Player’s Psychology: Subjective interpretation of the situation in competitive Pokémon

Hello everyone, my name is Rubén Yanguas, and I’m one of Victory Road’s founders. Today, I’m here to address a somewhat uncommon subject in VGC, but one of my favorite ones: psychology.

As some of you may know, I’m a psychology graduate, which is why sometimes I cannot help but notice some details that stand out in the understanding of this game. Pokémon is a game full of probabilities, statistics, extreme situations, stressing moments and such, which leaves a perfect breeding ground for unconscious bias

This article will be divided into two parts: in the first one, we will approach the Cognitive Theory and the interpretation of situations. In the second one, we will be talking about cognitive biases.

Introduction and theoretical framework

For a long time, American psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck developed something called Cognitive Theory, which reads as: for some people, reality doesn’t exclusively depend on how it is, but also on how they process it. This makes the world something veering and dependent on everyone’s point of view.

Putting it simple, the theory tries to explain how we think about events around us. These life experiences will always condition our emotional response and, therefore, our behavior. Beck also points out that we take on problematic, stressful events in a destructive way, something that makes us feel intense, uncontrolled emotions. These unleashed emotions ultimately move us away from our goals.

Apart from this, there’s also an undeniable truth for us all: as humans, we are constantly exposed to the error. That means that we understand facts in the easiest or most convenient way for us. Cognitive bias and shortcuts, which will be detailed further on this article, are built on this idea as well: human beings distort and understand reality far from how it actually is.

Enough theory for now. Let’s dive deeper on how these concepts apply and relate to competitive Pokémon

I’m sure that, more than once when playing this game, you have faced a certain game scenario that made you feel discouraged, insecure or even physically uncomfortable, and that conditioned your performance either by boosting your run or ruining your tournament.

To keep things simple, we will analyze how Beck’s theory can be applied to the game from two perspectives: during the games (which I have named intra-game) and between games (inter-game).

We will first take a look at situations happening inside a game, or set of games. Imagine that, in the middle of the match, you suffer an unlucky strike which completely ruins and destabilizes your main game plan. Something as simple as a critical hit or an unusual status condition like a random Ice Beam freeze can be dreadful for any player.

In some scenarios, depending on how and when the fatal turn happens, you will lose the game right away. However, you would be amazed to know in how many times this is not exactly true.

As we saw before, we tend to face problematic situations in an uncontrolled way. If you take a critical hit, you can react to it in, essentially, two different ways: the easy one means losing your next 3 turns’ valuable time complaining and making up how the game would follow if that didn’t happen (or even worse, getting visibly angry and insulting your opponent). Either way, if you go that route, you will ultimately give up and lose the game almost always.

What is harder but, at the same time, exactly what you need, is the other way: taking unfavorable situations as your square one for an alternative way to victory. Complaints cloud your judgement and drive you away from winnable scenarios, which is why top players in VGC, and essentially any sport or competition, have mastered controlling their temper to not lose their focus.

Your Tapu Koko got frozen solid! What will you do now?

Something we also need to address are best of 3 sets. Now imagine that you are playing a set against another player. Your opponent plays better than you on the first game (or luck is on their side, it doesn’t really matter), and they win game 1. Shortly after the “you lost against (opponent)” message appears on your screen, the mistakes that you made on that game are part of the past already. They happened and there is nothing you can do to change that. Your only option is to live with them, and the adaptive response is to adaptive option is to prevent these mistakes from happening again.

Regardless of how you lost game 1, collapsing about what you did wrong (and note the verb collapse) is not an item on your “how do I come back” list. You should not ignore what you did wrong and lead you highway to loss — but you must analyze it constructively.

Your opponent has likely revealed some vital information about their team that you either didn’t know before, or that you could just assume but not confirm. That can be an item, a move or even a speed interaction between your Pokémon and theirs. Use that to build a new plan, or fix what didn’t work on the previous one.

Similarly, how they approached the match-up in game 1, and how they played the key turns of the match gives away subtle hints about how they play and understand the game. Ask yourself a few questions right after game 1: Does my opponent take risks? If so, how much? And how often? Are they playing a certain Pokémon in an unusual way? Is there any turn that caught my attention? You could even write down these details on your notebook as game 1 happens. Keeping track of your opponent’s habits on the game (predicting a lot, abusing of a certain glue Pokémon…) will come in handy to disrupt their plans in game 2.

Needless to say, the more you play with the same opponents, the more you will get to know them. This is why you should also watch streamed matches from events frequently, which apart from the obvious benefit of learning how the best play the game, you will grasp how they understand it. Top players are atop at most event they attend, which means that they are used to play with other tops. Did you just watch a match that felt awkward? Chances are they played that way because they knew each other beforehand.

What should Tyranitar and Tobias do?

Let’s now suppose that our plan works: we recovered mentally from our loss, learned from our mistakes and came out on top in game 2.

Was that win our merit? Or was it our opponent’s fault, for not being able to keep up the pressure and fail to recognize that we would draw a new (or improved) game plan? Can you even tell?

It’s been proved that our cognitive performance improves when we are in a knife-edge situation. So, if you win the first game in a best of 3 set, don’t rest on your laurels. You have not won yet. Game 2 is likely to be harder, and will require even more focus on your end to take  down a now informed and hyped opponent, hungry for a comeback, especially when playing against the best. The advice is simple to put in words: combine all three games in one for game 2 to avoid losing your focus, regardless of how game 1 went.

