Fighting games are a unique experience in gaming- a single title can receive multiple updates until it doesn’t, before getting a sequel that re-energizes the fanbase and pulls more people in.
But what about the games that get no sequels? Introducing, Pokken Tournament. This title brought Pokemon to the arcades in the form of a 1v1 fighter, where your favorite Pokemon duke it out in the kind of battles you’d imagine in your head playing the turn-based RPG in the 90s.
While it made its console debut on the ill-fated WiiU, Pokken Tournament would later get a re-release on the Nintendo Switch in the form of Pokken DX, bringing with it its unique gameplay and a refreshed roster for Pokemon fans to also become fighting game fans, and vice versa.
While the game hasn’t really gotten any official support in years (it only has 2 DLC characters), it hasn’t quite faded into obscurity like many would think. A small but passionate fanbase has been keeping this game alive through their own grassroots event.
On The Road to Greatness
We spoke to Rigz and Chepe, organizers for Road to Greatness, or RTG for short. These online tournaments are held for North American and European players every week, and have been a big part of keeping the Pokken scene alive.
“The reason I decided to do this is because I like the concept of a Pokemon fighting game, which is why I had Facebook groups made ever since 2016 and 2018”, Rigz explains. He goes on to explain that he had made a group for the original Pokken tournament, before upgrading it to DX as the game itself moved to the Nintendo Switch.
“I just really like the concept of a Pokemon fighting game dynamic on top of it being as balanced as it is, and it’s insanely balanced. It’s a really good fun competitive game, the community is still thriving, it’s not as big as Smash or Guilty Gear but I don’t do it for that, I do it because I just like the concept of the game and wanna see it grow. So that’s why I decided to host these tournaments weekly”, he adds.
As the newer offshoot, Chepe says he started RTG EU under similar circumstances for Pokken. Rather than being after a big score, his goal was simple: revive a dying scene and get more people into his favorite game.
“I started RTG EU pretty recently because I joined the community pretty late, I joined at early 2020 more or less when the pandemic started”, Chepe says. “And I noticed that EU didn’t have a lot of activity- I don’t like to say it like that but it was pretty dead. There wasn’t a lot of players.”.
“The players that I saw from EU would pop up weekly at this weekly that is held for everyone to join on the main Pokken Discord. I was thinking of starting my own weekly for EU to revive the scene a bit then Rigz ended up talking to me and saying, ‘hey wanna do this with me?’ and I said yeah and we started with RTG EU which honestly has revived it a lot more than I thought it would because I did see a lot of new players that I never heard of before join the tournaments”.
End of the Road
Of course, setting up a grassroots event is about more than just having a place for players to play every week- instead, you also need to give them something to work towards. Rigz explained that this took the form of End of the Road- the 10th week and cap of each “season” of the tournaments, which saw higher stakes for everyone taking part, including a crowd-sourced pot to go to the top three winners.
“So the community sometimes chips in to give us money for the pot. The first two times, I did it because nobody was helping us out. It was just me and Yoshean so I was just doing that, you know?”, Rigz explains.
“Later on for 3 and 4 I was not gonna contribute to the pot. I was only gonna contribute if I see a certain amount of numbers and that’s pretty much fair, you know I got the kickstart, and now the community I feel, if it really wants to support us, they can if they want to, add on to the pot bonus and stuff like that”, he continues. “There’s some, they contribute to End of the Road 3, and they gave out 50 dollars each. I don’t look at that and say whatever, I look at that and say “I hear you, and thank you”, you know? I appreciate the support and it makes me want to run the tournaments more”.
“It’s been a fun to host the series”, Rigz says. “I come from a Smash background and I know how to run brackets and stuff. This series in particular has been really fun for me to host on a challenge bracket. I like looking at data, I like looking at people get better and stuff like that. I look at previous results from different players, and at first they didn’t do so well, now they’re doing a lot better and this series is basically helping them get to that level. So it’s been an enjoyment all around”.
The Root of Grassroots
It’s important to stress just how grassroots the RTG operation really is. While publishers like Bandai Namco or Arc System Works are no strangers to having their own events, RTG is entirely handled by its organizers, with no external support.
“I don’t blame them, it’s a big company why would they bother retweeting or with stuff like this”, Rigz says.
For Pokken Tournament I’m just gonna push it as much as possible as I can physically
He’s not taking it personally either- even with the lack of support for Pokken, he says he understands that it’s just business when it comes to a niche fighting game versus, say, something on the caliber of Tekken.
“You should make games that will definitely make you more money than what this game can provide for you. I always have that thought process- always prioritize yourself, your money, and like even if the Pokken fans want it as badly as they want it, certain numbers have to show up for this game”, he says.
“At the end of the day it is a business. I get that perspective 100%”, he says. “For Pokken Tournament I’m just gonna push it as much as possible as I can physically. Especially with everyone having things going on in their personal life and stuff like that. Me, same here, but I still put the time to push this game because its one of my dopamines, its one of my escapisms you know?”
