GOTTA CATCH 'EM ALL!

02.28.16 11:28 AM ET

I Still Choose You, Pokémon: Real-Life Trainer Aaron Zheng on 20 Years of Catching ‘Em All

Two-time Pokémon U.S. National Champion and World Semi-Finalist Aaron Zheng, a.k.a. Cybertron, looks back on the beloved franchise’s storied history and the greatest challenges it faces ahead.

This weekend, the Pokémon Company celebrates its 20th anniversary. In the years since the debut of its first games, the franchise has enjoyed tremendous financial success and global popularity with over 277 million copies sold, making Pokémon games the second best-selling video games in the world. Today, Pokémon boasts not only a successful video game series but also a popular trading card game, a long-running TV series, 18 movies, and a lucrative line of merchandise. But what exactly is it that’s captivated millions of fans, including me, for so long? 

***

When someone asks me what my favorite memory of Pokémon is, it’s difficult to point to one specific example.

Despite being a competitive Pokémon video game player for the past eight years, the first thing that stands out to me isn’t a victory or a tournament, it’s my first game: Pokémon Emerald. I remember spending countless summer hours with my elementary school friends battling and trading. I remember training my first Pokémon to its maximum potential, Level 100 (my trusty Swampert), and encountering my first rare, “shiny” Pokémon, a Voltorb.

The fundamentals of the Pokémon video games are simple: you, as the main character, travel around the world, battling and capturing as many distinct creatures called Pokémon as you can. As your journey unfolds, you level up your Pokémon and battle other trainers.

Competitive Pokémon battling, on the other hand, is a bit more intense, and unique compared to other popular games. It has elements of chess, poker, and rock-paper scissors. Imagine a game of chess, where you and your opponent choose six unique pieces out of hundreds, and instead of taking turns, you move simultaneously. Players make their moves based on what they think their opponent might do. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. 

(L-R) Pokemon Red, Pokemon Yellow, Pokemon Blue, the original Pokemon games released in 1996.

Nintendo

(L-R) Pokemon Red, Pokemon Yellow, Pokemon Blue, the original Pokemon games released in 1996.

The key is to have a game plan and to adapt as the game progresses, though blind luck factors in as well, with hidden coin flips and dice rolls that can completely change the outcome of a match. It’s not a game that requires intense technical skills like Super Smash Bros or Starcraft, but instead relies on probability and information management, getting into your opponent’s head, and quickly calculating numbers.

I first found myself mesmerized by a live Pokémon battle on TV at a local mall, during the franchise’s 10th anniversary celebration, a nationwide tour called “Journey Across America.” That was when I began to dream of standing on the big stage battling competitively. A few years later, that dream became reality as I battled against Japanese National Champion Ryosuke Kosuge in the semi-finals of the 2013 Pokémon Video Game World Championships. 

The best-of-three series went back and forth: I took the first game decisively while he recovered and won a one-sided Game Two. The third game had no clear leader, and it all built up to one final match. I was the only American left in the competition and had a 50-50 chance of winning. Pressure and expectations were high. 

Unfortunately, lady luck wasn't on my side, and I was eliminated from the tournament. I was heartbroken, but playing in front of such a large live crowd and thousands more watching at home was exhilarating.

Some might be inclined to dismiss Pokémon as “childish,” but my experience as a competitive Pokémon player has changed my life. My family and I have grown closer through traveling together to tournaments. And I’ve learned the art of managing expectations and dealing with both victory and defeat with humility. Most importantly, through competitive Pokémon, I’ve been able to meet so many different people from all around the world and hear their stories. 

In an age where electronic sports are growing exponentially every year, competitive Pokémon stands apart from games like League of Legends (more commonly known as LoL) or Defense of the Ancients (DotA) because only a few players compete for actual prizes. Most Pokémon trainers play simply because we love the game. No one makes a living off winning tournaments—we’re just normal people who share a passion. To me, that’s what Pokemon is about: interacting with others who love the games and franchise just as much as I do. 

My Pokémon story is just one of millions. There are fans who prioritize catching and breeding Pokémon, fans who truly immerse themselves in the stories that the games have to offer, and fans who enjoy trading with people from all around the world. Pokémon games still excite players 20 years into their history because there’s something for every type of gamer out there, casual or competitive, young or old.

***

It’s difficult to fathom Pokemon’s success today given that two decades ago, Satoshi Tajiri, Pokémon’s creator, and Game Freak, its developer, nearly went bankrupt trying to complete the franchise’s firs games, Pokémon Red and Green. Most major electronic companies had given up on the Gameboy by that point and Nintendo had low expectations for the games’ debut in 1996. 

But the games’ unique design and that addictive mantra—“gotta catch ‘em all”—made fan enthusiasm infectious. Unbeknownst to Nintendo, Tajiri and his team had also cleverly implemented a hidden 151th Pokémon, known as Mew. How one could capture this elusive, hidden Pokémon puzzled players, which Tajiri maintains helped boost game sales. As Pokémon’s popularity grew, Tajiri realized the franchise’s potential and, soon, a TV series and the trading card game were created alongside physical merchandise. The company took off and the rest is history.

Despite reusing the same basic gameplay formula over and over again, the video games have enjoyed perennial success, even today. (The franchise as a whole earned over $2 billion dollars in retail sales in 2014 alone.) This is in part owed to the Pokémon Company’s willingness to integrate current technology into the games. While physical cables were once required to connect Gameboys and trade or battle Pokémon, for example, all that’s needed now is Wi-Fi or local wireless. And in addition to the creation of new Pokémon and better graphics, game mechanics have also improved with each new generation in the franchise.

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The second generation of games (Silver, Gold and Crystal) introduced a whole new region full of new Pokémon and gym leaders, from whom players earn “badges” marking accomplishment. The third generation (spanning Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald) gave way to new abilities and Double battles, in which four Pokémon battle at a time with two on each opposing side. The fourth (Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum) introduced a split between two types of attacks, “physical” and “special,” while the fifth (Black, White, Black 2 and White 2) introduced Triple battles, in which six Pokémon battle at once. The sixth and most recent iteration of games (X and Y) introduced Mega evolutions, a new potential step in certain Pokémon’s development. 

The fundamentals stay constant, but the games constantly reinvent themselves in order to lure fans both new and old. 

The Pokémon franchise has truly been able to accomplish something special over the past 20 years. Its official trading card game and video game tournament circuits have grown exponentially in terms of attendance and prize support, and its social media outreach is stronger than ever. 

Who knows where we’ll be another 20 years from now? The upcoming title Pokémon GO, an augmented reality game where users catch, battle, and train Pokémon in real life, offers a glimpse of the franchise’s still-immense potential. Maybe this is a bit farfetch'd (Pokémon pun!), but maybe one day, competitive Pokémon players will be able to see their matches displayed in stadiums with massive Pokémon holograms. It’s a worthwhile dream for a franchise celebrated and adored by millions around the world. Here’s to another amazing 20 years.