Going into 2020, the release of Pokémon Sword and Shield promised a landmark year for the title’s competitive landscape - opening the doors to a new generation of players, monsters and exciting new mechanics on a home console platform.
Unfortunately, 2020 had other plans. The coronavirus pandemic has placed a global halt on live esport events around the world, with the Pokémon World Championships in London now pushed back till 2021; postponing the entire 2020 circuit until next year.
While official circuits in esports like League of Legends and Call of Duty have endured in online formats, it’s fallen to the Pokémon community to fill the void themselves - with pro players Dan “aDrive” Clap and Wolfe “Wolfey” Glick joining forces to create The Champions Cup.
Community-led online tournaments have become a crutch for the underfunded fighting game scene too, but The Champions Cup has ambitions to go above and beyond the official circuit, albeit accidentally. After initially setting a 350 player cap for the tournament, the demand to sign-up broke the registration website - leading to the cap being exceeded and over 650 players registering for the event within 30 minutes.
After a quick crisis meeting with experienced TO’s helping to devise the event, the cap was raised to 1504 players. Three days afterwards, the event was filled to capacity - putting it on course to become the biggest VGC Pokémon tournament ever.
While The Champions Cup was formed in reaction to the virus outbreak earlier this year, it’s also a response to frustrations with the mainline Pokémon Play circuit. Wolfey, who won the Pokémon World Championships in 2016 and has been competing since 2011, believes the limited coverage hasn’t done enough to capitalise on Sword and Shield’s success.
Wolfe has been a professional Pokémon player since 2011 (Picture: Wolfey)
“Sword and Shield have been huge for Pokémon but there’s a big opportunity there which frankly hasn’t been met in terms of showcasing competitive play,” Wolfey told GINX TV.
“By that I mean, in the US we had two major tournaments in the Dallas Regionals and Collinsville Regionals, and I don’t know why exactly but most of those tournaments on the VGC side were not streamed.
“Some games were streamed - like one or two Top 8 games, two Top 4 games and finals - but the amount of games that are played, and even the amount of rounds played, is bigger than the amount of rounds that were streamed. So people who are interested in competitive Pokémon at the highest level of these official tournaments weren’t able to watch that already.
“So with our events getting cancelled, aDrive reached out to me and said, ‘Hey why don’t we try and run something?’ And that’s where the idea was born.”
The plan for Champions Cup is to stream the entire Top 16 on Twitch, broadcasting more games than the official tournaments. A spectator mode has also been created, allowing The Champions Cup to overcome the common hurdle of grassroots tournaments of matching the viewing experience found at official events.
Confirmed Spectator Mode works! Looking forward to this weekend :] https://t.co/GDqiuTyCaE— PG | Wolfey (@WolfeyGlick) April 2, 2020
It isn’t just about providing more coverage however, with the added flexibility of a grassroots tournament enabling greater communication between the community and organisers - something which has been difficult with The Pokémon Company.
“It’s not something we’ve explicitly talked about but competitive Pokémon players, people like me who have been playing for almost a decade, we have almost no say in anything when it comes to the tournaments themselves,” Wolfey adds.
“We have almost no way of communicating with the company. Often times things we care about do get fixed and they do get better and that’s something I’ve noticed but it’s taken a couple of years. So I’ve never felt a part of the process so to speak… so running a tournament grassroots gives you a lot more freedom and flexibility.”
The flexibility of the online format has also opened the gateway to first time Pokémon tournament players, who have needed additional help with format explanations, the VGC ruleset and how to connect with opponents.
Despite some concerns around potential connectivity issues slowing down the schedule, it’s what the tournament could mean for the Pokémon scene moving forward that’s propelling them forward.
“I’ve never run a tournament before and this is the biggest VGC tournament of all time so I wouldn’t say I’m confident it’s going to go smoothly,” Wolfey said. “But I recognise it is a very big opportunity, and if it goes well, it can be a big deal for our scene.
“Honestly, I kind of feel the way that I do before a match; there’s obviously the potential for it to go well and for a win to occur, but I also recognise that there are certainly some ways this can be challenging or in some ways I might have to deal with things I wasn’t expecting.”
While the initial Champions Cup event is described as a “pilot”, there’s hopes for it to evolve into a tournament circuit - which was originally devised to involve eight individual tournaments and a Top 16 invitational.
While the large interest from players may lead them to reassess their initial plans, it seems like a tournament circuit could come around quicker than expected if the pilot goes well.
“If aDrive comes to me and says we’re going to make this a circuit and the next one is in two to three weeks from now, and I can say yes, we can do it,” Wolfey adds. “That is one advantage of doing grassroots and especially of doing online where we don’t need a venue or anything - we can have this quick turnaround.”
Asked if it could potentially evolve into a live event in the future, Wolfey replied: “I wouldn’t be opposed to it. I think that would be really exciting - there’s been very few grassroots in-person events, we’ll just have to see.
“There’s obviously a lot less commitment in order to play an online tournament for $12 versus travelling somewhere. I haven’t talked to aDrive about this but I think it would be very cool to have an in-person event. I definitely would be interested in it but there’s a lot of logistics and there’s a lot which would have to happen before that point. So it’s kind of one thing at a time.”
Pokemon Sword and Shield has been enormously successful (Picture: Nintendo)
Before they embark on any future plans, The Champions Cup is primarily hoping to become a better showcase of Pokémon’s validity and excitement as a competitive title - which still goes under the radar despite Pokémon’s overwhelming popularity.
“The reason competitive Pokémon is not more popular is not because the game isn’t good enough, it’s because the marketing isn’t good enough in my opinion,” Wolfey says. “People just don’t know about it.
“Even when Pokémon are more popular, there’s a lot more to it than the actual Pokémon themselves - it’s very interesting and very fun.
“There’s a reason guys like me have stuck around, this is my tenth season, and there’s a lot of people who have been playing for years and years. I genuinely believe that the reason we’re not more popular is that people don’t understand what’s going on.
“If they could [see] how things actually are, I think a lot more people would play. Tournaments are a good way to do that, so I do think it hurts to have all our events cancelled. We’re trying to do some damage control with this tournament.”
The Champions Cup kicks off Saturday 4th April, with the Top 16 scheduled to air on Twitch Sunday 5th April 2020.