Corona Impact: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Pokemon TCG Community
POV: You are in the middle of a regional, in place far away from home. Time is called and you end up clutching a tight victory on turns. You shake your opponent’s hand, fill out the match slip, and wish them good luck as you gather your things. A nearby judge collects your match slip and you look out amongst the sea of faces to find your group of friends huddled around the end of the play area, watching your game from afar. Excited for your victory, they greet you with high fives and fist bumps as you approach them and everyone begins talking about their stories from that round before the next begins. Shortly after seeing the pairings for the next round, you wish your friends good luck and begin weaving through the crowd of other players to find your seat. After meeting your opponent, you each shuffle your cards, cut each other decks, and set up to play your first game. Once you are given the cue by the announcer, you and your opponent shake hands and begin the round.
This anecdote more or less describes the experience of attending live events to play Pokemon TCG, which was common not that long ago. There is something jarring about how “normal” it used to be to attend these events. One of the main draws to playing in events like this are the physical attributes that playing online cannot offer. The tactical feeling of playing with real cards as well as the dynamic of having a physical person sitting across from you as an opponent contribute to the novelty that is playing trading card games. As one could imagine, the effects of the pandemic have greatly altered the way in which this game is played, and many players wonder, will things ever return to normal?
While that is hard to say, the community has established for itself a “new normal” as live events have been currently suspended until further notice. Most players are probably well adjusted to this new online centered competitive environment, which I will address later, but many might have already forgotten how many steps it took to get online tournaments to be as streamlined and accessible as they are right now, at least when this article was written. Today I want to kick off the year by looking back at how the competitive climate has changed due to the Coronavirus, as well as recognizing the hard work of many dedicated individuals that helped us get here. So strap in as we look back and appreciate the road behind us that got us here and appreciate how far we all have come.
How did we get here?
In late March of 2020 we received a notice from TCPi announcing the suspension of all sanctioned events, indefinitely -- or until it was safe again. While many speculated this to last for a few months, no one could be sure what the true ramifications would be and what was to become of the official PTCG circuit during this global pandemic. Nevertheless, the cancellation of Worlds seemed unavoidable and the future of the next season was left in limbo.
The main problem for the game was its lack of infrastructure for remote competitive play. While card games like Magic The Gathering could rely on Arena, their current online client, to facilitate competitive play during this time, Pokemon could not maneuver the same way as easily. Pokemon Trading Card Game Online (PTCGO) was viable for online play in the sense that you could build and play decks in either respective format against strangers, or friends, on the general ladder. However, if you took one look at the platform you would have seen that it was not at all equipped to handle the weight of the competitive circuit on its shoulders. This was largely due to the intention of the platform being for causal means, so there were no ranked ladders or large digital events to cater towards the competitive community. This meant that something would need to be jury-rigged quickly in order to keep the competitive scene moving.
While I believe TCPi tries to do right by their players, communication, especially in a timely manner, has never been one of their strengths as a company. Knowing this is important for understanding the frame of mind that players had when this news dropped. While players appreciated the sentiment of being informed about the fate of remaining events, granted several events had already been cancelled, it was hard to say when more information would surface and what to expect moving forward. It was a strange time to say the least, but it wouldn’t take long until other members of the community began figuring out how to make the best of this situation.
Limitless Paves The Way
Not too long after the cancellation of the season, Limitless announced their own competitive circuit to fill the void of events taking place. They advertised that the tournaments would be free to enter, available to everyone worldwide, and even offering prizes to the highest placing participants. These tournaments would take place on PTCGO, naturally, and would utilize a myriad of other applications like Discord, RK9 Labs, and Battlefy, later Smash.gg, to handle the infasturuce for these events. While events of this nature had happened in the past- although infrequent and not quite to this scale- the terrain was fairly barren and Limitless was about to undertake one of the most ambitious projects the community had seen in some time.
So how did it go? Rough. Well, only at first. The first qualifier, or rather the first attempt of one, did not fire as smoothly as everyone was hoping. Problems with both the hosting software, Battlefy, and tournament procedures caused significant delays between rounds. There was also much confusion amongst the players participating as these complications introduced many issues that the Limitless team had not originally anticipated. In the end Limitless decided to postpone the event several weeks to fully address these issues.
Okay so how did it really go? After adjusting their system, the rest of the Limitless Invitational Series was by all means a huge success. There were certainly growing pains, but each tournament felt smoother than the last. By the end of the series Limitless had achieved its goal in bringing the competitive experience online. Like a moth to flame, players from around the world jumped on fulfilling that competitive itch as thousands would show up to each qualifier with the same enthusiasm they would have brought to IRL events. Competitive Pokemon was finally back in full swing. However, things were only getting started.
Rise in Online Tournaments
Weekly Online Tournaments
Online tournaments have existed in the past, but were not very popular when you could opt to play in person instead. Nevertheless, you can imagine how things changed after sanctioned events got suspended. While we did not immediately see a high volume of tournaments being organized independently, there was a steady increase in interest as time went on. Limitless’s efforts in their invitational series aided in legitimizing the platform. As confidence grew, more people began organizing their own events and competitive play started to revolve around these tournaments in lieu of live events like League Cups or Regionals. While the size of each event can varey, some tournaments have built a somewhat large following over the months. Hegster, The Sunday Open, & Chill TCG are three of the largest online tournaments that happen weekly, and each series has gotten consistent participants for over three months, each grossing over 100 players. Hegster alone would host two tournaments a week and has well over 100 participants in the past 30 tournaments run, with reaching a height of 250 players at the end of December.
