Hey there Hat Lovers,
Today’s topic is something that’s rattled around in my head for a long time now. I’ve been playing Pokemon competitively since 2011, first in the Trading Card Game and then in the Video Game. While I’d played sports as a kid, most of them were team sports. As such, I hadn’t competed in competitions amongst individuals very much, and certainly not at a competitive level. Moreover, sports and “E-sports” are two very different things, and even amongst the E-sports, Pokemon is a totally different beast.
I think my time playing the TCG has also given me a pretty unique perspective on the nature of competitive Pokemon, and becoming a Tournament Organizer developed that perspective even further. As such, I have a very firm opinion on the nature of individual-based competitions, particularly for games of logic and reason. These opinions have been formed from both a player’s perspective, and from an organizer’s perspective as an outsider looking in. Today, I’ll reflect on what I’ve learned about the nature of Pokemon, tournament play, attitude, sportsmanship, and player-awareness.
My hope is that this discussion helps players learn to respect the game, respect each other, and pass that respect on hopefully to other facets of life. If this article helps you form your own perspectives on self-improvement, then I’ll be pleased as punch.
Pokemon as a turn-based strategy game
Pokemon, by nature, is a game in which there is punctuated action, followed by periods of critical thinking. This is very unlike other E-sports; League of Legends, Starcraft, Smash Bros., Call of Duty, these games all have constant inputs from the user that determine the course of the match; in Starcraft, a “prioficient player” enters up to 150 actions per minute. But in Pokemon, the entirety of one’s turn is summed up in one instant: that instant is when you enter your commands for the turn.
Winners in games like Smash Bros. are the result of the sum of numerous instants. A game where one player take 4 stocks from an opponent is decided by the sum of actions inputted every second. But in Pokemon, not all seconds are weighted equally in terms of their importance to a match. What matters isn’t being able to simulate every outcome of a turn, it’s being able to select the commands that will put you in the best position to win the game. Thus, your 45 seconds of contemplation are summed up in one all-important instant. And no matter how great an understanding you may have of the mechanics, your fate is decided by your ability to enter the correct commands. The ability to enter correct commands that lead you to a win is the very definition of a skilled Pokemon player.
“… in Pokemon, the entirety of one’s turn is summed up in one instant: that instant is when you enter your commands for the turn.”
Taken to the extreme, this means that if Player A misclicks and enters the wrong command, Player B who would have otherwise lost, ends up winning. In this very instance, Player B was able to enter commands that led them to victory. Using less extreme examples, say Player A is unable to enter their commands in time, and times out, resulting in their loss. In this instance, Player B was able to enter commands that led them to victory. Finally, say Player A contemplates using Protect, but makes a prediction and instead attacks, losing them the game. In this instance, Player B was able to enter commands that led them to victory.
What is different between these instances? In one, Player A had forged a solid plan for victory, and was foiled only by an accidental flick of the wrist. In another, Player A may have conjured up a strategy, but was unable to execute it in time. In the last example, at no point in the game did Player A resolve to enter a winning command. However, at the end of the day, in each example, Player A lost. My point here is that competitive Pokemon doesn’t care if you understood the game state better than your opponent, all that matters is what commands are entered in that all-important instant.
Tournaments are our metrics for determining player skill
When I played the Pokemon TCG, I often found myself frustrated by the volatile nature of the game. I saw some minor success here and there, but too often I felt that my losses were outside my control. Note: I can readily recall many losses due to my own misplays, but I am not referring to these games. This volatility eventually caused me to abandon the TCG, partly thanks to the increased support VGC events received. For those that don’t play TCG, I’ll explain briefly what I mean when I say the TCG is volatile (I’m working up to a point here):
In the TCG, every turn is up to the whims of the shuffle of the cards. The game is built off of probability and risk management, and that is what is so exciting about succeeding. But sometimes players can win a game on their very first turn playing. These games are extremely unfulfilling, and are often the result of a bad shuffle of the cards, and not at all the receiving player’s fault. However, the choice to use decks susceptible to losing this way is up to the player, and the player should accept losses like these as a result.
