Gaming

I choose you: Pokémon Draft League brings pro sports excitement to the game

An early-season draft-league match comes down to the wire.

Draft league is probably nothing like the Pokémon you’re familiar with. It’s not training up a team of your favorite Pokémon to beat Team Rocket. It’s not even like an official competitive tournament run by The Pokémon Company.

And it all started with a bumper sticker.

Steve “Magnitude” Wood is the YouTuber and sports fanatic who came up with the concept of combining his two passions. “I’m a huge Milwaukee Bucks basketball fan,” he tells Ars Technica. “And I thought the Pokémon Sawsbuck looks a lot like the Milwaukee Bucks logo. One of my friends was a graphic designer, so she made me a sticker, and I got it printed and put it on my car.”

That’s when he realized the potential for a competitive Pokémon league based on the same draft systems used in “regular” sports like baseball or American football (and the popular “fantasy sports” versions that surround them). In these sports, contracts and the limitations of corporeal bodies means only one team can use any one player at any given time.

That’s not the case in Pokémon tournaments, where you often see the same powerful monsters appearing in nearly every team. According to stats website Pikalytics, in 2019 an estimated 86 percent of teams at VGC competitions (the official tournaments run by The Pokémon Company) used Incineroar, and nearly 45 percent included Mega Rayquaza.

Imagine if 86 percent of NFL teams fielded Aaron Donald each week. For starters, no quarterback would make it out alive. But it would also get a bit boring after a few matches.

Wood knew that he couldn’t simulate the brutal physicality of American football or the speed and athleticism of a basketball player in a virtual game more similar to chess. But if he could invoke the same nail-biting tension that he felt when rooting for the Bucks, he knew he’d be onto a winner. So he started by drafting a team for fans to get behind.

The Draft

In the NFL, the most in-demand players are drafted first and usually tied down with longer contracts. Wood tried to emulate this property with the Global Battle Association (GBA), the first-ever draft-league Pokémon tournament, which he debuted in 2012.

“There were 10 rounds [of the draft, and] the Pokémon you draft in the first three rounds you had for three seasons,” Wood said. “The next three rounds were for two seasons, [and] in the final four rounds, you had one season.

“So the idea was that you had to create an actual franchise,” he continued. “The first three ‘mons I’m going to have for three years. But the downside is that if you draft a bad team, you’re stuck with them for a couple of years.”

Draft-league teams develop their own pro sports-style logos, like this one for the Milwaukee Sawbucks.
Enlarge / Draft-league teams develop their own pro sports-style logos, like this one for the Milwaukee Sawbucks.
Amanda Demaio

This system changed the game for Pokémon players, literally and figuratively, by adding a whole new layer of complexity to Pokémon selection. If standard Pokémon was “chess with 900 potential pieces,” most players just ended up choosing a lineup of all queens. In this new version, if you weren’t careful, you could end up with a roster full of pawns.

Drafting 10 Pokémon per team also adds an extra layer of strategy to choosing which monsters will fight in the standard six-on-six Pokémon battles. Suddenly, players had the opportunity to counter-pick monsters that might be particularly effective against powerful competition or hold a niche monster in reserve for a number of matches until they came across the one scenario when it could potentially shut down an opponent’s entire strategy. This lineup selection means a big part of the real battle is fought before the competitors even hit the field.

Team Building

“The reason I like draft league is because I think that any team can work,” says Joey “Pokéaim” Sciarrone, a YouTuber who exclusively streams competitive Pokémon battles. “I’m using Pokémon that are probably really bad, but I love to see how they do. And draft league takes that to the next level.”

Sciarrone’s team, the New York Dreepys, drafts unloved Pokémon and utilizes unique movesets to take opponents by surprise. He says Seaking, a fairly average Pokémon, really shines in this format because it is so difficult to prepare for. Its Lightning Rod ability gives it an immunity to electric-type attacks that are usually super-effective. But if Sciarrone knows you’ve drafted a strong grass-type to deal that super-effective damage instead, Seaking can pack a punch with Megahorn or Poison Jab to inflict a super-effective hit right back.

