On Pokémon and eSports: Let Me Tell You a Story

Introduction

Hello again VGC scene! My name is Kevin “monk” Dong and I’ve been a member of the general eSports community for about 3-4 years, working in multiple capacities throughout this time including Writer, Editor, Player, Coach, Commentator, Translator, Website Admin, Player Manager, and Tournament Organizer. If you haven’t read my previous article “On Pokémon and eSports: Growth“, I encourage you to have a read through it. Today I’d like to expand on the importance of storytelling in the growth of eSports.

Storytelling in eSports

There’s been a lot of talk in the community about VGC ascending to the level of an eSport. However, when I talk to members of the community, often times they’ll struggle to tell me what makes an eSport an eSport. That is, what is the difference between a game and an eSport? What is the difference between what Pokémon is now and what Pokémon has to be to become a full-fledged eSport?

I don’t think there’s any one correct answer but my favourite is the focus on the viewer experience and the existence of storylines. Take a look at any popular eSport or even any popular traditional sport. One thing they all have in common is that they all have of legions of journalists and commentators who are constantly building upon storylines to enrich the audience’s experience. Dedicated eSports fans have an intimate knowledge of their favourite players’ in-game tendencies as well as their histories, personalities, and real-life backgrounds. When fans of eSports watch their respective games, they are often emotionally invested in their favourite players or teams, which brings greater enjoyment and engagement beyond the game itself. As I was researching this article, I stumbled upon an article called “GDC: The importance of Storytelling in Esports” that took the words out of my mouth: “Regardless of the game, situation or platform, storytelling is the driving force behind cultivating fans and creating a vibrant eSports community.”

When you compare the level of storytelling from traditional eSports to that of the Pokémon VGC scene, you can begin to see a stark contrast. There are little to no articles focusing on the players themselves and no documented histories of any players. On Pokémon streams, the only character traits commentators ever ascribe to the players goes something like: “Player W finished top X at Y event in 201Z”. Ok…cool…except this sounds like literally every other player that has ever been on a Pokémon stream. A casual viewer would have the same emotional investment watching such an event as he would watching two Pokémon bots go at it. Without the existence of storylines, the scene is only catering to the most hardcore fans, those who would watch a World Finals even if it were just a commentary-less stream of text commands on Pokémon Showdown. Without the promotion of the human beings behind the game and their stories, VGC is failing to capture a potentially enormous, more casual audience.

Building Narratives in Pokémon

When attempting to look for solutions to this pressing issue, we first have to take a step back and look at the current tournament structure of VGC. For the most part, tournaments are only held offline in a circuit at on-site locations all over the world. And because of the lack of sponsors in the scene, you can expect very few players to show up to back-to-back events. In addition, because of the high-RNG nature of Pokémon, repeat performances are much less common from event to event. This creates a lack of continuity, as if you started watching the first season of Lost and then tried to tune again in season 6.

This official VGC tournament structure I just described is a significant obstacle to the development of storylines within the scene, but it’s not a novel problem within eSports. One of the most popular eSports in the world, Hearthstone, actually shares similar challenges with storytelling. Although there are more sponsors and repeat players in Hearthstone due to these sponsors, RNG is even more of a factor. The end result is that the top cut of many Hearthstone events involves many unknown players with unknown backgrounds. One simple solution Hearthstone casters employ is that they try to learn as much about these players before their matches air on stream. This lets the casters paint a more well-rounded picture of these players, ascribing more than just “good Hearthstone player” to their list of character traits. Beyond that, there is another solution the scene employs to engage fans that I’ll get to a bit later in the article.

But before we get to that, first let me tell you about another Pokémon tournament I’ve had the pleasure of watching. The Multi-Battle League (MBL) was a doubles draft league tournament hosted by @DuncanKneeDeep. It featured 8 teams of 2 Youtubers each battling it out each week in a league format with a round robin stage leading into a playoff stage. Every week, each team would record a team-building video and then a battle video where they would talk through their battles. Though I was only familiar with a few of the Youtubers, I gradually began to watch all the videos on all their channels because I was curious about each team’s dynamics. And because the content was recurring each week, I slowly learned the personalities, thought processes, and battle styles of each Youtuber. Essentially the storylines passed down from week to week in this league format, much like it does in the LCS, seemingly bi-weekly Smash event, and even traditional sports leagues such as the NBA or NFL.

