Our brave soul Jevon Phillips dropped in on the Pokemon world championships and lived to tell the tale…
Long before hearthrob vampires and boy wizards seized the hearts, minds and wallets of American youth, Pokemon was a dominant force. It was on the cover of Time magazine and became a billion-dollar industry with a cartoon broadcast in 153 countries, a trading-card game that boasts 150,000 organized play members, and a video game (Pokemon Platinum version) that sold more than 3.75 million copies worldwide. Despite all that, the brand may have lost a little cache in this “What’s hot right now?’ culture.
But not to those who gathered in the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel this weekend for the 2009 Pokemon Video Game and Trading Card World Championships. Thirty-two American players, from 7 to 44 years old, did battle with 16 Japanese players and 12 European players for the title of Pokemon Video Game World Champion, while 350 players in junior, senior and master divisions (age brackets) from nearly 30 countries vied for the chance to be the top Chimchar in the Pokemon Trading Card Game (TCG) World Championships.
The card gaming, with 1,125 players competing and 1,034 players participating in side events, is still as strong as it’s ever been. Remarkable attendance numbers when you factor in that most of those players also had family and/or friends with them. Also remarkable when you consider that for many, the Pokemon players around in the height of its media popularity are most likely in their 20s and beyond.
None of this mattered to the assemblage at the hotel who sat out in the carpeted hallways battling and comparing decks, or sat in an adjacent room on Saturday continuing to hone their skills and compete for prizes long after the championship rounds were decided. Knit hats with Pokemon designs (Pikachu ears) or other anime characters mixed with red, green and blue hair or baseball caps worn to the side hip-hop style, and grandpas took on 9-year-olds, pulling no punches at the tables. Pokemon judge Chris Butcher of Huntington Beach explains a bit about the event:
For those attending, it was a also star-studded event, with many past champions on hand either competing or just taking in the atmosphere, popular Pokemedia outlets from Japan, and even some of the game’s executives and creators (Jurichi Masuda, Tsunekazu Ishihara, Satoshi Tajiri) attending. Regular kids who had gained fame among this niche group autographed cards and posters and showed off strategies that made them champs. Past champ Jason Klaczynski helped us get into the contestants’ mindset.
And speaking of champs, the competition itself was intense in the final rounds. The video gamers took the stage first, hooking up a Ninetendo Wii for the competition. First the senior competitors took to the stage, with 15-year old Tasuku Mano versus 25-year old Kasuyuki Tsuji (below), with his soon-to-be famous “Kaaaa!” battle cry. The duo waged a pitched battle, but in the end, the battle cry rang out from Tsuji and the crowd as he took the title. A kid next to me described the battle to his mom as “one of the most awesome, monumental battles” he’d ever seen.
In the junior division, American Jeremiah Fan from San Jose was visibly nervous. He’d faced his opponent, 9-year-old Santa Ito from Osaka, before, but had been beaten. Using one of his favorite Pokemon (Vaporeon), he broke through to win the title. As is part of the game, Ito was visibly upset and in tears after the match, but the resilient kid later returned to face the crowd. Despite his shy demeanor, Fan raised his fist in the air and jumped for joy on stage as the crowd chanted his name.
With the video game senior and junior titles won, the card gamers took to the floor. In preliminary rounds, all around them, players stood and watched as the bunch of Bobby Fishers unveiled complicated strategies. An energy card here, an electric type versus a water type, etc. Gasps, whispers of plans unfurling and cheers from the crowd took over the room. Multiple languages and accents didn’t matter as nods of approval or disappointment waved through the room. And then there were three pairings left.
In the junior division, Tsubasa Nakamura of Japan took on Jason Martinez from the U.S. Nakamura, an animated kid with a bandanna wrapped around a black hat, took the match with some crowd-pleasing moves. Interviewed afterward, his exuberance was on display as he shouted his favorite Pokemon and posed with the hosts of a popular Japanese show chronicling the craze.
In the senior division, David Cohen of Kent, Washington, took on another Japanese player, Takuto Itagaki. Itagaki, with a knit anime cap on depicting his favorite Pokemon, Kyogre, was a fan favorite, and eventually prevailed. After beating his opponent, he gave him a stuffed Pokemon (the crowd didn’t get to see which one) and asked him to sign one of his Pokemon cards. The room applauded the sportsmanship.
Itagaki, just 12 years old, could not compete in the masters division, but was anxious to see who won between Stephen Silvestro of Citrus Springs, Fla., and the popular Sammi Sekkoum from the U.K. Though all of the players started at the same time, the masters pair was the last to leave the stage. Silvestro’s super speedy card shuffling made one think that a magician would be great at Pokemon. Despite a valiant effort from Sekkoum, he was no match for Silvestro, who took home the crystal trophy and title of World’s best TCG Pokemon player (at the master’s level).
The drumbeats of the closing ceremony’s proceedings have faded and all the pictures have been taken. Though the fervor surrounding the event has subsided, it was a reminder that Pokemon is as strong as it’s ever been. Still gotta catch ‘em all.
– Jevon Phillips
Photos: Jevon Phillips
UPDATE: This post was updated to correct a misidentified hometown. Hey its hard to catch them all.