While this style of tournament has not been appealing to everyone, it has created a consistent and effective method for players to integrate and connect with one another while at the same fueling their competitive drive to some capacity. They also have played a significant role in pushing the meta game forward, as players are constantly adapting each week, and different decks cycle through as the BDIF. While the quality of the format is always in constant debate, perhaps one of the few things that hasn’t changed, the accessibility to play the game competitively has never been this high.
The Player’s Cup
On May 18th, 2020, TCPi announced their newest tournament series to utilize PTCGO - The Player’s Cup. This event offered players a chance to win a stipend for a future international event, whenever that would be, as well as an opportunity to participate in an official event while IRL play was suspended. The tournament was in three phases, the first being a qualifier to participate in the main event. Players would need to gain tournament rep throughout the month of June by participating in the event-ticket tournaments on PTCGO. The top 256 players at the end of the month in each region- with the exception of only 128 in Oceania- would move on to the second phase, which was an elimination tournament for each respective region. Finally each region would condense down to 4 players (3 in Oceania), and those players would all be combined into a final top 16 showdown to declare a winner. I know what you’re thinking, that math only adds up to 15 players. That final 16th spot was awarded to the winner of a special invitational where eight highly notable players competed to kick off the entire event. Players had been competing in the UPR-RCL format up until the final phase where the final 16 players would need to shift gears as the format then roasted to TEU-DAA- similar to how rotation was pushed before the World Championship the previous years. For more details on this event I would recommend checking out a previous article I wrote covering the event.
In short, this was a good attempt at providing some form of organized play while live events were shut down. It was by no means a perfect system, and changes have been made to PTCGO to accommodate for newer iterations of the Players Cup. However, what is most interesting about this event is seeing TCPi lean on the online client for competitive play. It might be hard to appreciate the anomaly this was in present day, but the idea of organized play happening online would have most likely never been seen through to fruition without the pandemic. This type of necessity could lead to more plans to utilize the client in the future, which is something that many players have been hopeful for. Time will only tell.
Unquestionably, this event was not going to be feasible with every country under serious lock-down, so the decision was made to cancel the event entirely for the 2020 season. This would be the first year without a world championship since its inception back in 2004. While disappointing, it was what needed to be done. However, this did not stop some people from taking matters into their own hands.
With no plans announced from TCPi to turn the event into an online tournament, various tournament organisers got together to create their own online version of the Worlds called the POG (PokemonTCG Online Global) Championship. This event was held over PTCGO & Discord and took place in mid-late August, roughly when the World Championship would have taken place. The event itself was open to anyone and was free to enter. In the spirit of worlds, the tournament was going to include the newest set at the time, Darkness Ablaze, which made for a unique metagame as rotation would have most likely have occurred before worlds had the event not been canceled. Seeing how poor standard has been received since rotation, this was a good move in hindsight. UPR-DAA would have been a lost format otherwise so to see this format being used for a tournament like this added to the experience.
This event ignited enthusiasm amongst many players across the globe and you could feel the ambience of an important tournament in the days leading up the event. Attendance was massive as over 1100 players that registered from 58 different countries with players of all ages. While you could never recreate the magic that is attending the World Championship, POG had the authenticity and passion of the events everyone was missing -which made it something truly special on its own.
Boom in Other Formats
Revisiting Past Format
Playing with decks from previous formats is a popular way to enjoy the game with friends, especially when standard becomes a bit tired. The community surrounding retro has been established well before the pandemic, but we started to see more activity as soon as the organization and execution of online tournaments became more streamlined. Countless online tournaments of previous formats have been hosted since the pandemic and it has given players an opportunity to compete in formats they either enjoyed or missed out on. Recently we saw an event for NAIC 2017 format that had 131 participants, which was one of the largest turnouts for a retro tournament. What has been the most interesting to me as an observer is seeing how formats have adapted over time. With the knowledge we have today, that format’s meta has evolved and it is a bit wild to think about how a three year old format is still evolving.
Cube format might be slightly more obscure but also probably familiar to any Magic player. Basically it's a collection of cards that you draft with your friends -or strangers- and build decks from. It’s my personal favorite way to play the TCG but one could easily see the challenges in doing so under lockdown. However, over time remote drafting has become much more accessible and the cube community has been booming recently with barriers to entry being at a minimum. In part to the shut down of live events, the cube community has utilized means like Discord to organize cube events as well as causal drafts to make the format as accessible and convenient as ever. For more information, I highly encourage you to check out the Discord to which I will include an invitation link at the bottom of this article.
