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The Master of Pokemon: Psychology and mathematical mastery turned a kid from Jersey into a champion

The Master of Pokemon: Psychology and mathematical mastery turned a kid from Jersey into a champion

Nobody has ever dominated the competitive Pokemon scene like Ray Rizzo. In recent times, Rizzo has ruled the Masters division of the Pokemon video game world championships with an iron fist, repeating as world champion three times in a row.

As the Pokemon World Championship comes up on August 9 in Vancouver, the smart money is on Rizzo to stand atop the heap once again.

Nothing lucky about it

There's a significant amount of luck involved at any level of Pokemon, but it's precisely that luck which serves to highlight just how good Rizzo really is. Through all of the things that could potentially have gone wrong: missed attacks, inopportune critical strikes etc, Rizzo has managed to find ways of dominating so completely that even bad luck can't stop him.

“The video game, in my eyes, is almost entirely skill based,” said Josh Wittenkeller, a Pokemon commentator and YouTube personality. “There are something like 600+ different attacks. So you need to know, 'what's my attack set, what's my opponent's potential attack set, what item are they holding, what are the base stat values of the pokemon they have out right now, what nature could they be…it's insane.”

“I feel you almost need to be a Pokemon savant to have a chance against some people,” he said. “There's certainly some luck involved with whether your skill hits or whether you score a critical hit, but there are so many variables that it's really about knowing your team, knowing your opponent's team, and knowing what pokemon are going to show up at the tournament.”

Encyclopedic knowledge of the game aside, it's the latter part that has allowed Rizzo to be so successful year after year. He has a mind for innovation, and he's constantly one step ahead of the pack. He not only knows how to create strong tournament-ready teams, but he's able build teams that will counter his opponents before the tournament even starts.

It's a metagame approach that has a way of rendering the most powerful and commonly-used Pokemon teams useless.

“In the video game there are so many strategies that Ray has literally had to have the best strategy multiple years in a row,” said Wittenkeller. “And the metagame changes constantly. It's not like he's showing up every year with the same team.”

The ultimate team

Pokemon has a reputation as being something of a light or shallow RPG, but the reality is that it's a startlingly complex game both to understand and in which to compete. While the surface level of the game is all about cuddly pocket monsters, underneath that veneer is a range of hidden statistics.

These hidden values inform the way tournament-caliber players craft their teams.

The statistics are called EV (Effort Values) and IV (Individual Values). The latter of the two is a fairly controversial mechanic, because the effort and knowledge it takes to maximize this random number is immense. Each pokemon stat has an IV rating at birth, up to a maximum of 31. In order to compete at the top level, every pokemon should have perfect 31 IV across all of their statistics.

But it's not as simple as just training your pokemon up to 31 IV. In order to get that perfect number across multiple stats, Pokemon's random number generator has to be gamed in a certain way. Because of the difficulty involved, the assumption seems to be that some, maybe many, players are hacking the game and cheating to get maximum stats. It's also not a competitive number: You either have that perfect number, or you don't. There's no wiggle room.

EV is much easier to understand, and is used to handcraft tournament pokemon toward very specific functions.

“When you battle pokemon you accumulate these invisible points, (EVs) which translate to stat increases,” said Wittenkeller. “And so you need to find out what every pokemon gives in terms of EVs, and then you take your Pokemon and you continually battle against the ones that you need. So there are people… if you do it legitimately… who have spreadsheets and mathematical formulas.”

This is one area where Rizzo's strategic, competitive mind has an advantage over other players. Wittenkeller gave the example of Rizzo's Cresselia pokemon in his 2012 championship run which had its “speed” stat perfectly tailored to be used with an ability called “Trick Room,” which swaps the speeds of the battling Pokemon.

“He specifically altered the speed stat on his Cresselia so that it's perfectly faster than other Cresselias when Trick Room was in play, but kept it fast enough so that it's still not slow otherwise,” Wittenkeller said. “So there's just these weird mathematical things like that that are so over my head.”

“The video game is such a high-level thing that even I am hesitant to even touch it at times,” he continued. “In the video game's metagame there are so many viable characters, strategies, combinations, attacks, stack sets, EVs, IVs… it's so overwhelming. You really need to have a mathematically-based mind to compete.”

Champion of the world: the kid from Jersey

Talking with Rizzo, you'd get the sense that there's nothing interesting about him at all. He talks about his world championships with a sort of unenthused attitude that's normally reserved for nephews telling their aunts about getting the lead in the high school musical.

He told the Report that even after three world championships he still doesn't think there's anything special about him as a player.

“I wouldn't have expected this three years ago,” Rizzo said. “I wouldn't have even expected to win once. There's definitely some luck involved. I do spend a lot of time thinking about strategies, and coming up with ones that maybe aren't as popular. I don't know. There are definitely a lot of real good players who I think are just as good as me who I think have a shot at Worlds.”

There are more good players than ever, as a matter of fact. Competitive Pokemon has been growing ever larger over the years. “Before, you had maybe 250 people show up to the New York tournament,” said Rizzo about the New York regional back in 2008. “Now you have regionals three times a year at six different locations at a time. There's like 18-20 regionals going on per year, and we've got tons of people showing up. So I think the fact that we've got a lot more people showing up helps the metagame evolve.”

It seems Pokemon has also benefitted from the increasing exposure and popularity of eSports over the past two years.

“This year in particular, the spread of competitive gaming has been very large,” said Wittenkeller. “So I'm sure that there are going to be a lot of new tactics and a lot of new people.” He gave the example of a top player who only lost a single game at this year's national tournament, but lost it to someone totally new to competitive play who simply played in such a bizarre, erratic fashion that he started to make mistakes, unsure exactly how to adapt.

Rizzo doesn't seem to be resting on his previous accomplishments either. He did not compete at the United States national tournament this year in Indianapolis in July… even though he was in attendance. Speculation is that he may have been stalking the tournament, observing the metagame and getting a feel for his opponents.

“It might have even been a tactics thing,” said Wittenkeller. “Not being at Nationals could mean not tipping your hand for Worlds. And you can just play the silent observer.”

Rizzo himself says he was just there for fun, although he also says he's a very competitive person by nature. “I want to be the best at what I do,” Rizzo said.