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Q&A: JC Rodrigo from NOA Treehouse at Pokken Tournament event

Slingshot had the chance to attend the Early Access Championship of new Nintendo game Pokken Tournament on Thursday at Nintendo New York. More than 100 fans watched as there were three divisions, including an exhibition tournament with pro fighting games players such as Justin Wong and Nairoby “Nairo” Quezada

Pokken Tournament is out today, and Slingshot caught up with JC Rodrigo, assistant manager of product marketing for the Nintendo Of America Treehouse.

It’s worth noting Nintendo’s complicated history with esports. So to hear Rodrigo say the company is going to be involved in the competitive scene for Pokken Tournament is encouraging.

Slingshot: To start off, what has this experience been like in general? The game isn’t technically out yet, but everyone seems very excited about it

JC Rodrigo: So I’ve been playing Pokken Tournament for almost a whole year now and one of the things I’m starting to learn is that it is very easy to pick up and play. We knew this and we wanted to do a tournament before launch. Most tournaments are focused on “look at this high level play,” but we wanna say, “yes look at this high level play and you can be really quick, but you can also be really smart about it.”

I mean some of these kids upstairs, they were looking at some of the replays. Somebody grabbed twice, and in a fighting game, if you grabbed twice in a row, that’s either really insulting or a really good read. So you can outsmart and outwit your opponent and you don’t need to spend a crazy amount of time where you can have a lot of fun and look really good doing it.

(This event) is probably just a little taste, keeping people wanting more, right?

Oh absolutely. A lot of people turned out today and I hope they pick up the game, which comes out tomorrow, and I hope everyone is watching on I hope people look at this first tournament and say, “yeah I do want to be a part of this.” See how everyone treats each other? Everyone is really positive, they’re encouraging, they are learning about the game, and we’re bonding. Being in front of other people, spending time with them while enjoying something mutual, that’s what makes communities great. That’s what is going to make the future of Pokken Tournament community great.

How did you go about trying to plan this tournament? There were obviously the different regional qualifiers, but how did you plan to try and run a tournament like this for a game that hasn’t actually been released yet?

There was a lot of moving parts, organizing it in eight locations. We had GameStop, they were gracious to help out. They loaned their space, and we also worked with our experimental marketing team to get some kiosks to get some public sampling. We couldn’t do it without GameStop’s help, and we couldn’t do it without Nintendo of America, putting in resources to get the game out there.

Also, at the same time, we tried to recognize places that had a lot of gamers there, usually pretty large places: Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago. So we are really happy with the way things turned out. We had a lot of moving parts and it all worked out really well. The 16 players, they’re all here. And the trainers, they have just been amazing.

Especially if you are familiar with the fighting game community, Justin Wong, Esam, Nairo, those guys are top-tier professionals. Thier mindset was incredible, and not only to win, but to learn. It’s way more fun when you are learning and they want to encourage learning. It’s a giant puzzle, like a chess match and they want to give it a shot.

Are you planning on having a ladder system or some sort of tournament structure after the game is released?

Yeah, I have a buddy that works for TPCI (The Pokemon Company International) and they are organizing some stuff. They organize the Pokemon tournaments, the trading card game and video game tournaments. Pokken Tournament is going to be a part of that series.

What kind of feedback have you gotten today about the game?

The feedback was really surprising. I was expecting it, but not at this level. It’s been great so far. Some of these guys are young, like the youngest around 9, 10 ,11, 12 years old. And you might think you are going to see good combos here and there, but I was amazed at the thought process. When you hear the thought process, I mean these guys taught me a lot of things I didn’t know. I remember this one young kid was like, “yeah here you can jump press the X button and he can’t hit you” and I’m thinkin that this is usually unsafe, and he’s like “No, if you do this here, and press that there, you can’t get hit” and I was like, wow, these kids are teaching me things i never knew, and I’ve been playing this game for so long.

I mean it was like matchup specific, how do they know this? That’s from, what, only a couple hours of gameplay? It was unbelieveable. I think that there is a lot of depth to the game, and really accessible too. If younger players can teach me a thing or two, imagine when the meta develops. It’s going to be really impressive. That’s my feedback so far.

It’s fascinating that Pokemon is so big after all these years, and with the rise of esports, fighting games are now too. You guys are combining the two into one game. How does that play into the current gaming interests?

I think that there are a couple angles here. First, is, yeah, this is the first Pokemon fighting game. In Pokemon, you select the move, and then they do it, you know it’s not that vivid. But here, you are really seeing it. You get to see Pikachu’s Iron Tail, you get to see the other Pokemon get knocked back. You get to see it all right in front of your face. It’s a really beautiful game and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

If you take a look at the staff. We have people that worked on Tekken and Soulcalibur. They put their minds together and out came Pokken Tournament. It’s easy to pick up like Soulcalibur with directional inputs, but it is also complex and very deep. So, again, they really thought this through and it turned out really great.

With how big esports has become, how are you guys approaching this? It seems like naturally the game is designed to be an esport. Do you have any plans for the game to become an esport?

It’s funny because when you look at it, esports is relatively new, especially for some companies. So, for example, I put on the Smash Brothers Invitational with Smash 4. I put on a tournament at E3 and starting to slowly learn what makes it really interesting and really tick. I also think it’s really interesting that we call it “esports,” because really, “esports” can be a loaded term.

Esports for me is just a bunch of people who get together and have a great time. That’s the point of the community. To me, it’s less about whatever you want to call it. Call it esports if you want. It’s less about calling it esports, it’s about looking upstairs (where the tournament was going on) and see all those people going ham. Like people yelling, “Did you see that guard?” And another say “Wait how did he do that, why did the shield turn red?” When tthat conversation starts, that’s beautiful. I’m having a conversation, about a game, at the Nintendo Store in New York, which is being streamed on Twitch. These things all fall into place which you might call “esport”. But for us, it’s more about the game, it’s more about the people and their experience, going out and meeting each other, that’s where the build blocks start, regardless of what you want to call it.

Do you plan on working with tournament organizers for tournaments such as EVO or Apex?

We worked with them in the past, and Nintendo has worked with them in various ways, but as for plans… Do you want there to be plans?



The community around those type events are amazing.

Yeah, and they are pretty hardcore Nintendo fans, from my experience and the people I’ve met. You know, Nintendo wants to continue to support them because we love what they do, we love their enthusiasm, we love their passion for the game. It’s unrivaled and second to none.

We completely appreciate any kind of attention and any kind of play our games are given. Especially on that scale and when people put that much time to it.. It really is humbling and we are very thankful to the people that play our games and have a great time, because that smile on their face at the end of the day is all that matters.

Cover photo by Vince Nairn.