Pokémon Go isn’t a competitive sport yet. But the red hot augmented reality mobile game has given a big boost to the 2016 Pokémon World Championships in San Francisco. More than 1,600 players are competing for $500,000 in prizes, and about 3,000 altogether are attending the event.
The Pokémon Company holds the event every year to celebrate the Pokémon trading card, 3DS, and Wii U games. J.C. Smith, consumer marketing director of The Pokémon Company International, said in an interview with GamesBeat that Pokémon Go has spurred interest for both the championships and the new Pokémon Sun and Moon 3DS games coming out on November 18.
“This group has always been robust,” Smith said. “Pokémon Go is introducing a lot of new people to it. But the group here started playing this time last year. We hadn’t even announced Pokémon Go. For us, the real question will be how next year is affected. All the tournaments that start at the local level, I’m sure, will see increases based on general interest in the Pokémon brand, to say nothing of Sun and Moon coming out this fall.”
The Pokémon World Championships run from August 19 to August 21, and this year, competitors have come from more than 30 countries to compete for a prize pool of scholarships and travel awards. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What does your job actually mean?
J.C. Smith: At the Pokémon Company, I’m the director of consumer marketing. I’m in charge of public relations, advertising, events, customer service, and stuff we do with Nintendo.
GamesBeat: “Events” sounds like a big thing now.
Smith: Kind of, yeah. The funny part is, just finding space and decorating it is a big task. We had an opening ceremony this morning. We’ll have a closing ceremony with all the award presentations. We have our hands full. The team’s working hard down there.
GamesBeat: How many years have you been doing it now?
Smith: It’s 20 years. This year is our 20th anniversary. I’ve been at the Pokémon Company for almost nine years. I was at Nintendo before that for about seven and a half years.
GamesBeat: The Championships have been going on how long?
Smith: Thirteen years. When I started we added a layer with the video game piece. We’ve grown from there. Now we have the Pokken Tournament stuff for the Wii U. It’s nice to be able to have a couple of different avenues for people to express their domination in Pokémon. That’s what this event is about, the competitive element of it.
GamesBeat: It’s 1,600, 1,700 competitors?
Smith: Yeah, almost 1,700. More than 30 countries. We don’t have an exact tally from the organizers yet because people RSVP but don’t show up. It was 35 last year. It’s a great number, knowing that 35 countries have a robust enough program that they get invites. They’re playing throughout the year to get to this spot. It’s invitational, not open. It’s important for us to have a nice breadth. It can’t just be Japanese and American competitors. We want a contingent from around the world, Europe and Asia as well.
GamesBeat: Eyeballing it, it’s surprising to see a lot more people playing the card game.
Smith: They have different invite levels. The card game, they play for—this tournament has been TCG-specific for 13 years. They built that community. It’s a little easier to organize a TCG tournament. You still need judges and space, but with the video game, there’s all kinds of tech to bring in as well. The scale and where you can put it—you can take it to big towns or small towns, no matter what. We’re working on that with the video game side to make sure we can have a fair tournament structure and everyone has a good chance.
GamesBeat: Did you intentionally start smaller with the electronic part? It’s not a reflection of where the demand is?
Smith: No, obviously. We have a ton of success in both areas. You know the video game industry well. You know we’re the number two brand behind Mario, all time. We don’t struggle with the video game side. It’s just that the competitive element, we have fewer events. That’s changing, but it’s something where you do need to have a level of fairness and make sure there are proper judges and it’s all above board.
GamesBeat: I noticed quite a few judges, yeah.
Smith: You come to Worlds, you have people who’ve been playing all year. You want someone there to make sure things go the way they should. We have a lot of translators, too. You can imagine, with 35 countries involved, how many situations and combinations you can come up with. You need people who know the game. It’s not just speaking the language. They need to know the game enough to be able to shorthand it and solve the problems. It’s an impressive operation down there.
GamesBeat: This year you had specifically note that it’s not open to the general public and it’s not a Pokémon Go event. Did people get the message, or did they show up anyway?
Smith: [laughs] They got it. Whether they wanted to hear it, I don’t know. It was an unfortunate situation, really. Every year we have a great turnout, a great group of fans. This year, more fans than ever qualified, more players than ever. The fire marshal wasn’t going to let us squeeze more people in. We all agree that safety is not something you compromise on. You need to make sure the players and the families who earn their way in are a priority. The fans that come along with them, unfortunately some of them aren’t able to be a part.
GamesBeat: You can always play on the sidewalk.
Smith: Right? It’s crazy. We move every year, and every year the hotels, the venue, wherever we do the event is surprised by—our players just take over. They’re not in San Francisco, necessarily, to see San Francisco. They’re here to hang out with people that love Pokémon. That’s what draws them. They take over all the common space, playing whatever game, charging their DSes. It’s pretty fun to see.
GamesBeat: The Go phenomenon is probably helping?
Smith: You know, this group has always been robust. To be honest, Go is introducing a lot of new people to it. But the group here started playing this time last year. We hadn’t even announced Go. For us, the real question will be how next year is affected. All the tournaments that start at the local level, I’m sure, will see increases based on general interest in the Pokémon brand, to say nothing of Sun and Moon coming out this fall.
Sun and Moon was always going to be one of the top titles of the year, regardless. With all the 20th anniversary stuff this year—we kicked off last year with the Go announcement. Then this year we’re celebrating 20, so we did the Super Bowl ad. We did all kinds of stuff around Pokémon Day, February 27. We’ve had monthly rollouts of new information, new products. We’ve had a lot more activity than normal. Then Go launches. We’ve got a lot of stuff making it fun for the fans out there.