Because I gradually got to know the players as people rather than Pokémon-playing robots, I also had my favourites to cheer for. I was emotionally invested in each week’s result and I felt every Crit, Freeze, or Gunk Shot miss as if I were the players themselves. And I patiently waited for each week’s episodes as if it were my favourite television show that just happens to air at a random time each week. And let me tell you, it was by far the most fun I’ve ever had from watching any Pokémon tournament or Pokémon content period.

This all alludes to the solution the Hearthstone scene organically found to the storyline problem. It was a solution that attempted to maximise the game’s exposure, develop storylines to engage fans, and, at the same time, create an environment where any player felt like he had a chance to win. The solution was as follows: the official tournament circuit would still feature opens that anyone could enter, where the average Joe could rise to the top if he were skilled and lucky enough. Running alongside the official tournaments, there would be many other tournament organisers would host invite-only tournaments where the most popular players of the time (those with known storylines) would be able to become ambassadors for the game. And though the Hearthstone scene is continuously adjusting the balance of open to invite tournaments, it’s become much less of an issue in the recent year with the community accepting the need for such a balance.

Right now, I believe the VGC scene needs these types of invite-only events in order to begin the process of legitimising the game as an eSport. The most popular VGC players are stars within the VGC community but nobodies within the general scope of eSports. However, if we can focus on these players, build upon their existing fan bases, and communicate their stories, we can begin to develop a space where the casual viewer is engaged and even welcomed. We can not only use such a tournament as a platform to tell stories, but as a way to write an entirely new story altogether.

With the constant complaints I hear about TPCi on social media, I think it’s fair to say that the community has little faith in the game developers to spearhead such an endeavour. But as I touched upon in my previous piece, instead of focusing on aspects of the scene they can’t control, the community should look to work on the things they can. And as the recent Melbourne Challenge showed, tournament organisation is not a role that solely belongs to TPCi.

Final Thoughts

To close out, I’d like to share one more anecdotal story. I have several real life friends who don’t really follow eSports or competitive Pokémon at all. But whenever I bring up the subject of Pokémon, the second thing they go to after Pokémon Go is that one time they heard about a competitive Pokémon tournament. “In some event, a Korean kid used a Pikachu thing and everyone was really surprised because no one thought it was good. And the crowd went wild!” I could hear the excitement in their voices as they recounted a story I already knew. My friends didn’t remember the EVs spreads nor any of the strategy behind the match. They didn’t even remember the correct Pokémon involved. But they remembered the story and the excitement behind it. And they passed it onto a friend.

17 comments

  1. Excellent article, yet again. Although I will need to have a think about invite-only tournaments.

    I’ve been preaching the idea of story telling for a while now and have tried my best to put it in practice in my commentary. The way I see it, is that us commentators have generally put the focus on the game itself, rather than on the people playing them. We didn’t talk about Sejun Park’s 3rd World Championship Top Cut, we talked about Pachirisu. We didn’t talk about Arash Ommati being the first player to win the VGC lifetime treble (Regionals/Nationals/Worlds) in the Masters Division, we talked about Jumpluff. We didn’t talk about Wolfe’s second go at a Worlds Final…. actually we did. See with Wolfe we already had a story to tell and I’m pleased to see he’s becoming a bigger and bigger personality for the casual fans of the game thanks to his *World Champ* title.

    It’s been a barrier to growth of the game for a while now and it gives people the wrong idea of how a metagame works. Look no further than comment sections for the 2015 Masters Worlds Finals. (‘member ‘Risu? ‘MEMBER ‘RISU?). Sure, putting some focus on to the Pokemon themselves can add massive entertainment value. See Ashton Cox vs Lajos Woltersdorf at the EU Internats. But you don’t see casual Melee fans complaining about only Fox and Falco being used, do you? They’re focusing on Leffen, PPMD, Mang0 etc. I dislike DOTA2, but even I recognise Dendi as a household name. Us as commentators, with the help of the mega-personalities, can break down this barrier for good.

