A Fan-Made Browser Game Is Pro Pokémon Players' Secret Weapon

Around one million players a month are throwing down in Pokémon Showdown, a fan-made, browser-based game that recreates the battles found in official Pokémon games, with accurate stats. It’s arguably even better than using the official games to battle, since it’s faster and more customizable. Showdown is so good that professional players even use it to practice for Nintendo’s official tournaments.

Much of Showdown’s appeal is a matter of convenience. When trying to find a battle on Battle Spot, Pokémon’s official in-game battling service, the first thing you notice is the lengthy wait before you find an opponent, which can last five to 10 minutes. Not so in Showdown: Thanks to the sheer quantity of players, the wait for an in-browser battle is rarely more than five or 10 seconds.

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Pokémon battles have always been an important part of the games, but it took a few years before they were first simulated online. Pokémon Crystal, released in Japan in 2000, was the first game to let players battle remote users with their cell phones. But that feature didn’t make it to the overseas releases of the game. In 2001, a group of fans from a Pokémon message board called Azure Heights created Porygon’s Big Show, which was at the time the only way to battle Pokémon remotely.

Porygon’s Big Show offered players text-only battles with opponents from across the world, without the need for a 4,000-kilometer-long cable running between their Game Boys. It paved the way for other such simulators including Pokémon Online, which many considered to be the best simulator to date upon its release in 2010. It fixed a lot of known issues from previous simulators and offered the most accurate text-based battles in your browser.

Showdown’s creator, Guangcong “Zarel” Luo, played a lot of Pokemon Online, but eventually got bored of its basic interface.

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I was having a lot of fun with Pokémon Online, but its replays were just text files,” he told Kotaku. “I got the idea of making a program that animated them, and it got popular enough that I decided to make my own simulator.”

Luo’s work, which he first released in October 2011, fixed a lot of the bugs that other simulators had. But what Showdown players were most excited about was the custom 2D sprites and battle animations, a first for an unofficial battle simulator, and the biggest way that Showdown set itself apart from its competitors. “It’s gotten way bigger than I’ve ever thought it would,” Luo said.

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Showdown gets around a million unique users per month, even more when new Pokémon are added to the database alongside their release in a new official game. But it’s not just the cute animations that attract Pokémon fans to the browser game.

“It’s fun and easy to use,” Luo said, “and it’s a web game that doesn’t require installing anything.” If anything, Luo is underselling it. For starters, Pokémon Showdown offers players countless more ways to play than official Pokémon games do. You can follow Battle Spot rules to simulate what battles would be like on your 3DS, or use the rules from the Pokémon Video Game Championships to practice for official tournaments. But the options don’t stop there.You can use randomly-generated teams, develop a team of Pokémon that share a single type to battle other teams following the same team building rules, or painstakingly craft the perfect party to climb the ladder in the fan-made tier system known as the Smogon tiers.

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Barring organizing the battle with a friend and agreeing to a set of rules beforehand, there is no way of limiting the Pokémon brought to a battle on your 3DS or Switch. As such, most battles see teams of high-powered legendary Pokémon face off against each other, which many players find repetitive and boring.

Smogon is a community of Pokémon fans most famous for its tier system, which sorts all 807 Pokémon into one of six different tiers based on how often they are used. The most powerful Pokémon reside in the Ubers tier, and they go down the rankings into OverUsed (OU), UnderUsed (UU), RarelyUsed (RU), NeverUsed (NU), and finally PU, as in pee-yew, the tier reserved for only the silliest, most useless monsters.

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Smogon tiers offer a chance for less-useful Pokémon to shine. OU, or Over Used, is the most popular tier, as it eliminates most legendaries and “broken” mega-evolutions, but allows the full scope of the rest of the Pokédex, including most of the Ultra Beasts, a classification of legendary Pokémon introduced in Sun and Moon.

Joey “Pokéaim” Sciarrone, a YouTuber who specialises in Pokémon content, told Kotaku that separating the creatures into tiers like this lets every Pokémon shine.

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“Let’s take a Pokémon like Guzzlord, for instance,” he said, “probably the weakest of the Ultra Beasts. In PU [tier], Guzzlord is S- rank. It’s one of the better Pokémon in the tier because it can drop strong, heavy hits like Draco Meteor.” Since Kotaku spoke to Sciarrone, Guzzlord was promoted to one of the Smogon system’s “borderline” ranks, where its usage and success will determine if it gets to move up the ranks to NU.

