Handling Luck: How Competitive Pokémon Resembles Life

Competitive Pokémon is more than the RNG that plagues its reputation. The same holds true for life. We can’t control the cards we're dealt, but we can learn how to handle them. Coping with missed attacks and critical hits is what makes the game worthwhile.

Handling Luck: How Competitive Pokémon Resembles Life

In the budding realm of esports, nestled in the obscurity of turn-based games, is the arena of competitive Pokémon. Here, uncertainty runs rampant as each turn of every battle is determined by luck. Naturally, people are quick to complain that the game is a glorified crapshoot. They’re not wrong. It is a crapshoot. Then again, so is life. And much like life, competitive Pokémon is all the more for it. 

The Problem With Luck (Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?)

The problem with luck in Pokémon is how far it reaches. RNG (random number generation) governs a long list of variables, including damage, accuracy, and status conditions, which makes for the unsavory truth that matches are often won and lost on a whimsy. A critical hit or a freeze is devastating in most contexts, and both are entirely symptoms of luck. (There are ways to manipulate crit chance, but they’re too novel to mention.) 

RNG at work.

RNG at work.

So it’s no wonder Pokémon has failed to gain traction as an esport. Beginners excitedly jump into the fray only to be beaten by factors beyond their control. Frustrated, they condemn competitive play to be unfair and erratic before storming back to Pokémon GO. Nobody blames them.

Still, day after day, legions of fans throw themselves into the maelstrom of RNG, keen to test their mettle however the chips may fall. Their unbridled willingness says there’s a method to the madness. It says that the game’s not about luck—it’s about handling it. 

The Tale of Aaron Zheng 

For critics of competitive Pokémon, the greatest case in point is the semi-finals of the 2013 World Championships: Aaron Zheng misses five consecutive Will-O-Wisps to lose to Ryosuke Kosuge. 

For context, Will-O-Wisp was a 75% accurate move in 2013, so it wasn’t weird to see it miss. But five times straight? With stakes so high? Unheard of. Had Aaron—who had taken the first match in a set of three—not been so absurdly unlucky, he would’ve likely made it to the finals. 

2013 Pokémon World Championships: VG Masters Top 4 Match

Nonetheless, Aaron smiled in the wake of defeat and extended his hand in a brilliant show of sportsmanship. The next time he was seen was in the audience of the Junior Division finals, cheering for his little brother and, somehow, enjoying himself. 

This is because Aaron, like any true competitor, had sworn to roll with the punches, come what may. His attitude speaks to three fundamental lessons in handling luck: 

  1. You’ll only go as far as the wind will take you.
  2. It goes both ways. 
  3. Enjoy the ride. 

Knowing Your Win Con (Setting the Sails) 

When someone says “win condition” in Pokémon, they’re referring to an asset, strategy, or field state that can lead to victory—emphasis on can. Establishing your win con simply means positioning yourself to win. It doesn’t guarantee victory, and it doesn’t exempt you from RNG. You’re as prone to crits and misses as you were before. 

The thing is, that’s none of your concern. How the wind blows doesn’t change the fact that your job is to set the sails.

Consider the following: A player called Tom Ford is facing a team with a Charizard, a threat that can only be answered by his Tyranitar. 

Charizard vs. Tyranitar on the N64.

Charizard vs. Tyranitar on the N64.

This means that Tom Ford’s win con is to preserve Tyranitar until it can knock out Charizard. So he does. Through careful maneuvering and exceptional foresight, he keeps Tyranitar healthy enough for the fated showdown. But in a sick twist of fate, it misses its Rock Slide to be knocked out with a critical hit Fire Blast.

Tom Ford did everything right. He correctly identified his win con and played with utmost finesse. He set his sails perfectly. The wind just never came. 

The same goes for Aaron. He knew that a successful Will-O-Wisp would be his key to victory and moved on the assumption that a 75% accurate move would hit sooner rather than later. And that’s all Aaron could do. Knowing and pursuing your win con is where your job ends. 

The lesson here is to not hate yourself for what you can’t control. When things don’t go your way, the problem isn’t always you. Sometimes, that’s just how the Lava Cookie crumbles. 

It Goes Both Ways (The Tale of Paul Chua)

RNG is fickle, but it doesn’t discriminate. The wind blows both ways. 

This is a big reason why tournament matches are made to be best-of-three. In acknowledgment of luck’s tendency to flip and flop, players are given a chance to return with their own gust of wind, assuming they’ve correctly set their sails. 

Paul Chua can attest. In the finals of the 2017 North American Championships, he found himself reeling from a critical hit that left him in a 0-1 deficit. In the following match, however, Paul was afforded his own stroke of luck when his Ice Beam triggered a three-turn freeze, allowing him to force a third and final game for which the entire venue was on its feet. Although Paul eventually lost to the better man that day, his smile in the aftermath—not unlike Aaron’s—conveyed a shrug and a sigh, as if to acknowledge that the wind had blown both ways. 

Paul Chua (left) and Christopher Kan (right) shake hands as pleasant competitors.

Paul Chua (left) and Christopher Kan (right) shake hands as pleasant competitors.

We should all be like Paul. It’s tempting to spend our days pouting, pointing to everything that went wrong just a step away from gold, but that’d be damning every lucky break on our journey thus far. Every shriek, giggle and sigh of relief had in dire straits—do they mean nothing if we fall short? Or are they part of our story? Memories to be cherished? 

How Exciting…

It’s easy to get caught up in what ought to be. Many of us spend an inordinate amount of time fussing over what should’ve been, complaining about an aspect of the game so fundamental, moot to even protest. We say Aaron should’ve gone to the finals. Rock Slide should’ve hit. But should’ve, could’ve, would’ve means nothing when the die has already been cast. 

I’m sorry to say, but equalizing the playing field is a fantasy. This doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t try, but I think the greatest lesson in handling luck is knowing when to enjoy the ride. You set the sails and the wind blows in extraordinary ways to take you somewhere you never thought you’d be. What an adventure. Aaron and Paul knew to appreciate this. They could smile at the end of it all because the ups and downs of competitive Pokémon—and life—were thrilling enough. 

Adventure awaits.

Adventure awaits.

The truth is, we’ll never know what lies ahead. Uncertainty looms every step of the way for as long as we live. But that’s none of our concern. Set your sails, my friends. 

“I have no idea what I’m going to do tomorrow.”

“How exciting..!”

(Night at the Museum 3)

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