    (NOTE: This next paragraph isn’t to any commentator in particular, as It also 100% applies to myself)
    One final word towards us commentators: I really don’t think matter-of-fact commentary adds any value to what the audience is seeing. It just comes across as “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened”. Careful play-by-play and analysis is great for Swiss rounds, because that’s when the VGC audience is watching. During the elimination bracket however, is when we NEED excitement. What value does hard analysis really have during a final when a Pokemon audience is watching? Yes, there can be value in it, but too often a pair of commentators are just listing facts, to a point where you can’t tell what their roles are within the duo.

    My favourite commentated VGC match of all time is the 2015 Senior World Finals between Koki Sakurai and Mark McQuillan, commentated by the joyful Jonathan Indovino and delightful Duy Ha. The match isn’t really that good, but the balance of commentary brought to that match was phenomenal. Shady steals the show with the countless memorable one-liners (It’s a Crit! He’s gonna munch-munch-MUNCH away on that Sitrus Berry! dontchadoitdontchadoitdontchadoit please no OH THE INTIMIDATE IS PAYING OFF DIVIDENDS!) that we still all copy to this day. But Duy also provides his best ever performance, possibly elevated by Shady’s excitement. The analysis he provides is clear and concrete, so a viewer, riled up from the commentary, also gets an accurate breakdown of the game that they need to get into the game themselves. Not sure I did the match justice, just… Have yourself a treat and Watch. That. Game.

    Just realised I went on quite the tangent, either way I want these thoughts out there.

  2. Personally I think the problem with lack of narratives stems from the main issue with VGC, which is that anyone can play “professionally”.

    I’m going to use Smash Bros. and League of Legends as my two examples of eSports since they’re what I watch most outside of mons. When it comes to these two games, the barrier between professionals and even competitive casuals is so evident that people who care a lot about the game but lack the mechanical gifts of their favorite players are pushed into different outlets for their passion. This created in my opinion one of the strongest contributions to the Smash Bros. storyline: The Smash Brothers Documentary.

    To become a professional Smash or LoL player, competitors have to give up their lives and train as if it’s their job. Because… it IS their job. Even the top tier of VGC players attend college, work full-time jobs, or both. It doesn’t take an enormous life commitment to become a professional VGC player. Due to this issue, anyone with enough passion pursues becoming a VGC player before becoming a journalist or creating a documentary.

    Even the sparse VGC articles that populate the web, which I personally enjoy and appreciate, offer little to invite casual fans in. Most focus on finishes, usage statistics, movesets, and spreads because if someone cares about VGC then they are PLAYING VGC, not sitting on the sidelines with signs reading “Go Cybertron!”

    That’s the difference here. When it comes to Smash I don’t bother looking at articles about what moves kill when and size of hitboxes. I know if I trained for a year and played against a top Smash player 100 times, I would lose 100 times. Easily same with LoL. But I really do think that if anyone committed to training VGC for a year played a top VGC player 100 times, they would win at least once or twice. And that’s all the motivation it takes for a would-be-journalist to drop the camera and pick up the 3DS him or herself.

    I’m a huge fan of the NBA. I also play basketball a lot. But you better believe if I could play basketball at an NBA level, I wouldn’t be spending weeknights sitting at home watching ESPN. And if we could all play in the NBA, there would be no viewership.

    I’m not meaning to play-down the amount of hard work and the pure strategic brilliance of our game’s beloved professionals. They all amaze me with their ability to perform consistently in such a volatile environment. I’m just saying compared to mechanical gifts, the perception of strategy-based games (especially when you add RNG) is “hey, I could really do that!” Whether it’s right or wrong is up for debate, but I think we can at least all agree that the fact that the perception is there hurts the game’s growth from a fanbase/viewership perspective due to the simple fact that rather than watching most people are trying to play.

