Journalist and Photographer
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Pokemon TCG, the global phenomenon

Pokemon trading card game enthusiasts gamble their jobs, money, time

 The Pokemon Regional Tournament in Hartford, CT housed video-gamers and card-players alike. /  Photo by Cathleen Cusachs.

The Pokemon Regional Tournament in Hartford, CT housed video-gamers and card-players alike. / Photo by Cathleen Cusachs.

In a convention center in Hartford, in a mess of around 1,200 competitors, two stand out. Pablo Meza of Mexico City and Jimmy Pendarvis of Tampa sit in a back corner, separated from the rest of the room, preparing for a match that will end at least one of their identical perfect records.

They shuffle their decks, and a coin is flipped, giving Meza the upper hand. He plays Remoraid, a water type. Pendarvis follows with Turtonator GX, fire.

Round Four of Hartford’s Regional Pokemon Trading Card Game Tournament has begun.

Introduced in North America in 1999, the Pokemon cards—sold in packs similar to those of baseball—took off as an adolescent collection fad. Now, it’s evolved into an international phenomenon, with world champions winning a share of $500,000.

Unlike many card games, Pokemon TCG’s rules are complex, including different card variations. There’s those featuring the popular cartoon monsters with their listed superpowers, and those containing a whole slew of supporting characters and items. Players win by strategically using cards that will lower their opponent’s cards’ health count.

Meza, 29, left a successful marketing career in March 2017 to play this game full time, a risky move. Luckily, it paid off. Now, he’s sponsored by online gaming store CCG Castle and Ultimate Guard card sleeves, and a member of Team Sack or Scoop, a cohort of top-notch players. And that’s not all—he’s also Mexico’s national champion and a popular Youtuber. After ultimately tying his match with Pendarvis at Hartford’s Regionals (held this past September), he moved on, only to get knocked out before the final rounds. However, two weeks later in Vancouver, Meza won the gold, a.k.a. the $5,000 champion reward. Between prize money and coaching future competitors, he can make enough to live.

 The trading cards themselves are complex, each comes fit with its own image and statistics. /  Image constructed by Cathleen Cusachs.

The trading cards themselves are complex, each comes fit with its own image and statistics. / Image constructed by Cathleen Cusachs.

Competitors

The size of this community is surprising. The largest event in the United States was just held this year, the 2017 North American International Championships (Indianapolis, June 30-July 2), with 1,766 total trading card competitors. That might sound extreme, but it’s not; Meza was one of 750 in his age division alone at the smaller Hartford Regionals.

Where did they all come from? Well, many never really left, sticking with the cards since their childhood years. Some might have recently returned to the game, curious and looking for nostalgia. Last year’s Pokemon Go app phenomenon certainly didn’t harm the community either. But what’s most interesting to note is the wide age range among players.

This  generational span is best seen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology every Thursday night. Run by Lucy Yang, a bioengineering graduate and campus research assistant, the MIT League is a weekly gathering of TCG and Pokemon video game players, ranging in age from parents to college students to young children. The group is like a family—one meeting became a birthday party for Yang, complete with cake—trading, playing, and chatting.

Conversations often revolve around rules, the game being so nuanced and all, with regulars calling Yang over to clarify. Because besides working at the Institute and running the League, Yang is an official judge for The Pokemon Company. In fact, she was working Hartford Regionals, there to end debates and explain situations. The position requires a test and a handful of essays, dubbed the “Professor Exam.”

“There's not much recruitment at all,” Yang said. “Poke-parents I've talked to tend to say something like, ‘I might as well judge since I have to bring my kids to these events.’ The shop employees do it out of necessity to run tournaments and sell [merchandise]. Players may do it to be more involved in the community.”

Finding your way into this world and staying there can be tough, Meza said via a Skype interview from Mexico City. Most of his country’s official events occur in Mexico City, and for an invitation to World’s, realistically, players have to travel to North America, Europe, or elsewhere to compete. Not to mention the cost of the cards themselves—some of which can run over $100.

Initially distributed like baseball cards in packs, cards can now also be found for sale individually in locked glass cases at game shops and available for trade at tournaments, league meetings, or even online. Besides the cards, players looking to compete officially use sleeves—plastic coverings that protect them from damage and tampering—dice, playing mats, and boxes to hold their decks.

“This hobby is very expensive, for sure,” Meza said. “These are luxury items, and the average player in Mexico doesn’t have the purchasing power that’s adequate.”

The admission and travel costs for tournaments can add up too. Sponsored players like Meza and Pendarvis get these covered, but for beginners trying to break into the community, it can be intimidating.

“This year, thanks to my sponsors, I’ll be able to travel to all of the North American regionals,” Meza said. “I’ll be going to about 14 regionals, four internationals, and World’s. So that’s 19 [international flights].”

 Yajie Yu, a resident physician at Harvard Medical School, says Dragonite is his favorite card.  / Scanned image courtesy of Cathleen Cusachs

Yajie Yu, a resident physician at Harvard Medical School, says Dragonite is his favorite card. / Scanned image courtesy of Cathleen Cusachs

Collectors

An MIT League regular, Yajie Yu, has also dedicated a good chunk of his life to this; Only he does have a fulltime job: a resident physician at Harvard Medical School. Yu, though, doesn’t actually play Pokemon TCG. Instead, since he was eight years old, Yu has been collecting cards. Now a 27-year-old, he estimates he’s gathered a couple thousand, enough to fill seven binders.

