Remember that phenomenon that blasted onto the scene back in the mid-90s? Yeah you know the one, the one with the cute little yellow furry, the one every mildly-privileged kid had in his pocket, the only reason every household with kids needed an infinite supply of batteries for?
Pokemon is something that I grew up with, as did many of us. But whereas many people just played the new installments, caught the new Pokemon, had charming innocent fun with it, I grew with the game. I was born in it. Molded by it. I remember parts in the original Red and Blue versions where Gamefreak would try to explain to us that Pokemon, even at the same level, of the same kind, were still different, that wild Pokemon were different from trainer-owned Pokemon. I paid no mind to it back then, but as the years and generations went by, I began to understand. I won’t bog you down with the details, but let’s just get something down when I say that Pokemon has some incredibly deep mechanics that drive the development of each and every Pokemon. As a longtime player of the game, I can tell you with an unsettling amount of confidence that it is hardly any different than genetic engineering. It was with the advent of the 4th generation in Diamond and Pearl, and more importantly, with the advent of WiFi Battling, that I began to see Pokemon as so much more than an innocent kids’ game.
Like I mentioned, there are some seriously deep mechanics in Pokemon, involving a lot of complex numbers, equations, and variables. You can ask me about them if you want. But you don’t have to. Please ask me. I need friends. ANYWAY, each Pokemon’s growth is determined by a variety of factors including Individual Values, Effort Values, Natures, Hex Values, Hidden Powers, items, and more, all of which can be manipulated by players privy enough to the game’s underworld (and you don’t even need cheat codes!). This understanding of the game’s more intrinsic mechanics forms the fundamental basis of a sport cleverly dubbed Competitive Pokemon Battling. While battling itself is essentially the same (you send out a Pokemon, you make it do stuff to knock out the other player’s Pokemon), the difference lies in the players themselves. Those who battle competitively probably know significantly more about the game and how it works than your average gamer. The fact that Competitive Battling pits two incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable combatants against each other is the reason why I say Pokemon is so much more intense and terrifying than people give it credit for.
The beginning of a competitive career begins at the Day Care. Yes, you got that right, the Day Care. This is because every successful player knows that in order to succeed, you need a good breed of Pokemon. And this is where Pokemon begins to lose its innocent charm. There are many different values involved in a Pokemon, and many of them are innate to each one. That is, they are determined at birth. Take, for example, Individual Values, or IVs. Each stat of every Pokemon has an IV that ranges from 0 to 31. Think of IVs as an indicator of how naturally good each Pokemon is at a particular stat. We all know Jolteon is really fast. Now just because all Jolteon tend to be fast doesn’t mean that they are born equal. A Jolteon with a 31 IV in Speed is perfectly fast, 31 indicating that it is wholly proficient at that stat. Now while a Jolteon with a 0 Speed IV is still fast when compared to other Pokemon, he is kind of worthless as a Jolteon. Think of it like a bunch of bodybuilders lined up. One of them weighs 350, another 335, and another 220. The one who weighs 220 is definitely still strong, but he’s pretty weak when you look at him in comparison to the other two monsters standing next to him. And this kind of logic applies to each stat a Pokemon has. IVs are inherently generated at random, but they can be manipulated in that a parent has potential to pass one on, items can guarantee that specific IVs can be passed down from certain parents at the expense of others, etc. etc. See what I mean? You can pick and choose your Pokemon’s “DNA” before it is even born! Scary stuff. Individual Values alone have an incredible amount of depth involved in them, and they are still only one of several facets a player must consider when designing a team, which is a whole other graduate seminar on its own.
Here’s a screencap of a team I’m currently running on Pokemon Showdown, a really great battle simulator that’s big with the competitive community. Here you can see a glimpse of the numbers and details that go into the success of a single Pokemon.
And then comes the grand stage of battle, the reason any competitive battler goes through the arduous and daunting task of breeding. I love battling. I really do. Competitive Battling is such an informed, well-educated form of competition. Its entire existence is founded on numbers, probabilities, reliability, and prediction. I have a very methodical, logical style of thinking, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is the product of years of playing Pokemon at this level. But anyway, the reason battling is so intense is because it’s basically a mental warground between both players. Most Pokemon fill a typical role: they can be sweepers (meant to strike hard and fast), walls and sponges who are meant to take hits and stop any plans your opponent had, support members who do a variety of things from healing to setting up entry hazards, and many more focused, specialized niches. Some Pokemon can serve various roles. Lucario, for example, can attack from both a Physical and Special perspective, and is quite adept at both. But the problem is, you can’t really tell which of the two sets he may be running. Do you switch in your Skarmory to absorb Physical blows? Or maybe your Blissey to take Special blows? It generally only takes one turn to figure out what kind of set your opponent is running, but that is often too late—your opponent has started dangerously stat-boosting, or taken out your Pokemon because you couldn’t adequately predict it.
And the intelligent player knows these things, knows what each Pokemon in their opponent’s team is intended to do and must strategize a way to counter it. And the interesting part is that even in a 1-on-1 battle, you’re forced to focus on the bigger picture. You’re not just battling the Pokemon who is out right then—you’re essentially battling the whole team. This is because, at any given moment, your opponent can switch out a Pokemon to counter whatever plans you have, and so in a split second, your entire battle strategy will need to shift to deal with the situation at hand. And so a lot of battling depends on reading your opponent, knowing how he or she is going to handle your Pokemon out on the field, knowing how to counter you, and knowing when to psyche you out. It’s a very cognitively-straining activity. I always tell people that if they really want to understand how intense Pokemon can get, that they ought to just sit next to me while I battle so I can dictate my every thought and rationale behind making a single move. But winning a match is so satisfying because there is so much work that goes into being able to battle competitively.
Hopefully I haven’t bored you or ruined your childhood, but I’ve barely even scratched the surface of Pokemon’s complexity. Here’s a link to an OOOOOLD battle of mine (my old laptop had all my videos, but it crashed on me). I’m the opponent in this battle, not the primary combatant. But I like this video because my opponent narrates the battle, so you can get an idea of Competitive Battling lingo and just how serious it can be. Though I warn you, my opponent uses some language and is clearly a little bitter at his loss, haha.
Happy battling, everyone!