    I want to point out some things I think people are doing right in our community as far as building storylines. I know most players trend towards the battlespot live YouTube series, Twitch streaming, or moveset analysis YouTube guides route. These are great because they help people learn about the game, while not being a huge waste of time because the content creator can use it to polish their own VGC knowledge as well as make a name of his or herself.

    But this type of content makes up the vast majority of YouTube content. It all gets quite cold and impersonal after a while. That’s why I really enjoyed Wolfey’s video titled Pokemon Player Profiles: Joshua Lorcy. You can check it out here:
    https://youtu.be/8zE_T06Ecro

    These are the types of videos that will persuade a casual fan of VGC to feel connections and be able to pick a “favorite player”. The reason my favorite LoL team was TSM for a while was because they had a relatable YouTube channel showcasing vlogs of them going to tournaments, training at their team house, and just having fun and being human beings. Here is an example of that:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Syy-k6E4k_8

    I only speak for myself here, but I would much rather see the VGC professionals clowning around in a hotel before a tournament, or hanging out on a couch teambuilding, than “Battlespot Live Episode 244: Tapu Fini-sh Him!” and I think especially casuals would find these types of videos more endearing.

    But even this in itself speaks to the central problem: we are relying on players to create all of their own exposure. The TSM vlogs, The Smash Brothers Documentary, they all were created by passionate fans of their respective games who had vision and talent to produce content. Because, not to beat a dead horse, but all the people that care about VGC would rather compete in VGC.

    If you can’t tell I have a rather pessimistic outlook on growing this game I love into an eSport. I am only making this long drawn out post because I want people to see how I see it. Because before we can make Pokemon an eSport we have to address the problems and I think that we’re going about it all wrong. I know I didn’t really give a lot of solutions. I just wanted to put some problems I see out there, because I see so many people focusing on fixing non-issues and wasting their efforts. These are the main issues, as I see them. I could definitely be wrong. Thanks for reading.

    • I can definitely see your point about Youtube content. I love all my friends who do Battle Spot laddering dearly, but I can only watch so much of it. Considered doing a parody myself called ‘Yet Another Battle Spot Series’, but it wouldn’t really add anything positive to the growth of the game. My friend Lou does videoblog type things when she goes to Regionals, is this something similar to what you have in mind?

      • Hey Matteo,

        This video was really cool. Not exactly what I had in mind though since the video is 90% battle montages montages and 10% actual interaction with players. I was thinking more along the lines of this really old shofu regionals vlog: https://youtu.be/jTo6WMBZj34

        I know Shofu isn’t a top player, but this video does a good job accomplishing two things (keeping in mind we’re targeting a casual audience here):
        1. Establishes personalities so the viewers can relate to the players
        2. Showcases the scene and encourages others to look into events themselves
        If more top players did things like this, then casuals and outsiders could really feel personally invested in not only their favorite individual VGC competitors but also their inner circles and squads. It could even lead to things like turf wars and interesting storylines that pertain to the actual competitive scene. But of course, most of the players are too serious and in the zone to vlog at events which leads me to the point I made in my original post: we don’t have enough bodies interested in purely documenting our scene rather than participating in it.

        Beyond vlogging, I think more player-centered coverage of live events would really help develop storylines as well. Between rounds rather than allowing for dead air, why not review every single battle that went down. Show graphics of the standings, so the viewers at home can follow their favorite player’s progress in real time rather than only see how two people are doing at once. This would be a great contrast to the vlog/documentaries style mentoined earlier because while documentaries focus on personalities, live broadcasts are where a VGC pros can let their character shine purely through their competitive merits.

        I’m not even sure storylines are the way to go to develop VGC as an eSport. To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a viable goal given the mechanics of the game we are pushing. I think I mentioned that earlier. But since this post is about storylines I’m just voicing some things I think could help develop those for our small viewerbase. Hope I was clear on my points, and thanks for the response.

