I was supposed to compete in the 2020 Pokemon World Championships today.
Originally scheduled to kick off on August 14 and run through the weekend, the event would have brought together hundreds of pro Pokemon players to see who was the very best like no one ever was. It was meant to be held in London as a thematic tie-in to the new Galar region from Pokemon Sword and Shield inspired by Great Britain.
But as we all know, the coronavirus pandemic has caused the cancellation of not only gaming events around the globe but sports, movies, and pretty much everything else. It goes without saying that during these troubling times there are much, much worse things to worry about than having your Pokemon tournament canceled.
Still, as I sit isolated in my tiny Los Angeles studio apartment instead of a convention center on the other side of the world filled with fellow Pokemaniacs, I can’t help but reflect on the strange turn my Pokemon journey has taken.
A few years ago, I decided to pick up a Pokemon starter deck at Target and play some games with a friend. I hadn’t touched a Pokemon card since I was a kid, but as I shuffled up to battle, a wave of nostalgia hit me.
My mind was flooded with old memories: filling my red plastic binder with gleaming Base Set holos; successfully pulling off a secret card trade during recess in defiance of the school-wide ban on Pokemon cards; throwing down all of my allowance at Toys“R”Us for booster packs as I continued my fiendish, desperate search for a Charizard. And just like that, I was hooked all over again.
A 2019 study showed that people who played Pokemon in their youth developed a Pokemon area of the brain, and like a switch being flipped, mine was lit up like a Christmas tree. Next thing I knew, I was researching the top Pokemon decks, building a collection of all the latest cards, and attending tournaments. I wasn’t addicted. Why would you think I was addicted? You can’t be addicted to a media franchise populated by colorful pocket monsters. Anyway, then and there I decided I’d never rest until I’d become the world’s best Pokemon trainer no matter the cost.
Playing in local Pokemon tournaments against a dozen players was one thing, but competing in the larger regional tournaments was something else altogether. These bigger events with anywhere from 400 to over 1000 players were key to qualifying for the Pokemon World Championships, the most prestigious and competitive event of the year. A high finish at a regional earns you a bunch of Championship Points—referred to as CP in player lingo—and earning a grand total of 500 CP during the 2019-20 competitive season was how to obtain an invitation to Worlds. There, you have a chance to take first place and win $25,000, eternal glory, and a trophy of a Pikachu holding a smaller trophy, so basically two trophies.
When I first started playing the game, I told myself I was only doing it purely to have fun because the process of trying to qualify for Worlds was too troublesome. And it wasn’t lost on me that I was an adult playing a “kids game.” Although, kids competed in their own Junior and Senior divisions, so that left us Masters division players to duke it out on a level playing field. The game proved easy to learn yet hard to master, and the more I played the more I became enamored with its unexpected layers of depth and strategy. It reminded me of what it was like competing on my college chess team, and if being an absolute nerd didn’t stop me then, it sure as heck wasn’t going to stop me now that I, Adult Joshua, had disposable income to buy all the best cards that were never available to me as a kid.
The catch was that in order to make it to Worlds, it required time and dedication to travel to all of the major tournaments in order to obtain that precious CP. The CP grind was often spoken about by veteran players as exhausting and unforgiving because missing a single regional could mean missing out on your Worlds invite, so going for it meant you had to be all-in.
I analyzed the metagame like a mad scientist trying to discover time travel. I drove to so many tournaments that I was forced to replace my tires. And I shuffled so many cards that I developed tendonitis in my right hand. “Could you play less?” the physical therapist asked me. As if! I wasn’t going to let the limitations of my 32 year-old flesh bag stop me. I stuck it out, and after the better part of a year, at the Collinsville regional tournament in February 2020, I not only achieved a career best finish—10th place out of 640 players, thankyouverymuch—but I earned the last remaining CP I needed to land a Worlds invite.
At that point, health experts had raised concerns about COVID-19 but things had yet to take a turn for the worse, so I was nothing but happy and excited knowing I had finally reached my goal… completely oblivious that by the end of March, the 2020 Pokemon World Championship would be canceled.
