A casual player’s perspective of Sydney’s biggest Pokemon tournament
It may surprise you to hear that the Pokemon series has a thriving competitive scene. While many players are content to just assemble a party of their favourite creatures and play through the story mode, others spend hours and hours planning strategies and training up the best teams that they can. The main tournament scene is known as the Video Game Championships (the VGC for short) which is officially handled by the Pokemon Company International. Players compete in various events around the world to rack up the points needed to be invited to the World Championships each year. Up until recently the main events in Australia were free Regional and National Championships held across the country. I have many fond memories of competing in these, like the time the Melbourne competitions were held at PAX and I realised on the day of the tournament that I was missing an important item. I had to try and grind the Battle Subway over and over while waiting in line, and kept going to the back of the line each time I failed to rack up enough points to buy it. There was the time I got to play a match up on the big screen for everyone to see. It came down to my weakened Mega Metagross and Malamar against my opponent’s much healthier Mega Metagross. They’d been boosting their Metagross’ attack by using Power Up Punch, but I managed to turn the tides by reversing its stats boosts using Malamar’s Topsy-Turvy attack. And, of course, there’s all the friends who I’ve met at these events and kept in contact with. They were so much fun to make a day out of – you could just show up, see how you go, and try to make friends out of your fellow Pokemon Trainers.
But in the past couple of years, the Australian VGC circuit has changed. Events became bigger, but also required entry fees, as control of these events was handed over from Nintendo Australia to ESL. I didn’t attend any of last year’s tournaments, but as an outside observer they sounded like they were a bit of a mess. Events were announced only a couple of weeks in advance, they weren’t streamed, and attendance numbers sounded like they had significantly dropped (likely due to a combination of the entrance fees and the lack of notice). They had much bigger prizes (as in, thousands of dollars in prizes) which are great for the hardcore players, but the entry fees were a big turn-off for me because I knew I’d never be good enough to actually place anywhere. I’d just show up at these events with a fun, gimmicky team and try my luck. Rather than paying to play I just played the games online at home and had my fun that way.
This year I was invited to attend the big Oceania International Championships here in Sydney, and I was curious to see how things played out this year. The event was held in Sydney Olympic Park over three days, with tournaments being available for the main Pokemon videogames, the Pokemon Trading Card Game and also Pokken Tournament DX (the Pokemon fighting game on Switch), and I was there on the final day to catch the grand finals of each game. Things were off to a better start than last year’s events because the event had been publicised in advance and it was confirmed that a full professional stream would be covering the event, with famous commentators within the three Pokemon spheres being flown over to host it. You could win hundreds of dollars just for placing near the top in some of the events, and there’d be some kind of loot bag given to all attendees. But still, the $30-$60 entry fee (it varies depending on your age division) sounded a bit rough for more casual players, so I was interested to see what would be on offer.
Right from my arrival at Olympic Park there was an official feeling to the event. Signs were placed all over the place guiding you to the show hall just like they would with any big event, and when I reached the hall I was met with a sight that brought a big smile to my face – a giant banner hanging above it with a happy Pikachu on it. There are few more welcoming sights to a Pokemon event.
My excitement continued as I entered because the organisers had gone all out with decorating this hall. There were banners and electronic displays everywhere, and TVs ready to show the livestream that would also be broadcast online. The displays were used for all sorts of things throughout the day, like showing the Pokemon team that the winners of each event had uses while they were being interviewed. It was a very professional set-up that cemented the day as an authentic, official tournament. I was very impressed.
I sat down near the front ready to watch the first event of the day – the Junior division finals for the Pokemon Trading Card game. The two young competitors were up on the big stage, and it was cute seeing their friends and families get excited for them. The commentators for the event introduced each competitor and gave a rundown of their past achievements and the decks they would be using. Sebastian Enriquez had a deck containing Zoroark, Lycanroc and Mewtwo, while his opponent Bodhi Robinson was using Buzzwole, Garbodor and Lycanroc GX. I’ve been out of the TCG for a while, so most of the cards and some of the mechanics were totally foreign to me, and even when I did play I wasn’t overly conscious of the meta. This made it really hard to follow what was going on. The commentators did their best to explain what was happening but during all the TCG events I watched people would be getting super pumped up about things while I was just kind of smiling politely. Card games aren’t very good spectator sports for those not in the know.
While I was sitting there, a spectator who was there with her son started up a conversation. Her son was a bit shy (for some reason the idea of a random stranger asking him lots of questions scared him, can’t possibly think of why) but she was excitedly telling me about what her son had been up to over the course of the weekend. He ended up placing quite highly and won some cash and a full booster box (a box that contains 36 trading card booster packs, each containing 10 cards.). Just for showing up, he got given a loot pack with a playmat, a deck box, sleeves for his cards and a special promotional trading card. You can see some of these pictured below. His mum’s entry was also covered by his admission fee. She would have been happy paying just for the goodies her son received, but winning even more prizes on top of that made the weekend into something even more exciting.