Nailing those surprise moves is the Pokémon equivalent of a home run or a three-point shot. It’s what keeps fans on the edge of their seats and what ultimately makes draft league so satisfying.

“I love having a game plan and just seeing it unfold in battle,” Sciarrone said. “That’s the thing that’s like, ‘Yeah, man, this is cool, the team won the way I wanted it to.'”

The intense preparation coaches put into building their teams only adds to the mind games within the matches themselves. For instance, if Sciarrone predicts his opponent will bring a grass-type attacker to take on his Seaking, he can use tools like Pokémon Showdown to estimate the damage he’ll deal and take from certain attacks. This way, he can train his Pokémon specifically to outspeed a potential counter, or he can invest in its attack enough to guarantee a one-hit knockout.

Listing image by WBE

Building an “Ultra” fanbase

Wood had mixed success in the inaugural draft season of the GBA. He managed to nail down Greninja—one of the very best Pokémon available in Pokémon X and Y—to a three-year contract, but he also picked up Malamar for three years. While the former was eventually his MVP (Most Valuable Pokémon), the latter lived up to its topsy-turvy reputation and spent nearly every match on the bench.

But Wood didn’t mind that he’d made a bad call. In fact, he relishes in his own misfortune: “I like punishing people—even if it’s myself—for making bad decisions. Then the only option is to be better.”

A heavily contested match in the Grand Finals of a recent World Battle Entertainment season.

The finals of the GBA Season 2, the earliest video still on the official channel, has been viewed around 6,500 times. However, recent final matches of spin-off draft-league World Battle Entertainment (WBE) regularly push past 40,000 views, proving that fans love the draft-league concept. The higher viewership attracts higher-profile players, who in turn attract even more viewers.

Fans love the punishing nature of the competition, tracking stats, and following franchises being built before their eyes in weekly battles broadcast on YouTube. Coaches make consequential predictions to turn the tide of a game, maneuvering Pokémon into position to unleash a key move or ability at the perfect moment.

Will Sciarrone switch his Seaking in to take that electric-type move? Will Wood promote Malamar from the bench to disorient his opponent? Or will their opponents see it coming and prepare their own perfect counter? Fans wait with bated breath to see whether outrageous plays like these will pay off, reacting in real-time with the coach of their favorite team.

Jump to the comments section of any draft-league video on YouTube to see how much the format means to people. Like a band of fanatical “Ultras” following a football team in Italy or Brazil, fans are their team’s loudest cheerers but can also be the harshest critics if they feel mistakes were made. Like any sport, rivalries emerge, conversations get heated, and sometimes insults are even hurled at the coaches themselves if the team isn’t doing well enough.

“[You were] massively outplayed, yet still the winner. I hope you’re satisfied by this win of pure luck,” an opposing fan commented on Wood’s first-ever draft-league battle.

The World Battle Entertainment logo.
Enlarge / The World Battle Entertainment logo.

Others leave more constructive feedback, though it often comes across as backseat battling. “You should have double switched into your Smeargle when it was your Moltres against his Mawile,” a fan commented with the privilege of hindsight.

The negativity is counteracted by the positive comments from die-hard fans, though. “I’m still keeping hope alive for the Sawsbucks!” wrote a fan after the disastrous culmination of the GBA Season 1 which saw them win only one match of 10. “They’re gonna come roarin [sic] back in season 2!”

“There’s the pressure of knowing if you make the wrong move, you’ll have 85 people telling you that you made the wrong move,” Wood laughs. But he knows that his fans have the Milwaukee Sawsbucks’ best interests at heart. If anything, the negative comments show the passion that his supporters have for their virtual team.

Game Time

“After Season 1, it just took off,” Wood tells us. “There was so much interest—so many people asking if they could join for Season 2, and it just kind of snowballed from there.”

And snowball it did. After eight players drafted teams for the first season, Wood had to turn potential players away to keep a 14-competitor second season manageable. Other leagues popped up as well, from small groups of friends playing entirely offline to YouTubers with big followings putting their own spin on the format. Type in “Pokémon draft league” on YouTube and you’ll see hundreds of leagues putting their own spin on the format, with anywhere from 15 and 15,000 subscribers.

