ICYMI: Pokken just crowned its first American world champion

For the first time in its history, the Pokémon World Championships has a Pokkén Tournament champion from outside of Japan. Jacob “ThankSwalot” Waller from the United States (above) defeated Japanese competitor Kota “Tarutaro” Aragaki in a tense grand finals match that cemented his status as the best Pokkén player in the world.

Pokkén Tournament is unique in that it breaks up battles into two distinct phases: the Field phase, during which players participate in full 3D arena combat, and the Duel phase, which shifts the action to a 2D plane à la Street Fighter. Its passionate competitive community has resulted in one invitational and three official appearances at the annual Pokémon World Championships, alongside the trading card and roleplaying games. The addition of new characters and the regular release of balance patches has kept Pokkén competition fresh over the last three years, and players entered the Pokémon World Championships in Nashville eager to test their skills against talent from across the globe.

ThankSwalot — competing as Thanks A Lot due to The Pokémon Company’s aversion to players using official Pokémon names — and Tarutaro arrived at Worlds after earning their spots at the North American and Japanese qualifiers respectively, but they took very different paths to grand finals.

ThankSwalot started out strong, defeating Evo 2018 champion Liam “Twixxie” Nelson and Japanese qualifier Toshiki “Haruyuki” Kunieda en route to the grand finals. Tarutaro, however, took a surprisingly early loss to Germany’s Niklas “Wingtide” Laerbusch in the first round. This placed him in the shark-infested waters of the losers bracket, where another loss meant being sent home. Tarutaro remained composed, pulling out wins against fellow Japanese competitors like Konosuke “Bangi” Kataoka, Fujioka “Mikukey_Homura” Shuhei, and Hiroki “Subutan” Ishida — world-class players in their own right — to earn his shot at ThankSwalot in grand finals.

From the outset, it looked like Tarutaro had ThankSwalot’s number. ThankSwalot is adept at using Sceptile’s various tools to read and trap his oppponents, but Gengar is inherently hard to pin down due to the tricky way it moves around the battlefield and disappears during attacks. Tarutaro used this to his advantage and rushed to a commanding 3-0 victory in the initial grand finals set, pulling ThankSwalot down to the losers bracket with him and necessitating another set. By combining Synergy Burst — a special state that powers up the user’s Pokémon –and the attack-boosting Mew support, Tarutaro turned Gengar into a tank, doling out huge damage with every hit. ThankSwalot briefly flirted with the more straight-forward Empoleon, but as the grand finals continued, he remained dedicated to Sceptile, the Pokémon that had brought him to Worlds in the first place.

Tarutaro carried his momentum into the second set, quickly going up 2-0 against his American opponent. With the championship on the line, ThankSwalot stole an incredible round in the third game that saw both players reduced to a sliver of health.

This provided a tangible confidence boost to ThankSwalot’s play, and he slowly but surely began to make his comeback. Tarutaro looked defanged; where previously Gengar had looked like a wrecking ball, ThankSwalot’s ability to read to the ghost Pokémon’s problematic moveset gave him an edge. In the end, the grand finals were decided on the players’ individual ability to adapt, and ThankSwalot won out completely, winning the championship match by a score of 3-2.

Although there are countless tournaments throughout the year, the Pokémon World Championships is held in high regard in the Pokkén competitive scene. It gives them a major event to call home, somewhere their love for both Pokémon and fighting games comes together in a special way. It’s far removed from the turn-based combat of both the Pokémon trading card and roleplaying games, but that provides more opportunities for nail-biting finishes. Pokkén’s uncommon mechanics can make it an outlier at both traditional fighting game tournaments and Pokémon-centric gatherings, but the community has managed to carve out their own niche in the pursuit of their passions.

ThankSwalot, as the event’s first American champion, proves that Pokkén competition is still evolving, with a bright future that’s worthy of attention.