When I played the TCG, I preferred to use decks that tried to take control of the game to avoid the volatility of turn-by-turn shuffles. As a result, I also ended up playing decks susceptible to losses like these. During the game, my loss was out of my control. But when I was planning my deck, I could certainly have chosen different decks to rely less on these hit-or-miss strategies. It was very tempting to blame the game for my losses, and not myself; in the TCG this is honestly quite justified sometimes.
The point of a tournament is to select the best player(s) at the end of the day. Knowing this, I entered tournaments in an attempt to prove to myself that I was one of the best players at that event. Yet I can recall many instances where I felt that I was the “better” player, and was simply on the unfortunate receiving end of bad luck. Even if that were true, once I enter the tournament, I abide by its rules. Its rules dictate that players who can win the most games advance farthest, and the person who wins all their games wins the tournament. If I accept that the best player at the tournament is the player who wins the tournament, I also accept that the tournament is a suitable metric for choosing who the best player is.
This is something I’ve come to realize as an organizer; we trust tournaments to sort players by skill. It’s easy to arrive at pre-conceived notions of who the winner of a match should be. As a result, when an upset by an underdog occurs, it’s easy to feel like the “better player” lost. But if I really felt that were the case, then holding a tournament seems pointless; if I’ve already decided who the better players are, why am I asking them to compete? Why not just give them the prizing right there?
We trust tournaments to sort players by skill, and we use victory in the game of Pokemon to reflect player skill. As a player, I agree to these metrics when I enter an event. As an organizer, I trust these metrics to tell me who to award the title of “Champion” to, and other placings. As a player, it’s easy to feel that the results of a game don’t reflect what the outcome would have been 9 times out of 10. But as an organizer, I cannot objectively award the title of “Best Player” to someone who lost, no matter how much I believe it to be true. Simply put, if I’m organizing a tournament, the better player is the person who won, and the worse player is the person who lost.
That doesn’t mean the result will be the same at every event
There is no certainty in Pokemon. If we acknowledge that 9/10 times one player should win, we’re also acknowledging that 1/10 times the other player should win. It doesn’t matter that this “1/10” loss was the result of a misclick, a timeout, a crucial miss, or a misprediction, that player lost. Pokemon doesn’t care who understood the game better, it’s about who can enter commands turn after turn that wins them the game.
When I was playing TCG, I was put off by losses where I was completely powerless to stop them. But if I were translate it into VGC terms, the nature of the TCG is that there is no 100% accurate move. The TCG is a game where your moves all have a chance of missing, and no matter how safe you build your deck, you might just miss anyways. This is one of the qualities that attracted me back to VGC, and why I’ll never play TCG competitively again.
But in VGC, we too have inaccurate moves, and using these moves runs the risk of losing due to misses. We as players have to own up and take responsibility for the 1/10 when it happens. Even if you understand the game state better, if you’re required to use a 90% accurate move to win the game, you’re going to lose 1/10 times. Absolutely, you deserve to lose 1/10 times. That’s the nature of the game we play, and if you can’t accept that, you should probably take up chess.
“We trust tournaments to sort players by skill, and we use victory in the game of Pokemon to reflect player skill.”
Approach with the right attitude, and you’ll have a good time
We make an agreement when we enter a tournament that the tournament will decide who is the “best” player that day. If you disagree with this, you must also then de-value your own good tournament finishes. But there’s one more variable I’d like to add to the mix that plays into who ends up the “best” player at the end of the tournament; condition.
Player condition isn’t absolute. Everyone has their good days and bad days. Even the best players in the world can go X-3 or X-4 at a tournament now and then. But the reverse is also true! Middling performers can have their good days as well, and even go quite far in Top Cut. And in Pokemon, this performance variability is a lot more volatile than in other E-sports. Why?
