Meet the Pokémon creators carving out communities online
From video game champions to YouTube innovators, THE FACE meets the Pokémon players who have used Satoshi Tajiri's fictional world to create lasting, IRL bonds.
When my dad buckled and bought me Pokémon Red along with the big shop one day, I don’t think he could have known that he was about to baptise me into a fandom that has played a major part of my life for a quarter of a century. While my time on Yu-Gi-Oh! forums taught me much and amateur dramatics gave me social skills, it’s been my love of Pokémon that has boiled away most consistently, providing me with the most perpetual pleasure.
It’s hard to say what has drawn all of Pokémon’s fans together. It is an apolitical, amorphous world with almost no lore, a flexible devotion to its own canon and an increased emphasis on merchandise over its flagship games as the years go on. Yet somehow this cultural behemoth has become, for many of us, like Marvel or Greek Mythology before it: a visual and symbolic language from which we can ourselves produce great art or great connections with others.
Three years ago, three friends from uni asked me if I wanted to join them round one of their kitchen tables to play a Pokémon-themed Dungeons & Dragons campaign and record each session for a podcast. Now, Critical Ditto has become a major part of my life, a weekly chance to see three men I love, with a passionate fanbase that does incredible art and fanfiction of the characters we devised. Members of our discord even met up recently and a few have even dated.
More than that, the chance to sit down on Zoom during this pandemic and pretend that the biggest threat to my livelihood was whether I’d defeat an Elekid or not has been one of COVID’s saving graces. The four of us have been together through pregnancies, relationships, mortgages, redundancies and surgeries. I don’t think Satoshi Tajiri knew, when he turned his bug collecting hobby into a video game, that this would be the crucible for some of my most meaningful human connections.
Yet Pokémon is, as aforementioned, also a force for great economic clout. Not only is it an ever-churning machine of different merchandise lines, but the ubiquity of the original 151 for 90s kids have made things like the original Pokémon trading cards collectors items in their own right.
They have also become a lens through which to see how we monetise nostalgia. Earlier this year, Logan Paul made Pokémon card buying and selling – which has never gone away – into another arm of his nauseating YouTube empire and has carried some members of the Pokemon TCG collection community along with him. In part thanks to his revitalising interest in old trading cards, copies of the shiny Charizard from the original Base Set have now sold for over $180,000, and Paul and other YouTubers now regularly buy huge sums of vintage cards in the hope of producing a small fortune.
Perhaps most depressingly, the gold rush is having a real world impact. Scalpers and card sharks are now buying up even the most recent sets from local stores. Many fans, in fact, now simply buy packs that YouTubers have bought in bulk. These “pack breaks” involve people paying a premium – sometimes up to $60 per pack, which retail for $5 – to see someone else open a booster they bought, only to be sent their “pulls” in the mail after the fact. There is a risk now that a generation of children will miss out on the thrilling, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wonder of being able to see if they can pull a shiny with their pocket money.
Despite the odd bout of nefariousness, Pokémon’s fandom is still a marvel to behold. It is a wildly diverse and varied ecosystem, full of people who play the games in expected and unexpected ways, trading card collectors and battlers, and artists who have spun childhood images into breathtaking new worlds. We spoke to internationally renowned Pokémon video game players, content creators and TCG wizards to find out more about how the community has grown.
Video Game Championships player: 3x Regional Champion and 9th in the World
Near the end of 2014, my housemate at the time found a grassroots tournament that was only a few minutes away from our house, so we just turned up because we liked Pokémon. I came 2nd in that tournament, and that inspired me to look for more and to find the official circuit. I went to the next regional that was happening and managed to come 3rd. I went to a couple more tournaments and managed to squeak into a Worlds qualification that year. Ever since, I’ve managed each following year to achieve enough championship points to earn a paid, straight-into-day-two invite to Worlds.
Worlds is just like what you would expect from attending a sports game or going to a music concert. You are in a venue with people doing the same thing that you are all passionate about. Regional and international championships are comparable to an extent, but there really is nothing like Worlds. There are so many amazing people, supporting their friends, enjoying the games that are being broadcast and just having a wonderful time. You don’t even have to be a competitive player to enjoy Worlds. Even casual fans would find a welcoming and electric atmosphere, because we all share one thing in common: our love of Pokémon.
Pokémon changed my life. I grew up as an only child, so periods of loneliness were not uncommon. Pokémon gave me something to occupy myself with and an adventure to partake in, not to mention a basis for connecting with other kids. It affected my life so greatly that I even give it credit for my reading capabilities.
I created my own original YouTube series called “True Power”, in which I created the best possible teams for different Pokémon characters. There seemed to be a natural progression in the minds of my audience and myself towards the idea of “Hey, it would be awesome to see all these teams face off against each other in a tournament.” When we did it, it was received amazingly – to be honest, it kind of took me aback. When one of the most common comments I’d get was something to the effect of “This is my new NBA/NFL/NHL!”, I knew we had captured something magical.
The Pokémon games are interesting in this way. You might encounter a [non-player character] Gym Leader, let’s say, for five minutes in your entire life, yet somehow, there’s something immensely captivating about them, their lore and their Pokémon. The Pokémon franchise has a lot more depth than most people might realise at face value. It is this exploration, appreciation, and love for its depth that I think ties my community together, and I couldn’t be more thankful to have so many people willing to partake in this journey with me.
Andrew Mahone, 32
Pokemon Trading Card Game content creator on Twitch and YouTube.
I used to be a division three athlete. I was never going to be an Olympian or a professional, but I was at the top of the game for what I was doing. There’s a lot of scrappiness in division three athletics, because no one’s going to end up getting paid, and that’s part of what I loved about it. The Pokémon TCG used to be more like a division three sport. Then, in 2016, The Pokémon Company introduced prize money to the regional and international circuits: at Worlds you can win $20,000. I will always look back fondly on the days when it was a little scrappier. But you can always get together with your friends and have those experiences. I think it makes sense for the game to grow and I’m happy that it is.
But as we progress as a society, are we going to continue putting value on playing a tabletop game? Or will kids want to play nothing but computer games? There is value in being able to leave your screens behind and just play the TCG with a friend or family member, or even somebody you just met. That is an important social experience and can generate a lot of meaningful relationships. Some of my best friends that I’ve ever made have been through playing the Pokémon Trading Card Game.
When the pandemic happened, everyone got super interested in collectables and doing things at home. Pokémon just happened to be one of those things that blew up around that time, because it was something for people to temporarily sink their teeth into. The combination of so many people joining the hobby, plus Logan Paul joining and partnering with [Pokémon YouTuber] Leonhart, blowing it out of proportion with a giant live stream, re-popularised Pokémon. Then people jumped down the rabbit hole, watching people open packs. Unfortunately, it has now led to many people who were just casual collectors, casual players, not being able to enjoy the hobby anymore, because the products cost too much or you can’t find them anywhere.
Oddly enough, this fixation on collecting is uniquely Pokémon. I really think that comes down to the fact that Pokémon is heavily a majority of collectors versus players, whereas with Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic: The Gathering, it’s the opposite. I’ve spoken with people who actually were like a part of [original TCG distributor] Wizards of the Coast back when they launched Pokémon. They were trying so hard to get people to actually play the game, because that’s how you create sustainable consumers, essentially, if they’re building decks and collecting and playing. They even had these camps, almost like summer camps, where you go and learn how to actually play Pokémon. But they could never get it to stick. People were always just more interested in trading on the playground.