The Pokemon Masters

A gathering of monsters at the National Championships.

From our lofty vantage point in the hardcore gaming tree house, with its hand drawn "no gurls allowed" sign, stacks of dog-eared games magazines and lingering aroma of sour musk and Doritos, we tend to have a limited idea of what competitive gaming can be.

It's online multiplayer, right? Deathmatch and Capture the Flag; XP and headshots; frags and spawn campers. The legacy of the LAN match still casts a long shadow over our perceptions of how things should work, but that's not what happens at the Pokemon National Championships. Not at all.

Held in Hall 8 of Birmingham's cavernous NEC the mood is part fan convention, part sporting fixture and part community gathering. The competition part of the event is split into three groups: Juniors, Seniors and Masters. It's a refreshingly laid back event, open to anyone eager enough to get to Birmingham and join the queue early (there's a cut off at 256 entrants per group, otherwise it would probably last all week). But despite the laissez faire qualifying criteria, the match regulations are many and detailed.

Players must show each other the Pokemon on their team before play begins, but all moves and equipped items remain secret. There's then a frantic scramble to assemble a final team of four, based on what you think the opponent has up their sleeve. A level cap makes sure that the playing field is reasonably even, with any Pokemon over level 50 temporarily brought back to that threshold.

"It's a festival atmosphere - call it Pokestock if you like."

As handicaps go, it sounds pretty brutal for the advanced players, but it's in keeping with the event's open nature and means that victory has to come through quality tactics rather than bludgeoning every opponent with a maxed out legendary Pokemon.

Everyone brings their own DS and game, and any pre-match swapping or tinkering with cheat cartridges is strictly forbidden. Every competitor hands over their DS for inspection before they're allowed to take part.

With a group session in progress, the scene is appropriately reminiscent of a mass chess match, as rows of competitors huddle intently over their consoles. There's even a reverential hush as the numbers are reduced until only the best players remain.

Strangely, it's between the matches that the event really comes to life and reveals just why Pokemon has endured for fifteen years. There are activities sprinkled alongside the outside wall - some demo pods, trading card games and photo opportunities with inflatable and costumed characters - but most attendees are quite happy to keep gaming.

It's a festival atmosphere - call it Pokestock if you like - as huddles of Pokemon fans camp out cross-legged on the floor, all discussing tactics, secrets and evolution. Most take part in the championship, but all seem equally happy afterwards to hang out and fill the air with the wireless traffic of hundreds of impromptu matches against new friends.

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