Tying things back to how every game is decided by the sum of a few instances, decisions in Pokemon have greater consequences than they do in other E-sports. Even if you can identify the turn that did you in (say it was a Rock Slide miss), there are likely more subtle reasons you ended up relying on that Rock Slide for the game. In E-sports, the sum of each decision tallies up to choosing a winner. In Pokemon, we make relatively fewer decisions than in say… a 4 minute game of Smash Bros. As such, each of our decisions carries a lot of weight, and even one sub-optimal play can spell out a loss.
“… if I’ve already decided who the better players are, why am I asking them to compete?”
As such, even top players can find themselves losing, and recognizing what you could have done differently to avoid losing is a big part of maturing as a player. But more importantly, even if you can’t think of something you could have changed to earn a win instead, if you trust the game and the tournament system, you agree that the game and the tournament are the ultimate deciders. Even if you can’t understand what you could have done differently, acknowledging that there was likely something that you could have done is an important step in respecting the game.
Respecting the game also means respecting other players
Possibly the most toxic thing you can do to someone else is believe that you deserved to beat them, yet didn’t for whatever reason. Not only do you fail to recognize your role in your loss, but you also de-value their victory. Nugget Bridge founder Rushan once told me something that really struck me, and I’ve tried to keep with me to this day. He said: The winner has nothing to say to the loser. Just say good game, get up, and leave.
Likewise, the loser has nothing to say to the winner. What we were talking about is the awkward aftermath of a match. If you lost to bad paralysis, or rock slide misses, just own up and say good game. If you bring these up after the fact, it’s like giving an insincere apology. What is the other person supposed to say in response? “Oh yeah, sorry for the hax. Here, let me forfeit. You’re clearly better than I am.” Of course not!
If you truly believe that you had no part in your loss, you’re disrespecting the game, and you’re disrespecting your opponent. And if you believe you could have played even one turn differently, then accept it and move on. But never, under any circumstances disrespect someone else like that. You entered that tournament accepting that these sorts of outcomes could happen, and if you want your good tournament results to stand up to scrutiny, you have to admit that your bad tournament results are also reflective of your ability; no matter the reason. Over time, you should rack up some good ones if you deserve them.
I’ve been building up to this for a while now, so I hope you can see how everything I’ve said ties into this section.
Games are the sum of the actions taken at brief instances following up to 45 seconds of thought. Pokemon is a game where each decision carries a lot of weight; in 6 turns, you’ve made up to 12 decisions, which means that each decision had a 1/12th part in your victory or loss. Players also have variable conditions; no one is perfect, especially not all the time. We use tournaments to assess player quality, and we trust that tournaments will elevate the “best” players to the top spots frequently.
But hopefully you can agree with my when I say that the “best” player in the room is not the same at every tournament. Because players have variable conditions, and because our in-game decisions carry such weight, there’s a lot of volatility in who can end up winning a game; even one mistake can lead to a loss. You can be a straight-A student with a 90% average, but that means you get things wrong 1/10 times. If you understand probability, that means it’s not unreasonable to get 2 or 3 things wrong in 10 questions sometimes. As such, when a straight-A player fails to Top Cut, we as organizers and fellow players have to trust that on that day, that player got 2 or 3 questions wrong; even if they don’t think so, and even if we don’t think so.
The most respectful thing you can do as a player is to acknowledge this, and trust that you too are fallible if you find yourself in the same position. By doing this, you ensure you are not disrespecting your opponent by claiming you are superior to them, even when the agreed method of determining a victor awarded the match to your opponent, or to the underdog you felt didn’t deserve to win.
Why am I writing this? There’s been a disconcerting amount of disrespect floating around the community lately, though it’s subtle. The worlds CP bar was announced to be very low, and some players feel that this will de-value qualifying for Worlds. By believing this, you also de-value those who would have qualified for Worlds regardless; there is no positive outcome to bringing everyone down with the ship. Even if you don’t agree with the bar, smile, nod, and work towards a more positive atmosphere. If you’ve got something to say, say it to the organizers, not the players.
