As some of you know, The 2023 Poke'mon North American International Championship (NAIC) made their last stop in Columbus, Ohio, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. It would be the last opportunity to qualify for the World Championships. The games to be played were the Pokemon Trading Card Game, Pokemon Video Games such as Unite, and Scarlet/Violet, and Pokemon Go. The NAIC took place between June 30th and July 2nd. It just so happens that I live in Columbus, and am good friends with a local competitor name Mark Hale, Jr, or as he refers to himself as, Prof Hale. It's very unusual that a championship series this big comes to Columbus, and this just happened to fall into his lap. He competed in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. A whole week has passed. I called him up to get his thoughts.
Q: I've known you for about 10 years. Your Pokemon prowess precedes me. Do you remember your first stint with Poke'mon?
A. November 1998. I walked into Funcoland, and bought Pokemon Red, and spent the next two days straight playing it on Super Gameboy (SNES). My very first Pokemon was Bulbasaur, and has been my go to ever since. It took me a playthrough and a half to beat it, or around 20 days. I got to a point where I got stuck right before Saffron City. So I deleted the save and started over. How was I supposed to know to give water to the security guard?
Q: How many Pokemon games do you think you've played?
A: I have played every mainline series of the Pokemon series. Red Blue and Yellow, Black, and White, Sword and Shield, Scarlet and Violet, and all of the spinoffs. Pinball, Snap, Unite, TCG, Rumble, Shuffle, even Pokken Tournament, for both WiiU and Switch. So...all of em? Yeah. I've played all of em.
Q: Describe how you felt when you found the NAIC was going to be held in Columbus.
A: It was weird. There were a few other events that came here, and I wasn't in a right state of mind to enter. When I found out the final for 2023 was in my backyard, I had to get up and do something. The hype train really started rolling when I told myself I could really do this. I've been doing it forever. I need to do this for real, and right now.
Q: And then you signed up...what happened next?
A: I did a little dance. Spots were super limited. They were releasing the registration in three tiers in hour intervals. I missed the first one, got in the second one. Then I thought...holy crap. I'm in this thing. Cue up the Rocky music, time to start training.
Q: So you walk into the convention center, and what do you see?
A: The first thing I see, was a hallway, which was concealing a faithful recreation of Mesagoza, which is the first city from Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. Then I look up and see a 50ft. Pikachu. Then I noticed rows and rows of tables lined up the length of the exhibition hall. There were people seated ready to get started. There were no TVs, just cords and ad-hoc docks to connect your Switch to. I had to go find my first match up. It was massive. Far larger than I ever expected.
Q: Let's talk about your first round.
A: I was expecting everything from the best to the worst. My first opponent was a "good ol boy" from TN, and all he wanted was to not get swept every game, which set me at ease. The first round, I knocked out two of his Pokemon on the first turn. I knew then I was going to do pretty well. I won both matches, handedly. According to the Player handbook, you have to do a hand shake or a fist bump at the beginning and end of each round. It was requisite. For the most part, my opponents did this. But post game for others, it wasn't always that, naturally.
Q: Great! You're 1-0. Who's next?
A I get paired up to 2 time regional champion Justin Tang, who also just started this year. I had been following him for a while now, so when I matched up to him, my immediate reaction was "of course this is how my day goes". And then my next thought was "Welcome to the big leagues, Hale." I didn't get swept in the matches, but he totally outplayed me. Thank god for Critical hits, or it would've been way worse.
Q: Well 1-1. Where do you go from here?
A: There was a guy named Tim who I can only explain as my mirror match. It went to three games. I won the first. He made adjustments, and won the second. The third came down to speed. Tim ended up winning that match. I was 1-2 facing elimination.
Q: Can you explain the records please?
A: You play 9 rounds on day one. You have to go 7-2 or better to qualify to day 2. On day 2, you have to go 5-2 to move on. Then on Sunday, it becomes a round robin to determine a top 8. That then becomes a tournament single elimination bracket to determine a champion.
Q: Oh! So you're facing elimination. What are you thinking?
A: I don't want the day to end here. I get to play it out regardless, but it was a little trippy. I found out the parings are then done with the same or similar record. So while you're facing elimination, they too, are facing elimination. The stakes are greater. This is it.
Q: So It's go time. Cue up the Rocky Music again?
A: Yep! The next opponent was a gentleman named Scott. He looked at me as if to say "I'm going to destroy this guy." Then I swept him. Eli was my next opponent, and though I don't remember the match much, but I swept him too. I'm now in the driver's seat. It was showing in my game play. The nervousness was wearing off. I wanted to go all the way. And then I swept a guy named Joe, who gave up during the second match. He sat his headphones down and said "I don't think I'm going to come back from this.". He was probably the nicest opponent the entire tournament, and handled that loss graciously.
Q: Great! So now, you're 4-2. You are rolling!
A: This is the peak of the roller coaster! I was paired up with a very popular Australian player named Megan. And I thought tragedy would strike, but then, I made her team flinch (Which stops them from being able to fight), 4 turns in a row. For 4 turns, she couldn't attack. There is a 30% chance of a rock slide flinch happening at all. It happened 4 times in a row. It was crazy. I'm 5-2.
Q: Two more wins! Saturday, here we come, right?
A: Another former champion is my 8th opponent. Shiliang Tang, who I don't think is related to my second opponent. I walked into this match fatigued. There's no lunch break. You get a quick bathroom or drink/eat break in between each round. I am feeling a little emotional drain. I had been there since 9am. It was 3:30pm. The last match didn't end on the best of terms, and I think it got to me. I had eliminated 4 other people. I hardly got to talk with my wife and kid. They had to translate my move sheet to my opponent, which I now have as a souvenir. The match starts, and from the jump, he seems to predict my moves. As nice and gracious as he was, he threw off everything I knew, and seen up to that point. He swept me. And that was the end of my first ever Pokemon tournament.
Q: So now, after facing two regional champions, and a couple of nice opponents, where does that leave you in terms of rankings?
A: When it was all said and done, my final record was 5-4, which is a winning record in my book. The really cool news is that I placed 252/886 players, which is the top 28.4 percentile. Having gone through waves of doubting myself, and hyping myself back up again, to find myself being the 252nd best player in North America was very uplifting. I found a community I wanted to be a part of for years to come, especially after losing so many.
Q: What's next for Prof. Hale?
A: I will continue streaming. I'll be streaming more Pokemon games such as Unite, and Go, and gearing up for the next season that starts in September. We're going to Pittsburgh. I'll be there ready to take on the world.
Q: Any advice you want to give to trainers, young and old?
A: Familiarize yourself with every mechanic. It's a game of chess, where at any point the board can change. If you go to an event, get plenty of rest, bring water and snacks, and get lots of rest. You're going to use every bit of energy. At the end of it, I couldn't remember a more positive experience. Even though we wanted that five grand, everyone was super chill and fairly cool. There was so much to do and so many people to talk to. There were people giving me free stuff at every turn. I was getting tips from other trainers. If you get the opportunity to do this, your love for Pokemon will shine through.
I'd like to personally thank Mark Hale for letting me interview you! You can find Prof Hale here, and stay tuned for any other Pokemon new, as we have a couple members of the staff who are into this long going phenomenon. Pokemon seems to be going nowhere fast. It's good to know I know people in the coolest places. A dream come true for sure.