Video game skills earn Des Plaines teen shot at world title
Hawaii is an idyllic vacation spot: palm trees, beaches, a worldwide gathering of competitive video game players, luaus -- the list goes on.
Yes, Manoj Sunny has a lot to look forward to when he travels to The Big Island for the 2012 Pokémon Video Game World Championships, which will be held Aug. 10-12.
Sunny, a resident of Des Plaines, earned the trip to Waikoloa, Hawaii, by finishing fourth at the popular handheld video game's national tournament in Indianapolis earlier this month.
Years of preparation brought Sunny, 16, to this point. He was introduced to the game via the 2005 Game Boy Advance release Pokémon Emerald. It wasn't until a few years later, though, that he began to get competitive. When he lost to older, more experienced players, he didn't just take it as a minor defeat in a friendly competition.
"I hate losing," Sunny said. "Once I lost, I needed to get better."
Sunny learned the intricacies of the game using an online simulator. Though the tagline "Gotta catch 'em all" sums up the game's more widely known goal -- capturing all of the Pokémon, short for "pocket monsters", available in the game -- he focused more on the battles between individual Pokémon.
On the simulator, he began to meticulously assemble his team. A player gets six Pokémon per battle, each with unique strengths and weaknesses when paired against other types of Pokémon. A water-type Pokémon, for example, is effective against fire-based characters but susceptible to attacks from electric-type Pokémon.
Since the point of the battles is to eliminate your opponent's group of Pokémon before he or she can eliminate yours, assembling a balanced lineup that can defeat a wide variety of enemies is essential to success.
Sunny, with the help of other users of the simulator, worked to perfect his group of six, continuously swapping out characters to eliminate any weaknesses in his lineup. Eventually, he got a sign that he'd all but perfected his team: Sunny peaked as the number one player on the website for a month.
Remarkably, for all his success, Sunny only competed in his first live tournament this spring. After some of his classmates at Maine West High School told him about organized competitions, he signed up for a regional tournament in Madison, Wis. Sunny said he practiced for an hour a day for two months leading up to the competition.
Two of the most important attributes for a Pokémon player to have, Sunny says, are a good memory and intuition. In competition, you see your opponent's lineup for a minute and a half before the battle begins. In those 90 seconds, you have to learn your opponent's strengths and weaknesses, match those against the strengths and weaknesses of your own team, and play out, in your head, the various ways in which your opponent can play his hand. Then, you pick four of your own Pokémon for the battle and hope your instincts were right.
"You need a sense of intuition for what your opponent will do," Sunny said. "If you don't predict what your opponent will do, you will lose."
His dedication and intuitive skills were rewarded with a fourth-place finish in Madison. Even with high school finals limiting his practice time, he duplicated that performance at the national competition.
The nature of the tournaments, which are held in a crowded hall in which you have to literally face your opponent, was something Sunny had to adjust to after practicing in his room, either on his computer or Nintendo DS. Two things helped him overcome this new obstacle: his experience as a member of Maine West's chess team, of which he will be the captain next year, and the amicable nature of his competitors.
"The overall atmosphere is fun and friendly," he said. "I was surprised; even opponents that lost to me -- some of them are really happy."
That isn't to diminish the importance of winning, of course. Some might think a video game doesn't carry particularly high stakes, especially one that's often perceived as a children's game. Sunny, who's competing in an age grouping of people born in 1996 or earlier, dispelled that notion.
"It's still a game; there's a competitive aspect to it," he said. "You want to win."
Now, faced with the prospect of facing about 50 of the best players in the world, Sunny is managing his expectations. Though he spent "a lot of time" this week working on a new team -- with the smaller field at Worlds, some people, in advance, try to scout the lineup other players have used -- he mainly wants to represent himself and his country well. He said there's no shame in losing after coming this far, but he does have a goal in mind.
"I just want to place in the top half of people," he said, though his competitive side almost reflexively kicks in after making that statement.
"Top eight would be great," he added, though not even that satisfies him. "And winning would be insane."