The Life of a Professional Pokemon Player

By Katerina Mon Belle

The Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)


Outside the cement walls of the Boise Riverside Hotel, boys lean against hot railings, Styrofoam swords in hand, avoiding the eye contact of anyone who walks by. Inside, the conference lobby’s faded newspaper yellow wallpaper is minimally decorated with Pokémon banners. Kids and adults dressed in red referee uniforms, Pokémon hats and T-shirts, and cosplay costumes are loitering about, catching up with out of state friends, mentally preparing for their next game. Next door is a Minecraft convention.

Tournament day for Corbin Todd, 14 years old and an internationally ranked Pokémon player, starts at 8 AM and often ends well after dinner time.

Stepping into the tournament room where Todd spends most of his day is like walking into a Pokémon-themed beehive. Tables are aligned perfectly symmetrical along every wall, all chairs back to back.

“They’re doing seven rounds of Pokémon,” Bill Todd, Corbin’s father and professional player and judge, said. “They’re going against seven different opponents and for each opponent it’s best two out of three games which lasts an hour so that’s seven hours just to get into top cut.”

In the crowded room among clusters of kids hunched over cards and play mats, Todd’s short, tow-headed blonde hair sticks out in the same way that his arctic blue eyes magnified by thick glasses stand out on his pale skin.

Colorfully gilded Pokémon placemats adorn every table surface. The words “I’m so salty” stand out on Bill’s light blue play mat as a joke from the Pokémon community referring to games or players that cry as “salty.”

“Some people end up crying actual tears and that’s how stressful the game gets,” Bill said. “Kids get teary eyed over it pretty fast and it’s funny because the juniors get upset not because of what’s at stake but just because it’s a game they wanted to win. Masters get upset because they know the stakes involved.”

Juniors are the youngest players here, ranging from around 5 years old to 11 years old, seniors are from 11 to 18 years old and masters are the adults.

“The masters are bigger cry babies than the juniors so it’s funny to watch an adult get teary eyed over these things,” Bill said.

Bill, about average height and much larger than Todd, shares the same pale features as his son but with a short, patchy blonde beard. He is almost never seen without a Pokémon ball cap on, showing off a gap between his front teeth every time he giggles.

According to him, if a player gets to top cut, which is the finals of the tournament competing for the grand prize, the day automatically gets much longer.

“You’re just completely drained emotionally,” Bill said, “You’re exhausted. Did you eat lunch? Did you stay hydrated? Like we are literally looking at did you drink enough Gatorade to make it through the tournament.”

In most cases this prize is expensive Pokémon merchandise or money to travel to bigger tournaments.

According to many parents here, Pokémon is really a sport for their kids. They get sweaty, tired and stressed about it.

“You have about 10 minutes to go to the bathroom or do whatever you need to do and then they start the next round,” Tami Dillon, a “Pokemom” said.

In the corner, a hub of other Pokemoms are sitting on couches and chatting louder than the noise of the Pokémon players in their matches. Dillon is at the center with her thick eye liner that doesn’t quite make it to her tear duct, her bright purple eye shadow and her frizzy dyed red hair just brushing the shoulder of her large flowing clothes.

“I actually relax when I come here,” Dillon said. “I’d rather be doing this than housework or something.”

Todd used to get very nervous during tournaments but now walks around with ease and confidence. He tries to get as much rest as possible before his competitions to stay relaxed.

“He could potentially be a state champion in a couple hours,” Amanda Todd, Corbin’s step-mother and head judge in Idaho, said.

Amanda, who married Bill only a couple years ago, stands under five feet tall, wears wide-framed glasses over her coffee colored eyes and has long, brunette hair. She is the daughter of a local farm girl and a Mexican immigrant.

Pokémon is like a game of chess played via cards. A Pokémon, a word mash of “pocket monster,” are the cards the game revolves around. Each Pokémon requires a certain amount of energies to attack an opponent’s Pokémon, which is the object of the game.

The challenge is that you can only attach one energy to your Pokémon per turn so you must find sneaky ways to use your cards to attack faster and prevent your opponent from attacking you.

Each player creates his own deck to play from the assortment of cards they’ve collected.

Nintendo comes out with new Pokémon cards every season that are played exclusively in Japan before anywhere else. The top players look at Japan’s “meta” deck, which is the hot combination at the time and try to recreate that collection here in preparation for when the new cards come to the United States.

“They call it ‘net decking’ because you’re on the internet and you’re stealing a deck from someone,” Bill said. “Net deckers are hated upon by people who want the game to be ‘build your own deck.’ They claim you didn’t come up with the originality of that but in all actuality somebody would see the same synergy with these cards whether you were on the internet or not.”

Todd is not opposed to net decking because he thinks consulting the internet is a valuable resource.

When he’s not playing Pokémon, Todd uses his time to either do research or start working on new decks. The Todd family collaborates as a team to improve their game and to help Corbin with his decks.

“It’s like the stock market with cards,” Amanda said. “Bill watches it and analyzes it, Corbin sees the ones we need to play and then I’m the one that sells it, Bill tells me when to sell them, tells me when to buy them cheap and we know they’re coming up, we know they’re going to be good.”