“When I first started, there was just the original 151 [Pokemon],” Yu said. “Now there’s around 800 to 900, and it keeps growing. There’s always something new to collect. For me personally, it’s like a sense of completion.”

He gets most of his cards from trading at league meetings and buying old collections for cheap at tag sales, spending an average of about $30 a month. Because he doesn’t compete, all of this is just a personal hobby—similar to stamp collecting. Unlike your typical postage lover though, Yu can be found in the same place every Thursday night: the MIT student center. He’s only missed maybe one meeting in two years. Comparing to other potential hobbies, Yu said it could be worse.

“I try to invite a lot of my friends from work to come, but they haven’t shown up so far,” Yu said.  “Work is stressful, but coming here makes me feel like myself. It makes me feel like there are things outside of work; There are good things in life to look forward to.”

Memories associated with each find also fuel his hobby, Yu said. His favorite card, a 1999 holographic Dragonite, brought back a story from third grade. Despite being the first rare card Yu got his hands on, he traded it for a keychain.

“It took me years before I finally got that card back,” Yu said. “When I finally did, it immediately went in my binder and has been there every since. That’s probably the most valuable card for me mentally.”

In elementary school, Yu used to run what he called a “Pokemon card smuggling ring.” The game was taking off, and schools were starting to ban it.

“I’d bring cards to school and we’d meet in the closet,” Yu said. “We’d use envelopes and books to hide them, trying to be sneaky. I ran it for three years—I was busted every year.”

Yu stayed just as stuck on this hobby in later years, even when his parents stopped buying him cards. He got a job and bought them himself. But, what to do with them is still up in the air. He knows he’s going to continue until they stop making them; then, who knows?

“Ever since I was a teenager, my mom would say things like ‘Oh you’re in middle school and you still like Pokemon,’ ‘Oh you’re in high school and you still like Pokemon,’ ‘Oh you’re in college...,’ Yu said. “Now it’s more just funny. Like ‘Oh you finished med school, you’re a doctor, and you still collect Pokemon cards.’”

When there are major events to cover, I will spend basically the whole weekend. As long as the streams are up and running, the competition is going...I will be in front of the computer screen more or less all weekend.
— Tate Whitesell, 17, founder of PokeStats

Commentators

Not everyone stuck with it, though. Tate Whitesell, a 17-year-old in Elliot, Maine, stumbled upon the community when he got curious where his favorite adolescent game was now. A statistics buff, he quickly realized there was a strong need for an “ESPN for Pokemon,” as he put it. So, he made PokeStats.

PokeStats, a website (http://ptcgstats.blogspot.com) filled with tournament results, rankings, and even blog posts, is the up-and-coming name in the TCG world. Top players publicly endorse it, even sending in their own records and observations to Whitesell personally.

“I thought what this community needed to grow was some kind of organized source,” Whitesell said via Skype from home. “It needs to be something that keeps track of the players, keeps track of the cards. I never expected it to be me.”

After tweeting the link out, the community started picking it up. Whitesell himself, though, has never competed in anything beyond a local league cups. Instead, he gets his information from research, live streams, and insiders at the event. Because as a senior in high school, he lacks the resources necessary to travel. Whitesell said he’s talked to players ranging from those ranked number one in their country to those experimenting in their local scene.

“When there are major events to cover, I will spend basically the whole weekend,” Whitesell said. “As long as the streams are up and running, the competition is going, and players are sending me updates, like little facts and trivia that I can work in, I will be in front of the computer screen more or less all weekend.”

Live streams are an important piece of the Pokemon TCG puzzle; Mostly found on the video-sharing platform, Twitch, they allow the international community to keep up with each other. After falling out of the competition at Hartford’s September Regionals, Meza joined ranks as a commentator on the weekend’s stream. He has a Youtube channel (called tablemon) with over 11,000 subscribers, making him a popular face with viewers.

“I used to watch a lot of Youtubers that did Pokemon content,” Meza said. “What they showed on their channel was good, but then their tournament results was not up to par.”

Similar to most sports, TCG players idolize their best and want to hear from them. It’s what sparked Meza to bring his talents to Youtube and start private coaching, it’s also a driving force behind Whitesell’s PokeStats. On November 24, 2017, the website published rankings of popular decks as debated by top players, one being Jimmy Pendarvis.

It’s these parts of the community that make it difficult to ignore the vast intelligence of some of the players—they’re far from the young kids playing at home in 1999. Whitesell, for example, hopes to use the website in his college applications. He said he wants to pursue journalism and statistics further.

“There’s so many moving parts to it all,” Whitesell said. “Not that there’s not luck in it, but it’s a really skill-based game. You have to be smart, you have to know what’s going to happen. And literally every single player I’ve talked to has been really friendly, open, and willing to talk. I don’t think a whole lot of communities can say all that.”