Everyone loves Pokemon, as the sweat-drenched technicians slaving away in Niantic’s smoldering server rooms can attest. But few appreciate the competitive side of the adorable little monsters quite as much as Aaron Zheng, a two-time US National Pokemon Champion and third-place finisher in the 2013 Pokemon World Championships. (Plus four regional titles, qualification for five additional World Championships, and a YouTube channel with 53,000 subscribers… his Pokeresume can hardly be crammed onto one page.) This year Zheng made the jump from player to caster at the 2016 US Nationals. We sat down for a frenetic Skype conversation—Zheng doesn’t speak in sentences so much as cheery gusts of words—to discuss casting, the competitive Pokemon scene, and this August’s Pokemon World Championships in San Francisco.
This interview has been abbreviated and lightly edited to improve legibility.
JG: You just finished casting the US Nationals. How was the experience overall?
AZ: It was a ton of fun. Probably the hardest thing for me is deciding: do I want to play, or do I want to commentate, because, you know, a national title in the Masters division is definitely something I’m still looking for. The two years I won were back in the Senior division—that’s like the 11-15 age group.
The stream setup was awesome this year… being in front of such a large crowd there—it was really well done, and I think it clearly shows that The Pokemon Company is putting effort into the competitive scene. I think next year’s going to be big. They hired ESL to do their events—
JG: —ahh! Okay, that’s good to know.
AZ: Yeah! And that’s a big deal, right? Because [ESL] works with other major esports, so for them to be there—I thought the production value was nice. There’s a lot the stream can still improve on—I think one, just being more viewer friendly… like having an update on all the Pokemon that the players have brought into the game, which ones have been knocked out… keep track of live stats… League [of Legends] obviously has a counter of how much gold each team has, how many objectives they’ve taken… I think that kind of thing would be nice for Pokemon.
JG: You tweeted the following in response to a rumor about next year’s format excluding Mega Evolved Pokemon: “honestly, Megas regressed all the positive changes we saw from Gen 5 to 6. I’d be okay with them leaving.” I basically have three questions. One, what do you see as the problem with Megas? Two, what were the positive changes you were referencing between Gen 5 and Gen 6? And three, what else do you want to see changed?
AZ: First of all, the move from Gen 5 to Gen 6 showed that the Pokemon Company was clearly interested in making some competitive changes. We saw some big power nerfs, so a lot of popular attacks—Draco Meteor being one of the most popular ones—received damage nerfs. We also got rid of gems, which were 50% damage-boost items, you’d use them for one move and afterwards you wouldn’t have an item, but they’d allow you to pick up big knockouts or do a lot of damage instantly.
[Rude guffawing laughter].
JG: Right—I remember you could use Acrobatics, trigger the gem, and still get the bonus damage from not carrying an item—
AZ: Yeah! That was one of the biggest ones. You saw Fire Gem on Heatran, use Eruption, get this one big attack off… you saw Dragon Gem on Latios with Draco Meteor, that was one of the most popular ones… stuff like that. They changed a lot of the moves, made small tweaks here and there… one of the funnier ones was Will o’ Wisp actually getting increased accuracy, right after I missed five of my six Will o’ Wisps at the World Championships… I don’t think that’s why I lost, I just—
JG: (Rude guffawing laughter) I’m sorry—those are some odds, man, that is some—
AZ: Yeah, yeah, 75% it’s supposed to be, but for me it was like 16%—
AZ: They also made some great mechanic changes. For example, the first one I can think of is Electric Pokemon not being able to be paralyzed any more, which I thought was great. Also maybe a little bit of inspiration from my Top 4 set, since my poor Rotom was just getting wrecked. Other things like, you know, you couldn’t put Grass Pokemon to sleep with moves like Spore. No longer could you Spore other Amoongusses or Ferrothorns, so now you had a safer option to deal with Spore, which is a somewhat common move on Amoonguss and Breloom.
