George Karapetsas also contributed to this article.
The long road to be the best
So many of us who grew up in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s wished they could actually be a Pokémon Champion, and although it’s only on a screen, the Pokémon Video Game Championship — VGC for short — is the closest we can really get. When a mutual friend sent us a message asking us if we were going to participate in this year’s Oceania International Championships, we initially balked at the idea: competitive Pokémon wasn’t either of our preferred way to spend an entire day, let alone three of them… let alone when we haven’t played at that level in a very long time, but we couldn’t think of anything better to do, so we just went for it.
The Pokémon VGC is the Pokémon Company’s official Pokémon tournament, where players across the globe compete to qualify for the World Championship and vie for the title of Pokémon World Champion. It’s a Swiss-system tournament where the prizes range from Trading Card Game booster packs for “Top Cutting” (making it into the final rounds) to thousands of dollars in prize money: nowhere near as much as other esports offer, but it’s still a considerable amount of money, especially for just winning some Pokémon battles.
Of course, the ultimate prize is your spot in the World Championships. They’re taking place in London this year, but there are tournaments just like the Oceania International taking place all around the world whose winners earn points and travel awards that’ll help get them there. Unlike the gameplay in Pokémon Sword and Shield’s story mode, the battles in all of these tournaments are double battles, which adds a fun layer of strategy to each match. Those interested in following our lead and competing for their chance to become Pokémon Champion can learn all the tournament’s rules here.
LUKE: Our history in the Pokémon VGC is fairly limited. We have played online with the format here and there, but the most recent tournament we took part in was the 2015 Melbourne regional — a much, much smaller tournament compared to this one — where I finished with a record of two wins and three losses in five games, painfully losing to George in the fourth round.
GEORGE: I always loved that match.
LUKE: I bet you did, but do you remember the other tournament we played in?
GEORGE: If you’re referring to 2013, when the VGC first came to Australia and you beat me in the semi-final, then… no. I don’t remember. We were kids. It didn’t count.
LUKE: Spoken like a sore loser, but hey, back to this tournament. Our motivation to join it was pretty simple: it’s one of the biggest tournaments of the year, but it’s also the first-ever Australian tournament to be played on Pokémon Sword and Shield. Once we decided we’d take part, the next hurdle was figuring out how we’d get our teams organised with such little time…
GEORGE: My grievances with Sword and Shield aside, the changes to team-building — the introduction of items like Nature Mints, as well as breeding mechanics and rental teams — have made getting a competitively viable team much quicker and easier. Given the time constraints, though, Luke and I decided not to be original and simply rip off teams that we found online.
LUKE: I decided to use Aaron Traylor’s Dallas Regional Championship winning team, pictured below, which featured a Gigantamax Charizard and a Fake Tears Whimsicott as its core (Traylor’s report does a far better job of explaining what the team does than I can). I did make a couple of changes, though: I switched Whimsicott’s Sunny Day out for Charm to better deal with weather-based teams, and I replaced Togekiss’ Yawn with Flamethrower so that I could deal with Durrant, a Pokémon that’s becoming more and more common in the meta.
GEORGE: I decided to go for something a little more out there, something involving one of my personal favourite Pokémon, Rhyperior, which turned out to be surprisingly good thanks to the new Dynamax mechanic. I eventually settled on a team created by four-time Worlds competitor Shona Honami, which incorporates Ludicolo’s powerful water moves and a major speed boost from Pelipper’s Drizzle ability. I can’t give you an exact breakdown like Luke did because I don’t speak Japanese, so the picture below will have to do. I did make a couple of changes as well: like Luke, I taught Togekiss Flamethrower (except I replaced Helping Hand with it); I replaced Rhyperior’s Swords Dance with Superpower; Bronzong’s Body Press with Imprison; and Ludicolo’s Muddy Water with Hydro Pump.
LUKE: We got to the Melbourne Exhibition Centre for late registration at about 7:30 on the Friday morning; registration had opened the day before, but both George and myself had other commitments that day, so we had to settle for the early morning. As soon as we got there, the foyer started filling up with a ton of other competitors from all around the world, and we were blown away by the scale of this little old Pokémon tournament.
