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Interview With a Pokemon World Champion: Toler Webb

by Alex Culafi - September 11, 2015, 10:30 am PDT
Discuss in talkback!

In which we discuss what it takes to win, what it means to win, and how your life changes after you win.

Toler Webb is a competitive Pokémon World Champion, winning the Seniors Division in 2012. Though he did not finish as a world finalist in 2015, Toler beat Raphael Bagara of Canada to take the US Nationals earlier this year. We spoke to Webb about what it means to be a Pokémon champion at the this year's Pokémon World Championships in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nintendo World Report (NWR): How would you explain competitive Pokémon to a more casual fan of Pokémon? Someone who understands typing, but has never been to that elite level.

Toler Webb (TW): If I was talking to someone who didn’t understand anything, I would describe this game like chess. I think I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to do this kind of explanation but at the same time, it’s difficult to synthesize something that’s really accurate as to what competitive Pokémon actually is because it’s really unique as a competitive game. That's because you see a large amount of major decision-making turn by turn. So, essentially, I’d say compared to the regular game, you have to do more in terms of understanding your opponent’s play, and understanding the progression of the game and understanding what will happen after you make certain moves.

And it’s really just like a more complex version of the battling you do in the regular game. I think one of the big things that many people that haven’t played would notice would be the Double Battle format compared to singles [NOTE: Double Battles are the standard battling style for the 2015 Pokémon World Championships]. I always prefer doubles, but it is more complex and there are more possibilities.

So really, in terms of overall difference between playing against a computer and playing against a person, I think the big thing is in that sentence – that you’re playing against a human being, and that you have to learn how to play against a human being, and you have to be increasingly more critical of what you’re doing to improve the overall consistency of your strategy.

NWR: So you’re familiar with the Pokémon anime…

TW: I know what it is, yes.

NWR: You ever watch it when you were younger?

TW: Ah, a little bit. I actually prefer Digimon.

NWR: I guess what I’m wondering is…the human-on-human interaction that competitive Pokémon actually is. Does it make it feel like you’re playing Pokémon in real life?

TW: It’s actually the furthest thing from that you can imagine, because there are certain things that are just completely different when you’re playing on a game cartridge on a DS. And if you’re standing across from someone with your Pokémon [in a real-life anime battle], one of the things you kind of think of is, well, there’s no way you could switch out a Pokémon and switch something in to take a hit if you were in a real life battle – there’s no way that would happen. But in the game, that’s streamlined so much that you can do that and you can take the hit and it takes the same hit the other Pokémon would have taken [referring to moves like Baton Pass]. It’s a lot less linear-looking than anime battling I guess, but it feels more like a mental competition and less [like the anime]. Here it feels like you and some kind of like, extension of your own thought.

NWR: So competitive Pokémon is casual Pokémon with the added level of…

TW: …mental complexity.

NWR: Like, regular Pokémon with the added gymnastics of chess.

TW: Yes.

NWR: Okay. I mean, just to make it clear, you are a video game player primarily?

TW: Right, yeah. The TCG has a whole different set of things that are more typical to trading card games because you have to function with card draws and things like that. I don’t know a lot about the competitive trading card game.

NWR: Is there a lot of overlap between the two or are there pretty much two camps?

TW: Almost completely different. There are very few players that play both. Because certain people prefer trading card games, certain people prefer this video game kind of thing. There have been a few players like Angel Miranda who have played both but I don’t think anyone in the Masters division, maybe one or two people, has qualified for the Worlds or something like that.

NWR: How do you get good at Pokémon?

TW: I’m gonna say, like with everything else: practice, practice, practice. Try to talk to other people to get an understanding of their understanding of the game so that you can start forming your own. Especially if you’re just starting, it’s like learning about the right moves you should make. It’s hard to do when you’re starting out. So it’s good to get ahold of people that are more experienced or people that can practice with you to analyze what you’re doing as well as you're analyzing what you’re doing so that you can determine more effectively what the best move would have been and in an actual competitive match, make that move.

NWR: How about you? Because you had to start down this route somewhere where you get to the point of practice, practice, practice. I mean, I’m not much older than you, but you’re 17; you’re relatively young. When did it start for you? When did it get to the point where you started that, “practice, practice, practice,” mentality and then how did that road continue to the point where you became a champion of the world in one of the largest video game franchises of all time?

TW: [Laughs] Short story here. I started out when I was 11 years old in 2009, so six years ago, and I lost to Fly Salamence and Explosion Metagross in a Junior Regional Championship in Philadelphia. So, I was very bad. I was disappointed in myself. And I came back to the Nationals Last Chance Qualifier and needed an invitation to participate in Nationals and lost, but played better that time, and played with the older players. I was in the Senior division which was the only older division at that time, there were two divisions. And after that, I found myself really wanting to do better because I felt like I could’ve done better.

