Shoma Honami : “The Enigma”

By Jason Krell

An air of mystery surrounds the Japanese VGC scene. Most players simply run into Japanese opponents on the Battle Spot ladder and expect a tough match. Few realize how different their circuit is, and even fewer know the stories of the country’s most successful players.

All most casual fans saw during the top cut of 2015 World Championships were the seven Japanese players who were using almost the exact same team. Many of those fans reacted to that top cut with disdain, as it consisted mostly of Cresselia, Heatran, Amoonguss, Landorus and Kangaskhan variant teams; an exemplar of everything wrong with competitive Pokémon in the eyes of the casual viewer.

Shoma2What most people outside the hardcore community failed to recognize was the nature of the incredible (and arguably inevitable) victory of one of Japan’s greatest players, ever. They simply didn’t how hard Honami had worked on a daily basis to get to that point, nor how much the win meant to him.

“I’ve been playing this game for a long time, and I wanted to prove myself for a long time,” Honami said. “When I imagined not proving myself at all and finishing my life without winning Worlds, the thought of that was pretty terrifying. When I won, I worked very hard for that. I felt relieved.”

That year, he was a dominant force in his home country from the beginning of the season. In Japan, players compete first in the Japan Cup, a tournament that functions similarly to laddering on Battle Spot. A number of players with the highest ratings are then invited to Japan Nationals. That year, Honami took first place. And, while that earned him his third trip to Nationals, he was still haunted by past failures.

“It was kind of depressing, as past Nationals had been nothing but trauma for me,” Honami wrote in a blog post following his championship win. “The feeling of losing at Nationals is a really awful feeling that is hard to put into words.”

Despite the concern, Honami was able to easily march through Swiss rounds and top-cut. Though he had won other grassroots tournaments before that point, his national title was a sign of things to come. Many of his peers recognized his skill at the time, and one even notably Tweeted he was so confident in Honami’s chances to win Worlds that he wasn’t even bothering to attend the tournament.

At the same time, his path that year belies the difficulty of qualifying for the world championships as a Japanese player. The system had improved by the time 2015 rolled around, but earlier years made getting an invite far too hard.

“2013 was pretty terrible, because only shoma4two people could go to worlds from Japan,” Honami said. “And 2012 was really bad, because only six people from the Japan cup made it to Nationals, and those six people were chosen somewhat randomly from the top finishers. No one actually knew how they were picked. And out of those six people, only two made it to worlds, again.”

VGC was suspended in 2011, due to the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, though things were better in 2010. Back then, Honami explained, there were 48 tournaments across Japan, and each winner could compete at Nationals. From there, the top eight players at that tournament qualified for Worlds.

Other than during 2015, Honami had never even qualified for Worlds. The closest he got was the 2014 Last Chance Qualifier, which he was knocked out of by one of the four other Japanese players in attendance. Granted, while he didn’t play up to the level he expected of himself, he was able to meet other players from around the world, such as Wolfe Glick and Markus Stadter.

Despite having competed in fewer World Championships than some of his peers, Honami had carved out a reputation for himself as a respected player long before 2015. In Japan, there are also plentiful grassroots tournaments to supplement the spares official season, and Honami traditionally did very well at them.

These events are hosted by various organizers, such as the VGC news site Amalgame, and Honami placed second at the first one he attended, in 2012. He later won a 120 person tournament in 2014, earning an invitation to the Battle Road Gloria circuit, where he finished in the top eight.

Shoma3Another aspect of Honami’s VGC career that garnered a reputation was his blog. He would always share his teams on it, and he built a small following. Not only that, but his blog and others like it were prime destinations for hardcore, western VGC players looking to sneak a peek at the Japanese metagame.

For those that don’t know, that’s actually a defining characteristic of the relationship between the Japan VGC scene and the rest of the world. Japan’s metagame is often entirely different to that of the Western scene, due to the differences in circuit structure, amongst other things. Many of the Japanese teams that see success on the best-of-one Battle Spot ladder don’t translate well into the western best-of-three focused mindset. However, historically, several highly innovative “meta-breaking” team choices have been discovered first by Japanese players. As such, information pertaining to the more successful Japanese teams is often highly coveted.

Even before Japanese players were recognized for their skill, Western players translated their blogs in an attempt to learn from their teams. That exchange of information goes both ways, of course, and is made even easier these days thanks to Twitter. Honami explained that the top players in Japan can only play so well with the information they get from other top players around the world.

With that being the case, Honami has been studying up on the 2017 metagame by keeping an eye on the rest of the world. He did attend the European International Championship and narrowly missed day two with a 6-3 record, an outcome that may be attributed to Honami’s lack of experience with the new games and Pokémon. As a result of this, he lacked a great deal of information. For example, Honami explained that he once used Fake Out on Alolan Marowak, forgetting that it had gained the ghost type and was thus immune to normal type attacks.

The Japan Cup won’t start for some time, though, so Honami has been limited to unofficial events, such as the One Nation of Gamers Invitational. He recognizes how stacked the rest of the field is, but he’s playing to prove that 2015 wasn’t a one time deal. Honami plans to remind everyone why he’s considered one of the best players in Japan.

Read up on the other competitors here:



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