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The Pokemon Go PvP world champion has one goal: to make the game an esport

(Image credit: YouTube/Pokemon)

Disclaimer: This interview took place prior to Niantic announcing the ranked PvP battle league, starting in 2020.

Pokemon Go may have been the latest pocket monster product to truly entice players of all ages, but it's no secret that the franchise is something of a giant when it comes to video games, trading cards, animated shows, and more. Part of the appeal is the competitive battling mechanics found in each medium, but Pokemon Go only recently introduced PvP almost three years into its lifespan. While the mechanics aren't quite as deep as other Pokemon video games, one man is pushing for it to become a competitive esport.

At the Pokemon World Championships earlier this year in Washington, the Pokemon Go invitational took place. Featuring eight players, it wasn't the highlight of the entire event, but one man came out on top; Kieng Iv. In his day job, he's a university lecturer on Business Analytics, along with being an independent consultant for a Fortune 500 company. His passion? Making Pokemon Go's PvP mode an esport. I caught up with him via Discord as he was travelling to Philadelphia to partake in another tournament.

"PvP came out in December 2018, eight or nine months ago," Kieng recalls. "I started really getting into it in January. And, you know, I just really enjoyed battling and helping people get better. I actually really didn’t think it was going to be an esport until I went down to the Safari Zone in Singapore."

(Image credit: YouTube/Pokemon)

"I battled one of the most well-known trainers in the world, Brandon Tan. It was a 100-person tournament. When he and I were paired up in the fifth round, literally everyone else stopped battling and came over and watched us battle. Everyone was really entertained by a very close and exciting match."

Kieng tells me that, from that moment on, he "knew Pokemon Go PvP was a very watchable esport." If you've ever dipped your toes into the water of Pokemon Go PvP, you'll likely register this as something of a dubious claim. If you're not an experienced trainer who understands the intricacies behind type match-ups and shield baiting, it really can just feel like a lot of tapping and swiping, while keeping your non-tapping fingers crossed that you'll come out on top.

Kieng explains that he knows a lot of people have a preconceived notion of what Pokemon Go PvP is and, while he understands where they are coming from, he believes that all people need to do is look to the invitational in Washington D.C. to see the true potential of Pokemon Go as an esport. That's because this style of real-time battling is something rarely seen before in the franchise, since most games opt for a turn-based system, so it has a lot of potential to evolve – pun intended. Believe it or not, there is actually a semblance of depth and skill involved with Pokemon Go esports, and it isn't just about which Pokemon has the highest CP. "There were 12,000 or 13,000 people watching the stream initially," he continues. "In the chat they were like, 'oh, why are we watching this? Why are we watching 'tap, tap, tap, swipe, swipe, swipe?' But by the end of the end of the stream, they were at the edge of their seats wondering who was going to win."

What makes Pokemon Go competitive?

(Image credit: Youtube/Kieng)

To understand why Pokemon Go has the potential to take hold of the esports scene, you need to understand the tactics and competitive play at the heart of the game. First up is the team selection; you choose a team of six that you bring to a tournament, but you can only use three per match. Which three do you bring; do you focus on predicting your opponents types and trying to counter them, or do you think about your own game first and foremost? There's a level of psychology to it according to Kieng: if you have a "bad lead scenario" – where your first Pokemon is weak to their first – what do you do? Play it out, shield bait, switch out your Pokemon, there's a number of options that can only be learnt by playing and gaining experience in a competitive setting.

One way Kieng is educating players is via his YouTube channel. Prior to PvP launching in-game, his videos were all about raid challenges, like trying to get the fastest time, along with tips for earning XP, and some of his major milestones. Now however, he commentates over other players' gameplay from various regional tournaments, providing tips and advice for different situations.

Taking a step back from the intricate mechanics of Pokemon Go PvP, and Kieng clarifies that when he says he wants Pokemon Go esports, he doesn't "envision it to be like Fortnite or CS:GO" in terms of sheer numbers, but that isn't to say that he does believe there's still a "sizeable audience" to be found here, and that's due to the nature of Pokemon itself.

"I kind of draw an analogy to basketball. There's so many basketball fans but if you hand them a basketball and ask them to shoot 100 free throws, they couldn't even come close to the basket. But they still really enjoy watching it. So I think there’s a lot of people that play Pokémon that wouldn’t even think about ever doing PvP, but understand the excitement and the fast paced nature, and how tables can turn."

The need for developer support

(Image credit: YouTube/Pokemon)

To understand why Pokemon Go has the potential to take hold of the esports scene, first you need to understand the tactics and competitive play at the heart of the game. First up is the team selection; you choose a team of six that you bring to a tournament, but you can only use three per match. Which three do you bring; do you focus on predicting your opponents types and trying to counter them, or do you think about your own game first and foremost? There's a level of psychology to it according to Kieng: if you have a "bad lead scenario" – where your first Pokemon is weak to their first – what do you do? Play it out, shield bait, switch out your Pokemon, there's a number of options that can only be learnt by playing and gaining experience in a competitive setting.

One way Kieng is educating players is via his YouTube channel. Prior to PvP launching in-game, his videos were all about raid challenges, like trying to get the fastest time, along with tips for earning XP, and some of his major milestones. Now however, he commentates over other players' gameplay from various regional tournaments, providing tips and advice for different situations.

Taking a step back from the intricate mechanics of Pokemon Go PvP, and Kieng clarifies that when he says he wants Pokemon Go esports, he doesn't "envision it to be like Fortnite or CS:GO" in terms of sheer numbers, but that isn't to say that he does believe there's still a "sizeable audience" to be found here, and that's due to the nature of Pokemon itself.

"I kind of draw an analogy to basketball. There's so many basketball fans but if you hand them a basketball and ask them to shoot 100 free throws, they couldn't even come close to the basket. But they still really enjoy watching it. So I think there’s a lot of people that play Pokémon that wouldn’t even think about ever doing PvP, but understand the excitement and the fast paced nature, and how tables can turn."

(Image credit: Niantic)

"Pokemon Go is different to most other games because it encourages you to go outside and meet people, and I understand the friendship mechanic is very important to the game as they want to make sure people meet each other. But I think a healthy balance between that and allowing remote battles [is needed]. I suggested some ideas, like if you're not Ultra friends, you can do a maximum of five battles with any friend. So if you meet someone at a tournament, in those 30 days [before becoming Ultra Friends] you can battle up to five times with that person. You still have an incentive to get to Ultra Friends, but it still allows people to battle."

According to Kieng, the audience is there, and you just need to look toward communities like the Go Stadium Discord for proof. It's the largest Pokemon Go PvP Discord community and is apparently growing non-stop, with anywhere between 800 to 1,000 people joining every month. There's also grassroots tournaments like Silph Arena which host local events across the world, and the Pokemon Go Invitational was the second-most-watched event at the Pokemon World Championships this year. "I have a lot of optimism around how far this can come along. There's still many steps that need to be taken to make this an esport but I think we have the right people and enthusiasm in place."