GEORGE: After seeing the amount of people pouring through the door, I remember grabbing my phone, checking the prizes on offer and being blown away when I realised that placing in the top 32 would net you $500 — again, not a massive amount of money compared to other esports but definitely more than I’d expected to see just for playing Pokémon, and I was confident enough to believe that placing in at least the top 32 would be a cake walk.
LUKE: At that point, we made a deal to split the prize when we won it. George and I both knew that there wasn’t a chance we’d win the whole event, but top 32 was our new goal. That seemed like a perfectly realistic target, right up until we realised two things: there were more than 300 people registered to compete at this event; and everyone knew what our teams were because they were already available online.
GEORGE: We caught up with a couple of friends, including one who we hadn’t seen since 2015, and with that, we were ready to go. We won’t bore you with long details, because it’s all a bit of a blur, but here’s a basic rundown.
LUKE: I was terrified to discover that my first-round opponent had flown in from Singapore just to play in this tournament — which made a whole lot of sense given that first prize was a cool $5,000 and a guaranteed spot in London in August — so it’s easy to imagine how confident I got when I was able to beat him in the first of the three rounds: “I could actually do this,” I thought. “Future world champion, right here!”
That confidence didn’t last. In the second and third games he managed to knock my Conkeldurr out pretty early on, leaving me with no way of knocking out his Dynamaxed Excadrill without losing something else in the process…
Just like that, 0-1.
GEORGE: Like my brother, I was pretty scared when I found out that my first-round opponent had flown in just for the tournament, albeit from Sydney, and I started to regret my life choices when she told me she was a pro Splatoon player. My confidence grew a little when I found out that she was running on four hours’ sleep, and then I heard a choir of angels singing when I saw her team: an exact copy of Luke’s… you know, the one I’d be practicing against.
LUKE: I don’t remember too much about this game, but the one thing I do remember is my opponent’s team. There’s not a single Pokémon permissible in these tournaments that scares me more than Durrant, the tiny little ant Pokémon with enough Speed to attack before my Charizard and basically one-shot it with one of its Rock-type moves. I led with my “anti-Durrant” pairing, Togekiss and Conkeldurr, but my opponent didn’t bring his Durrant out in either of those matches — instead, he annihilated my roster twice using his Dynamax Rhyperior, which he buffed with Trick Room (reversing the turn order so that said Rhyperior would attack first, rather than last) and a Weakness Policy (ensuring that his Rhyperior’s attacking stats would rise if it was hit by a super-effective move).
0-2. This is going to be a long day.
GEORGE: Speaking of Rhyperior, that’s what I used to get my second win. I underestimated just how good Mudsdale can become with its Stamina ability in the first battle, but I was able to turn that loss around in the next two battles thanks to some clever Ally Switching from my Bronzong to keep my Rhyperior safe.
2-0. I’d never felt more confident than I was in my chances for Top 32 right now.
LUKE: Just before Round 3 started, the announcer made it clear that you could only advance to the next round (aka the Top 32) with a 7-2 record or better. I looked at my opponent, who had also gotten off to a rough start, and we both realised what was going to happen next: one of us was going to be very upset.
He led with his Heat Rotom against my Duraludon, but his Rotom was holding a Quick Claw — an item that only has a 10% chance of letting the holder attack first, and is generally ridiculed within the competitive community. I felt relieved at that point, knowing that whatever happened, I was going to leave this tournament with at least one win.
I went on to dominate the next two fights. 1-2.
GEORGE: Well… I want to say I put up a fight. I want to lie and say it was really, really close but it wasn’t. Not even for a second.
My opponent had flown in from Japan to win this tournament, and he brought a very fearsome Sandstorm team that capitalised on the bulk Tyranitar gains from Dynamaxing — that Tyranitar next to his Togekiss were virtually unstoppable, and I’ve never lost a game so convincingly or so quickly… I let myself get overconfident, even arrogant, but I wouldn’t let that happen again.
