When most players think of Pokémon VGC as a community, they think of their peers in the masters division. The other age groups don’t get anywhere near as much recognition.
Why is that? For juniors, it’s mostly their age. Since the oldest players are 11, juniors aren’t active enough to have a presence online, where the community congregates. Their younger age also means the skill threshold is often lower. Five or more years makes a huge difference in a player’s ability to think about the game.
But seniors are nipping at the heels of many masters when it comes to age, and many are active on popular forums of discussion, such as Nugget Bridge. The skill and experience is still somewhat of a factor, but the gap between a good senior and any master is far more narrow than many expect.
So, what gives? Having played VGC in the younger age groups since near the esport’s beginning, Brendan Zheng knows better than anyone.
Exploring the age gap
“A lot of people don’t give enough respect to senior sand juniors,” Zheng said. “Which makes sense, since we have a lot of seniors in the community do questionable things.”
Those questionable behaviors range from acting out online to eccentric in-game decisions, according to the former World Champion. But at the same time, Zheng stressed that the best seniors in the division are playing at a high level.
“I think if you’re one of the ten seniors in the world that are widely respected, and you do well, it’s like being a master,” Zheng said. “And once you become a master, others give you a lot of respect.”
Newcomer and breakout competitor Raghav Malaviya is on a similar page. Despite the fact that 2016 is Malaviya’s first year competing, he has proved his skill by getting top 16 at US Nationals, winning the Southern California regional and dominating the top of Showdown’s VGC ladder. The online simulator, which many use for quick practice, doesn’t distinguish between age divisions and is full of masters.
“I think the majority of seniors aren’t as great as masters — but the seniors that are good can compete with them,” Malaviya said. “Since masters is such a big division, there’s obviously some bad players, too, right? In the end, if you’re good, you’re good.”
According to Joseph Costagliola, who top-cut this year’s US Nationals, another reason comes down to poor communication.
“Another thing that’s different between seniors and masters is a lack of information sharing,” Costagliola said. “It’s harder to make meta-calls and recognize who the top players are. Seniors aren’t posting as many team reports online, and stuff like that.”
A divisive division
That forces seniors to approach their events much differently than masters. Since players can’t always tell what teams or players in their division are good, over-predicting an opponent can be common and dangerous.
“With seniors, they can have a really good team — and in team preview, you assume that, even though you haven’t heard of them, they might be good,” Costagliola said. “Then you try and read them and it doesn’t always go so well.
In spite of that difficulty, good seniors are expected to do well at events due to much lower attendance. Whereas masters sometimes have to battle through hundreds of other players at regionals, seniors usually hover more around a few dozen competitors. At most premiere challenges, there’s far less.
According to Costagliola, some events only have a handful of top-tier seniors. The rest of top cut is filled with unknown entities. As a result of lower attendance, not only can good seniors earn a Worlds invite with ease, but less talented players can do the same just by showing up. Zheng noted that many peoples’ lower opinion of seniors partially stems from that fact.
“I think the problem with this year is there’s too many people,” Zheng said. “I think everything else is fine, but if you have four hundred people qualify for Worlds, it’s not really Worlds.”
Zheng thinks one solution is to raise the championship point bar a bit so that worlds features the players who really fought for their invite. Alternatively, he suggested that looking at day-two Worlds-qualifiers can serve as a better benchmark for determining the most noteworthy seniors.
On the other side of the issue, Malaviya said he thinks its others’ perception of seniors’ achievements that misses the mark.
“The whole point of what Pokémon has done this year is to expand the game,” Malaviya said. “But because a lot of people who don’t have a paid trip aren’t financially able to go to Worlds, [TPCI has] still established that day two players are among the best.”
The future of VGC
What Zheng, Malaviya and Costagliola all agree on, though, is that many of VGC’s best players come from the seniors division. And looking at players such as former seniors world champion Toler Webb or two-time seniors national champion Aaron “Cybertron” Zheng, it’s clear that good seniors often grow into good masters. In 2016, first-year-masters Thomas Nishimura and Ian McLaughlin proved that by each winning a regional. Malaviya thinks that trend will continue.
“A lot of these players may not be at that level yet, but these players are going to grow,” Malaviya said. “As they get into masters, the competition gets significantly harder, but they’re going to get better. I think we’ll be the new Wolfe [Glick]. We’ll be the new Cybertron.”
Brendan Zheng even thinks that some of the best seniors influence masters before ever aging into that division. One example he offered from 2016 is Carson St. Denis and his powerful performance at US Nationals.
“I think, the dominance of Carson and his team is going to really influence Worlds in all three divisions,” Zheng said. “The way he thought about his team was really interesting. And when I played him in top-four, he 4-0’d me both games. I think it shows that if you don’t prepare for that kind of team it can destroy you. I think a lot of masters might look into that.”
Regardless, the often overlooked seniors clearly have more skill and knowledge than they’re given credit for, and more players could stand to learn a thing or two from them. After all, according to Zheng, the best masters already give seniors their due respect.