GamesBeat: Have you figured out how to do Go tournaments yet?
Smith: It’s funny. Go is a great introduction, but I don’t see—I haven’t figured what the competitive element will be. It’s cool to have people who can play casually. It’s cool that they can collect and find their favorite characters around the world. We’ve joked about it. But I don’t think it’s something we can make work in a weekend.
We had to make a statement about no Go here. Niantic’s here, and so people always assume there’s a secret or something like that. Rumors of it would have cause people to descend on the location. They couldn’t have gotten in and it would have made things even worse.
GamesBeat: Do you guys call this an esport? What do you think about the term?
Smith: No, we don’t. But it depends on your definition. For us this isn’t about the money. It’s about the community. It’s not a huge prize pool. People are playing because they like the people they’re playing with. They like the game. We want to keep it that way. You see a lot of families playing together. You see a lot of kids approaching it. It’s not something cutthroat and exclusive.
A couple of years ago there was a player from Japan who gave a gift to every player he played against throughout the weekend. That’s the kind of community I like to see. You don’t see that in DOTA 2 so much. It’s cool to have that kind of vibe throughout the event. A lot of hand-shaking and camaraderie, which is what we like to focus on.
GamesBeat: When you’re watching some of this, how can you tell who the expert players are? What’s happening in the game that sets them apart?
Smith: Being a player helps. Having played the game, you can see some things where you wouldn’t otherwise know what it means. The trading card game is a whole different level. That’s 60 cards, and there are so many combinations. Every deck out there could be different. The way it plays is different every time. You have the strategic element, the preparation, plus the actual gameplay for an entire weekend.
The way we run our tournaments is Swiss, by the way. It’s based on a chess competitive format. After round one, all the 1-0 players play each other and all the 0-1 players play each other. That continues throughout, so the best players are clear, and they play all weekend to determine the top cut for the finals on Sunday.
With the video game, in a competitive setting, it’s training a character. You have a team of six. You have to pick four. There’s the team screen that comes up. You can see the combo, what they’re going to probably try to do, based on the moves that each of those Pokémon have, what they specialize in. Some are good at defense. Some are good at drawing attention while the others attack. There are so many combinations there that it’s also—you see it and you think, “I would never have thought of that.” It’s unbelievable. I try to copy teams, and even then it doesn’t work unless your Pokémon are trained properly. I have the same Pokémon, but they have different moves. One’s fast and one’s slow and defensive. It’s really impressive, what people are able to do.
We have color commentators, which is key. To see it is one thing, but to have someone talk it through is another. They’re doing their best to make it digestible. The video game is a little more approachable – you see the moves happening. The cards, reading the card, knowing the effects, how they work with other cards, you need the casters to tell the story and boil down the strategy for those of us that are watching.
Pokken Tournament, obviously, is more quick-twitch-based. That’s new this year. On the first floor down, Pokken Tournament is going on. They’ve also been training, but it’s different. Less about picking the character and more about how quickly you can move around. It’s pretty intense.
GamesBeat: What do you notice about who’s winning? Do you have top players who come back every year?
Smith: We had a three-time winner once. We have people who win when they’re 15 and win again when they’re 22. But it’s not a consistent thing. It’s someone who comes up with a unique strategy that others hadn’t thought of. They end up dominating.
The thing with the trading card game, every three months we put out a new set of legal cards. They keep changing their decks throughout the year. They have to keep up with it to have the latest strategies. I can’t look at a room and say, “This person’s going to win.” You see who’s at the tables with the lowest numbers. They’re the highest seeds. That’s how you can keep track. But the players that play the most are the ones that win. Playing against great players helps make other great players. Having a nice system in the United States and around the world helps with that.
GamesBeat: You’re moving this around to different cities all the time?
Smith: Last year was Boston, and D.C. the year before that. Vancouver before that, and Hawaii before Vancouver. We try to move it around and keep it interesting. We want to make it a nice destination for families to come play in the tournament, and they can also explore and be in a safe environment. For us San Francisco was a no-brainer. It’s a nice area.
We’re having a lot of fun with the brand. Being able to have creators that make games that are always good, that always respect the fans, makes our jobs easy. We just bring them all together and share information with them in the broadest possible manner. We keep that as our bedrock, making sure we’re sharing information across the world at the same time. That’s important to us. Pokémon fans, it doesn’t matter what country they’re from. They should all be treated with the same level of respect.
GamesBeat: For this crowd, who are the celebrities? Do you bring any big names in?
Smith: The casters, certainly, and players that have won many years. If there’s a guy that’s dominated a region, everyone from that region knows him. They play together and they’re helping each other out. The masters will help the juniors learn strategy. Those are the stars here.
We have execs walking around. No one knows who they are. Part of it is that Pokémon isn’t about the execs. It’s about the creators and their creations. They don’t necessarily want to be front and center on everything. This event in particular, you’ll see players getting pulled over more, and the casters as well. They’re very knowledgeable about the brand and the gameplay, so they’re a resource for people. It’s a good crew.
Some of the casters are former champions as well. Aaron Zheng is a national champion. He’s 19, but he’s casting for us. He’s an incredibly smart kid. I say “kid,” which makes me sound incredibly old, but I met him nine years ago, when he really was a kid. It’s pretty crazy to see.