  3. Hey Kevin! Thank you so much for sharing your insight on this kind of stuff. As one of the few people in the community trying to focus on VGC journalism (as opposed to writing about player-focused subjects), I definitely know how important this stuff is. I’ve definitely struggled, too, with finding good narratives BETWEEN players. I always try to figure out what an event’s given story is and incorporate that into event recaps.

    Something I’m also struggling with more recently is adjusting my writing for larger, non-VGC educated audiences (Kotaku/Polygon for example). I don’t want to get too into it in public like this, but I’d really value a bit of your time to chat privately about things. Please let me know if you’re open to it!

  4. OK, like I said on twitter you cite the Melbourne challenge as proof that players can organize tournaments independent of TPCi. Sure, but part of what made that tournament successful is the large number of “random” players who showed up. Not to get catty over who is known or what but I’ve been playing since 2013 and I know the history of the game, I consider barely half of the names on that list known. How many players who cut will now be encouraged to
    keep playing? If you wanna grow the game (I really hate that phrase) restricting these opportunities seems self-defeating.

    The obvious rebuttal is that invite-only tournaments can exist alongside open tourneys but we do have the NPA and NBI, both essentially invite only tournaments except even with those you get the chance to prove yourself as an unknown player through weekly tournaments on NB (NPA is different though you can’t really do that.) Duncan’s tournament is cool but he’s a youtuber and everyone involved in that had obvious financial incentive and exposure to gain from it. I don’t think you can motivate players to create invite-only tournaments that in my view only make VGC more elitist and inaccessible and I’m not sure of the player turnout if you did (and without randoms to pad the prize pool the money would be low.) Maybe you could give known players a r1 bye to encourage them to show up but that’s as far as I’d personally go and what constitutes a known player is at the TO’s (and likely their friend circle’s) discretion.

    • As you alluded to, I don’t think invite events should replace any current open events. I think the scene has a dearth of open events as well, but that’s an entirely different issue. Rather, I’m suggesting there should be invite events in addition to the already existing open events.

      In terms of financial incentive, the way tournaments work in eSports is sponsorships. Events would be used as marketing tools for companies and the these companies would pay 100% for the prize pool and the production. I’m not sure how player turnout is relevant if you’re inviting everyone and there’s sufficient financial incentive for these invited players. I think to most people in scene, grossroot event sponsors seem like a far off thing, but it’s actually fairly easily attainable if you know what you’re doing.

  5. I believe storylines can be detrimental to the game. A lot of us play Pokémon to escape our home/social situations, when I’m playing, I want to be respected for my skill or team choices rather than my race/gender/social situation.

    The reason storytelling strikes such a nerve with me , is because I am diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I had a really hard time making friends/a lot of difficulties until I joined the Pokémon community. I never disclosed this fact with anybody, but it’s necessary to understand where I’m coming from. Playing Pokémon, traveling, and ocassionally doing well allows me to forget that I have a disability. I don’t want that to be part of my storyline, because I really resent that part of myself. I can only imagine others want keep some parts of their lives private.

    Sob stories are unnecessary, they’re just tacky and meant to earn sympathy. A lot of people have hard lives, but rooting for the player that has a harder one is simply biased, and takes away from the actual game.

    That being said, I don’t think rivalries born from the actual history/act of playing VGC are a bad thing. Those are often times fun to spectate.

    The whole PACHIRISU circle jerk is also really annoying, and I felt a lot of people didn’t take away the right thing away from Worlds 2014, it’s really irritating to explain to casuals that Pachirisu isn’t that good of a Pokémon, and that Sejun was already an established player.

    I do understand what storylines are trying to foster but don’t think they have a place in Pokemon.

    • As I mentioned on Twitter, I think you’re misunderstanding the concept of storyline. A sob story can potentially be a part of a person’s storyline, but is maybe only 0.1% of what I’m talking about. Rather, I’m more focused on personality traits, how they are come off in interviews, their player histories within the game etc… Yes, sob stories can be some of the most compelling storylines in eSports, but only a very small handful of players in eSports have anything close to this.

    • He’s not saying every personal aspect of each players life needs to be revealed for a good storyline. You can just keep the details you dont want people to know out of your story.