According to Amanda, research is essential and since Bill stays home most of the day, he spends his time gathering intel for the family and for their team. Every deck Todd plays is put together by Bill’s meticulous analysis, Todd’s talent and Amanda’s purchases.

Bill, whose other hobbies include fossil collecting and recreating Native American spear heads, can often be seen behind a computer screen in a room full of Pokémon memorabilia surrounded by rattlesnake skeletons and stone arrows.

“So it was a states tournament like this one,” Todd said, recalling one of his best Pokémon memories. “I was in the top two seats for the tournament so it was the game that decided who got first and who got second. Now the person I was playing against I lost to before that game and so I was worried that I was going to lose again, however, I managed to beat her and win.”

Amanda, who switched to judging in part due to the fact that being just a player or a Pokemom has too many emotional swings throughout the day, remembers this event in a different way.

“It was so nerve-wracking I would have to walk away,” Amanda said. “You’re more excited than them, I remember being so happy I was crying and he was exhausted, he was laying on his play mat and he was just like ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ As a Pokemom you just think we’ve done all this work, like I made sure you had snacks and I made sure you were there on time and it paid off.”

Now Todd walks up to his father to tell him he intentionally drawed with one of his friends to both make it into top cut.

“It usually happen in larger tournaments like this,” Todd said, “There’s at least two people that tie because it can guarantee them a spot in the top seats so they can make it pretty far if they do, however if they play it out and one of them loses, they could possibly lose that seat.”

Both Todd and his friend, Daniel Sargeant from Utah, will meet each other again in the finals. According to Bill, this is the type of strategizing the old Todd would never have thought of: he used to be incredibly difficult to motivate and take risks.

“He was an introvert and really didn’t do a lot of social activities and things like that but see now that he has been playing in the game and having to deal with people socially he’s climbed out of his shell and strategizes,” Bill said. “He’s grown a bond with them, his grades went up because of it, he’s more active in the community, he’s more up to doing things.”

The Todd family used to celebrate his wins by going out to get ice cream after the tournament was over. Now winning is so commonplace to them that they just go home.

corbin1According to Amanda, Pokémon does not just help introverted kids step out of their comfort zone and force them to connect with others, it also teaches valuable academic skills.

“It teaches math, it teaches logical skills,” Amanda said. “Because Pokémon players have to interact with each other, it teaches all the same skills as chess, it teaches reading; we have five year olds who play and they have to read the cards, they have to be able to do the math, and then if they’re anti-social or if they can’t play sports, these are great events to do. If your kid doesn’t fit into these categories then they’ll probably fit in here.”

Dillon, one of Team Idaho’s regular chaperones, agrees that her own son’s involvement with Pokémon has greatly improved his life in many ways.

“He’s gotten better in math, he’s gotten better in strategies because it’s all math and strategies and he’s made tons of friends, Pokémon friends, like unbelievable,” she said. “Two of his best friends are in Pokémon now and it just restores his confidence like when they win it’s a huge boost to them.”

Both Bill and Amanda understand the importance of Pokémon in their children’s life.

“[Amanda] puts it on the level of academics and so do I with our kid,” Bill said. “If his grades aren’t good enough then he doesn’t get to go to certain events.”

Nintendo pays for the Todd family to travel all around North America for Pokémon tournaments so long as Todd continues to win.

“You can go to a couple local tournaments in your area and literally win $2,000 to travel so why not?” Amanda said. “Why not make Pokémon pay for your vacation?”

With her step kid’s quick rise to Pokémon success, the Todd family has had no problem financing their travels.

“[Todd] got his World’s invite in the first two months which most kids are fighting for that right now and he got his months ago,” Bill said. “He’s the one to beat.”

The girl he defeated in his favorite ever Pokémon game, Emily Cheng, 14 as well, is coming up on her eigth year of professional playing with seven Worlds Championships invites. At her best she was once ranked as the 15th top junior player internationally.

Cheng is a rarity in the professional Pokémon world; female players make up only a fractional minority of the overall community.

“It’s sort of weird since the general gender is male here but it doesn’t really bother me, I can make friends fine,” Cheng said. “I think it’s advertised more to the male population. A lot of older males who have kids really loved it as kids themselves so they want to give their son that same experience but I don’t know if that’s the same for daughters. There are people that bring their daughters along and I think that’s great, I just don’t think that there’s that much exposure for females. I think it’s really great when I see a little girl winning in front of a lot of guys who tell her that she can’t.”

Daniel Lynch, 19 years old, who goes by Finnigan online, runs a YouTube channel dedicated to Pokémon but will also be launching a brand new website this month, believes this will help create more exposure for female players.

“Anyone can go on the internet so any kind of person could access it,” Lynch said. “I’m not quite sure why there aren’t more girls in the community, everyone loves them when they join, but I think a website would promote that sort of thing.”

