Prepare for trouble, and, as always, make it double, Puclonians! It is time for what could perhaps be considered an especially troubling installment of Double Trouble! Prepare for… an opinion piece!
Flinch hax. Para hax. Freeze hax. Focus Miss. Stone Miss. Rock Slide DOUBLE MISS. Critical Hit. Swagger. Dark Void. When playing Pokémon, there is no shortage of luck-based occurrences that can work against you. This applies to all formats, and yet I have heard people say they are specifically disinterested in the VGC format precisely because it is, in their eyes, luck based.
As if Smogon Singles, or literally any other format in existence, is never impacted by luck factors.
Here’s the thing: Pokémon is BY DESIGN AND AT ITS CORE partially luck- and risk-based. By no means is luck the most powerful factor – skill will always be of vastly greater importance, and luck can often be mitigated and managed, but luck will always be a part of it. It is integrated into the very mechanics of the game: why are there moves in this game without perfect accuracy? Why not just make EVERY move completely accurate? And why does one in sixteen attacks get to be a critical hit and deal more damage as well as disregard negative stat changes (not counting moves and abilities that make critical hits even more likely)?
And even if every attack WAS completely accurate, why do a large number of attacks have chance-based secondary effects such as Scald’s Burn rate or Rock Slide’s capacity to make opponents Flinch? Heck, even if every single move was completely accurate and critical hits and secondary effects were completely abolished, lest we forget, there is a range of damage any attack can do in damage formula giving us random high damage rolls and low damage rolls. THE DAMAGE FORMULA ITSELF INCORPORATES LUCK. How do these design decisions benefit the integrity of a strategy game?
The fact of the matter is they do not. And these essential mechanics did not have to be incorporated into the video games of Pokémon, and yet they have been. Why? What positive qualities do they contribute to the game?
What they DO bring is a lot of flavor to what we often forget is an RPG series, and incorporate a form of verisimilitude not unlike rolling a 1 or 20 on your D20 in something like Dungeons and Dragons: luck exists, and it impacts our lives and the things we do. You can be in the right place at the right time by chance and receive a dream job offer, or be in the perfect spot in a line to get the best plate of food at a cafeteria, OR get on the highway at the worst possible moment when traffic multiplies for no good reason. And games implementing luck into their very core mechanics are, to an extent, emulating the randomness that occurs in life.
That said, when we look at Pokémon through the lens of a competitive strategy game rather than an RPG, having luck influence the course of events and even determine results and outcomes at times is objectively bad. It opens up opportunities for skill to be delegitimized. What is fun to incorporate in an RPG detracts from a competition of merit and skill. Not to be overly hyperbolic, but you cannot get a critical hit in chess. And also not to overstep the correlation, but you can also make a lot more money playing chess than you can playing Pokémon. This is not a coincidence.
But why does the VGC format specifically seem to receive disproportionate criticism for being impacted by luck when it applies to ALL formats?
At least one part of criticizing the VGC specifically is justifiable when you consider the above points. You can win tens of thousands of dollars worth of prizes and scholarships in the VGC, which you cannot do playing a simulator online. And because there are much realer, tangible prizes on the line, criticizing the fact that luck can play such a significant role is far more justifiable and carries weight that does not apply on Pokémon Showdown. You can always start over on the ladder and get back to the top no matter how much bad luck you have online; you CANNOT do the same when competing with your invitation to Worlds in the VGC.
Perhaps another part of why the VGC format seems to be disproportionately criticized for being influenced by luck is what is arguably THE most famous recorded VGC World Championships Battle:
The above match is from the Semifinals of the VGC 2013 World Championships. It is at the highest level of VGC competition, was available for the entire world to watch, and BY ARCEUS does it advertise a TON of luck. Like, if the amount of chance in that match was a Pokémon, you would be able to catch it with a Heavy Ball on the first try because it is WEIGHTY (by the way – Ryosuke’s previous match that year before he played Aaron was against current World Champion Sejun Park, and it played out similarly).
NOT a good PR moment for the VGC community. Infamous, in fact. I would even go so far as to say this match influenced changes made in the next generation of Pokémon: Will-O-Wisp had its accuracy boosted and Electric types are now immune to Paralysis. Oh, to contemplate how differently those games might have played out had those changes already been in place!
Aside from that however, a lot of the luck is the same. And it is just a part of the game you have to accept if you are going to be playing Pokémon with others in any capacity. To this day, in spite of the huge amount of bad luck he encountered in that infamous match in the semifinals of the World Championship, whenever Aaron Zheng is dealt uncontrollable misfortune in Pokémon, he says “that’s Pokémon for you” and “that’s part of the game.”
And he’s right. And we all agree to accept luck when we start playing Pokémon, be it the card game, singles, or doubles because it touches them all. If we weren’t okay with it, maybe we’d be playing chess instead.
Until next time, Puclonians (where I’ll be talking about how to get the most out of your relationship with Lady Luck)! Looks like I’m blasting off again!