Also, with the advent of Nugget Bridge’s new blog system, many players are now starting up their own blogs. This new system is amazingly positive, and I love the direction Nugget Bridge has taken. But I’ve seen many (well-reasoned) posts with an underlying mentality I find toxic to the game. I often find that posts talking about player mentality are obsessed with how you can make yourself the “best” player by making sure you’re not irrationally refusing to use the “best” Pokemon or the “best” team.
But being the best is not about using what everyone agrees is the best. Wolfe Glick is without a doubt one of the best players in the game, but to this day, the only time I’ve seen an Exeggutor win games was on his 2012 2nd place Worlds team. Also in 2012, Huy Ha ran a Choice Specs Gyarados and got 9th place at Worlds, just missing Top Cut. In 2013, Arash Ommati won using a Scarfed Mamoswine, which I am certain almost no one would have predicted to win Worlds that year. In 2014, we saw Se Jun Park win with Pachirisu.
Players who look at Worlds 2015 and see that CHALK took all the Top 8 spots are missing out on the history of VGC. Pokemon has never been about using the universally accepted “best” Pokemon to win games. Pokemon is about bringing the tools you think give you the best chance of winning a game to the event. Even in 2015, we saw the finals of US Nationals between two highly similar Mega Gardevoir teams; the only two Gardevoir teams that made Day 2.
So cut all this crap about how the best players don’t restrict themselves and allow themselves to use the best Pokemon. That statement is missing the point. YES, competitive players don’t restrict themselves in what Pokemon they use. But for EXACTLY THAT REASON, the best players don’t always conform to what everyone agrees is “best!”
As an organizer, and as a captain of an ICPA team, I’ve learned that what matters in the end is not who understands the game-state best; what matters is who gets results. It doesn’t matter if those results come from using CHALK, or come from using *shudder* Milotic. Respect the player, because they got results. What makes them successful in a competitive environment is not their wanting to use the “best” Pokemon as voted by the community, it’s about them using what Pokemon they think are the “best” tools to bring to games.
Sometimes those two overlap, but don’t disrespect other players’ team choices because they don’t conform to your opinions. Results speak for themselves. And when those results come in, remember:
“The winner has nothing to say to the loser. Just say good game, get up, and leave.”
Conclusion, and taking responsibility
This is a mammoth article and I’m sure most people will scroll past this wall of text without reading it. That’s fine. If I saw this I would probably just skim it myself. But hopefully you can take away the message.
We all play Pokemon, a game of strategy and chance. We all love this game and this community, and want to have a good time. The only way everyone can come out positive is if we all have mutual respect for each other and for the game. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure the community is a positive environment. The reason the winner has nothing to say to the loser is because it’s both player’s responsibilities to respect the outcome of the game, and thus respect each other.
Likewise, while some Pokemon choices may seem bad to you, let the results speak for themselves. If you’re right about that Pokemon, then the results will back you up on that. Nothing good comes from disrespecting another person’s decisions before the results are even in, and nothing good comes from disrespecting another person’s decisions after the results are in either. We have to trust those results, because if we don’t trust those results, we also can’t trust the results when they do conform to our expectations. And because player condition is variable, I want to emphasize that we also can’t 100% trust our expectations; sometimes we’ll be wrong.
As long as we can all respect that there are variables we don’t have a firm grip on, we can respect that the game is the final say on who deserved to win. Sometimes, that can feel pretty volatile, because a game of Pokemon isn’t like any other E-sport; each one of our decisions contributes a lot to the outcome of a game. But if I respect the game we play, and respect the people who play it, I hope others will come to respect me as well. And I hope that you’ll join me in that, because a tournament is a lot more fun when we can all congratulate the winner, regardless of how they did it.