Fast forward to the eighth season of the GBA, and the idea has even reached pro Pokémon players from the official VGC tournaments.

Aaron “Cybertron” Zheng is a legend of the Pokémon VGC scene. A five-time Regional Champion, two-time National Champion, and eight-time Worlds Qualifier, he now frequents these prestigious events from the commentary box.

But Zheng says it was still a challenge adjusting to the peculiarities of Pokemon drafting. Unlike in VGC, where players usually try to come up with counters for popular picks like Incineroar, in draft league, you need to expect the unexpected.

“A lot of Pokémon that I might know what they do in doubles [the 2v2 battling format used in VGC tournaments], I don’t know what their sets [the moves and tactics they typically use] are in singles exactly,” Zheng explains. “And in draft league, specifically, you can run really specific moves for counter matchups.”

A lengthy video showing the entire draft process for a recent WBE season.

“The very first time [I played draft league], I drafted a rain team,” he continues, referring to an age-old Pokémon strategy which involves using one Pokémon to set up weather conditions that will boost the effectiveness of others on the team. “Rain’s a pretty good strategy [in VGC],” says Zheng, “but in draft league it’s a lot easier to shut down weather if you know your opponent is always going to be carrying it.”

Some of the most interesting choices in a draft league come in the later rounds, when all the traditionally good monsters are gone and coaches pick up niche Pokémon to fill their ranks. That’s how ordinarily useless and forgettable Pokémon like Dottler can end up setting Sticky Webs to slow down opposing teams or using Reflect to take less damage for five turns. Suddenly, an average Pokémon becomes key to a coach’s strategy, and it’s these Pokémon that Zheng struggles to prepare for.

This is a testament to Wood’s innovation. He’d never have expected to beat a player of Zheng’s caliber at a VGC tournament, but draft league is a whole different (Poké)ball game. A couple of months ago, the two faced each other in WBE, a new draft league that is pushing the boundaries of entertainment with more polished graphics, more coaches, and a bigger social media presence.

Wood beat one of the most decorated Pokémon players in the world by the biggest possible margin, 6-0, a win which allowed him to progress to the playoffs.

A Critical Hit!

The WBE is currently the biggest Pokémon draft league on YouTube. It’s run by Pokémon YouTuber aDrive (who asked that his full name not be used), using an adapted version of Wood’s original rules.

“When I started Pokémon on YouTube, the draft league format was relatively new, with the GBA entering its third season,” he explains. “I joined the league and ended up performing relatively well, and I just found it to be really fun… I’m a big baseball fan, so tying that sports element into competitive Pokémon just seemed like a really cool idea.”

The New York Mankeys is a great name for a team.

Aside from a spectacular Championship Belt for the victor, the main differences in aDrive’s WBE lie in the drafting itself. Teams are drafted for one season only, giving coaches a chance to grab an entirely new roster each year and start fresh. aDrive also introduced a tier system to better balance the teams across the league. Both of these rules directly contradict Wood’s original intent to punish people for their errors, but aDrive wanted to create something new and exciting for both players and fans.

WBE’s name, inspired by the WWE, seems to be emblematic of this shift. “I wanted to create a league that was focused on entertainment,” he says. “Bring something a little bit different to the draft-league scene.”

Leaning toward entertainment evidently helped the WBE push new boundaries and reach more people—the two-hour-long video of the WBE Season 4 draft has 130,000 views at the time of writing. The Championship Belt awarded to the winner only adds to the spectacle of this iteration of draft league.

But rather than being bitter, Wood loves it. “I made the GBA as a sports league with Pokémon,” he tells us. “Now, it’s become a Pokémon league with sports.”

As if to prove a point, Wood reached the final of the WBE Season 4, winning the match he described as a “slugfest” in part thanks to a penultimate-turn critical hit. However, he gracefully forfeited the title due to an illegal move he mistakenly ran on his Vaporeon—even though it wasn’t used in the battle. This is the closest he’s ever got to winning any draft-league competition, but in his own words, “I like punishing people—even if it’s myself—for making bad decisions.”

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Gaming & Culture – Ars Technica

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