So those were all great changes, and I thought those were awesome. Then Mega Evolutions, we basically didn’t know anything about them until they came out in the game—they revealed Mega Kangaskhan at Worlds 2013—and we were like “Oh God, this is crazy, this is so cool”—and then we actually get the Megas and it’s like, okay, it’s pretty clear that two or three of these are significantly stronger than the others. I think that’s the biggest issue. There’s huge power creep, like: Mega Kangaskhan has just been dumb good, because it gets so much damage off, even if you Intimidate it or Burn it, its ability is so good, it has natural bulk… and I’m not saying it should be banned, right, but I’m saying it didn’t need to be that strong. Mega Salamence, Mega Charizard, Mega Mawile, those are a couple—Mega Rayquaza, in single battles in particular—I guess my main issue is, they got rid of all this power creep, and suddenly it’s back in all these Mega Evolutions.
This year is particularly bad, because you allow all these legendaries—and it was more of a marketing gimmick, to advertise Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire—which I completely get… but you see Primal Kyogre, Primal Groudon, Xerneas on every team.
JG: In that way it maybe backfired? Because it sabotaged the competitive scene and its viewership to sell a few more copies of Ruby and Sapphire?
AZ: And this is just me, and you know obviously it’s just a theory, but if you have more people watching the game, that naturally will draw more people in. You sacrifice [the marketing play] for a more interesting format… every year, though, we complain a little bit. The World Championships will be really interesting, because I think this metagame is maybe the hardest to, as we call it, break the metagame… 2014 was a really interesting demonstration, because Se Jun Park brought this team that—we never saw Pachirisu, we never saw Mega Gyarados, ever, and he combined it onto a team and swept the tournament.
JG: Let’s talk about the American players who made it out of Nationals this year. Where are those players on the spectrum of the all-time Pokemon greats? What are the odds that one of them will win the World Championship?
AZ: Right. I think the main story for US Nationals this year was the top favorites all dropping out, basically. All the ex-national champions, big names like Wolfe Glick, Paul Chua, Toler Webb, just to name a few—those were all pretty much favorites to win the event, and none of them even made it to the second day of competition… it was crazy, I don’t think we’ve ever seen a US National with that many upsets. So it’s honestly really hard for me to call. Any of those guys in the [US Nationals] top eight, they could be champion, but it’s going to be harder because they don’t have as much experience.
JG: How much of competitive Pokemon is luck?
AZ: Good question. I think it’s a lot less than people expect. This year especially we’ve seen a fair amount of crazy shenanigans, and I think that’s inherent with what’s allowed in the format. Something like Moody Smeargle, is one of the biggest offenders… I wish Moody was banned. Or Dark Void, it’s like one of the two, that combination is just really ugly. And this format’s a little more dependent on moves that are prone to missing… in my opinion, I don’t think there’s that much luck, I think in best of threes it still goes to the better-skilled player… but I also hope the Pokemon Company realizes there are still some mechanics that are a little bit too luck-based, and I hope they get rid of them in the next generation, to make the game even more competitive. I don’t think RNG should be removed, because I think that’s what makes Pokemon really interesting, but I think there are some mechanics that are just… not necessary.
JG: So here’s one last question: what’s your favorite Pokemon that is not competitively viable, and what would the Pokemon Company have to do to make it competitively viable?
AZ: (Laughs) I think my favorite is actually Piplup, the Gen 4 Water starter, because uh—
JG: Pip— not even the evolved form? You’re just saying you want Piplup alone to be competitively viable? That’s asking a lot, man…
AZ: I mean it’s my favorite Pokemon, I don’t think you could make it competitive—you occasionally see those non-evolutions being competitive if they get, like, Endeavor and Feint, so it’s like, you use a Focus Sash, they hit you, you get them to 1 HP and knock them out with Feint, with priority—
JG: The Rattata, right, the what’s it called—
AZ: —the F.E.A.R. Rattata—we saw Aron, that’s something common, with Berry Juice—I just love Piplup because he’s really cute, that’s basically it. Diamond and Pearl were some of the earlier games I played. I really liked Gen 4, honestly.
Flygon: a poor man’s Garchomp.
JG: What about a Pokemon that you kind of wish was viable competitively, that if it were just a little bit better—
AZ: That’s a really good question, um… Flygon is something where it’s like—especially in doubles—we don’t see it much because it’s just outclassed, and Flygon’s so cool. I love the design, but it’s just a poor man’s Garchomp. So that’s why I’m like, oh, we need Mega Flygon. But I would at least like to see Flygon get some more increases in general.
JG: I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a pull quote. Flygon: a poor man’s Garchomp.
AZ: (Laughs) That and—yeah, that’s probably the biggest one.