Pokken’s Apex debut is step in the right direction

The esports landscape is undergoing a massive shift. Gone are the days of League of Legends’ uncontested reign as the top dog in the realm of competitive gaming. Overwatch unseated League’s 204-week reign as the king of Korean PC Bangs. Counter Strike: Global Offensive airs weekly on TBS, and Dota’s The International continues to rocket past prize pool milestones.

This sudden explosion into the mainstream in large part due to celebrity investors — such as Rick Fox and Shaquille O’Neal — and mainstream sports coverage from Turner Sports and ESPN.

Amid this apparent golden age, Pokken Tournament couldn’t have come at a better time. A 3D pokemon fighting game should be an easy sell for anyone that grew up with Ash Ketchum’s journey through the Pokemon League. Pokken combined a beloved source material with the complex mechanics you’d expect from a seasoned fighting game release.

The Pokemon Company even pledged its support for the game’s competitive side, sponsoring a tournament series to incentivize talented competitors towards pursuing a Pokken Tournament title. EVO bought in, including Pokken in its 2016 competitive lineup.

Three months since its Western release, Pokken had yet to find it’s footing. Major tournaments — including DreamHack, Apex and CEO — continue to test the waters, but Pokken’s accessibility is slowing its growth.

According to Smash commentator D’Ron “D1” Maingrette, that’s about to change.


“From CEO to EVO I believe the game can pick up steam as more players are starting to understand the game on a deeper level,” D1 told Slingshot. “I want to make Pokken Tournament more accessible by doing a ton of research on my end, playing the game a lot, and asking a ton of questions from the knowledgeable folks in the community in an effort to bring informative, yet entertaining commentary to get more people into the game like I did with Smash Bros.”

Apex 2016 was the game’s first glimpse of progression. During Day 1, Smash 4 players joked about Pokken’s barren friendly setups. They snagged its chairs and repeated the same “dead game” jokes for hours on end.

On Day 3, Pokken ran before Melee. The finals pitted tournament favorite and Dreamhack Austin runner-up, Wesley “Cat Fight” Garland, against a tri-state area Charizard known as Cyberman65. For many spectators, this was their first exposure to the game.

Aside from angst from a few Melee supporters, the Pokken finals captivated its audience. The learning curve was easy enough; visual cues helped the viewers understand every grab, combo or missed opportunity.

Clawing his way from the loser’s side, Cyberman awoke the crowd by resetting the bracket

Charizard chants erupted, rivaling Cat Fight’s faithful supporters. What began as a few loud mouths picking their favorite pokemon had evolved into an avalanche of chants and applause. The Pokken crowd was the loudest of the day, in part due to the classic underdog run. Down 2-1, Cat Fight was backed into a corner, and the crowd let him hear it.

“I’m kind of used of it, to be honest,” Cat Fight told Slingshot. “The stigma of Chandelure is that he’s a lame character. I’m used to the crowd, not necessarily rooting against me, but rooting against my character. I do have a lot of supporters, which I’m very thankful for. I didn’t let that type of nonsense affect me.”

The momentum shifted back and forth, as each player tried to force phase shifts on their own terms. Battling back from the brink, the Chandelure forced a deciding game five.  There, Cat Fight’s composure netted him a tournament-clinching push. According to Cat Fight, this was his toughest test to date.

“Even against Bim?, I didn’t feel pushed this far,” Cat Fight said. “Cyberman is apart of New York’s Pokken scene. We’ve played a lot online and in tournament before, so I knew that I was gonna be up for a big challenge.”

Cat Fight and Cyberman exposed the best of Pokken to the Apex crowd. Countless spectators mentioned their intent to look into the scene, following the set. D1, who was visibly impressed, tweeted out his intent to help grow the scene. By then, no one was laughing.

“I myself knew Catfight was a great player in his own right, what made it exciting was see Cyberman give Catfight a challenge with his Charizard,” D1 said. “Seeing a zoner like Chandelure dealing with a rushdown heavy character like Charizard makes for quite the show.”

CEO’s Pokken tournament had similar entertainment value, with Cat Fight’s Circa eSports teammate claiming first. Cat Fight was forced into Top 8, proving the competition is on the rise. Aside from the cash prizes and the glory, Pokken players fight to put on a show and grow their game’s fledgling community.

“I’m always trying to show new things to the community,” Cat Fight said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a computer, so I don’t have the ability to do that from home. When I play, I try to play as best as I can while demonstrating everything that I’ve learned playing Pokken.”


Pokken has steep entertainment value, but the Wii U’s limitations make it difficult to establish local competitive scenes. To play a 1v1 matchup, an organizer needs two monitors and Wii U’s due to the game’s lacking split-screen capabilities.

With the stage set for Pokken’s EVO debut in less than a month, Cat Fight and company are ready to fight for their game’s mainstream acceptance.

“I’m definitely ready for (EVO),” Cat Fight said. “I’m gonna do a lot of what I’ve been doing. I think that my practice routine has been keeping me consistent. I’m just going to keep at it and try to employ everything new that I can to try and keep people on their toes.”

With exciting gameplay, Nintendo’s support and influential backers, Pokken may still evolve into the next greatest fighting game.

“I implore everyone to make use of the PokkenArena forums. There is so much information there, and a lot of top players frequent the area,” D1 said. “The community wants the game to stay alive, and having the Championship Series is already a pretty good motivating factor for many aspiring professionals.”

The road is long and time is fleeting, but EVO 2016 will likely be a proving ground for more than the game’s players. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a Nintendo title was reborn following EVO.

Cover photo: Vince Nairn