If you’ve tuned into competitive Pokémon over the past two years, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen Rosemary “Nekkra” Kelley either hosting or casting matches.
After starting out casting Overwatch and Hearthstone, Nekkra, 26, has swiftly become one of the most prominent faces in competitive Pokémon - casting events all over the globe from 2019's Pokémon World Championships in Washington, DC, to the Pokémon Oceania International Championships earlier this year.
Nekkra’s position as a Pokémon caster and host however didn’t come out of nowhere. She was previously a pro Pokémon VGC (Video Game Championships) player between 2014 to 2016, and even stood behind the microphone for fun at a regional during that time - an impactful experience which set her on the path towards full-time Pokémon caster.
With the COVID-19 pandemic turning the world on its head, this year has presented new challenges in bringing the competitive Pokémon experience online. Ahead of the Pokémon Players Cup 2 global finals, we spoke with Nekkra about casting events in 2020, her journey so far, and the meta for Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Nekkra at the Pokemon World Championships 2019 (Picture: Rewt)
How did you get into casting and esports?
When I first came out of college, I really wanted to get my PHD. I was super set on going into academia to be a professor. And then, my parents passed away.
It derailed a lot of my plans in terms of what I wanted to do. I didn’t feel like, at the time, I could commit myself to a six year commitment and it made it very difficult for me to figure out long term what I wanted to do. It was such a transition period when all of this happened.
I’m super comfortable talking about it now - I think it’s a really big part of my origin story and a huge reason why I got into esports. I spent a lot of the time afterwards in a pretty dark place. Video games were always something that were able to make me smile and brought me lots of joy, so I played a lot of games and I got into multiple different competitive scenes - playing Overwatch, Hearthstone and Pokémon for a while.
Everything then started falling into place. I went to BlizzCon in 2018 and that’s when I realised there’s so many different outlets I could go into in the world of esports - whether tournament organising or competing. I didn’t even really think about it as being called an ‘esport’. So I came back from BlizzCon after having multiple conversations with big names in the industry like Seltzer, Anna Prosser and Goldenboy. They were encouraging me to just dive in headfirst to see where the world of esports can take me. I was really inspired when I came back from BlizzCon.
That’s when I decided I was going to try a lot of different things. I tried tournament organising, community managing, being a producer, I got a couple of opportunities to be on the microphone and that’s what stuck to me the most.
I was doing a couple of online community casts for an Overwatch community called Owlet, and I fell in love with the art of broadcasting. I had so much fun that I didn’t really realise what I was getting myself into at the time. A couple of days after my first few casts in Overwatch, I got a call from a friend who asked if I casted anything else, specifically Hearthstone. That’s when I went, “holy sh*t”, this actually might be a job.
How did you get into casting Pokémon specifically from there?
I got my very first paid gig in the commentary space in Hearthstone. From there, things took off. I was doing community casts for Pokémon specifically at Rutgers University - I'm really thankful to those organisers for giving me a shot. I then did my first big regional in Collinsville for Critical Hit.
A couple months later, The Pokémon Company reached out to me and said, “Hey Rosemary, we have a job for you; how would you like to commentate NA International Championships for 2019?” My jaw hit the floor. That was the biggest event I had ever been invited to and I was just shocked. The Pokémon Company wants me to cast their video game? No freaking way!
The Pokemon Players Cup II global finals take place this weekend (Picture: YouTube)
Everything just started to explode. They asked me back for Worlds 2019, I went to Australia for Oceania International Championships, and I’ve done everything up to the point COVID hit. And then Pokémon Players Cup happened.
Wow so it’s all happened in a short space of time. Has it fully sunk in yet?
Not really. It didn’t hit me until I was at the Dallas Regionals and I had people coming up to me asking to take my picture with me. Then it hit me that people actually know who I am and I might actually be famous? What a weird feeling that is. Especially coming from such a scientific, structured background and going into a world where you’re using the other half of your brain. It’s so eye-opening and so humbling in a way to have these kind of experiences.
Has it been a learning curve dealing with being recognised?
Yes it is weird. I actually opened a PO Box so I don’t have to put my actual address on things anymore. And trying to make sure I take precautions now, just to make sure people don’t know where I live. I have to also filter myself because you don’t know the people that you’re talking to online - you don’t want to give them everything about your personal life or history because you never know what they’re going to do with that kind of information.