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In this way, you could field a team of awful Pokémon like Vanilish and Metapod, but still have a fair(ish) fight in a low tier. Other specialty tiers include Little Cup for baby Pokémon and Doubles for 2v2 battles.

Sciarrone has nearly 200,000 YouTube subscribers, and about 80 percent of his uploads follow his competitive battles on Pokémon Showdown. He agrees with its creator Luo that, while the Smogon tiers are a great addition, it’s ultimately the accessibility that appeals to people.

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“One of the main reasons I use Showdown is the accessibility and the quickness to finding games,” Sciarrone said. If you only played the official games, you might have to wait for a few minutes for a battle with someone who just might not be taking it as seriously as you. For top-rated players like Sciarrone, who battles daily as part of his career, it can also be difficult to find other players who are at the same competitive level simply using the random matchmaking of Battle Spot. Showdown’s ladder system keeps people of similar skill levels fighting each other, resulting in tight, fun battles every time you open your browser.

For YouTubers and Twitch streamers, too, it’s a lot easier to simply record your computer’s screen than it is to modify your 3DS to share your battles. Plus, Showdown battles offer the chance to skip animations and wait times, meaning that they are much faster-paced than Battle Spot’s.

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Showdown is so useful that it’s even used to practice for official tournaments. Wolfe Glick is the 2019 North American VGC Champion, a title which saw him become the first Pokémon player to have won every level of official competition. He uses Showdown to build teams, test sets, and win Championships.

“I do use Showdown to prepare for tournaments,” he told Kotaku. “I generally do some laddering and then use it to test versus other players I trust.” This testing involves using Showdown’s team builder to try out different movesets and stat distributions.

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Building a specific team in Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon can take hours. First, you need a Ditto with six flawless Individual Values (IVs), which would be near-impossible to find without the use of handy Reddit traders, so most make do with five perfect IVs. Then, breed it with one of the Pokémon you want to use in your team. Make sure Ditto’s holding the rare Destiny Knot item to ensure it passes down its IVs, and then wait. Hatch the resulting egg, if it’s not right, do it again. And again. And again.

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All manner of things need to be perfect, from the six flawless IV statistics to the Pokémon’s nature and ability, so it can take a while to even breed the right monster. Then, you need to train it to level 50, teach it the right moves, and train all of its 508 Effort Value (EV) stats. Now, onto the other five Pokémon…

Sometimes, this sort of grind can be a very therapeutic way to spend your days. Other times, like when you realise your Garchomp needs to be faster than a Kartana to get off a surprise Fire Fang and a Choice Scarf won’t do, you need to breed a new Garchomp with a Jolly nature to replace your fully-trained Adamant buddy.

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On Showdown, all this fine-tuning takes place in a matter of clicks. The ability to test minor stat changes before breeding your chosen Pokémon in-game makes it the perfect way for professionals to test their teams ahead of official tournaments. Only after they verify how a certain team composition would work in Showdown’s simulator do they go through the work of building that team in the official game.

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For whatever reason, Nintendo hasn’t issued any cease-and-desist orders to online Pokémon battle simulators, in the way it usually does to other fan games. While a battle simulator is considerably different from a ROM hack, Showdown still uses trademarked names and copyrighted artwork, which could be an issue if Nintendo ever decides to come knocking. Luo declined to comment on any potential legal issues.

Showdown offers players the most competitive, varied, and fun Pokémon battles, and it does so in a way that is complementary to Nintendo’s official games. Whatever your skill level, whatever your favourite Pokémon, whatever device or browser you’re using, there is always a battle ready and waiting on Showdown. And whatever backlash the upcoming Switch games Sword and Shield receive, Pokémon Showdown will be there with its old-school sprites, unique game modes, and full list of Pokémon, as well as expanding to cover the gameplay of the next generation of the games and everything that Generation 8 brings.

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“New games always bring new game mechanics and renewed excitement for battling,” Luo said. “We’re looking forward to it, as always!”

Ben Sledge is a freelance games journalist, part-time Ganon slayer, and full-time Bulbasaur stan.

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Update, 6:22 p.m. Eastern: A line in an earlier version of this story, representing the author’s own analysis, was placed in such a way that it read like an opinion offered by one of the sources. That line has been edited for clarity.

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