Scandal has hit the pro Pokemon competitive scene, with a revelation that the vast majority of the game’s professional competitors may be hacking.
- A pro Pokemon player says “80 to 90%” of pro players use “hacked” Pokemon
- The most prominent “hack” creator agrees that most pros are involved
- The reigning Pokemon World Champion is among those accused
The competitive Pokemon scene was rocked earlier this year when a slew of competitors at the Pokemon World Championships were ejected for “cheating” through the use of illegally altered Pokemon. But it now seems that the vast majority of players attending the event should have been similarly disqualified, including the reigning world champion. And one of those players is speaking out as to why.
The Pokemon World Championships are meant to be a celebration of the brand and its fans, but the latest event in Yokohama, Japan was far more controversial than anyone would’ve expected. The first day of VGC competition for the Pokemon Scarlet and Violet games saw a steady stream of announcements from attending competitors that they had been kicked out of the event and disqualified.
VGC Corner’s Brady Smith is a competitive Pokemon player who has been playing in official events since 2016, has won two regional championships, and placed 17th at the 2022 Pokemon World Championship. He was among the players who were banned from the tournament.
The longtime Pokemon pro talked to gameland.gg about what happened at the event and broke down why the type of “cheating” in question may not be the real issue with the game’s competitive scene.
2023 Pokemon World Championship shows that hacking is the norm in competitive Pokemon
A long list of competitors were banned from the 2023 Pokemon World Championship’s tournament for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet for using hacked Pokemon.
“They never really cracked down on [using hacked Pokemon], and now they finally have,” Brady Smith said.
Hack checks are normal in official Pokemon tournaments. The event organizers look at players’ teams for signs of illegal modifications or the use of cheats. The difference between the hack checks used at the 2023 Pokemon World Championship and every other event is that they actually caught people.
World Championship players were warned that hack checks would be improved at the event. Smith was among several who announced the news on social media, and he estimates that as many as one in three competitors were ejected from the tournament. By most accounts, that number would’ve been even higher if organizers had been more thorough.
“80 to 90% of top-level players modify or hack their Pokémon. It’s a trade secret, but everyone ‘in the know’ knows this,” Smith said.
This isn’t just a hot take from Smith. Other competitors echoed the same idea. The greatest authority on the matter may be Kaphotics, the creator of Pokemon save manipulation software PKHeX. PKHeX is commonly used to generate and alter Pokemon.
Kaphotics discussed the news on Twitter and ran a wide-ranging analysis of over 800 rental teams made available by high-level players, including many teams used at the Pokemon World Championship. They found that more than 50% had at least one Pokemon with overt signs of hacking.
According to Kaphotics, world champion Shohei Kimura used hacked Pokemon on his team, as did Tang Shiliang, who eliminated 2016 world champion and YouTuber Wolfe Glick.
There are a number of different red flags that can conclusively show if a Pokemon was generated or modified using third-party software. Smith says he had Pokemon that were legitimately caught but modifying them created issues with hidden data in Pokemon HOME, a Nintendo Switch app that is used to transfer Pokemon between games.
“The HOME trackers were off. I had legitimate Pokémon, I modified them…I had to get an Urshifu and Landorus from HOME. I got greedy with a Grimmsnarl. Instead of modifying my existing one, my friend said he had a legitimate one from HOME, so I opted to use that one,” Smith said. “That messed me up because of the HOME tracker being wiped.”
Smith previously labeled hack checks in official tournaments as “perfunctory.” He and other Pokemon pros have noted that they’ve essentially been to determine whether Pokemon could be legitimate, rather than if they actually are legitimate. Teams would get approved so long as Pokemon didn’t have outward signs of being modified, like moves they’re not normally able to learn or impossibly high stats.
Is hacking actually good for competitive Pokemon?
While “hacking” in games like Counter-Strike or Fortnite conjures up images of quick shots no human could ever hit or seeing hidden opponents through walls, that’s not how it works in Pokemon. The modified Pokemon that Brady Smith and other disqualified competitors used offer no advantage during an actual competition.
