Expediting the Endgame

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endgame (noun) - the final stage of a game such as chess or bridge, when few pieces or cards remain.

The term endgame arose in chess to isolate strategies the player can memorize and use to maximize her chance of winning. It isn’t some special mode where the rules of the game change. It’s just a mental model that’s easier to study, memorize, and master due to the fact that fewer pieces remain.

When fewer pieces remain, the number of possible plays decreases to a manageable count. Chess masters have written books focused on the endgame, exploring each possible situation or piece combination to determine the best way to win.

The last moves in a game are the most crucial. If you’ve played the game down to a point where each side has only a few pieces — or a few moves — remaining, having a plan or vision for how to win is a major advantage. In fact, many advanced players try to reach the endgame as soon as possible, so they can apply the specific strategies they’ve prepared in advance.

Earlier in the game, it’s easy to get lost in the woods. There are too many trees, paths, and choices to make.

In the endgame, your opponent has a limited set of moves, so there is less uncertainty and more control, if you’ve prepared your plays. Boil it down to two or three pieces, and the path to victory is much clearer.

The endgame is a mental model that applies beyond chess or bridge.

Competitive Pokémon video game players use it to describe the state of the board when both players are down to their one or two final Pokémon. It actually applies even before Pokémon players become elite, or competitive.

After the Elite Four: Humans are the Endgame of Pokémon

Aaron “Cybertron” Zheng and I were discussing his journey from a Pokémon player during the Game Boy days to a popular content creator on YouTube.

Even before he started playing the Pokémon video game, he started out playing the trading card game, collecting cards and trading with friends. When he and his friends got Game Boys, they started playing the video game. But first, before they could test their ideas against each other, they had to play through the game’s single-player story mode.

Throughout this single-player role-playing adventure, you train a party of pocket monsters (Pokémon) and fight one-on-one battles against the computer. The computer AI is rarely smart enough to pose a threat, so you don’t feel the need to train the optimal team. Simply grinding experience levels and using the strongest offensive moves will guide you to the endgame. In this context, the endgame is defeating the Elite Four, clearing the story mode. Afterwards, though the linear story stops progressing, you can roam the world and continue catching, training, and battling your team. In fact, clearing the game opens up a lot of services previously unavailable, like move tutors to teach your Pokémon unlearnable attacks. In later entries of the video game, you can also access breeding facilities to hatch genetically stronger monsters. You can fight stronger foes that earn you more experience points, to accelerate growth. These all prepare you for the true endgame: dueling other human players.

The endgame, for Aaron and many other Pokémon video gamers, is where the game is most enjoyable. The biggest difference from the story mode is the ability to play against other humans. And when the Pokémon Company International started to schedule tournaments in 2008, the official format of video game battles was doubles, or two-on-two. During the single-player game, you control one Pokémon against one from your opponent. In official tournaments like the Pokémon World Championships, you control two. The strategy of controlling two is markedly different:

  • You can protect one of your Pokémon while using the other to attack.
  • You can switch unfavorable matchups in and out with your bench just like you could in singles, but the risk of sustaining two attacks forces you to consider switching more defensively.
  • You have to decide between weaker attacks that target all opponents, and stronger one-target attacks.
  • Damage accumulates much faster, since four Pokémon move the same turn.
  • Field effects like weather and damage-reducing barriers affect the outcome.
  • Support moves allow you to dedicate team members to strengthening others.

Once you taste that level of play, it’s hard to go back and enjoy beating the knuckle-headed computer-controlled Team Rockets of the in-game world. For players who have tasted and enjoyed this endgame, their first goal when buying a new Pokémon game is to finish the single-player quest as quickly as they can, so they can take advantage of all the game’s available Pokémon, breeding facilities for hatching Pokémon more genetically predisposed for fighting, and use all the facilities for teaching moves.

The endgame is only a beginning. Competitive Pokémon players - by definition, those that want to compete against other humans - have to reach this endgame before they can prepare a team that they can use in a tournament.

In fact, the process — not only clearing the story mode but also training a new, separate competitive team from scratch — is so long, arduous, and time-consuming, that most competitive players don’t even bother testing in the game itself. They use online simulators like Pokémon Showdown to build and playtest teams before even trying to raise them in-game. Furthermore, the in-game training regimen is so tedious that many players use devices with custom firmware (CFW) and random number generator software (like RNG Reporter) to meet optimal Pokémon more reliably.