That being said, this doesn’t make the RTG team particularly jaded- just a quick glance at their Twitter and you can see them promoting other Pokken events too. There’s no race to be the premier Pokken event- instead, they’re just another brick in a wall of people who love this game.
The Satisfaction of a TO
It’s largely understood that being a Tournament Organizer is a relatively thankless job. For grassroot operations like RTG, you’re not exactly getting paid for it, and you rarely ever make headlines. So why get into it at all when you could just win another local and start your road to fame?
For Rigz it’s simple- it’s the satisfaction of a job well done:
“I like looking at data, see who got better and see who didn’t. I just like that because- people who are coming and participating in my series, its like you get rewarded, you get PR like power ranking at the end of each season”, he says.
“So they wanna see their name on the graphic ballot. Its like I don’t wanna mess that up. I usually try to recollect the data and try to make sure everyone feels involved even if they don’t get any money from participating in the tournaments because payout is bi monthly and to top 3 and a lot of people don’t make top 3. But they at least wanna see their names on the graphic”.
He also stressed the importance of support for TOs in working together to keep their favorite games going:
“I guess I’ll say if you would like to be, if you’re interested in this game in general, or you wanna see it thrive, then continue to show your support whether it be by purchasing the game or just watching our Twitch streams, our weekly Twitch streams”.
“You could just do that honestly. We greatly appreciate it, all the viewers that come in, all the people that wanna talk about the game, all the people that wanna sit down and discuss it. You know, even the ones who come in and vote just to see who’d win and if you get interested and want a taste of our competitions and stuff like that, I recommend this game, I recommend you check out other fighting games as well”.
“Attempt to join the FGC in some way. Fighting games are fun. I know this is a Pokken topic but fighting games in general need more support and im down for that”.
I don’t really care how big it blows up, I just want people to compete
Keeping That Flag Flying
He even goes on to say that it’s not just RTG ‘s cross to bear- other Pokken communities are also important to keep the game alive, and the existence of RTG was more about feeding his own drive for self-satisfaction.
“I just wanted to host my own tournament. I didn’t expect to be the end all be all for Pokken to be alive. I really feel like Pokken would have continued to thrive with just the Pokken community. Those are the people I thank, for the admins over there. High level players, and those admins are who you thank for striving for NA particular for you to thrive in the Pokken community over here for this continent”, he says.
“Here I just feel like a second hand. I don’t mind being that, I just wanted my own series. I don’t really care how big it blows up, I just want people to compete, and I think a lot of people just want the same high level players to have a certain amount of consistency within their same community and stuff like that”, he adds..
Meanwhile, Chepe is proud of his work bringing RTG to the EU, saying the promoting of a local Pokken scene was good for the community.
“I’d say RTG makes EU a lot more alive than it used to be, and having that extra playtime and those extra tournaments and that separation from world players for newer players from EU which there have been since RTG does help as well. That does help the community a lot as well”.
For The Love Of Pokken
So what keeps people coming back to Pokken? With Rigz and Chepe’s access to data, they had a lot to talk about why the Pokemon fighting game drew so much love.
“It does revolve around [rock-paper-scissors] a lot more than other games. You get your bread and butters in, then the extensions that you can get off of field and duel phase. Each hit counts as a point before you enter the next phase. So its like, the strategy around this game is about pushing your advantage state”, Rigz says. “And sometimes people purposefully do not phase shift because they want to keep that advantage state”.
There’s also the case of the game’s balance- Rigz and Chepe are both adamant that Pokken is an incredibly balanced title, and says the matchups are proof of this.
“A lot of characters that aren’t top tier per se have a winning matchup over a top tier”, Chepe says. “For example Blaziken is apparently, according to some really good Shadow Mewtwo players that I know, is winning over Shadow Mewtwo. Which is odd because Blaziken is by some people even considered the worst character in the game, which I don’t agree with”.
“But some really top players consider it the worst player in the game. So it really puts into perspective how this game is because its not exclusively about how high in the tiers they are because a lot of high tiers have losing matchups against low tiers”, he continues..
Of course, not everyone ruffles through each mechanic for a game before deciding they like it. A lot of fighting games share focal points, and what ultimately sets them apart is the love of individual players- something Pokken Tournament has in spades, as evidenced by RTG.
Players streaming their own Pokken matches during RTG helps get more eyes on the game
“It’s crazy because there are so many other better games they can choose that can financially earn them something, but Pokken doesn’t really earn anyone anything”, Rigz explains. “They just play it because they simply just love this game and love playing and feel like they’re good at it or want to get good at it so that that passion and determination are the only things that drive people. Its legit a genuine interest type thing. ‘I’m here because I like this game, I wanna get better, I like the community’. Legit, it’s all off of genuine authenticity. That’s pretty much it”.
“I agree 100% because I think with a community like this and knowing how the game is a really small community you wonder why they stick around and its because of two real reasons: a, the game is really good and its because the game is really good even up now after so many years it still has a lot of things being discovered about it”, Chepe says.
