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Calgary teen discusses what it takes to be the North American Pokémon champion

When it comes to Pokémon, 16-year-old Calgary-based Bennett Piercy is “the very best, like no one ever was,” at least in North America.

As a way to promote the release of Pokémon Sun and Moon, the latest entry in Gamefreak’s ultra-popular Pokémon series, Nintendo took the Canadian Pokémon champion on a press tour across Canada.

Piercy is the 2015 senior division national Pokémon champion. He competes at various Pokémon events around the world and plays the series at a level few people on earth are capable of.

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We sat down with Piercy to discuss what it’s like to play Pokémon at such a high level and also where he thinks the series needs to go in order to grow its reach as an e-sports franchise.

Question: What is it like to be the North American Pokémon champion and what did it take for you to make it to that point?

Bennett Piercy: I play in the VGC competitive circuit and the tournament that I won was the U.S nationals. First of all, VGC is sort of like a fringe e-sport, but I think everyone that’s playing is hoping it will make the jump soon [to being more mainstream].

There are local events you can just go to for whatever and then regionals you can go to without any experience and then nationals you need to qualify but it’s pretty easy, and then worlds is invite only — there aren’t too many different kinds of tournaments. I’ve gone to worlds twice already for the two years that I’ve played and I really enjoy it.

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In competitions, Pokémon are all capped at level 50 and the format changes everywhere for what Pokémon you’re allowed to use in battle. There’s always a set format

Q: What’s the competitive Pokémon scene like? Is it really collaborative or very adversarial? 

Piercy: It’s mostly collaborative. There are a few people at the top doing their own thing, but it’s a great community and basically everyone that’s successful is getting a lot of help from each other.

Q: Did you grow up playing Pokémon and what was your first game in the franchise? I’ve played for years, with Pokémon Red and Blue being my first games, but I imagine your first title was probably a more recent entry in the franchise? 

Piercy: My first games were Pearl and Diamond.

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Q: I know it makes sense, but that blows my mind that the games where I lost touch with the series are the first ones you played. Some of my favourite memories of the Pokémon series are trading with friends in the school yard.

Even in high school for me when Pearl and Diamond came out, my friends would sit around the cafeteria playing Pokémon. Do you have any memories like that? 

Piercy: Pokémon has come a long way since you traded through a cable [laughs]. Obviously the social aspect is a big part of the game and you still battle and trade with friends but they’ve improved the online and stuff like that.

There’s ladders now for battling and for trading there’s something called the GTA (Global Trade System) where you can list a Pokémon for trade and trade with strangers. Trading in-person was something I did a lot as a kid and there’s still a good following for that. There’s a lot of people at my school and people I met through Pokémon who are in University that I play with.

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Q: What does it take to play Pokémon competitively? I guess what I mean is, what is the difference between how you play the game and how someone like myself might play a Pokémon title? 

Piercy: I think part of it is through practising you become familiar with the meta and stuff like that.

Another big part of it is just putting the time in. There’s another side to that though because it’s really easy to learn to play and to start playing in competitions.

Q: Does your team focus on a specific type or do you have a more balanced squad? I’ve heard you have somewhat of an unorthodox team. 

Piercy: For all kinds of teams you need to have a pretty good mix. Obviously I’ve come to favour some types over time. Like for example, I always have a poison type just because that’s how it works out.

With this sort of character picking e-sports type of game a meta developers — what sort of types people use — so the team I ended up bringing I made a few months in advance for a friend because he didn’t know how to place and just knew he has things he wanted to use. Then I was practising with it to see if it was viable at all. I just sort of went with it and decided to go with a team that had a lot of unique stuff.

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The most interesting Pokémon in it is Nidoqueen — which is now my favourite Pokémon — it’s sort of the thing that only I used. It gives you a really big advantage to use Pokémon that people don’t expect. If you have a strategy with some of them that they don’t see coming and because it’s either or a best of one or a best of three and it makes it hard for them to adapt.

Q: In terms of Sun and Moon is there anything you’re excited about in the context or the competitive Pokémon scene? 

Piercy: We don’t have the actual format rules yet but we do sort of have an idea of what it’s going to be like. I think it’s going to be really similar to 2014 where they use a small regional Pokédex. I think this is a really good thing because it encourages players to be creative.

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We’re expecting you can use the Pokemon from the Aloha Pokédex, which isn’t all of them, but there will also be a national dex in the game that includes all of them.

Q: What needs to change in the competitive Pokémon scene for the game to become as popular as something like League of Legends of Star Craft?

Piercy: I think it definitely has the potential to go the distance. Obviously I think it’s going to take a little more time to gain a bigger player base. I’m not really sure what it would need to make it to the next level though. It’s sort of a unique situation because the game is played on the 3DS which is different from being a PC online game. There are a lot of advantages to that, but it’s just a different sort of situation.

Q: Have you ever gone back and played Pokémon Red and Blue? 

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Piercy: I mean, obviously the games get better over time and there’s been a lot of advancements but it’s really fun to go back and play the originals. Recently the Red and Blue games were rereleased again on the eshop and that was really fun.

This interview has been edited for style and length. 

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