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Friday, April 29, 2016

Pokemon at 20: The Trading Card Mania Lives at Gamescape

Posted By on Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge WILLIE CLARK
  • Willie Clark
"Who's ready to play Pokemon?"

Tournament organizer Gary Fleming posed this question to 16 players Tuesday evening at Gamescape, as the weekly Pokemon Trading Card Game league got ready for a few hours of shuffling decks, battling monsters, and hoping to draw just the right card at the right moment.

This year especially is a big year for Pokemon: 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the series. Since its original release in Japan in 1996, Pokemon has become a pop-culture phenomena, with 275 million video games sold across the globe, 21.5 billion TCG cards shipped to 74 countries, an animated series, and myriad merchandising.

click to enlarge WILLIE CLARK
  • Willie Clark

Locally, Fleming started hosting Pokemon Trading Card Game — or TCG — tournaments five years ago. Although similar Pokemon League events are held around the world, the tournaments at Gamescape are currently the only local Pokemon tournaments in the city of San Francisco.

And while Pokemon may be entering its third decade, the tournament attracted players of a wide range of ages. Some of the players were on the younger side, introduced to Pokemon way later than its original inception 20 years ago.

Rory Smith Russell, 12, was one such fan who was born after the heyday introduction of the crazy in the '90s. Russell has been collecting cards for the past six or seven years, and comes to play at Gamescape every Tuesday.

"We get to meet a lot of people," Russell said. "You get the excitement of opening packs and winning. You benefit from losing too, so you can get better.” Tuesday night's event was a special prerelease tournament for the most recent expansion of the collectible card game XY—Fates Collide. Instead of developing their own decks ahead of time, players were each given a prerelease box of cards, and 20 minutes to put together a deck from whatever cards they received.

This meant that players were all on a level playing field, and had to work with the cards that were in each pack, as opposed to spending time building and crafting a deck ahead of the tournament. And despite the perception that Pokemon may skew toward a younger audience, not everybody at the tournament was a kid.

One player was there, instead, to spend time with his own kid.

“It’s fun to play with my son. That’s pretty much why I play," Shawn Molampy said. “I bought him cards
for Christmas and now we’re here every week.” 

His son won the junior division of the tournament.

click to enlarge WILLIE CLARK
  • Willie Clark
Once the packs were handed out, the 20-minute countdown started and voices around the room rose as players got excited about the cards they were opening: "Oh my God!," "Something is shiny!," and "That's going in a sleeve right now" rose among the din as players decided which of the randomly assorted cards would work best together.

Other players sat quietly, slowly looking over and reading each card, arranging them in piles that would soon become their battling decks. For this tournament, each player would face off against another in a 20-minute round, with three such rounds in total. The winner for each age division was then decided based on a player's record after those initial rounds.

Depending on their placement in events like these, players can also earn points to be used to enter higher ranking events, like the Pokemon World Championships, which will be held in San Francisco later this year.

For some of the players, Pokemon is something that was part of growing up, that they've now returned to through events like these. The importance of a local community around the game was a reoccurring theme for the older players.

"I'm beginning to really like the community of Pokemon," Kevin Allen, 25, said. "I love the camaraderie I get now that I'm at league events."

Allen used to play the game religiously. He got back into it in college, and has been playing again ever since.

Alex Villagomez, 25, has been seriously playing the TCG for the past year or so. He's been collecting cards for a long time — and mentioned that trading is part of the fun — but more than anything else feels like it comes down to celebrating the love of Pokemon. He stopped playing for a bit, but found the game lost some of its charm without other players to play with.

"Now that there's a whole community here, that's a big part," Villagomez said.

After the matches were finished, three winners were announced. Liam Molampy won the junior division, Henry Powell won the seniors, and Jasper Powell was victorious in the masters division.

It "feels absolutely amazing and awesome" to have won, Jasper Powell, 16, said. And right at the moment, Henry — who won his age division, giving the brothers a two division family sweep of the tournament — pulled a Kingdra, his favorite Pokemon, from a booster pack.

But the event wasn't only about winning or losing. Attending such tournaments is also a way to get a taste for how such events operate. Rose Barry, 26, started coming to the league because she wanted to learn how to organize and create her own group, and to hopefully become certified by the Pokemon Company — as a Pokemon Professor — to run events of her own.

The Pokemon Professors work at Pokemon events as judges and organizers. This process includes an extensive exam, as well as a background check.

"I like being involved with Pokemon because Pokemon is my favorite thing in the world," Barry said.

Pokemon League, Tuesdays, 5-7 p.m., at Gamescape, 333 Divisadero,

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