In today’s edition of Social Saturday, we’re going to talk a little bit about the drastic changes that have occurred between the 2016 and 2017 season of Play! Pokémon, the official tournament organizers of the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Although there are lots of positive aspects of the new season, there is plenty of room for improvement. We’ll go over both sides, and ultimately offer some suggestions for how to improve organized play not only for next season, but for years to come.
Before we get into the changes themselves, let’s set the stage first, because it’s important you know the history to understand the present…
I’m a lawyer, and rarely do I get to comment on how the law directly impacts my hobbies. However, thanks to a little case called Yale v. Wizards of the Coast (link < a href="http://icv2.com/articles/news/view/34293/are-magic-judges-employees">here, I can. For those who don’t know, Wizards of the Coast is the company that owns and produces Magic: The Gathering, and also once distributed Pokémon cards in markets outside of Japan. It’s also the leader in all aspects of not only card game mechanics and testing, but event organization. One key aspect of the way nearly all card tournaments have been organized is the volunteering judges and staff do at events. Most of the time this involves compensation in money or booster packs; other times it involves jack-squat.
The catch? Well, unless Pokémon decides to turn organized play into a non-profit, nothing about Play! Pokémon or tournaments is charity, turning the idea of “volunteer” judges in on its head.
So if these judges getting cash or packs aren’t volunteers, then what are they?
According to some, they’re employees.
I can think of arguments going both ways. On one hand, these people are paid money, have the equivalent of company handbooks they abide by, and more; on the other hand, tournament judges can just as easily be argued as being beneficiaries of the tournament as the players. While this is by no means a settled question, the Yale case could send shockwaves across all card games, including Pokémon. If judges are considered “employees,” then that means class members could potentially get back pay, unpaid overtime, and the company itself could be hit with a fine.
Where We are Now
Now, I’m not an attorney for Pokémon, but between my professional background in law and personal background in Pokémon, I can bet that the ultra-cautious, uber-smart lawyers associated with Play! Pokémon wanted to preempt as many legal risks as possible. That means immediate restructuring to the volunteer system of organized play, who is responsible for whom…and who Pokémon doesn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole.
That’s my speculation, anyways. This might only be part of the equation, or none of the equation. At any rate, the system has changed, and there are potentially very good reasons for it having been changed!
This season, we’ve seen the following things done differently:
* City, State, and National Championships removed;
** League Cups, International Championships, and “Special Events” as a formal category;
** A drastic increase in Regional Championship prize payouts;
** More routine prizes for top-ranked players in each of the major ranking zones (North America, Latin America, Europe, Oceania)
First and foremost, the prizes at Regionals are insane. It hasn’t been too long since the Nationals prize pool was once the size of the current Regionals payout, boxes and money and all! Better still, the prizes go pretty deep at huge-attendance events: For finishing in the top 64 of a Regional with over 500 attendees, you can get $250 – WOW!
Second, the season is now year-‘round. That means you could play Pokémon every single weekend, earn invites to play in both TCG and video game Worlds, and travel all over the World. Alternatively, since have lots of chances to run hot and set yourself up for an invite, you could do what I did and just choose a point to start playing major events.
What’s Not Good?
First, and more heavily related to our discussion of the “Pokémon-doesn’t-want-to-touch-employees-with-a-ten-foot-pole” point: Because League Cups are given to card shops to run as opposed to tournament organizers, the quality is extremely inconsistent. Out of the three I’ve attended this season, their structure, prize payout, and even basic things like time limits and format were presented in radically different ways. So while you can go to more League Cups in a year, the quality of the events is much, much worse at large.
The second problem is one that’s not new to any of us who have played Pokémon for a while, but communication is shaky. Despite the Championship Point minimum to qualify for Worlds being much higher this season, no League Cups were held at all in the first quarter of the season. Additionally, many of the cash payouts were not solidified until at least one Regional was already held, and those prizes were heavily delayed as a result.
Finally, there appear to be several peculiarities in the prizing structure, mostly related to the International Championships. Regionals need to meet a much larger attendance threshold to scale to – at most – half the prize pool of an International Championship. Perhaps Pokémon didn’t anticipate how much growth Regionals would experience, but these events at bare minimum rival the International Championships in competitiveness, and at most dwarf them in size and scope.
What Could be Changed?
So Pokémon’s a more decentralized, more year-‘round, and bigger-dollar game than ever before. Those are all good things, and should not be ignored despite my criticisms. But my criticisms are made with the goal of being constructive, so here are some ideas for ways to improve Organized Play for next season:
—Quality Assurance for League Cups. Allow some opportunities for League Cups to be run at locations other than card shops, have rigid standards of review for card shops’ handling of League Cups, or both. Letting organizers pick locations other than card shops at least once a year allows for a few more options and a lot more breathing room, while at the same time keeping the card shop owners from monopolizing the power. As for said card shop owners, Play! Pokémon should treat any mismanagement of tournaments on their part very strictly. Contrary to popular belief, bad tournaments are worse than no tournaments at all, because bad tournament experiences can result in destroying someone’s interest in the game.
—When Play! Pokémon is being non-responsive, send support tickets. Part of the Pokémon customer service support system involves “support tickets,” which alert Pokémon of issues:
1) Go to Pokemon.com
2) Scroll down to “Customer Service”
3) Select “Ask a Question”
4) Log into your Trainer Club Account
5) Click “Continue”
6) Click “Ask a Question” (kind of silly to have to click “Ask a Question” twice)
7) Select your appropriate categories and fire away!
Play! Pokémon hears legitimate and frivolous complaints from people all the time, from “Where’s my stipend?” to “I don’t like Pikachu, I think he’s ugly and stupid and for babies.” If you’ve ever worked a job in customer service, you should be aware of the type of garbage these people have to put up with. But if many reasonable, similar complaints about the same thing are flooding in, any customer service worth its salt needs to take notice!
–Make prize scaling more uniform and balanced. This is by far the hardest issue and most up for debate, but it’s confusing and a little strange why International Championships enjoy their biggest prize payout with just a couple hundred people, whereas a Regional has to get up to 500 for even half the same. That’s why I think the increased prize kickers should be uniform between the big events; that is, while let International Championships continue to pay out more, let the next level of Regionals prizes trigger at the exact same point those prizes would for Internationals. Additionally, since there’s a large chance that North American Internationals will be far larger than any other, allow for an increased prize threshold at the 1,000+ attendee range.
Granted, we could still see that since each event allows for increased prize support, but it would be very awkward if the winner of the 1,500 person behemoth that is North American internationals receives the exact same prize payout as the winner of the 250 person event recently held in Melbourne, Australia!
These aren't necessarily bad times we live in for the game, but there are issues with the way tournaments are organized that at least need to be identified, criticized, and debated. Although both the legal and marketing teams supporting Play!
Pokémon are very risk-averse and careful in the way they operate, they're also among the best when it comes to customer service. So if you have any issues with the way tournaments have operated this season, let them know, because they will listen!!!
(Other companies aren't as nice, however.)