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Pushing Buttons: Meet the pint-sized Pokémon pros
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Pushing Buttons: Meet the pint-sized Pokémon pros

I spent much of my weekend at the ExCeL convention centre in London, where about 10,000 people from across Europe were gathered for the European Pokémon championships. There were 4,500 competitors, playing the perennially popular trading card game, Pokémon Go, the arena battle game Pokémon Unite and, of course, the video games (currently Scarlet and Violet).

The Pokémon championships aren’t like many of the other esports events I’ve been to over the years. The prizes are only a few thousand dollars and a lot of the 340 Pokémon professors (who act as judges and facilitators) attended on their own dime. The crowd is also significantly younger, as you might expect. Among the competitors were plenty of kids and teenagers, and there were even more among the spectators.

It feels like a family event, which could not be further from the testosterone-infused, quasi-adolescent vibe of other competitive gaming events. There were colouring-in tables and fairground games in the corner, and a giant inflatable Pikachu hung over the flashy stages where players were competing. Most of the hall was filled with tables where people were throwing down Pokémon trading cards almost too fast to follow, the competitors slowly diminishing in number as the qualifying rounds wore on.

When I was a kid, it was my dream to go to the first Pokémon world championships, in the year 2000. I never made it and by the next time a Pokémon worldwide tournament was held in 2009, I had long moved on from these games. I did finally make it to a Pokémon tournament in 2014, when the finals were held in Washington DC. The event is a lot bigger and better organised now than it was then: the Pokémon Company has leaned into the games’ competitive scene, organising and live-streaming regional events that culminate in one finals tournament in an exciting location (this year’s is in Hawaii in August, and last year’s was in Yokohama). The top-ranking players from the regionals all get to go on a dream summer holiday to try for a trophy.

Pokémon European international championships junior division winner Kevin Han.View image in fullscreen

I spoke to one of the youngest victors, 11-year-old Kevin Han from Pennsylvania, after his finals face-off against Ismael Hoggui, a French kid in his first year competing. His older brother Chris had been competing in the seniors division (for players up to age 16), but hadn’t made it to the finals. “I helped Kevin prep a lot for this finals match,” said Chris. “We stayed up until 10.30 and then after I got ready in the morning, we came here and played together on the Switches until I felt like he knew what to do. I am so proud!”

Kevin got into competitive Pokémon through watching his brother play: Chris used to go to tournaments alone, but Kevin started joining in after the whole family attended one together in Florida. Chris won the US Seniors division in 2022, making both brothers Pokémon champions. “My dad was the one who took me to my first tournament,” Chris tells me. “He was like, if you’re going to be playing this so much you may as well compete in it! And I got steamrollered. I don’t think I won a single game. But I had a fun time – to me that is what playing Pokémon is about. Competing is what brings the fun, for me.”

Like any other sport, competitive Pokémon is an opportunity for kids to hang out with other kids who share their interests – and develop resilience when they lose. “Most of the other competitors are really nice, and nobody’s trash talking or being mean to each other or anything,” says Kevin. “We all talk to each other between matches.” On stage, with hundreds (or thousands) of people watching live and on Twitch, he says he tries not to look away from the screen: “I try to stay really focused on the game and not everything else.”

I brought my own kids along for a day of the championships to soak up the energy, and I won’t lie: I’d be thoroughly delighted if they ever end up competing like the Hans. The intergenerational (and adorable) nature of Pokémon makes it the most welcoming competitive gaming scene out there. Almost 25 years since I first played Pokémon myself, it’s touching to see kids living out their trainer dreams.

What to play

Botany Manor’s windmill wort.

A mix of period drama and puzzle game, Botany Manor casts you as a retired Victorian botanist pottering around a grand inherited manor and looking after strange plants. The puzzles are challenging enough to make me frown but not hard enough to get me stuck, the atmosphere is calm and relaxing, and it looks a little like The Witness (though less abstract and austere). If you’ve never successfully kept a houseplant alive, don’t worry: its lead designer, Laure de Mey, is not particularly into gardening, either. It’s a theme that arrived naturally while she was playing around with ideas for a first-person puzzle game.

Available on: PC, Xbox, Nintendo Switch
Estimated playtime: 4 hours

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What to read

2015’s Super Mario Maker.View image in fullscreen
  • An update on this story about the people trying to finish all 80,000 levels of Super Mario Maker before the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS servers shut down last Monday: they did it! There was one last (illegal) level outstanding at the beginning of last week, but through sheer determination, Team 0% completed it anyway. Related: see how players celebrated/commiserated the server shutdown together here.

  • A new team at Microsoft is being established to ensure forwards-compatibility and game preservation for Xbox, according to Windows Central. Given how much Xbox has spent acquiring its library, and its history of offering backwards-compatibility, it makes sense the company wishes to preserve players’ access to it when a new hardware generation comes around.

  • The sad, slow decline of bricks and mortar video game retail continues: Eurogamer reports that staff at GAME, the only remaining video game shop on the high street, have almost all been moved to zero-hours contracts, and have been told to expect redundancies. This may come as no surprise to anyone who’s visited a branch of GAME in the last year or so, as the shelves are mostly stocked with merch, T-shirts and copies of EA FC.

  • London games festival is on this week, comprising several public events across the capital and a mini developer conference. I’m giving a wee talk about the book I’m working on, Super Nintendo, on Thursday morning. If any Pushing Buttons readers are there, come say hi!

Question Block

Crash Bandicoot.View image in fullscreen

Reader Chloe asks:

My five-year-old wanted to try Operation Ouch’s Snot Defence – advertised to her on CBBC – which looked like a good introduction to tower-defence games. It started well, but the difficulty spike is wild (for both of us). What other games marketed at children have tested your gaming abilities as an adult?

For a long time, many games marketed at children simply weren’t very good – particularly those attached to a movie or a big franchise, because developers were often given maybe 10 months, if they were lucky, to turn around something remotely playable. As a result the games were often extremely difficult to play because they were a bit broken. When my stepson was younger, my partner doggedly played all the way through the awful Ben 10 tie-in game, with its fiddly jumps and floaty combat, because it was way too difficult for him to complete himself.

Then there are games that are unexpectedly difficult by design, like basically all of 2D Mario. Only the most talented and dedicated child could reasonably complete any of those games unassisted. Even now, the post-game challenge in something like Mario Wonder is wild. In fact, most of the cute-looking video games of the 1990s were secretly evil: Crash Bandicoot, Sonic the Hedgehog, even the old Lion King and Mickey Mouse games. That’s to say nothing of the extreme difficulty of basically any game made for 80s home computers. Gen X kids were just build different.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on [email protected].

Source: theguardian.com