I think knowing you can do better is one of the most important traits you, as a player, can keep improving. So in 2012, when someone said Regionals are three months away, I was like, “Three months? That’s not a long time away.” So I started practicing, and practicing, and practicing because I realized I really wanted to do well that year, and once I did, I actually got Top 4 at that regional championship, which gave me a stipend to go to Nationals – a little bit of money, and my mom said, “Okay, you can go.” So I was 14, I went to Nationals, and somehow I Top 4’d with pretty much the same team I ran at Virginia. So I practiced my heart out going into 2012 Worlds and somehow…I got it.

NWR: So what kind of work did that take for you? Specifically what kind of work behind the scenes to ensure you’re ready for that?

TW: Going into 2012 Worlds, I was trying to practice and think about the game, because this is a hard game to practice. That's because this is a hard game to practice when you don’t have a strategy in place to practice on. You have to pick out what you’re doing before you do anything so I was either working with people and building a strategy or practicing for…I think at the time I said 6-8 hours a day – just because I had nothing to do, it was summer.

I was doing that – that’s typically my routine going to a World Championship or a National Championship now. I think I kinda shirked that this year because I had other obligations for school that were in the summer months, but at least in 2013 and in the Nationals this year, I tried to return to that work ethic when I need it, especially for the serious competitions that are more meaningful.

Regional Championships are harder to prepare for as well as Premier Challenges because they’re more sparsed out and oftentimes you have several close to each other or you just have a regular schedule that gets in the way. Typically I do that 6-8 hours of work a day or thinking a day at least because you have to do some kind of theory, build some kind of understanding of the game to get a feel for how you should progress forward in it.

NWR: 6-8 hours is the type of time you think of more traditional, physical athletes doing for their competition. And this is very much e-sports in its own way. Do you consider yourself an athlete?

TW: I actually do run, so I kind of hope to consider myself an athlete! I don’t necessarily like to cross athlete with e-sports players, and I guess that’s to the chagrin of many e-sports players that want to be called e-sports athletes. And I think it is very much an accurate term when you think about the work ethic being put in because it’s crazy how hard people work to get good at mental games that are all in your head. But I don’t necessarily like referring to myself as an athlete because it doesn’t necessarily correspond with the physical exercise and the capability that athletes typically have.

While I do believe that many people that play games competitively should be keeping themselves in shape because that’s absolutely necessary to have a strong mind, at least in my mind, and have consistency in these tournaments where any emotional problem can lead to much larger problems, exercising and being in good shape can help you to be a lot stronger and more resilient. But I wouldn’t necessarily call myself, at least, an athlete.

I think maybe League of Legends players or something along those lines could be called athletes because they’re doing more consistent work more of the year, and they’re on these teams and it feels more legitimate, you know? I guess with Pokémon I’ve never taken myself that seriously I hope. Maybe I have. I don’t know.

NWR: When did you cross into that next realm? And go from you being a casual, to a kind-of competitor, to a very strong competitor, to someone competing for and eventually obtaining the World Championship? When did things change for you and you realize, “Oh wait, maybe it’s gotten to a level beyond what I could have anticipated?” Did you anticipate it early on?

TW: I didn’t think I would ever get to where I was once I was there, and once I was, I was in deep water before I knew how to swim.

NWR: So you just sort-of fell in!

TW: Yeah, I sort-of fell in! I figured out how to swim when I got there. But yeah, the level of competition is insane. These players all come out here because they really want to play the game. As I’ve discussed, the prize pool is not tremendous. What you’re really building is a bunch of friendships and your own capabilities as someone committed to their mentality and their ability to play the game, and I think once I got to that point, I understood what it was like to be that competitive. I learned a lot about myself, and I discovered what I was going to do in that situation. I guess it’s hard to quantify.

NWR: What did you learn about yourself?

TW: I’d say I learned that I was more…flustered at heart than I ever realized that I was. I learned new ways to deal with what would become this kind of frustration but I discovered it because of Pokemon, and I learned to deal with it in a way. Because I think this game can become more frustrating than any game you play. You sit down, you get [hit with] Thunder Wave, Critical Hit, Ice Beam, Frozen 3 times, and just, you don’t know what to do but you build a kind of resiliency and relaxation response to stress and I think I learned how to do that from this kind of thing. And I think I also learned a lot about logic but I don’t think I could ever explain that.

NWR: Eventually, in 2012, you did become champion of the world. How did your life change after becoming the world champion?

TW: Not significantly. I think a lot more people knew that I was a world champion. But it’s kind of a fallacy to assume that, you know, once you did win a world championship that your life suddenly becomes different in any way. I was still Toler Webb. I still had the regular progression of who I was and who I might become in the future. It was my famous line: “I’m still Toler!” in a 2013 interview. But I guess slightly, because people knew and some people from my school knew that I had done so well and they were really impressed, and I’m really grateful that anyone’s impressed by it. But, for the most part, it’s the same. I still just kept playing Pokémon because I wanted to.

