A boy is crying in front of me. He’s being spoken to by an official-looking woman in a red and black t-shirt, a sad toothy grimace etched across his wet face. His mum stands next to him, listening patiently. Every few moments she turns to her son and repeats what’s just been said in a slightly more consolitary tone.
“He’s just lost,” the official-looking woman tells me afterwards. She’s a judge at the UK’s Pokémon National Championships, where hundreds of players of the 3DS game and the trading card game have gathered to compete. “I was explaining to him that he hasn’t been disqualified, but he’s very upset. Bless him. He looks older but he’s only twelve, one of the juniors.”
The kid is about my height and is doing his best to contort his face in such a way that all of his tears are no longer coming out of it. All around us are rows and rows of tables filling a football pitch-sized room. One half hosts at least fifty concurrent games of Pokémon TCG (the trading card game), while the other is reserved for players of the 3DS game, where the battles are faster and the rivalries more heated. At any given time, I noticed, somebody in the room was bursting into tears.
And it’s not just the younger players. An 18 year old who’d travelled from Frankfurt to Manchester to compete in the videogame championships spoke to me about the disastrous battle he’d just stepped out of. “I thought he’d use Protect,” he explained when asked how his fight went. “But he didn’t. I really don’t know why I thought he would.” The man’s voice begins to crack with pained frustration at having thrown a battle over what was apparently an easily avoidable mistake. His chances at qualifying were now in tatters. “It was really stupid,” he mutters as he turns away.
It’s not surprising that the National Pokémon Champs are taken so seriously by so many. The atmosphere starts out soaked in a sort of expressionless, bleak determination before ebbing and flowing between the fist-pumping elation of victory and the genuine anguish of the bitterly defeated. It’s a big enough deal that folks from across Europe visit Manchester to take part, either because their own country doesn’t host a local tournament or simply to double down on their chances at qualifying for the Pokémon World Championships in Washington.
The stakes are high, too. Winners across the three age-grouped tiers of both The Card Game and the videogame receive an all-expenses paid trip to the finals. Runners up, meanwhile, are invited to attend but required to foot the bill themselves, something that must have been on the minds of the bored flock of parents who had patiently assembled in one quiet corner of the exhibition hall. Some of them must have guiltily been wishing failure and humiliation on their own children, for their young dreams to be shattered by a well-played Charizard rather than a budget that won’t cover a trans-Atlantic flight.
These people don’t play Pokémon like you might. Their teams are constructed from a subset of viable competition Pokémon — you’d be surprised who the most powerful are, unassuming but highly tactical ‘mons like Ferrothorn and Chandelure — which have been chosen from birth for their natures and then trained in specific ways to maximise their stats. Pokémon have stats you can’t see, ones that change the effect levelling up has on them, stats that can be manipulated by only ever fighting the correct types of enemy.
If you strolled into a battle with a Pikachu, you’d be laughed out of the building. If you, like I once did, fielded a Pidgeot, your opponent would look at you like you’d just stood up and proudly shat on the table. Pokémon isn’t like poker, where a new player can confound the pros with unpredictable tactics and stupid risks. It’s rugby, it’s murderball. New players are brutalised.
It’s testament to the game’s accessibility that it can be enjoyed by imbeciles and professionals alike, but these championship players operate at a different level. They operate at a level where my lack of skill was met with bafflement and near-contempt, as if my ridiculous team of Pokémon were an insult to the spirit of the competition. Well it made me love my Pidgeot even more, seeing him battered around like that.
Vigilant judges patrol the playing area, ready to settle disputes and stamp out cheating. Actual game-hacks were a problem in previous championships, and players had once been required to pass “hack check” before they could be registered. “It’s not as much of a problem now,” says Official Nintendo Magazine blogger Marti Bennett, who also took part in this year’s championships. “The 3DS is much harder, if not impossible to hack.”
As well as graduating to Pokémon X and Pokémon Y versions, the championships now only permit Kalos-born Pokémon, meaning hacked Pokémon can’t be traded up from older generations. “Even if you hadn’t cheated, hack check was always nerve-wracking,” Bennett explains. “You never know what your friend is trading you. You could have a hacked Pokémon in your party without realising it.” Judges weren’t so sympathetic to such eventualities, and unfortunate legitimate players could find themselves disqualified before the games even started.
But with cheating no longer as big a problem as in previous years, judges are instead on the lookout for a different kind of altercation: misunderstandings of game rules and the odd dispute over the outcomes of battles. Judges of The Card Game are required to have memorised a 200 page rulebook before they can officiate a tournament, taking only a few pages of notes into the championships, that they may quickly address the most common confusions.
An angry shout comes from one corner of the videogame contest area, where two players are the last to finish their games. I follow the judge across the exhibition hall to the battle, where the situation gradually becomes clear. A crowd begins to form. Things are getting dramatic.
The battle had come down to the very last move, one in which any action taken by player one would have caused self-inflicted damage and lost him the game. In normal multiplayer play, if no action is taken by a player after forty seconds the game automatically plays the last selected move. The battle clock, which measures the length of the entire battle and ends it after a set period of time, had less than those forty seconds remaining. Noticing this, player one had stalled and allowed the battle clock to run out, snatching victory for himself.
Player two was rightly pissed. His opponent had stalled, which the game would normally punish by forcing a move, but because the battle had ended his stall was allowed to happen and victory went the other way. His opponent was Spanish and spoke little English, and so his friends rallied behind him and clamoured in his defence, prematurely congratulating him in some effort to cement the victory before it could be properly contested.
The judge, dressed in a severe-looking white labcoat, bellowed sternly at the man’s fast-growing entourage, ordering them to disperse. Player two explained what had happened, his chest puffed out defiantly, his voice developing that now-familiar edge, that approaching-tears wobble. “What did the console say?” repeated the judge, forcing the pragmatic verdict to come from the losing party. “Who did the console say had won?”
Player two conceded with the pained expression of injustice. The 3DS had indeed declared the staller the victor, and the tactic, while perhaps not in the spirit of the game, was deemed permissable within the rulebook. Player two glanced over towards his dad, who had been seated five or six seats down from the battle and had remained utterly silent throughout the argument. Player two, I thought, was around that age where you begin to realise your parents aren’t omnipotent and that your dad can’t change the outcomes of Pokémon battles. We’ve all definitely been there.
“It’s sad,” another of the judges told me, “but for a lot of the younger players I think it teaches them that winning isn’t everything. They’re just here to have fun. Isn’t that the most important thing?” Around this point I notice that in almost all of their dealings with players, even the very youngest ones, judges speak not to the parents but directly the players themselves, without patronising or condescending. It’s rather sweet, but obvious when you think about it: what the judges have to say would be totally lost on the baffled parents.
Old Trafford is just a stone’s throw from the exhibition centre, but you’d struggle to find more heartbreak, more sportsmanship, more enthusiastic celebration and more tears than right here at the Pokémon National Championships. Is that an obscene exaggeration for dramatic effect? Well yes, definitely. But I did see lots of children crying.