We will now have a look at situations between games or sets, regardless of the tournament setting, so this applies to both real life events and online tournaments. Most of them are following the Swiss system of rounds, and if you’ve been playing this game for a bit, you surely have gotten to an important event and bang! — you lost your first round, so you’re down 0-1. Things couldn’t have started worse, right? (well, it could’ve been 0-2…).

Luckily for you, the most relevant tournaments nowadays require you to just not lose more than two rounds, or win an exact amount of games, in order to advance to top cut. This leaves pesky resistance out of the equation. So, is there any reason for you to be upset over losing round 1 instead of round 5? Not really.

We all want to start positive and build our confidence with each round, but truth is, you will (likely) have the same objective chances to make it to top cut than players who start 3-0 and lose round 4, because both of you will be down a game.

If we come back once more to the Cognitive Theory, remember that being objective with your own emotions is key to get through bad scenarios (in the game, and in your life, really). This means that even if you’re playing at a Regional (or even a Premier Challenge!) where resistance is factored, taking a momentary break from the game you just lost to put things into perspective is a great idea: have a laugh with your friends at the venue (and run away from those willing to tell you how badly haxed they got), listen to music that hypes you up, have a quick walk outdoors… the ideas are endless, and everyone has its own coping mechanisms for stress, so have a little analysis on what yours are before coming to an event.

Because all skills require time and experience, you won’t be surprised to know that, most of the time, only the best players get through those harsh beginnings and make a great run (when not win the whole event!). Have some quick VGC history:

  • Markus Stadter started 1-2 at the 2015 UK Nationals. He ended up winning the event, taking on 2013 World Champion Arash Ommati in the finals.
  • Miguel M. de la Torre, the 2016 Europe International Champion, lost round 1 at the 2017 Oceania Internationals, but managed to place 11th after finishing 7-2.
  • Simone Sanvito, 2018 Europe International Champion, qualified for the knock-out rounds of a big online VGC event hosted by Smogon in 2017 after losing the first two matches.
2015 UK National Champion Markus Stadter and the other top 4 players

Finally, let’s analyze another common scenario. You’ve just won your, let’s say, eighth round of Swiss. You’re now 6-2, one win away from making it into Day 2 of Internationals. Waiting for the judge to come with the pairings in hand feels like an eternity. Once they’re in the wall, and the plague right in front of them leave, you get to know who are you playing for that golden 7-2 record.

This tense scenario allows your nervousness and insecurities to come to surface, but there’s a key point most players forget once that moment comes: your opponent is odds-on in the exact same spot. Maybe, even more agitated than you are.

While some players enjoy the adrenaline rush triggered by these situations, if you don’t, there’s something you have to understand and realize: the edginess isn’t leaving. Therefore, whoever controls it better, takes one (major) step ahead towards the coveted win.

A similar reasoning applies to the increasing pressure you inevitably feel as you win round after round during Swiss. If your record is, let’s say, 6-1, your opponents at round 8 will be way harder to beat than those at round 3, and chances are you’re tired and not as your performance isn’t at its peak. Guess what? Your opponents will resent as well. Even if they’re Worlds-calibered players, something likely at the higher stakes of Regionals and Internationals, they will be worn out after non-stop hours of Pokémon plus a couple more awake before that, and it’s probable they haven’t eaten well (or anything at all) during the day. A tip: stay hydrated and eat healthy snacks to pack you full of energy throughout the day to minimize the time impact on your performance. Check out this video from pro-player and VGC commentator Lee Provost on what to eat the day of an event.

In general, this is stiff to overcome, and requires time, practice and effort to do so, but here’s another tip: optimize the stress you’re feeling by focusing it all in your console. Put your headphones on, get your pen and notebook and forget who you’re seated in front of, who else in the venue may look at you and what’s on stake, and use that energy to focus on the set you’re going to play. Once again, the quick walks or that song that pumps your energy right before the match are your best friend.

One of the two is going to win. Why not you?

The analysis and tips detailed in this article are not wonder weapons that will increase by 200% your win rate on games. However, they can help you to see objectively through situations and improve your mental strength in the long run, both during Pokémon tournaments, exams, work commitments and life in general.

To briefly sum things up:

  • If you’re down one game, or your opponent has evened the score in the course of a best of three set, do not let your emotions overflow you. Whether you lost because of bad play or as a consequence of bad luck, try to focus on the information revealed, analyze what you did wrong, and improve/create a new game plan for the next game. Even if you end up losing the whole series, do not let a single game ruin your entire performance of the day.
  • If you’re at a big event, do not waste your mental stamina on going over and over early losses. Most major tournaments have a guaranteed x-2 cut in order to advance to the tournament’s next phase, which renders resistance meaningless, thus being irrelevant the round or the opponent you lost to. Focus on one game at a time, on one round at a time, and try to make the most of each one of them.
  • You might feel overwhelmed by the pressure when going into a deciding match, or just tired after a long day of playing even though there are still some rounds left, but remember: your opponents will feel the same way. Allow that tension and stress to drive you through the day, and play to your best.

Individual differences do exist, and each one of us approaches and manages its emotions in different ways. However, if the subjective reality can be veering… let’s make the most of it.

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