In a similar vein to retro, we have also seen the spike in the interest of alternate formats that are unique and would never have existed otherwise. We have even seen players take the time to research these “alternative” formats and begin to unpack the meta in order to figure out what the best decks are. Since there are people who are enthusiasts for Base-Gym, I am willing to believe that every format has its dedicated fanbase. I feel that we have seen more growth in even the most obscure formats with the absence of events or an official circuit to grind from.
One of the most popular innovations has been the development of the SUM-CEC format, otherwise referred to as the Alola format since it incorporates all the sets from the Sun & Moon block. Many have responded positively to this type of alternative format and it's easy to think that the format could have been easily forgotten if live events never ceased. If you want more details on the format itself, I will link Stephane Ivanoff’s introduction to the format at the bottom of the article.
Effects on the Community
Bounty of Information
I do not think we will be able to find a format more well documented then the ones taking place right now. In addition to their efforts in getting online tournaments off the ground, in the later months of 2020 Limitless released their own online management system for organizers to host their events as part of their website. Play.limitlesstcg.com is the central hub where all unofficial online play is organized and as part of that you can reference any of tournament data up to when the app was created. There you can view any past tournament results, who played and what deck they played, who they played and what their lists were… the list goes on and on. No format has this much documentation and I doubt we will see something to this magnitude after live events start up.
Unofficial ban of ADP
Many of you are probably already aware that Limitless made the decision to ban ADP from their standard events that they host. ADP’s absurd GX attack that allows for extra damage and extra prizes is commonly seen to be one of the biggest problems with the standard format. The card is commonly paired with Zacian V, arguably one of the best attackers in the game, to create a power house deck that many feel is the gatekeeper of the format. Limitless decided recently to ban ADP from being played in any of their tournaments. What is perhaps most interesting about this is the type of influence independent organizers have on the game now that sanctioned events are suspended. This is the one time, at least in recent memory, where the community is deciding what cards should or shouldn’t be a part of the format. This might be one of the only times where the majority of tournaments are not organized by TCPi and pseudo-banning a card like ADP is possible. The gravity of this circumstance still takes me back a bit and I hope that players will not take for granted the unique position the game was in during this time.
Connecting players across the Globe
It’s interesting, to me at least, to see how different regions experience the game. As an American, I often find myself ignorant to the availability and reach that this game has in other regions since events in my area appear quite frequently. Perhaps Madonna was right in saying that Covid was the great equalizer, at least in reference to the Pokemon TCG, as the online platform has provided anyone with an internet connection the opportunity to compete regularly, generally speaking. While the International and World events certainly brought together players from diverse regions, to have a system that provides that sort of thing weekly is almost unbelievable. The most recent Hegster tournament, Season 3 #20 as of writing this, had players from over 20 different countries and 6 unique countries comprising the top 8. This is a consistent trend amongst other tournaments too and has given players from more obscure regions a chance to make a name for themselves.
Kashvinder Singh Mann
I do not think the story of 2020 is complete without talking about this player’s amazing journey. For those who do not know Kashvinder, he is a TCG player based out of Singapore who has had quite an impressive journey over the past year. When online tournaments began to boom, Kashvinder’s name would frequently be seen on the roster. With many online tournaments happening each week, Kashvinder took advantage of the opportunity to compete more frequently to work on his skills. He would attend several tournaments a week and even stay up till crack of dawn just to participate. In addition to this grind, Kashvinder’s Twitter became a popular community resource as he would publish detailed tournament reports each week on the metagame that was rapidly changing. In addition, he was also able to connect with other players and even form a testing circle with players thousands of miles away, or I suppose kilometers in his case. Over time he became a well known name amongst the community and has even taken over PokeStats, a well established organization that aggregates tournament data.
This transition to online play has open doors for players that would not have normally been there. Kashvinder is a great example for how connecting the game globally has been great for the community. Naturally, tournament play manifests itself at the domestic level but to have an opportunity to expand that has created significant opportunities for other players to jump into the spotlight. I hope the community can retain at least a glimmer of this international connection and other players can find ways to jump into the community like Kashvinder did.
It is hard to not sound contrived by this point when talking about this past year, it was a tough one. No one could have expected things to progress this way, but I believe this community is making the best of it. It is my hope that people who get into this game in the future can look at the 2020 season as an example of how passionate the community is for this game. I personally wanted to say thank you to everyone who helped in the effort to keep the game alive through the pandemic. From Limitless, to content creators, to even the players participating, everyone has played a part in the narrative that was Pokemon TCG in 2020. While we are not out of the pandemic yet, I strongly urge anyone reading this, regardless of their involvement in the game, to take stock of the meaningful things in their life.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read this article! This was much longer than usual, but hopefully it told a story far less bleak than most to come out of the year. As always, the support means so much and I look forward to bringing more content to Flipside in the new year. There is a lot to write about so be sure to check back in for a new article in a couple weeks. If you are looking to get your competitive collection going in the new year then I recommend checking out flipsidegaming.com for all your Pokemon singles and product needs. If you want to keep up with my pokemon antics, consider following me on Twitter @TheSkyPillar. Stay safe out there and I will catch you all next time for another article!
Cube Discord: https://discord.gg/
Stephane Ivanoff Article: https://strategy.channelfireball.com/all-strategy/pkmn/alola-a-fun-new-alternative-format-for-all/
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