2-1, but I was still in it.
LUKE: The one thing that’s stopping Pokémon from becoming a mainstream esport is, without a doubt, the amount of luck involved — I wouldn’t have won this set without luck.
I won the first game pretty convincingly on account of just how powerful Conkeldurr becomes when it’s holding an Assault Vest, which allowed it to knock my opponent’s Gastrodon out pretty quickly. My opponent managed to even the scores in the second round by preventing me from setting my Trick Room up, and the third round got to the point where I needed Conkeldurr’s Rock Slide to make his Gastrodon flinch in order to get the knockout on the next turn. That’s exactly what happened, and I promptly apologised to my opponent after realising that I’d knocked him out of the tournament because of a Rock Slide flinch (think a tennis player apologising when their shot hits the net).
2-2, and I’m back on track!
GEORGE: You wouldn’t have won without luck, but I would’ve won with it.
I lost the first game in pretty annoying fashion, after I made a series of misplays against a Life Orb-endowed Milotic and Vaniluxe and couldn’t win the round with my Ludicolo. I won the second match, once again due to Bronzong’s Ally Switch, but it all came undone in the third game: I lost simply because my opponent’s Conkeldurr landed a critical hit with its Mach Punch, and then Milotic’s Muddy Water — with its 85% accuracy — managed to land. Just like Icarus, my wings had burned up and I had now crashed into the dark, muddy ocean.
GEORGE: My opponent brought out a combination of Wash Rotom, Grimmsnarl, Ferrothorn and Dragapult, and the best way I can describe those two battles is in a few sentences:
“Your Pokémon is paralysed and is unable to move.”
“Your Pokémon is hurt by its burn.”
“Your Pokémon’s health was sapped by Leech Seed.”
“Your hopes for Top 32 went up in flames.”
2-3. I hate everything about this game.
LUKE: This game was an absolute must-win if I wanted a chance at Top 32. Realistically, they all were from this point onwards, but I needed the momentum.
My opponent told me that this was his first time playing in the VGC, so naturally I let my guard down… and he proceeded to destroy me in the same way as my round two opponent: he set up his Trick Room early and then annihilated everything I had with his Dynamaxed Rhyperior, buffed with a Weakness Policy.
That was a common strategy throughout the tournament, and given that it beat me twice I can’t help but think that I would have done better in the whole tournament if I’d prepared for more than a week. At least I’m on the same win-loss ratio as George, though!
GEORGE: I can’t remember too much about this round aside from my opponent’s name. His name was Sam Lim, and he went on to place 50th overall in the tournament. I believe I took him to a third round, but by this point I was mentally spent (despite having drank at least four litres of water up to that point).
2-4. It just gets worse and worse.
LUKE: My opponent for this round was another international. I knew that my Top 32 chances were over at this point, so I shifted my mindset to just wanting to test my skills against some of the best players in the world. I was surprised when I sat down at the table and found that my opponent hadn’t turned up yet, and that surprise turned into disappointment when I learned that they’d dropped out of the tournament altogether, so I needed to figure out how to kill an hour before my next set.
3-3. Silver linings!
Rounds 7 and 8:
GEORGE: Before Round 7 even began, Luke and I were thinking about just bailing on the whole thing. We weren’t winning too many matches, Top 32 was all but gone, and our Editor-in-Chief still hadn’t approved our pitch of this article (Ed: Sorry!). In theory, we would have been able to deny that we even showed up…
LUKE: …And then I checked my inbox and found that Jake had finally approved the article idea. We told our friends what had happened and they chuckled at us, knowing that there were still three more rounds — at least three more hours — to play, but we decided to honour the commitment we’d made by pitching the article and just have some fun, even though we didn’t expect to get many more wins.
GEORGE: My Round 7 and 8 matches weren’t all that interesting — looking back, I do wish I’d brought a notepad with me to write down some comments on each game, but I do remember that I won both games in straight sets: a happy moment for myself and the beginning of my redemption arc, as it were.