Los Angeles has been in various states of lockdown for four months now. Next to my desk is a shelf fully dedicated to storing all of my Pokemon TCG stuff. It’s filled with boxes of organized (okay, loosely organized) cards, a binder of holos, stacks of sleeves and deck boxes, and numerous playmats accumulated from attending tournaments. With all in-person Pokemon events canceled for the foreseeable future, this once heavily-utilized Pokemon deck lab has been doing nothing but collecting dust.
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There’s been a lot to get used to since the pandemic forced everything to shut down. For me, a big part of that was figuring out how to build a new life amid the strict rules of quarantine.
Playing Pokemon cards wasn’t only a hobby to enjoy on nights and weekends, it was my way into a community, one that I was now cut off from. I missed competing, I missed traveling, and I even missed the CP grind. But most of all, I missed the friends I had made. Not seeing my Pokemon pals really sucked.
Last year when my birthday came around, I was feeling pretty crummy about myself and decided not to celebrate with a party. But when I showed up at my local game shop for the weekly Pokemon tournament, my playgroup surprised me with a birthday pie (because they know I don’t like cake) and singing me the Happy Birthday song in the middle of the store. I had never felt more embarrassed or more loved in my life.
I hate to say something as cliche as I don’t need to go to the Pokemon World Championships because the real treasure was the friends I made along the way, but there’s a lot of truth to that statement. The Pokemon community is full of some of the kindest, most passionate people I’ve ever met. They are what gives me faith that despite not being able to come together for in-person events, the game and the people who play it will continue to thrive.
Already, The Pokemon Company has attempted to reignite the competitive scene online. Qualifiers for the newly minted Players Cup took place in June and we’re still in the process of whittling down to a winner as new rounds are played over the passing weeks. It’s an international contest, so there’s a semblance of this being a replacement for Worlds, but Worlds is far more than just a competition.
It’s a massive gathering of thousands of Pokemon fans from all over the globe. Competitors, spectators and fans from nearly 50 countries attended in 2019. The opening ceremony typically includes announcements for new Pokemon games, movies and products. Rare, event-exclusive merch goes on sale and is instantly snatched up by collectors. One year the director and lead actors of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu showed up to do a smile and wave to the cheering crowd. The World Championship is essentially Pokemon’s San Diego Comic-Con, complete with big lines, cosplay, and overpriced nachos. That’s something that can’t be replicated online.
Speaking of moving things online, The Pokemon Company had to essentially reinvent the whole competitive tournament structure to make it an online-only experience. While fans are used to watching Pokemon instantly evolve into a new form in a dazzle of glowing light, the Pokemon competitive scene hasn’t transformed quite so gracefully in its move to online.
Unlike similar digital card games such as Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering Arena, Pokemon had never used its (rather dated) online client, Pokemon Trading Card Game Online for an official tournament, nor does it have a competitive ranked mode. Many players decried the qualification system for the Players Cup as being unfair for requiring an in-game currency, while others were confused by the rankings page that didn’t accurately display points earned.
Despite the rough qualification process, I managed to qualify to play in the Players Cup, but when one of my cards bugged out and caused me to lose a game I otherwise would have won, I felt dispirited and decided to not play the rest of the tournament. Much like having a card glitch in the middle of a match, The Pokemon Company is now being forced to deal with many issues that would have never occurred in real life.
Despite a bumpy start, The Pokemon Company has made it clear they’ve heard the feedback and dedicated to getting on the right path. The recent update to PTCGO includes a new way to enter tournaments and an adjusted ranking points system. There’s even a brand new Play! Pokemon podcast to engage the community despite everyone being stuck at home. Even Ash’s Charmander went through its testy Charmeleon phase, but now it feels like The Pokemon Company’s online competitive scene is well on its way to becoming a glorious Charizard.
I did spend the better part of a year competing to qualify for the 2020 Pokemon World Championships only for it to be canceled, but thankfully The Pokemon Company ensured players that all invites will rollover to 2021 Worlds. So I will eventually get the chance to compete for the top prize against a field of players from across the globe, and then go eat some of those overpriced nachos after I get knocked out on the first day. In the meantime, I’ve got a lot, a lot, a lot of time to practice. And when the world eventually does open up again, I truly can’t wait to head to my local card shop and get to see all my favorite Trainers again.