The reason hacking is so common in competitive Pokemon is that creating a competitive team takes an incredible amount of time. Smith says that this ultimately discourages people from ever trying out competitive Pokemon in the first place and is a needless hassle for those already in the game’s esports scene.
“It’s such a barrier of entry…we like battling against other people, we don’t care about getting our Pokemon in the game. We just want to play the competitive game,” Smith said. “This entry barrier stops new players from getting into the game and it hurts vets because it’s such a needless barrier and time sink.”
Qualifying for the Pokemon World Championships is a brutal task. VGC competition, which centers around the mainline Pokemon video games, has a regular season with open events that often see hundreds of competitors. Games are played in the doubles format, where both players have two Pokemon on the field of battle at the same time. Those battles then play out in typical Pokemon fashion until one competitor emerges as the victor.
Players earn points with high placements at an event which are added up across the season. Several of the top-performing players from each region receive an invitation to the Pokemon World Championship.
Though Pokemon is known for its child-friendly nature, the games can still have great strategic depth when played at a high level. Players need to pour over data in order to conceptualize teams of battling Pokemon. From there, it takes hours of number-crunching to figure out the perfect stat distributions to use in tournament competition. Things take even longer after the idea phase.
In most cases, each Pokemon requires breeding or soft resetting to acquire them. From there, players need to use a variety of in-game items including TMs, Tera Shards, Bottle Caps, and vitamins in order to optimize them. This requires players to grind heavily.
For most competitors, all this happens while juggling a day job as there’s little money in competitive Pokemon. Qualifying for the Pokemon World Championship also requires significant travel, usually paid out of pocket, so players will often be on the road or in the air during this process. New strategies often necessitate last-minute changes, meaning players need a stock of items prepared at a moment’s notice. Players do this for each tournament during the season as strategies transform with time.
A YouTuber created a video where they did the legwork of actually bringing a 2023 Pokemon World Championship contender’s team to life. Catching, training, and optimizing the team took more than 17 hours, even with the benefit of having all the previous mainline Pokemon games with some in a position to easily capture desirable Pokemon.
Alternatively, players can go to one of the many bot-driven Twitch streams or Discord channels that can give them perfect Pokemon instantly.
Casual ranked players and actual VGC tournament players alike have called for in-game items and tools that offer full control of a Pokemon’s stats and moves. Alternatively, almost all pro players already use an online battling simulator called Pokemon Showdown that lets them freely create and test teams with others online. Bringing either of these to actual Pokemon games would instantly fix the issue, but this hasn’t actually happened.
Competitive players certainly seem to want this fixed more than they want hackers punished. Multiple pro players gave their takes on social media after the bans were confirmed and praise for the tournament organizers was hard to find.
What’s next for Brady Smith after World Championship disqualification?
Prepping for a major Pokemon event requires loads of mental energy on its own. On top of that, players such as Brady Smith had to find their way to Yokohama, Japan for the World Championship.
Those rigors, combined with the whiplash of going from a hot start at the event to disqualification, were tough.
“I was heartbroken. I remember going to a corner, but to be honest, you reap what you sow…It was my fault, we were warned ahead of time. I just wish I was more careful…I was aware of that and because of that, I couldn’t throw myself a pity party,” Smith said.
While traveling to Japan for a tournament only to get ejected in the first stage wasn’t the plan, there are worse fates than having nothing to do in a major tourist destination. Smith said he made the most of the time he had after.
“I tried my best to just enjoy the rest of the trip in the end. Although it did stink, I made the best of a bad situation,” Smith recalled.
It’s unknown whether these new hack checks will be used regularly moving forward. Smith and other competitors are allowed to return to competitive play, but he doesn’t expect to make an aggressive push to the 2024 World Championship.
“I’m still going to be coaching at VGC Corner, but I’m taking the season off from competing,” Smith said. “Maybe I’ll get back into it the following season or maybe I’m retired, I’m just gonna go wherever the wind takes me.”