I felt a whole lot happier after winning these two matches, and at this point I decided that just placing higher than Luke today would be a win in my book.
LUKE: Switching my focus to just having a better win-loss ratio than George made the rest of the tournament a lot more fun, and I was very motivated heading into the seventh round… only to find that my opponent had dropped out. That was the second time this happened to me during the tournament; although I was happy that it would count as a win on my record, I was a bit annoyed because I wanted to actually play a few rounds, and because I now had to wait another hour to play my next round.
This is my biggest criticism of the Oceania International. There’s a ridiculously long wait between matches, and there’s simply not too much going on in the background to keep you entertained. Since the event was held in the South Wharf precinct, you couldn’t really afford to pop into the CBD in case you didn’t get back in time and forfeited the next round. In fairness, there was a section where you could learn to play the Trading Card Game, but I already know how to play that, and the cards supplied were very weak — strange, given that this could have been a great opportunity for the Pokémon Company to promote the new Sword and Shield expansion packs.
I managed to win my Round 8 matchup in straight sets by doing exactly what this team was designed to do: lowering the opposing team’s special defence with my Whimsicott and finishing them off with my extremely powerful Gigantamax Charizard.
GEORGE: There’s not too much to say about this round for me, except for the fact that I fell victim to a surprising, and extremely gimmicky strategy whereby my opponent used an Eject Button — an item that forces a Pokémon to switch out — on my Dynamaxed Rhyperior, effectively wasting that boost.
I wasn’t about to let that happen twice, and I finished the tournament 5-4.
LUKE: I’d actually met my final opponent earlier on during the tournament, and I knew that he was a good player, so I was really looking forward to testing my skills against him. A friend of mine had played him earlier on in the day and warned me that his team was very strong: its old-school core of Gyarados and Raichu was difficult for my team to navigate because Raichu’s Lightning Rod ability could redirect Gyarados’ main weakness — Electric-type attacks — away from it. With that being said, we were joking around in Team Preview, knowing that neither of us would make Top 32…
…Until someone a few seats back called out an “extended top cut,” meaning that a 6-3 record would be enough to get you into the Top 32. The game completely changed from there: he ruthlessly dispatched me in the first game, but I managed to take the second and force a third game. I came very close, but in the end I just didn’t have a way to reliably knock out his Gyarados, even with my Dynamaxed Conkeldurr’s Max Rockfall.
I shook my opponent’s hand, congratulated him on a good win and wished him the best of luck in the Top 32. I was devastated at coming so close, but it was easily the most fun I had all day, and I finished on 5-4.
GEORGE: It turns out that winning a competitive Pokémon tournament with more than 320 players is a lot harder than it appears, especially for two geniuses who haven’t played competitive Pokémon since 2015. It was definitely an experience that I was glad to share with my brother, so my number one recommendation for anyone who’s thinking of entering next year’s event is to bring some friends along — it’ll make the whole experience a hundred times better.
LUKE: The number of people who flew in from around the world to take part in this tournament says a lot about its scope, and makes it obvious that this isn’t something you can just rock up to with a week’s preparation and hope for the best. The community is incredibly supportive, though; everyone we met was super friendly and although nobody would tell you what teams they were using (for obvious reasons), there’s a plethora of resources available around the internet for anyone who wants to get into the VGC.
GEORGE: With all that in mind… would you do it again?
LUKE: Yes, but I’d have to build my team at least a couple of months in advance rather than just a week out. The players who made the Top 32 would have seen the top teams and figured out how to beat them, whereas my team in this tournament was very weak against the Dynamaxed Rhyperior and Excadrill that came up a fair bit. In the end, though, I had a whole lot of fun, so I’d definitely do it again.
GEORGE: Yeah, and I’ve got to defend my placement against you…
LUKE: Your what?
GEORGE: The results came out: George, 84th; Luke, 122nd. Looks like I win!
LUKE: That’s because of the forfeits and you know it.
GEORGE: Well… Only one way to know for sure.
LUKE: Smash Bros.?
GEORGE: No items, Fox only, Final Destination.
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