A squirrel victorious: what we can learn from Pokemon World Championships 2014

Here’s an unabashed statement from a 29-year-old woman: I love Pokemon. The series was with me in my formative years, it’s indirectly influenced my Stories of Aligare, and I still love it today. Pokemon’s strongest theme is that a champion can come from anywhere: if some kid from Podunk, Nowhere works hard and believes in their chosen Pokemon partners, they can become the very best there ever was.

Well, this past weekend’s Pokemon World Championship provided another inspiring tale of a surprising victor. Sejun Park won the Championship thanks to his unusual flagship Pokemon, a Pachirisu. This is the tale of a cute little rodent who outmaneuvered giants.

It's 1 foot tall, weighs 8 pounds, and it can make your gigantic dragons look like chumps.

It’s 1 foot tall, weighs 8 pounds, and it can make your ferocious dragons look like chumps.

If you’re not familiar with the mechanics of Pokemon, you might be surprised by the level of strategy involved in top-tier competition. Pokemon is often thought of as a mere children’s franchise. But young children aren’t very interested in the games’s details and unseen workings. They tend to brute-force their way through every challenge, paying little attention to strategy, only interested in seeing their cool monsters do cool stuff. Whereas in the hands of a tactics-conscious older person, Pokemon’s 18 elemental types, 188 Abilities and 609 moves can become a complex version of chess. Double and triple battles add another layer to the challenge — since each trainer’s 2 or 3 active Pokemon are able to assist each other, as well as hurt each other with friendly fire.

But if you ask me, world-class competition suffers under its own … well, competitiveness. Everyone seems to use the same 10 or 15 Pokemon and the same handful of moves. It’s once again a matter of who can dish out the most brute force. Predicting your opponent’s next move is a vital part of the game — and prediction becomes easy when everyone is following some alleged “only” way to win. That’s part of why Park’s Pachirisu was so effective.

If no one is using Pachirisu competitively, no one knows off the top of their heads how to take it down. Opponents seemed to underestimate that little squirrel’s defensive stats and assume that she couldn’t take a hit. But she could. She weathered high-powered attacks, then paralyzed and redirected opposing Pokemon to keep her own battle partner safe from harm. (See a more complete strategy rundown here at Kotaku.com)

Park’s victory with Pachirisu is an underdog story, to be sure. The world loves an underdog victory. If you need proof of that, just watch Park’s final tournament match and listen to the crowd cheer when Pachirisu hits the field. But this unusual tournament win fills me with excitement because it’s more proof that following bandwagons isn’t the only way.

“That’s easily the most impressive part of Sejun’s entire [competitive Pokemon] career, for me, is that he has never compromised. He has always played his own game, and sometimes that looks weird to us.”

-Evan Latt, Pokemon World Championship commentator

In a video game or in real life, we can all take paths that make others ask us, “Why would you bother doing that?” And those strange paths might just be super-effective.

 



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