Nineteen-year-old Giancarlo Parimango, like many other millennials, started playing Pokémon at the age of 7, when his cousin let him play his copy of Pokémon Gold.
But Parimango wasn’t supposed to enjoy the experience. His cousin passed off the typically boring part of the game, which involved repeatedly running through the 8-bit grass to battle wild Pokémon for experience points. Even so, he dutifully followed his cousin’s directions.
After a couple of hours of leveling, Parimango, distracted by the colorful, animated sprites and pleasant music, ended up defeating a gym leader (a Pokémon trainer who acts as a boss in the game) whom his cousin couldn’t beat. He defeated the next gym leader, and the next one and so on, until he had progressed through the rest of the game’s storyline.
From that moment on, Parimango was hooked. Though Pokémon typically becomes a fond memory as kids grow older, inspiring only wistful nostalgia whenever they hear the iconic theme song in passing, Parimango found himself deeper and deeper in the universe. He discovered a new, tactical side to the beloved children’s game — based around Pokémon’s innate, competitive mechanics — and is currently one of thousands around the world competing against each other in nuanced and strategic battles.
From video games to cartoons to balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Pokémon has been an institution for children for more than a decade. But for Parimango and the rest of the competitive Pokémon community, battles prove that the game children grew up with has actually grown up itself.
The Competitive Pokémon Player: The Battler
The Pokémon franchise has produced 22 titles over 16 years for multiple gaming systems, starting with the Game Boy and currently producing titles for the Nintendo 3DS. The gameplay and main storyline, however, have relatively remained the same.
You start as a young trainer on the first day of a Pokémon adventure. After picking a Pokémon companion, you train your team and battle a succession of eight gym leaders with the intent of heading to the Pokémon League to defeat the best of the best — the Elite Four. Along the way, players try to “catch ’em all” by completing the Pokédex, an encyclopedia that records information about Pokémon when they are captured.
But that’s not how the competitive player — the battler — plays Pokémon.
Although Parimango is a longtime enthusiast of the game, he only recently decided to try his hand at competition with Nintendo’s newest versions in the series, released in October.
After hours of battling a friend in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage — instead of just playing against the game itself — Parimango quickly developed a love for this unexplored aspect of the game. He started to ask more experienced players in the competitive scene for advice on the game’s tricky back-and-forth battle system.
In the video below, Parimango narrates his thought process while battling a veteran of the competitive Pokémon scene, shofu, using Pokémon such as Dragonite, Cloyster and Talonflame.
Joel Sciarrone, another battler, stumbled upon competitive Pokémon battling after searching for the game on YouTube.
Watching various veteran players battle, and seeing the complexities of the game he played as a child, inspired Sciarrone, 20, to try it himself. After rapidly consuming all the information he could about the competitive mechanics behind Pokémon, Sciarrone discovered the battler within.
“I loved reading and I had a good memory, so I was able to quickly get down which Pokémon can do what, and which moves they can learn,” Sciarrone says. “Since then, I have always tried my best to be knowledgeable in the game and — put bluntly — to not suck.”
Unlike other professional gaming, Pokémon’s battle system doesn’t require players to react immediately to an opponent’s split-second decisions and movements. Instead, Pokémon battles use a turn-based system, so reaction time with a controller is less important than strategy. Prediction and intuition become paramount in securing a victory.
“You have to be really good at reading your opponent’s mind,” Parimango says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘If I was battling myself, what move would I go for next?’ I love when you have to predict your opponent’s next move; there’s an intense feeling when you predict his move correctly.”
For college student Hayden Ferguson, 19, the level of knowledge required of a Pokémon battler is what attracted him to competitive battling. As a kid, he competed with friends to see who had better teams. But once Pokémon introduced Wi-Fi capabilities in 2007, Ferguson spent more time crafting the perfect team of Pokémon to defeat new foes around the world.
“Battles can be looked at almost like a game of chess,” Ferguson says. “You must be able to read which moves the opposing player is thinking about, and be familiar with all of the in-depth team options and builds of their Pokémon. If you can effectively predict what your opponents are going to do, you can adjust your play style and try to counter everything they do.”
Although he doesn’t consider himself to be as adept as some of the best battlers in the scene, Ferguson says the years of experience he and many others have defies the typical impression of Pokémon as a game for children.
“I find it normal that people characterize Pokémon as a child’s game, but that’s just because they haven’t played it competitively or looked at it in depth at all,” Ferguson says. “Pokémon is a game of numbers and strategies.”
Sciarrone stands by the same sentiment, noting the differences between the traditional way of playing Pokémon and the competitive scene.
“A kid playing through the storyline of the game only depends on his or her own choices. You don’t have to be good at gaming or have crazy skills, because it’s a turn-based game against a programmed ‘opponent’ designed for kids, which of course means the game purposely isn’t made to be difficult,” he says.
