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“Pokken will never truly die” – interview with Pokken Tournament pro Jacob “Jukem” Waller

If you follow fighting games, Pokémon, or both, you may have heard of Pokkén Tournament at some point.  This radical take on both the fighting game genre as well as Pokémon promised to  expand the boundaries of both. Early reviews showed the game had a ton of promise. The hype surrounding Pokken Tournament ensured that it would be a hit. But there was one problem: the timing.

When it first came out, Pokken Tournament launched on Nintendo’s ill-fated Wii U system. Shunned by many as a “non-gamers’ console”, the Wii U underperformed, and so did a number of games released on it that perhaps could’ve found some form of commercial success otherwise . Pokken Tournament was one of these games. Thankfully, the fighting game got a second chance of sorts with the Nintendo Switch.

The rebirth of Pokken Tournament

Pokken Tournament‘s arrival on the Switch was much better received, with at least one reviewer noting that the the game is “so much better on a platform that’s not dead.” Dubbed Pokken Tournament DX, the game sold almost 2 million copies on the Nintendo Switch, easily outselling its Wii U counterpart.

The game isn’t nearly as big in the competitive space as, say, Tekken or Street Fighter. There haven’t been any software updates to the game since late 2018. However, it is still supported to some extent by its publisher, The Pokémon Company International. In fact, the recent Pokémon Players Cup III, which concluded last week, had  a Pokken Tournament segment – a good sign for the game’s future.

To better get an idea of where the Pokken Tournament scene is now, we recruited the expertise of Players Cup III winner, Jacob “Jukem” Waller.

SQUAD: Let’s chat about you first, and how you got into the competitive Pokken Tournament scene. Where and when did it all begin for you?

Waller: I’m an Illinois Pokkén player who’s played Pokémon ever since I was around  five years old. My first Pokémon who was Treecko in Pokémon Emerald, so what got me really interested in Pokkén was when Treecko’s final evolution, Sceptile, was announced to be playable in Pokkén. Before that, I did VGC, but around the time Pokkén was revealed, I was losing interest in VGC due to how some formats can seem repetitive. It was all around much more difficult to use uncommon but intriguing Pokémon who weren’t part of the meta, but with unique strategies that could make up for it.

Ever since switching over to Pokkén in 2016, I’ve trained up my Sceptile, and later when the DX version released in 2017 also my Empoleon, my starter Pokémon of choice from Pokémon Diamond. These last five years have been super eventful, obviously because I’ve made it to becoming a top player in the community.

Pokken Tournament
Image by Bandai Namco.

You recently won the official Pokemon Players Cup III Pokken Tournament DX games! Tell us about that.

I was super hopeful that I could take the win this year, since I was so close last year when I lost to Davon “Shadowcat” Amos-Hall in the Grand Finals. For the qualifier, I was confident, which netted my placement in the top 8 Global Finals.

Admittedly, I was nervous when the day came, not only because I didn’t sleep well – to the point where Shadowcat had to wake me up by calling me on Discord – but it was obviously the day of the big event. I’m usually nervous for big tournaments, it’s something I haven’t gotten over easily, but it was especially bad that day. My first match against Cyril “Boolerex” Braud showcased that a bit, with me making obvious mistakes. My next match with Allister “ALLISTER” Singh had even more crucial errors that made me lose that set, sending me to the losers bracket.

Once in losers, I felt a lot of that stress and pressure melt away, and I slowly began playing a lot better, defeating Umberto “Goreson” Tagliafierro and Anthony “Rokso” Paratore. With my rematch against Allister, I was a lot more confident, but I also decided to switch to Empoleon. I felt a lot more comfortable using Empoleon, and I felt the same in the Grand Finals against Shadowcat after I 3-0’d Allister.

While I reset Shadowcat with Empoleon and felt even better going into the reset, I still lost the next two games and panicked a bit. I kept calm and switched to Sceptile, and that was the correct decision. I did get immensely worried when Shadowcat switched to Darkrai after playing Braixen the entire set, because Darkrai was who he beat me with last year, but I overcame that literal nightmare of a character with the time out. Looking back, I see some mistakes I was still making, but I could tell the same was true for Shadowcat, and it’s only natural.