Lynch, with the support of his family, even plans to make a living out of playing and promoting Pokémon. His YouTube videos get anywhere between 50 and 2,000 views and his website will post articles, videos, weekly podcasts and other helpful material all dedicated to improving player’s games.

“I really wanted to make money through games somehow and I wanted to play in tournaments and make money that way but then I realized that it’s not viral at all and in Pokémon there’s no way to make that work,” Lynch said. “So I decided that the only way I would really be able to make a living was with a website and I already had the YouTube channel so I just figured I can use subscribers from YouTube and kind of promote the website and I have many friends and connections in the community but I could probably make it work.”

Many professional Pokémon players also make a living off being coaches. On top of making money off of websites, judging, and winning grand prizes, Bill says that Todd, who is a particularly successful player makes a considerable amount of money playing for prizes.

“There’s so much money on the line and it’s not just money but it’s product and cards too,” Bill said, “so the kids will win hats, mats, sleeves, pencils, I mean everything and anything that you can think of but those are worth some serious cash like a hat is easily a thirty five dollar bill and then you win some sleeves that are $15 to $20 and then you win a box of cards which is a hundred bucks. I mean you can pull away with a lot of money because you can sell all that stuff on eBay or even here immediately after awards people are looking to buy that stuff so as a player you can make some serious cash.”

In the hallways adjacent to the competition room, a Pokémon marketplace buzzing with people and flowing with cash is where players and vendors sell other games, merchandise and snacks.

The Todd family does sell most of their product, but in their new home they plan to dedicate an entire room to Pokémon playing and decorating instead of just the living room.

“The living room is just filled with Pokémon,” Todd said. “It’s everywhere.”

corbin2

Both the Cheng and Todd families have been very successful working as teams.

“It used to just be me and my dad but then my sister got pulled into it so now we travel together,” Cheng said. “And then just this year my mom started playing so we kind of band around as a family.”

Much like Cheng, Todd was eager to have his family get into it as well.

“The first year we played, [Todd] got a World’s invite only having played half the season,” Amanda said, “that’s how good he is, but he won so many cards that that funded us and kept us able to travel more and then the more that we keep doing this, we just keep being able to do bigger travel and he really started us, he’s the root of our tree.”

Amanda said that Pokémon even helped her marriage.

“Being able to be together and enjoy something together that we do a lot made us a stronger couple,” she said. “Any healthy relationship is going to have some sort of argument in it so we’ve learned how to overcome those things and become better and stronger in all aspects of our lives and we’re never really bored because we can always just say, ‘Hey wanna play a game of Pokémon?”

The Pokémon community has not only facilitated the kids’ social growth, but both Dillon and Amanda have made lifelong family and friends as well.

“It’s really like a family community, it really is and it helps because you make friends and you meet people and it’s really cool,” Dillon said. “I’m friends with the judges, I’ve gained tons of friends through Pokémon and so has my son. Pokémon is a great community, they’re good people, they’re here for their kids, we’re not out drinking and partying, we’re here for them and it’s huge to me how many Pokémon parents there are and are just here for their kids, shows you the people who care.”

The Todd family, who travel more often than the Dillons, have created a nationwide web of family for themselves.

“Even the people here from California who travel here every year, they call and talk to us,” Amanda said. “The people from Utah have just become family, like they’re an extended part of my family and if something happens they work with you, they’re flexible, they’re awesome.”

Both Amanda and Bill started out as players like Corbin but recently began judging instead. When she stopped playing, Amanda was ranked second best player in Idaho and then in the span of a year, she became head judge in the state of Idaho.

“I enjoy judging because I like being in control of things,” Amanda said, “I enjoy the fact that people respect me and listen to me and help them, I knew that I could step into the role to help people learn the games of the rules easier.”

Bill still enjoys playing more than judging but judging is a more surefire way to earn money. You don’t get paid for being a judge but you get Pokémon product like a box of cards which is worth $100 to other merchandise which you can turn around and sell right at the tournament.

Amanda believes she is a successful judge because of her commanding presence, which she gained from her primary job in law enforcement.

“I run a league in a coffee shop every Thursday, and a lot of my players are actually special needs; they have autism, they have different anti-social disorders,” Amanda said. “but they come there and they’re comfortable so I love that aspect of it, it gets them out and it gets them to play.”

According to Bill, although many would assume Pokémon is a children’s games, at most tournaments there are more adults than kids. He has even seen old ladies in walkers playing in competitions. The grand prize for winning worlds is a $25,000 scholarship which Todd hopes to win someday.

With his newfound niche and social foundation if Todd could change anything about Pokémon it would only be to make the game even more inclusive.

“I would probably change some of the cards,” he said, “I would take certain cards out because some people don’t like certain decks and they get really upset over those decks and so I would just kind of try to change that and make everyone happier.”

Amanda on the other hand, has other ideas of what to change.

“If we could get Irish Spring to sponsor it,” she said. “I mean you’re in there for a long time, you’re sweating, there’s a lot of bodies and you’re just like we need to spray some Axe body spray somewhere, maybe some Febreze.”

Photo Credit: Minh Hoang

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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