Hello again VGC scene! My name is Kevin “monk” Dong and I’ve been a member of the general eSports community for about 3-4 years, working in multiple capacities throughout this time including Writer, Editor, Player, Coach, Commentator, Translator, Website Admin, Player Manager, and Tournament Organizer. If you haven’t read my previous article “On Pokémon and eSports: Growth“, I encourage you to have a read through it. Today I’d like to expand on the importance of storytelling in the growth of eSports.
Storytelling in eSports
There’s been a lot of talk in the community about VGC ascending to the level of an eSport. However, when I talk to members of the community, often times they’ll struggle to tell me what makes an eSport an eSport. That is, what is the difference between a game and an eSport? What is the difference between what Pokémon is now and what Pokémon has to be to become a full-fledged eSport?
I don’t think there’s any one correct answer but my favourite is the focus on the viewer experience and the existence of storylines. Take a look at any popular eSport or even any popular traditional sport. One thing they all have in common is that they all have of legions of journalists and commentators who are constantly building upon storylines to enrich the audience’s experience. Dedicated eSports fans have an intimate knowledge of their favourite players’ in-game tendencies as well as their histories, personalities, and real-life backgrounds. When fans of eSports watch their respective games, they are often emotionally invested in their favourite players or teams, which brings greater enjoyment and engagement beyond the game itself. As I was researching this article, I stumbled upon an article called “GDC: The importance of Storytelling in Esports” that took the words out of my mouth: “Regardless of the game, situation or platform, storytelling is the driving force behind cultivating fans and creating a vibrant eSports community.”
When you compare the level of storytelling from traditional eSports to that of the Pokémon VGC scene, you can begin to see a stark contrast. There are little to no articles focusing on the players themselves and no documented histories of any players. On Pokémon streams, the only character traits commentators ever ascribe to the players goes something like: “Player W finished top X at Y event in 201Z”. Ok…cool…except this sounds like literally every other player that has ever been on a Pokémon stream. A casual viewer would have the same emotional investment watching such an event as he would watching two Pokémon bots go at it. Without the existence of storylines, the scene is only catering to the most hardcore fans, those who would watch a World Finals even if it were just a commentary-less stream of text commands on Pokémon Showdown. Without the promotion of the human beings behind the game and their stories, VGC is failing to capture a potentially enormous, more casual audience.
Building Narratives in Pokémon
When attempting to look for solutions to this pressing issue, we first have to take a step back and look at the current tournament structure of VGC. For the most part, tournaments are only held offline in a circuit at on-site locations all over the world. And because of the lack of sponsors in the scene, you can expect very few players to show up to back-to-back events. In addition, because of the high-RNG nature of Pokémon, repeat performances are much less common from event to event. This creates a lack of continuity, as if you started watching the first season of Lost and then tried to tune again in season 6.
This official VGC tournament structure I just described is a significant obstacle to the development of storylines within the scene, but it’s not a novel problem within eSports. One of the most popular eSports in the world, Hearthstone, actually shares similar challenges with storytelling. Although there are more sponsors and repeat players in Hearthstone due to these sponsors, RNG is even more of a factor. The end result is that the top cut of many Hearthstone events involves many unknown players with unknown backgrounds. One simple solution Hearthstone casters employ is that they try to learn as much about these players before their matches air on stream. This lets the casters paint a more well-rounded picture of these players, ascribing more than just “good Hearthstone player” to their list of character traits. Beyond that, there is another solution the scene employs to engage fans that I’ll get to a bit later in the article.
But before we get to that, first let me tell you about another Pokémon tournament I’ve had the pleasure of watching. The Multi-Battle League (MBL) was a doubles draft league tournament hosted by @DuncanKneeDeep. It featured 8 teams of 2 Youtubers each battling it out each week in a league format with a round robin stage leading into a playoff stage. Every week, each team would record a team-building video and then a battle video where they would talk through their battles. Though I was only familiar with a few of the Youtubers, I gradually began to watch all the videos on all their channels because I was curious about each team’s dynamics. And because the content was recurring each week, I slowly learned the personalities, thought processes, and battle styles of each Youtuber. Essentially the storylines passed down from week to week in this league format, much like it does in the LCS, seemingly bi-weekly Smash event, and even traditional sports leagues such as the NBA or NFL.
Because I gradually got to know the players as people rather than Pokémon-playing robots, I also had my favourites to cheer for. I was emotionally invested in each week’s result and I felt every Crit, Freeze, or Gunk Shot miss as if I were the players themselves. And I patiently waited for each week’s episodes as if it were my favourite television show that just happens to air at a random time each week. And let me tell you, it was by far the most fun I’ve ever had from watching any Pokémon tournament or Pokémon content period.
This all alludes to the solution the Hearthstone scene organically found to the storyline problem. It was a solution that attempted to maximise the game’s exposure, develop storylines to engage fans, and, at the same time, create an environment where any player felt like he had a chance to win. The solution was as follows: the official tournament circuit would still feature opens that anyone could enter, where the average Joe could rise to the top if he were skilled and lucky enough. Running alongside the official tournaments, there would be many other tournament organisers would host invite-only tournaments where the most popular players of the time (those with known storylines) would be able to become ambassadors for the game. And though the Hearthstone scene is continuously adjusting the balance of open to invite tournaments, it’s become much less of an issue in the recent year with the community accepting the need for such a balance.
Right now, I believe the VGC scene needs these types of invite-only events in order to begin the process of legitimising the game as an eSport. The most popular VGC players are stars within the VGC community but nobodies within the general scope of eSports. However, if we can focus on these players, build upon their existing fan bases, and communicate their stories, we can begin to develop a space where the casual viewer is engaged and even welcomed. We can not only use such a tournament as a platform to tell stories, but as a way to write an entirely new story altogether.
With the constant complaints I hear about TPCi on social media, I think it’s fair to say that the community has little faith in the game developers to spearhead such an endeavour. But as I touched upon in my previous piece, instead of focusing on aspects of the scene they can’t control, the community should look to work on the things they can. And as the recent Melbourne Challenge showed, tournament organisation is not a role that solely belongs to TPCi.
To close out, I’d like to share one more anecdotal story. I have several real life friends who don’t really follow eSports or competitive Pokémon at all. But whenever I bring up the subject of Pokémon, the second thing they go to after Pokémon Go is that one time they heard about a competitive Pokémon tournament. “In some event, a Korean kid used a Pikachu thing and everyone was really surprised because no one thought it was good. And the crowd went wild!” I could hear the excitement in their voices as they recounted a story I already knew. My friends didn’t remember the EVs spreads nor any of the strategy behind the match. They didn’t even remember the correct Pokémon involved. But they remembered the story and the excitement behind it. And they passed it onto a friend.