves are typically banned in tournaments).
You can have the best team in the world, filled with six gleaming, perfect Pokémon with the perfect moves to take on all comers, but you can still lose to some rando who managed to confuse your entire team. It sucks and means that Pokémon and poker have a lot more in common than you’d realize.
While we’re on the topic of how much alike poker and Pokémon are, there’s something that every professional Pokémon battler has to come to terms with, and that is how everyone wants to get into everyone else’s head.
Because each competitive player doesn’t know what they’ll be up against beforehand, the element of surprise is crucial. A flippant smirk, an anxious giggle - anything could be a tell to your opponent as to what your next move might be. And then there are opponents that go one deeper, trying to feed false leads to try and bait out a move that could eventually put them ahead and ultimately victorious.
Just like in poker, most of the pros keep their heads down and say nary a word until the fight is over.
It’s inevitable in competitive games that someone will try and find a strategy that works even if it doesn’t mean either side is having particularly much fun. Pokémon is no exception.
There are a ton of strategies that will try and stall out the game until your opponent starts pulling their hair out. Some involve using moves to reduce a foe’s accuracy to the point where they simply miss on every turn or using a combination of flinch/paralyze moves to nearly guarantee the opposing ‘mon will do nothing until they’re switched out.
Perhaps the funniest strategy is to use a low-level Pokémon with the Sturdy ability and the move Endeavor combined with a damage over time effect. Endeavor causes the opponent to have the same HP as the user, while Sturdy ensures that the Pokémon lives long enough to actually use the move. When used on a level 1 ‘mon it suddenly turns the opposing level 100 monstrosity into a tiny kitten.
Death comes when the damage over time move knocks the opponent out. It’s a one trick pony that has few defenses if the other side doesn’t plan for it.
The popularity and longevity of Pokémon have caused it to have a large following. That large following also translates into many would-be champions stampeding to their local tournament for their own chance at greatness.
Few succeed, but the many that try to mean that registering for the event itself can end in hours of waiting in line. This problem can happen anywhere, from small towns to bigger cities, although it’s more pronounced in bigger cities with lines wrapping around buildings as players compete casually just waiting to hand in their paperwork. It can be a good way to scope out the competition, but for most, it’s an exercise in tedium.
As I mentioned before, Pokémon is a game with quite a bit of longevity behind it. It’s also a children’s game. These two facts can lead to some… shall we say, questionable match-ups.
To be fair, there are age limited tiers in the officially sanctioned tournaments, so if you don’t want your kid playing against someone three times their age, you can just make sure they stick with the Junior division. Still, everyone who is serious about the game plays in the Masters division which has no age limits. Pokémon is a game where only luck and skill count, and age is a complete non-factor.
Although it can look a little weird.
Cheaters never prosper, but Pokémon’s grind can sometimes make players bend the rules of the game a little.
Remember that breeding and EV training thing? Well, there’s a bunch of apps available that will just outright create a Pokémon from thin air with perfect everything and dump it into your save file, indistinguishable from any other old ‘mon.
That’s a big no-no. Nintendo officially prohibits anyone from messing with the delicate digital makeup of Pokémon games, and anyone who’s caught tinkering will see their accounts suspended for life.
But there are other kinds of cheats too - people who try to sub out items or Pokémon after registration in order to get an edge on the opposition. These more mundane cheaters can likewise be banned from official competition.
While your team has to be legal in the sense that your Pokémon were all born and bred in the digital confines of the game, there’s no rule that says those Pokémon have to belong to you.
Pokémon is a game where trading is not only common, it’s encouraged. As such, players will often compete with Pokémon they didn’t breed themselves and actually obtained from a friend.
The top level players will actually lend out their hard-earned battlers to friends all the time, then have that friend trade them back after the tournament. There’s nothing prohibiting the practice, and it can be a great way for lower level players to learn how the pros do it, or for that same pro to get some additional free testing done before their own tournament stops.
Like all competitive online games, there’s a metagame to consider: those strategic choices made outside of actual combat that greatly affect the outcome of a match. And in Pokémon that metagame changes so fast it can be hard to keep up.
One week a tournament goes by, and everyone is using the exact same six Pokémon with the exact same moves. Then next week someone breaks out a build nobody’s ever seen before and wins the tournament on surprise factor alone. The week after that, everyone has that same strategy or has developed their own counter-strategy.
And this is happening all over the world, with tiny local metagames running into the giant, globe-spanning ones, constantly shifting and changing. While many decry its impossibility to predict, others applaud its ability to allow completely new strategies and new ideas take the day.
It's a well-known fact that not all Pokémon are created equal. Some are just inherently stronger than others. If a Gyarados and a Diglett were facing off at an equal level, the Gyarados would each the Diglett for breakfast.
Enter competitive tiers, where Pokémon are grouped based on how often they appeared in battles. There's the Overused tier (OU), Underused tier (UU), Rarely Used tier (RU) and Never Used tier (NU). In Overused you'll find the best of the best, like Garchomp or Mimikyu, while Never Used has some less spectacular 'mons like Cinccino or Zangoose. There's also the Uber tier which uses only the most powerful legendary types, and Little Cup which only allows Pokémon of the lowest evolutionary tier.
Each one of these tiers has a tiny metagame to keep track of to guess what you could face in a real tournament.
So you have your team, and you’ve trained them right, and now it's time to start battling for glory! You hop online, check out your local Pokémon tournament info, and head on down to compete!
Great! So was that an OU tournament? Maybe an RU tournament? Was it a Little Cup? Doubles battles? Triple battles? Singles only? Best of one? Best of three? Maybe even an Uber tournament?
All of these things are hugely important to consider before you even arrive at the tournament. Your Pokémon have to be legal for the format they’re being entered in otherwise you’ll be barred from competition. On top of that, you’ll have to consider how many rounds you’ll be fighting. Best of one match means the element of surprise is vastly more powerful than simply having a strong team, whereas best of three tends to favor the team with the most flexibility.
I know we don’t typically think of Pokémon as being inherently for boys or girls, but look at the Pokémon World Champions and you’ll start to notice a distinct theme: they’re all dudes. The picture above shows the only female champion out there.
The reason why is still a bit of a mystery. There are certainly plenty of women playing the game, so why don’t we see them winning as many tournaments as their male counterparts? The most likely explanation is that women don’t want to have to deal with rampant sexism on top of the natural stress of a competition. I know I certainly wouldn’t.
C’mon, girls! Show the dudes what a real Pokémon champ looks like!
Remember when I said that tournaments require you to register your teams beforehand? This is so that the official staff has something to compare and ensure that you’re not cheating.
That’s all well and good, but what if you make a mistake on the form and put the wrong Pokémon down or forget that you switched out their item and you mark down the wrong one? Well, the rules for most tournaments state you have to take the offending Pokémon out of the tournament. And there’s no replacement either - you’re a man down for the whole tournament.
This actually took a European tournament by surprise, costing numerous competitors their monsters.
Some people take the whole “getting into your opponent’s head” thing a little too far. One Spanish team definitely took it too far back in 2012.
The logic behind this decision was not immediately apparent, as police were called and forcibly ejected the Spaniards for causing a disturbance. I can only assume it was part of a larger strategy to gross out their future opposition, causing them to forfeit every match they played.
It wasn’t strictly prohibited in the tournament rules, and if it weren’t already illegal due to local laws, it might have actually worked.