NWR: What does it mean to be a champion?

TW: I think it means you achieved a goal you set out for yourself. I think a lot of people in video games, they talk about this idea of reaching goals just because you want to reach the goal. I think if you play a lot of role-playing games or something like that – if you beat the hardest mode, doesn’t really mean anything outside of the game. But it means something to you, and in a way, this was my ‘Lunatic Mode’ for Pokémon. I achieved something I never thought I could achieve, and when I finished, it was tremendously meaningful to me. That’s what it meant; at least as a champion, I could look back and say, “I did this,” I worked this hard, and it meant this much to me.

NWR: Then, interpret this however you want: What was the best day of your life?

TW: Not sure if it was Pokémon-related! [Laughs]

NWR: Really!

TW: If we’re just talking about Pokémon…

NWR: Interpret that however you want!

TW: If we’re just talking about Pokémon, I would say the day after I won the World Championships, in 2012.

NWR: The day after.

TW: The day after! I won, so I knew I was a winner, and then we went to – I don’t remember the name – waterfalls in Hawaii, and I looked at them and I just kind of got a chance to think while looking at waterfalls and it felt tremendously meaningful. I don’t know why, it’s really cheesy to say!

NWR: Like an epilogue to your victory!

TW: Like an epilogue! There was text scrolling across the screen: “You finally completed the mission!”

NWR: The credits!

Both: [Laughs]

TW: Yeah…I’d say then. That was a pretty good day.

NWR: What do you play to unwind from Pokémon?

TW: I play several games. I play Smash Bros., I play Smash 4. I play some Hearthstone. Sometimes I play League of Legends depending on the time of year. Really, just a lot of games. It is hard, actually, playing Pokémon for that long. I think sometimes I’m not very intelligent about it because I do wear my brain out more than I should by playing more difficult competitive games. I should probably play some easier games or watch some TV or something – let my brain relax a little bit. Because it’s like lifting too many weights – your muscles get tired.

NWR: How long does it take to get a Pokémon ready for the caliber of competition?

TW: Not much.

NWR: Really? You got it down to a science?

TW: Yeah. Pokémon players have got it down to a science. You get this stuff done in an hour, hour and a half.

NWR: Each Pokémon you can knock out in about in hour?

TW: No no no, a team. A whole team.

NWR: Do you have any of the stuff already in place?

TW: A lot of things, usually. But at the beginning of the season it’s the hardest because you have to start a lot of things from scratch. If you’re breeding the whole team and you don’t already have Pokémon for it, it can probably take four or five hours.

NWR: Four or five hours to build an entire team from scratch?

TW: With breeding, and with your friends to help you. Because, a lot of times, friends won’t be busy and they can do a lot of things for you. But, it’s possible to get done a lot more quickly depending on how many things you’ve already got done.

NWR: It’s done as a team?

TW: Mhm. That’s why it’s really important to have friends in this game. People to talk with, people to analyze your play, and then people to make your teams for you! [Laughs].

NWR: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be like you and wanted to make competitive Pokémon a serious part of their life?

TW: I think there are a few things I would say. First thing I would say is you have to want to play this game. You have to legitimately want to. You don’t have to like it, but you have to want to play the game. I remember someone say in 2011, “You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to love to do it,” and I think that’s been tremendously meaningful to me. Whatever you do, you’ve got to do it because you want to do it – not because you like it. Whether or not it feels good, you’ve got to do it because it you want to. And the other thing I would say, is not to expect any kind of result too quickly.

The crazy thing – even though this game looks really simple, there’s a lot of different variables that can go into it and there’s a lot of experience you need to build and a lot of practice you need to do before you can hope to participate in the World Championships. And like, in that story I told, it took me three years to participate in my first world championship. There are, of course, players who come their first year, and they typically have a lot of friends or they’re just naturally talented, I guess. But you have to be patient with yourself…all the time.

You have to be patient all the time to allow yourself to have the strength, the resiliency, and the peace with yourself to build a good team and play well the whole day.

NWR: Last question. This is more my curiosity as an individual: what are your hour counts in the 3DS Pokémon games?

TW: Okay, because of how long it takes to build a team, which isn’t very long because I have so many friends to help out thankfully because of my long time in the community, in ORAS I have like 150 hours. So not really that many. I know in one of the DS games I had 999 hours. Really, when you play so much competitive Pokémon, it’s hard to sit down and play the regular game and be happy with the fact that you’re doing that, so personally, I don’t play a lot on the cart. I do really like to finish the story mode and enjoy the games. And then I finish enjoying them [Laughs].

Thanks to Toler Webb for his time!

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