One last thing to say about this event is that it could have been an exact repeat of last year for me: winning my round 1, losing round 2, crawling my way back up to the Grand Finals after beating the person who beat me, and then facing Shadowcat, who’s on the winners side. The results only flipped, but it was still crazy to think about.

Pokken Tournament has a small but dedicated fanbase at present. What do you think it would take to grow that fanbase?

In my opinion, what Pokkén could really use more is more content creators. We already have a lot of great community leaders, so I think it’s key to have content for newer players to look up. There were a few in the past, but they’ve either stopped or switched to other games, and while we do have a good amount of tutorials and other types of content on YouTube, some of it is outdated, and you can never go wrong with having more opinions from other players.

I’ve been trying to help with that, and although I also do a variety of other content, the main focus is Pokkén. I mostly do sets from my streams, but I also try to work hard on discussion videos when I get the chance. Shadowcat also posts some of his sets on YouTube, which makes me happy, but we really could use more.

Jukem's Ultimate Pokkén Tournament Highlight Video [2019]

Even if the Pokkén Tournament fanbase stays the way it is – no growth, but no shrinkage either – what do you think it would take to maintain its presence?

When offline tournaments were a thing, the community was always very supportive in entering or spectating them. Even the casual audience, and others who weren’t involved in Pokkén, enjoyed watching the game. That presence alone meant the game would never die, though obviously on our own we were still a smaller community compared to monster series like Street Fighter or Super Smash Bros.

Pokken Tournament, like most competitive fighting games, has a high skill ceiling. This can be intimidating for new players. What do you think is the best way to ease new players into the game?

Pokkén is luckily one of those games that’s easy to learn, though hard to master. We have several types of guides that people can read up on to learn more about the characters they’re interested in, and members of the community are always down to help and play games with those who are new.

You don’t have to worry about command inputs like in Street Fighter, it’s all directional, and with enough practice, it’s easy to remember the moves. Applying those moves in a match is different, but putting the time into it can be rewarding. Watching sets featuring the characters you’d want to play as is also a good way to recognize how you would apply those moves, and the character’s general playstyle. And of course, if you’re just having fun, that’s all that matters.

There are new competitive fighting games coming up on the horizon, such as Project L by Riot Games. What do you think it would take to keep Pokkén Tournament alive and relevant when such games release?

I feel it might be a brief obstacle at most for Pokkén. I personally am interested in trying Project L, and the new Guilty Gear, but I will still remain a Pokkén player and content creator. I’ve mentioned it already, but the community is still super supportive and have in the past made sure Pokkén gets its spotlight just from sheer support.

Pokkén, in my opinion, will never truly die. While we don’t get as much support from the Pokémon Company itself, we still aren’t left on our own by them, since they do host these Players Cups, and had offline events for the World Championships before them. A new game would definitely make sure we never fade away, but as it stands, we have and will continue to stay strong in the face of these other gigantic fighting games.

Do you think there will ever be a Pokken Tournament 2? What do you think it will take to make a sequel happen?

The possibility of a Pokkén Tournament 2 is high, and it’s just a matter of when they want to do it. The game has community support, and [Pokken Tournament producer] Katsuhiro Harada has stated the game sold well and that he’d love to make a second game. The studio that made Pokkén is helping make the New Pokémon Snap game, so the Pokémon Company seems to like that team. It’s all up to the Pokémon Company, and I feel that we will get something great for Pokkén Tournament someday.

[This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

We would like to thank Jacob “Jukem” Waller for taking the time to chat with us! For more Pokemon and Pokken Tournament content, stick around with SQUAD!

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Phillip Miner

Phillip has over a decade of experience writing about video games. Yes, over a decade! He's been on publications ranging from the Escapist to local papers and beyond.
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