Why do they bother? Because coming up with an idea, and executing it with a competitive team from scratch, is satisfying. Win consistently enough, and they may even reach the world’s biggest stage.

Worlds: The Endgame of a Season

The endgame of a Pokémon season is the World Championships. Qualifiers from each country converge on a single venue to crown a champion. More important than the competition itself, players and fans meet their counterparts from other countries and make friends that share their hobby.

Like chess players that study the endgame their entire life, many Pokémon players leave Worlds each year wondering, How do you get there earlier?

On the surface level, the answer is simple: Win Worlds and receive an instant invite to defend your championship. Even if you don’t prevail, you can accumulate some points and accelerate your qualification the following year. But the baseline qualifications change every year: The field gets stronger, and the number and location of required qualifier events also vary.

Framing the endgame differently: How can you capture the essence of Worlds without the grind of a season? This is a similar problem that players must solve whenever they buy a new copy of the next video game and try to breeze through the single-player story grind as quickly as they can.

Making qualification too open risks lowering the level of play, reducing the meaning of winning a World Championship. Making it too long and arduous alienates the casual fan and scares away newcomers. Striking a balance requires thinking differently.

The magnetic power and enjoyment of a worldwide event isn’t only the high level of play. It’s also the international mingling of players from different cultures. The way to reach that endgame sooner is combining the elite tournament of an invitational event with the international flair and reach of content creation. Competition doesn’t have to be three back-to-back days of best-of-three Swiss followed by a few hours of a staged finals. This is a Magic: the Gathering mentality largely driven by the cross-pollination of Wizards of the Coast tournament organizers and the trading card game circuit.The event is as much as — if not more — an opportunity to meet people from other countries and cultures, expand your horizons, and share stories.

What my conversation with Aaron revealed is how many stories remain to be told, many well beyond the scope of a live stream or match commentary. Every single player has a story, and for every fan or player that makes it to the World Championships, there are hundreds if not thousands watching from home, curious to learn more about what’s happening and who’s doing what.

There are battle strategists that want to study the videos and follow the standings like they would pore over a sports team schedule.

Then there are the aspiring players, the kids watching YouTube from their school computers or tablets. The girl that just caught her first Pachirisu unsure of what it can do if fully trained. The Spanish gamer who wants to know how the rep from his college club is doing on the world’s biggest stage.  The French collector eager to see the exclusive merchandise being sold. Win or lose, there are stories to be told.

War stories have long been a tradition of both local and international Pokémon tournaments. Stories in general are the lifeblood of a culture. Every tribe has its own, and the way to open up the endgame to more people is let more people tell their stories.

The endgame isn’t just an event, it’s an interaction and an experience. Players competing to tell their Pokémon stories — from meeting their rival from across the globe, to competing with their brother growing up. Many of these people have enough stories without even competing in Worlds; but they need the platform and the chance to tell those stories, and the path to getting them heard is encouraging their presence in the endgame.

Stories live forever. Bringing them to more people is the way to accelerate the endgame, because even if the calendar event doesn’t come sooner, the stories that come from attendees, and the work that goes into creating them, — on YouTube, written in articles, or documentary films — can be an endgame for those that aren’t interested in spending their offseasons hatching more eggs or grinding more games on a battle simulator.

The Endgame as an Elevator

The endgame is a mindset.

On its surface is the dictionary definition, as a phase in chess, bridge, or Pokémon battles.

On the next level, it’s seeing one’s path to victory with clarity. When there are so few pieces left on the board that you know exactly how many moves you’ll need to reach checkmate, you can operate from pattern recognition.

There’s the preparation: reading books and studying common patterns so that you can recognize them when you get there.

Then there’s the process: positioning yourself to get into one of those situations as early as you can, so you can finish with clarity.

Finally, there’s the motivation: the sooner you get to the endgame, the sooner you can unleash your preparation, reach checkmate, and start your next game.

The goal is to get there sooner. Not because the endgame is the end-all be-all. But because it’s a launching point into your next game, opening up new boards and starting new games, whether it’s content creation like Aaron, or the chance to meet a new move tutor that can teach you new skills.

Waste as little time as possible fighting off the Team Rockets of the world.

Eliminate variables early.

Simplify the board.

Fail — or win — fast.

Play toward your win condition.

Checkmate!

Move on to your next game!

Written by
Noko Pikari