If you didn’t already know, today is the 21st anniversary of Pokemon. It speaks highly enough of the series that it’s still thriving after 21 years; nothing else really needs to be said. But as someone who has been a huge fan of the series for just about its entire lifespan, there are still new things about it that I’ve never really engaged in before. The most recent example being the VGC format of competitive play.
This surprises quite a few people, but Pokemon has a fairly strong competitive scene. There are a lot of hidden mechanics within the game that you would never in a million years understand through casual play. These mechanics determine the strengths and weaknesses of your Pokemon and are critical in the team building process of competitive play. Competitive play is a combination of understanding the metagame, knowing what all of the different Pokemon can do, building a proper team, being able to predict what your opponent is going to do and ultimately making the correct decisions. Believe it or not, competitive Pokemon is a sneaky difficult strategy game.
I’ve been playing and following competitive Pokemon for close to ten years now; since the release of Pokemon Diamond & Pearl. I was always interested in the singles format (each player has one Pokemon on the field) and I hated the doubles format (each player has two Pokemon on the field). I always felt the community structured rules for the singles format was far superior and I still feel this way. You encounter things in the official doubles format, like sleep or evasion spam, that you would never encounter in singles as the rules are constructed to try and reduce the amount of luck involved. I always dismissed the doubles format as more luck based but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Leading up to the release of Pokemon Sun & Moon, I committed myself to learning the VGC format. The VGC format has been the official competitive format for close to a decade now so I figured that now was as good a time as any to learn it. The biggest part of learning competitive Pokemon is without a doubt the time investment. Competitive Pokemon is not something you can just pick up and learn in a couple hours. You have to read, watch and play hours upon hours just to give yourself an idea of what you’re getting into; let alone being good at it. Resources like Trainer Tower and the competitive Pokemon subreddit are great places to use when getting into this stuff.
I started by watching the Pokemon World Championships last year, where Wolfe Glick came out victorious. While I didn’t entirely know what was going on, watching the World Championships at least gave me an idea of what the strategy in doubles was like and how players approach the game. It became clear to me that there was in fact a lot of strategy involved in doubles, but it was totally different from what I knew. From there, I seriously invested into the metagame when Sun & Moon released.
I think the single best way to learn a format in competitive Pokemon is by watching it. There are some tremendous YouTubers who do an excellent job in doing this. For VGC, there is none better for this than Aaron Zheng. Aaron does a terrific job of building different kinds of teams and then providing in depth analysis of his battles as he’s playing. Aaron’s Road to Ranked series is what I give the most credit to for learning this format and I think he’s perfect for any new players looking to get involved in the community. There are plenty of other YouTubers/streamers who provide great VGC content that are worth checking out as well.
Once you understand the metagame to some degree, it’s really about your own experience. Pokemon Showdown is an online battle simulator where you can build your teams and battle with other people. Showdown is a perfect tool for building new teams because you don’t have to go through a long process of breeding just to try new things; you can alter whatever you want whenever you want. If you don’t like how something fits your team or you think a Pokemon could be trained better, you can just simply change it in the teambuilder and jump right back into the games. I played on Showdown for close to two months before I put together a team on my actual game; which not only helped refine my team but it really helped me learn the metagame.
For close to two months I have been actively playing the ranked ladder for VGC on Battle Spot. I would classify myself as an above average player in competitive Pokemon but by no means am I perfect. I have stretches where I’ll rip off five or six wins and then I’ll have stretches where I drop four or five in a row. You encounter some things on Battle Spot that you know and sometimes you encounter things that are totally new. Competitive Pokemon is a nonstop learning process that you really have to invest in on a regular basis to improve and become more consistent.
This past weekend, the February International Challenge took place on Battle Spot. This was the first online VGC competition since Sun & Moon released and the first time I had ever played in a VGC competition. Overall, I went 31-14 and I peaked at a rating of 1725 (finished around 1675), which was significantly higher than the 1575ish rating I was averaging on Battle Spot. This was the first real test for all the work I’ve put into the format and I was really happy with my results. I learned a lot from my losses and I had some insanely fun games throughout the weekend. My plan is to play in my first live tournament at PAX East in a couple weeks and I think this past weekend really helped prepare me for that.
Also over this past weekend was the Pokemon Invitational hosted by One Nation of Gamers and sponsored by GEICO Gaming. This was the first ever third party tournament for competitive Pokemon and it was definitely a success. The tournament consisted of seven world class players and aDrive, who is a fairly large YouTuber that’s new to the format. Unsurprisingly, there was an insanely high level of play and it was fun to watch. Surprisingly, aDrive obliterated the reigning world champion and one of the best players in the world; which was hype as hell. The tournament was a great sign that VGC is definitely growing.
The strong weekend for VGC is really just the cherry on top for me. This was a format that I mocked for quite a long time and I couldn’t have been more wrong about it. I have had some of the most fun I’ve ever had with Pokemon in learning VGC over the last few months. The format still has its criticisms but overall, I’ve had way too much fun with it. I look forward to learning more about VGC every day and I want to keep improving. Maybe one day I’ll compete at the World Championships. But for the mean time, VGC is just the latest thing Pokemon has given me in its outstanding 21 years.