“Competitive play is against other human opponents,” he continues. “Experience, team building choices, team match-ups and mind games come into play. Competitive Pokémon could be considered a completely different type of game than just completing the storyline.”
The Hidden Mechanics of Pokémon
Players like Parimango, Ferguson and Sciarrone create the ultimate competitive Pokémon through a variety of in-game mechanics, which are hidden within the main storyline, though they’ve been included in the game since its inception in 1998.
Ferguson explains that a Pokémon accrues EVs as it fights others — competitive battlers use these values to customize and maximize their Pokémon’s power.
Similar to a human’s genetic code, IVs affect a Pokémon’s base stats and are determined when a Pokémon is bred and hatched using the in-game Pokémon Daycare. To breed Pokémon with favorable IV spreads, competitive battlers put a male and female Pokémon into the Daycare to produce an egg.
The myriad factors in both IV and EV training and breeding results in an altogether time-consuming and complicated process.
“I spend around eight to 10 hours of my time [per day] playing the game — breeding, EV training and battling,” Parimango says. “Prior to getting into competitive battling, I would only spend three to five hours.”
Tiers, Bans and Pokémon’s Competitive Structure
In the early days of competitive Pokémon, when the release of Wi-Fi integration allowed for battles between strangers — not just your neighbors — the scene needed a new set of rules to create a uniform, structured battling experience.
Enter Smogon University, a website created on Dec. 18, 2004, that organizes Pokémon into different tiers based on strength (in terms of stats) and how often competitive battlers use them. With the introduction of Smogon, players found a competitive guide and resource.
Spurred by his love of the complex, turn-based structure of Pokémon and the early competitive community that grew around the game, Christopher “Chaos” Monsanto, 26, now a Ph.D. student at Princeton University studying computer science, created the site.
“I was a part of a great community and we wanted a site,” Monsanto says. “A site for competitive Pokémon didn’t exist and I had the skills to do it, so I made it. We didn’t think it would become anything big.”
Smogon is now the most popular and definitive resource for competitive Pokémon — averaging 40 million page views and 1.6 million uniques per month.
Much like weight classes in professional boxing, the site includes a list of competitive tiers that divide Pokémon by their stat-based strength. Pokémon in a higher tier are banned from use in a tier below; those in the “OverUsed (OU)” tier — the most popular tier in the competitive scene — are like the middleweights. Pokémon in the “Uber” tier (so named because of their unrivaled strength), are the heavyweights; Uber Pokémon, therefore, can’t be used in OU Pokémon battles.
Behind closed doors, Smogon University’s “Tiering Council” decides which Pokémon are too strong for a given tier of competitive play. If the Tiering Council deems a Pokémon too strong for a tier, they ban it to a higher tier. Nello “Haunter” De Angelis, 30, a lawyer from Sorrento, Naples, Italy, sits on the OU Tiering Council and participates in these secret meetings.
“My banning philosophy is to have the least possible bans in order to keep the game more interesting and diverse, in terms of strategies and available Pokémon,” De Angelis says.
The YouTube Battle Community
YouTube hosts its own aspect of the competitive Pokémon community, where battlers upload their Wi-Fi battles with opponents all over the world for large audiences.
Ferguson started uploading in 2009 to his channel, “Haydunn,” in an attempt to find other people who loved competitive Pokémon. The thousand or so subscribers he acquired in his first months motivated him to become a better battler, and his YouTube channel currently has 200,000 subscribers.
“When I started my YouTube videos, I never expected to make it this big, or even get noticed at all,” Ferguson says. “I am extremely grateful that there are so many people [who] watch my videos. My life has changed for the better in the past couple of years with all of the love for my channel.”
With no intentions to stop battling anytime soon, Ferguson sees a future in which he’s still playing competitive Pokémon, a battler through and through.
“I will always upload battle videos as long as I still enjoy battling. When uploading these videos becomes a chore, I feel that the content value of videos goes down significantly. The game of Pokémon is still fresh and interesting, and I do not see myself losing interest any time soon,” he says.
In an effort to teach future battlers, Sciarrone also started uploading videos to his channel “PokeAimMD” in 2010. With his growing base of 40,000 subscribers, Sciarrone says he has made lifelong friends.
“Pokémon has always been about enjoyment. As long as I am still smiling while I am battling, recording, narrating and uploading, I’ll keep doing this,” he says.
For Parimango, uploading his Pokémon Wi-Fi battles to his own YouTube channel, with just over 250,000 subscribers, became a full-time job after he partnered with gaming network Fullscreen Inc. in 2010.
“My hobby of uploading videos on YouTube slowly began to turn into a professional job,” he says. “I never in my life thought that my YouTube channel would change my life so drastically.”
Looks like this kids’ game is all grown up.