  6. Wow, so let’s make it to where people who aren’t already professional at VGC have no shot at becoming that way. I don’t like this idea at all. I watch every event possible and the fact that someone who isn’t a pro who isn’t Wolfey Glicke or Aaron Zheng can come in and win the event is something that keeps me on my toes. Making the events invite only is only shutting out the people who WANT to be involved, but currently are not recognized. This is 2 steps backwards.

    However, the storytelling part of this article is on point. It would interest people much better to have background knowledge of the players and commentate on that across the event.. Ex- The Junior player from Idaho comes in and beats the National Champ in the Swiss rounds of worlds causing a huge heartbreak and underdog setting which the commentators could take advantage of.

    I like that idea, however… Invite only events completely destroy the community. Last month I got the privilege to compete in the Melbourne tournament and that was amazing for me. Even though it wasn’t a sanctioned even or could not possibly give me any CP- the fact that I was able to compete in a tournament completely jump started my VGC career. Even as a father and a husband I am going to do my best to compete at as many events as I can and become a professional level.

    Please, don’t lock others like me out of the competitive scene!

    • From what I can tell, the scene solely consists of official VGC-circuit open tournaments. Only more recently have two additional tournaments in the form of the Smogon Tour and Melbourne invitational popped up. If invite tournaments were to suddenly pop up, they wouldn’t be taking the place of any current tournament but rather run as a supplementary event alongside all the other tournaments we currently have.

      Again, taking the model from the Hearthstone scene, invites to events are generally not given out solely to the most popular players. Rather, often the top placing players from the most recent open invites are invited as well, creating a system where you have the potential not only to beat Wolfe and Aaron but to ascend to their status as well. Currently, the vast majority of Hearthstone professionals who garner invites to events have earned their invites through this method. They did well at a few events, got invited to a few invite-only events, continuously did well at both the open and invite events they attended, and snowballed from there.

      As I mentioned before, having an event where the narrative can be focused on has the potential to grow the scene much more than what it currently is. Rather than thinking you’ll get locked out of events, think of it as the pie growing bigger and your slice growing bigger accordingly.

      Another key factor is production value. Open tournaments will inherently have lower production value due to the necessity of capture cards. In order to appeal to a wider audience, online grassroots events cannot ONLY host events on Pokemon Showdown as the spectator experience is horrible. The only solution is pretty much for every player in the tournament to own a capture card.

  7. Wow, well said. I’m actually working towards exactly what your talking about in this article and I have a feature on 1 player up so far and am doing the next one today. definitely glad somebody else sees the importance of telling the players stories 😀
    dunno if this is chill…..but heres a link to the video I have up! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnFCMPHiGhA&t=413s

  8. I am actually very inspired by this article! I love backround stories and my favorite player is Wolfe not because he is world champion but because of his climb to the top. I watched his defeat to ray rizzo in the world finals and have been following him ever since, I searched every streamed battle of his I can find learned about what he did and because I knew his history a little i was willing to stay up until 2:00 a.m. Just to catch a chance to watch his new team in the London international and cheer for him to win. It made the experience more worth it because of his playing history and who he was. I just wish I was more well known in the VGC community or had the fund to travel to big events so I could document the players and the events or even just hold open and invite only tournaments. I would love to see something like this happen! Great article!

  9. Pokemon has no good storytelling because top players are not professionals, and no, Cybertron or Wolfe are not proffesional players, they study, they might have full-time jobs and still be a top tier player.

    In other eSports like LoL or CS:GO if someone wants to be a professional he has to take the game as a full-time job, he has to leave his country, his home, he has to fight everyday against the best players in the world to maintain their rank. And that’s why when you watch a Player’s profile and a 17 years old teen is talking about how hard was to leave his family and his friends to become a star that you realize how hard it is.

    On the other hand, top Pokemon player’s sacrifice is less, and in my opinion some players may achieve better results at the end of the season (more CP) just because they can afford to travel to more tournaments than their competitors.

    No online quailiers, no official online leagues are necessary in a game in which i bet that more than 90% of players are students.

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