So I feel it has been a learning curve in terms of adjusting from a very private, humble life to going into a spotlight and having this… I don’t want to say ‘big light’ because it still hasn’t hit me yet what’s happening. But it’s a light nonetheless and it’s so weird.
What’s it been like casting remotely? Are you yearning for normality?
Oh yeah no doubt about it. There’s nothing quite like being in front of a live audience that you can feed that energy off of, and you can really get that chance to hype them up and enjoy what’s happening.
One of my favourite moments in my casting career was when I got a chance to commentate Simone Lim winning the Oceania International Championships. I remember how wild the crowd was going and it just started to make me cry on broadcast because we got a chance to share in this amazing moment for this wonderful young little girl.
Everybody around was enjoying the same moment with us, and you don’t get that at home. You definitely don’t get the same kind of feel. You’ve got Twitch chat, but it’s not the same as being able to enjoy the company of everybody else and enjoying those special moments together.
Simone Lim’s win felt unique to Pokémon as well as it’s that young demographic which partly makes it stand out as an esport. Do you feel competitive Pokémon is often overlooked in the esports world?
It definitely feels like they’re the black sheep of esports a little bit. They’re so close to being mainstream, but at the same time a lot of people don’t actually know how Pokémon as an esport is played.
I’ve been trying to do a better job with my personal content to come up with series to really introduce people gently into the idea of what Pokémon esports is. But it still feels like a very foreign concept, especially when I talk to a lot of my friends from back in the day about what I do now. Esports as a whole still hasn’t really hit everybody yet, in terms of how impactful it is and how big the industry is.
There’s also so many different aspects of competitive play [for Pokémon]. With the announcement of Pokémon Unite, I think a lot of people now are really looking at Pokémon and realising there is something for everyone. You’ve got a fighting game, you’ve got a card game, you’ve got a turn-based strategy game, and now you’re going to have a MOBA. There is literally something for everybody in the Pokémon universe.
I imagine they’re going to create some sort of competitive scene for Pokémon Unite. Would you be interested in experimenting with that?
I love MOBA’s but they’re so intensely complicated, and with everything I’ve got under my belt right now, I think it would be super difficult for me to pivot. Especially because of how much I love VGC, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. It might happen but who’s to say?
Could Pokemon Unite become a big esports title? (Picture: Nintendo/The Pokemon Company)
What’s the most unique thing about casting Pokémon VGC in comparison to other titles?
There’s nothing quite like commentating Pokémon. It’s so unique in the fact that it is a turn-based strategy game and it also kind of feels like 4D chess and poker in a lot of ways. There’s always a probability that you win the game, it changes depending on the decisions that you make within each of those individual turns.
You have to secure knockouts onto Pokémon but you have to be conscientious of whether or not something is going to be a super effective attack, not effective at all, or completely immune. There’s so many little pieces you have to remember about the game, that it honestly makes it one of the most complicated esports in my opinion.
Do you feel that’s where the issue of accessibility is then? Especially for casual Pokémon fans?
I think so. And I think that’s why a lot of content creators are starting to try to flip the script a bit and make competitive Pokémon a lot more accessible. With Sword and Shield, I think we got really lucky because not only was it the first new game on the Nintendo Switch but it’s also one of the most accessible.
We only started out with 400 Pokémon out of the over 800 we have now. It’s more accessible than the game has ever been - especially when you look at the format like the Ultra series where every Pokémon except for mythical Pokémon were viable. That’s a lot of Pokémon to remember stats, moves, typing, the whole gambit, for.
Whereas if you look at, when we had probably the largest insurgence of new players I’ve ever seen in the competitive space when Sword and Shield launched, the amazing features Nintendo and The Pokémon Company actually put into the game to make it more accessible. You’ve got the move tutor, the ability to put together battle teams, you have rental teams, as well as different modes of the competitive ladder you can play online. I think that makes it so much easier to enter into this space and I think that’s why we’ve seen so many new players come into Pokémon.
How do you feel the Sword and Shield meta stacks up against previous years?