“The second reason is, of course, the community”, he says. “A lot of people have like a lot of friends inside the community and the community is really welcoming to new players. As soon as you go into the discord and tell people you’re a newbie you’ll get a lot of people asking for help. Including in Yosheans Discord here with the whole RTG students and RTG Coach role, you can ask for people to give you advice which is a really good thing and I’ve seen people do it”.
“The main reason is I think the game obviously being very strong and also the community being very welcoming”, he notes.
Me, personally, I care about new people joining… The whole point of me even doing this is for new players to try
Part of that comes down to organizes like Rigz and Chepe themselves- Rigz explained about how he had a disagreement with a separate organizer, who had only wanted serious players in his own community. According to Rigz, he set up RTG to not be that type of playerbase that would ignore casual players.
“It was just like, something I didn’t quite understand, but I just don’t see the point in separating a certain community”, he says. “You’re all a part of the same community. Everyone should either compete in it or talk about it. And most of my people wanted to talk about it. And that’s fine”.
On the other hand, RTG is more about giving new players that taste of taking a step into a bigger pool- and possibly kickstarting a deeper passion for Pokken in new players.
“Me, personally, I care more about new people joining. Every time I host a new tournament I want new people to join. That’s the goal for me. I introduce them to this game or someone else introduces them to this game from a recommendation and they decide to join, and some of them they have the thrill to compete more and others just left it in the dust because its not as appealing to them, and that’s fine. The whole point of me even doing this is for new players to try”, Rigz says.
Awaiting Pokken 2
With so much of their time and energy dedicated to Pokken and RTG, it makes sense that Rigz and Chepe would have opinions about Pokken, as well as hopes for a Pokken 2. These aren’t normal wishes either- they’re ultimately based on what they see as the shortcomings of the original Pokken Tournament.
The first of these stems from a criticism of the title- that for as unique a spinoff as it is, it never saw much promotion outside of Japan.
“Here’s the thing right- for DX for example, they released a trailer or whatever, but they didn’t promote it really. I dont feel like when this game was announced, Nintendo didn’t really push it as much”, Rigz says.
“Had Nintendo tried to advertise it more the game would have done a lot, and I mean a lot, better”, Chepe adds. “It is a good game that as soon as you try you get hooked on it. But I know a lot of people, as a Pokemon fan I know a lot of people that are also Pokemon fans, but have never heard of the game. That exactly the problem”.
“As soon as a Pokemon fan is enough of a Pokemon fan, which a lot of them are especially when you get to this age, when you start being an adult and they’re still Pokemon fans, they see a Pokken game they will at least try the demo”, he continues. “The problem is not knowing about the game is not giving them the ability to do so, and I think that was the main problem with Pokken”.
More Accommodating Of Casual Players
So assuming Pokken Tournament 2 secured the budget to get it seen, what next? According to Rigz, it’s to double down on what Pokemon genre spinoffs have always been good at- getting Pokemon fans to care about genres that aren’t turn-based RPGs.
“I would honestly like more players to come in and like I feel like what they lacked on, you know it’s Bandai Namco they prioritize competitive aspect”, Rigz says. “They should also capitalize on the story aspect, they need to understand that most of these players, they don’t have a fighting game background. Most of these players bought this game because its Pokemon. Pokemon is filled with casual players, these are players that just wanna play their favorite Pokemon”.
“I feel like they should still keep the same narrative, but make the offline more challenging and fun for the casual players”, he continues. “Most of the players that buy this are casual players, but yeah so make the story mode more fun, just make everything more interesting, have more animation sequences, just make sure that the audiences have just as much to indulge in offline as they do online”.
“I feel like that’s what they lack, they only thought about the competitive aspect, but didn’t really consider that its still a Pokemon franchise game, so you have to tend to it a lot more carefully from an offline aspect”.
Chepe echoed Rigz’ sentiment, saying that giving more casual players a reason to stay would ultimately prove better for the game’s longevity.
“I do believe that that part of the game doesn’t allow you to improve as a player towards the online, which is what the game is looking towards that’s worth aiming at”, Chepe says. “One of the best players in the world, called ShadowCat, he’s one of the best ever, he has a video on his YouTube channel talking about Pokken 2 and what a lot of ideas would be about it. I do agree with a lot of it so that is a good place to look for the future of Pokken if it ever happens”.
Support Your Locals
There’s really not much else to say that Rigz and Chepe hadn’t already- their work keeping Pokken alive through RTG is solid proof that ultimately, its the players who get to decide when a game is truly “done”. Even if a game isn’t getting balance patches or DLC, games like Pokken can keep going as long as there are people still feeling the urge to pick up their controllers and play sets against other people.
It’s also about the hard work tournament organizers do- sometimes, not every crowd is hankering for a tournament to test their mettle, but its the hard work of these organizers that get people to gather virtually or in-person not for a big cash payout, but for their love of a game.