How a Rookie Who Played His First Match in December Almost Won the Pokémon World Championships

The 2023 Pokémon World Championships concluded last weekend, with Japan’s Shohei Kimura defeating Michael Kelsch in the grand finals. Lost in the drama of the win was just how amazing it was that Kelsch made it in the first place.

While Kimura has competed and found success in official tournaments since 2017, Kelsch is a relative newcomer to the scene. Doubles is the official format for the Video Game Championships [VGC], but Kelsch only played his first Doubles format game this past winter — mere weeks before the Liverpool Regional Championships at the end of January 2023.

“I had never touched Doubles, so it was completely new to me this year,” Kelsch said.

He’s not a complete rookie. Despite the recent beginnings of his competitive Pokemon journey, Kelsch has been playing in the singles format in Smogon’s simulator, Pokemon Showdown, since 2016. He has also been watching competitive Pokemon for the last five years.

Actually playing and competing, though, is a relatively recent development.

“I always had a dream to be a world champion, so I wanted to go to the different events, but I couldn’t really afford it myself so I needed to wait and wait and wait,” Kelsch explained. “This year I barely had enough money to go to all these events, and now I’m here.”

The road to the Pokémon World Championships

In order to qualify for the Pokémon World Championships, competitors must travel to different Play! Pokémon events and compete to earn enough Championship Points for an invitation. In Kelsch’s case, this journey took him to Liverpool in England, Utrecht in the Netherlands, Bochum in Germany, and Malmö in Sweden.

“I am literally speechless. I don’t know, but I’m full of joy and I’m really, really happy with my performance. I still can’t believe how well everything went and it was just a great experience, a great journey this year, and I’ll try to keep it up next year as well,” Kelsch said.

Kimura was a tough draw for Kelsch. Pokemon VGC commentator Aaron Zheng had Kimura pegged as “one of the favorites” going into the tournament.

“Shohei is rocking just the… six strongest Pokemon in the format basically,” Zheng said. “And he, I think, was one of the first people to come up with this six. And a lot of Japanese players actually brought it to this tournament. So it’s cool that it felt like the original creator of it is the one representing it in the finals.”

I am literally speechless. I don’t know, but I’m full of joy and I’m really, really happy with my performance

Kimura’s team consisted of Flutter Mane, Rapid-Strike Style Urshifu, Chien-Pao, Iron Hands, Therian-Forme Landorus, and Amoonguss. Flutter Mane was the most used Pokémon in the VGC format at the World Championships, and Zheng identified Amoonguss — a tanky mushroom — as the most important anchor among all of the teams.

“[Flutter Mane] is just still such a strong Pokemon. It has one of the highest special attack and speed stats in the game, and its coverage is just incredible,” said Zheng.

Amoonguss is not only a great support for Flutter Mane, but Terastallization makes it even harder to deal with, says Zheng. It puts opponents to sleep with Spore, and in general, is difficult to take down. In the final two battles, Kimura’s Amoonguss put more than half of Kelsh’s team to sleep, putting him at a marked disadvantage. Kimura’s Chien-Pao also flinched Kelsch’s Rillaboom with an Icicle Crash, another particularly defining moment of the battles.

Flutter Mane was a mainstay during this year's VGCs.
Flutter Mane was a mainstay during this year’s VGCs.

Kelsch’s team shared a Chien-Pao and Rapid-Strike Style Urshifu, but was different otherwise with Rillaboom, Heatran, and two relatively uncommon picks: Farigiraf and Dragapult.

“It is kind of funny because I watched the North American International Championships on June 31st, and the core of Dragapult and Chien-Pao had won the entire international championship, so I was thinking to build something my own,” Kelsch explained. “I’m pretty proud that I brought Farigiraf because well, it’s a Pokemon you don’t see that often. And then I just put in a Heatran, ‘cause it is a very good partner for my team.”

The 2024 Pokémon World Championships will also use Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, and likely will introduce the Pokemon added with The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero DLC coming out this fall and winter.

“Scarlet and Violet has done so much for competitive… I think the games competitively are amazing,” Zheng said. “I really enjoy [Terastallization] as a mechanic as well, so I’m excited to see where things go from here.”

Check out our other coverage on Pokémon Worlds:

Casey DeFreitas is Deputy Guides Editor at IGN.

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