A short while later into the match I heard some cheering coming from the back of the hall, and when I looked over there I realised that the Pokken Tournament… tournament, was being held at the same time. While I’ve never been all that good at it, I love Pokken and definitely didn’t want to miss out on seeing this. It was a shame that the Pokken matches were shoved in the back corner of the hall without much fanfare when it’s meant to be one of the three pillars of the event. Pokken is much more exciting and easier to follow for casual fans, so I was getting a lot more out of spectating here. Despite the fact that the crowd following the game was smaller than that for the main events, you wouldn’t be able to tell just by listening in. Everyone would go wild during particularly hyped matches, like one where Dandandy’s Weavile went up against Santa’s Empoleon. Both players were very evenly matched, and each of them was countering and dodging the other’s moves. There was one specific moment that stood out – when Dandandy’s Weavile managed to hold onto a counterattack for the entire duration of Empoleon’s long aqua jet attack, releasing it afterwards and turning the table on Empoleon. The match was so tense right up to the ending, where neither player knocked the other out before time was called. It took everyone a minute just to process what happened, and Dandandy hadn’t even realised that he’d won by having more health remaining. It was fantastic.
I took a break to grab some lunch. I grabbed chicken and chips from the ‘cafe’ inside the building. It was actually quite good (and cheap) for event food. As I was walking back I took a look at all the side events that were happening alongside the main ones. I knew that there were extra TCG and videogame tournaments you could pay to enter, but what I didn’t realise was that you earned points in them that you could exchange for prizes. These included packs of trading cards and more exclusive prizes like playmats and deck boxes. As far as I could see all the prizes were trading card-related which is a bit of a bummer for videogame players. I did find the prize table late in the day though, so it’s possible there might have been other kinds of prizes available earlier into the event.
The Pokken tournament eventually reached its grand final, between Elm and Midori. Elm had been sticking to playing as Suicune during the tournament, while Midori had switched between Darkrai and Mewtwo. The grand finals required more matches to be played than usual, and to be honest I’d lost track of how many matches had been played so I was surprised when it was announced that there was a winner. Elm, a player who had flown in from Japan, was crowned the Oceania International Champion for Pokken Tournament DX. He was so overwhelmed and joyous to have won that it was truly heartwarming.
After the tournament I was able to meet D’ron Maingrette, aka D1, a well-known Smash Bros. and Pokken Tournament commentator. He’s commentated events like Evo and the Super Smash Bros. Invitational event held at E3 2014, so it was really exciting to be able to meet him in person. I also tried mixing in with some of the Australian Pokken players who had competed in the tournament. I’m not normally an overly social person but when I’m at events like this I figure I might as well put myself out there because I’m surrounded by lots of people with a common interest. It’s gone well for me at previous VGC events, but at this one… not so much. I’m not sure if it was just everyone being deflated after being eliminated from the tournament, but unfortunately it didn’t seem like the people I’d spoken to were open to socialising that day, and some had given me the cold shoulder.
Shortly after the Pokken tournament had concluded, it was time for some Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. All the other matches for the games had been completed over the previous two days, which unfortunately meant that I only got to watch the finals. I was most in my element here, as I’ve competed in various VGC events before and the turn-based battles are much easier to follow, giving you time to assess everything that’s happening. This year’s ruleset was a more open one, allowing just about every Pokemon to enter so long as they were obtained in Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon. I’m more a fan of rulesets with more restrictions, like the ones you get at the start of each generation, because you have to get creative within the limits and often can’t rely on the regular favourite Pokemon people normally rely on. Seeing those common threats pop up in matches all the time can make things a bit stale, and they’re especially prevalent as you reach the top ranks. I mean, the top players are going to use the top Pokemon of course, but seeing ANOTHER Landorus and ANOTHER Metagross and ANOTHER Tyranitar gets old; especially for spectators.
One of the Junior division finalists was trying some gimmicky strategies, like relying on Oranguru’s Instruct move. This move makes Oranguru’s partner attack again in the same turn. In this case, Oranguru was making its partner Drampa attack with Hyper Voice twice each turn. This is a powerful move that attacks both opposing Pokemon at once, so attacking with it twice deals big damage to both of your opponent’s active Pokemon. One of the Master division finalists (the adult division) had a Nidoking on their team, which was interesting because you don’t see one of those very often. I was curious to see what they’d do with a Nidoking but in each of their matches the Nidoking was always dispatched before it could do anything, which was a bummer.
The great thing about the finals was that nothing else was happening at the same time. Everyone in this arena was all in one place with their eyes glued to the stage or the screens, and there was a nail-biting tension in the downtime between turns. Whenever something unexpected happened, like a Pokemon getting frozen or a critical hit being dealt, the crowd would just erupt all at once. It’s an incredible atmosphere that you just can’t capture at home, and it’s even better when it’s happening in an environment like the one that had been set up in this hall. I wasn’t sure whether I’d stick around for the whole day but I ended up being there until everything had concluded because I was having such a great time.
Having attended the Oceania International Championships I have a better appreciation for the direction the ESL is trying to take these events in. You can definitely see where the money is going, and it was an event of a better quality than the VGC events have ever been in Australia. The idea of entry fees is still tossing up in my head though. It’s a big jump to go from a free event to a $30-60 one if you’re someone who’s not expecting to place well, and the prizes definitely seemed geared towards TCG players than those playing the various videogames. But, all that being said, I had a great time and would have had an even better time if I had been competing in the various events and hanging out with friends over the course of the weekend. So for the next tournament in Sydney I might have to convince some friends to pony up for the entry fees and take the Friday off from work.