Every player will tell you something different but in my opinion, I think this is one of the most fun metas that we’ve ever had. Just because I feel like Pokémon has been very deliberate and very thoughtful in how they rotate through the individual series that we get during the year. Like Series 6 was so unique because of the fact that we had, for the first time, bans come through for a Pokémon format, where we knew they were only going to be around for two months or so.
We also had the expansion passes which has brought in a whole new slew of Pokémon. Before that we had Pokémon Home come out, so we had all the new Pokémon coming through with Hidden Abilities and things like that. Now we have The Crown Tundra which has definitely opened up the world of possibilities, where you’ve got the new Regis, the Galarian Kanto birds, and other Pokémon I feel like really make the meta super interesting and super spicy.
The Pokémon Players Cup was largely introduced to replace in-person events this year, but are you hoping it will continue when things go back to normal?
The one thing I feel like we get a lot of feedback on - and this isn’t me speaking for the Pokémon Company - is that best-of-one isn’t a very fun format in terms of how you test individual skill. We’re all used to playing best-of-three, especially when we’re playing in front of other players or playing at an offline tournament.
But I think the one thing about playing online tournaments, that’s another reason why we’re seeing new faces in the top 16 in each region of the Players Cup, is because for the first time ever we have a big tournament where get to completely play online. You don’t have to travel anywhere, just make sure you’ve got a good WiFi connection and a game, and you can play.
- Read more: How Pokemon pros are taking competitive Sword and Shield into their own hands with The Champions Cup
I think that’s something that’s really special that I really hope does continue in the future - whether more online tournaments or even making the International Challenges a bit longer for the Players Cup just to keep that accessibility door open.
We’ve got locals, regionals and you can travel to those, but they can still be very intimidating - to play in front of another human being. Even to travel and put money on the line for an entry free or something like that, when this is completely free and completely open.
We’ve also seen community-led tournaments like The Champions Cup this year, which in some part came from frustration over lack of promotion around the scene. Do you feel like Nintendo and The Pokémon Company could have done more to take advantage of Sword and Shield’s competitive scene?
I actually don’t think so. The Champions Cup was awesome, I was one of the commentators for that and I also helped out behind the scenes. God bless Wolfe Glick and aDrive for putting that together because I think it was something the community really needed at that time.
I think before COVID hit, Pokémon was doing as good of a job as they could to embrace and promote the competitive scene. This was the first year they brought regional coverage back, so we were going to cover every regional basically in the United States. That was the plan anyway, until COVID hit. We were planning on doing a bunch of coverage for the regional tournaments that were happening in the United States. Pokémon was really trying to be able to promote the competitive scene in that way, having that professional live coverage.
Sword and Shield recieved two expansions this year (Picture: Pokemon/Nintendo)
Do you have any advice for aspiring casters trying to get into the industry?
I think having realistic expectations is very important and having the drive and the passion to make it work. I think that for anybody aspiring to get into the industry at all, try everything. You never know what’s going to stick or what’s going to make your heart sing.
I did a lot of different roles, I was even a talent manager at one point. You learn so much from being in these different positions that you just never know what’s going to make that one thing really fit for you for esports, especially as there’s so many different types of roles you can go into. I’ve done tournament organising, talent managing, writing, content creation, community managing, before making a full time commitment to casting. There’s just so many different aspects, try everything and see what sticks.
For people specifically getting into casting, have realistic expectations but also don’t sell yourself short. I think that’s something a lot of aspiring casters tend to do, especially when you’ve got a lot of opportunities lined up, maybe they’re unpaid, but make sure you know your value. Get what you know you’re worth. I think that’s really important.
As the climate stands right now, to be realistic and honest, not everybody’s going to make it in the casting world. There’s so many aspiring casters and there’s so few positions, especially when you take a look at who’s at the top of the pack. I don’t even consider myself to be at the top top; I’ve got loads of people who are above me and I feel like they’re there for a reason. They’re veterans; they’ve been doing this for five, six, 10 years, and they’re real pros.
Also keep an open mind, you never know what opportunity will come your way that just open doors for you. I wasn’t sure about Hearthstone casting before, now look where I am. It’s just so interesting where life decides to take you and keeping an open mind can be really important for finding that next open door and if it’s going to get you to the place where you want to go.
The Pokemon Players Cup 2 finals kick off Friday 11th December at 11am PT/7pm GMT. They will be streamed on YouTube.