Competitive Pokemon has four main zones in North America, Europe, Latin America and the Asian-Pacific region, with countries such as Japan and South Korea running their own system. While that covers most of the world, it does leave a large gap on the map in the Middle East. This system leaves some players, such as Khalid Abdulla, in a difficult position.
Abdulla wants to chase the dream of becoming the Pokemon world champion, but there are no sanctioned events in his home country, the United Arab Emirates. This lack of support isn't because Pokemon never caught on in the region: Abdulla was introduced to the series in 1997 with Pokemon Red.
"There was this craze where, if you didn't play Pokemon, you weren't cool," Abdulla told Kotaku. "Everyone would play Pokemon, everyone had a Gameboy and everyone brought it to school."
Unfortunately, many of these fans grew out of the games, or only played casually, not competitively. With the impending release of Pokemon X & Y, Abdulla wanted to start taking the game more seriously. In fact, he wanted to be the best. He just needed people to test his mettle against.
Fortunately, he had some like-minded friends in a Guild Wars 2 guild. Together, they formed a group on WhatsApp and slowly added more competitive players to it as time went on. They mostly battled using an online simulator's rules for single battles, but eventually one of his fellow founders introduced him to the Video Game Championship's doubles format.
His friend was from the United Kingdom, which fell into the well-established European region. Wanting to compete, and fully able to find sanctioned events, he asked Abdulla to practice with him.
By that point, Abdulla had taken his WhatsApp group and turned it into a full-blown Facebook group which he used to run weekly online tournaments. They still used the time consuming singles format, but his introduction to the official competitive format changed his way of thinking.
"I realised that if I wanted Pokemon to grow as a community in my country, it made more sense for me to start doing VGC tournaments," Abdulla said. "It all came down to, if I wanted to be a better player, I needed to surround myself with better players. And in order to do that, I had to find them and teach them how to play. From there, it kind of snowballed."
After that, he transitioned from online tournaments to in-person events at local card shops. He tried to attract new players by letting people enter for free, with small prizes from the Pokemon Center in Japan — small plushies, stickers, charms and keychains. The idea was to keep the bar for entry as low as possible, and these unofficial tournaments ran monthly from 2014 until early this year.
He also worked to popularise the Pokemon Trading Card Game in Dubai by raising support for it in local stores. Despite it not being his main focus, those efforts actually worked better. The demand for the product was high enough that the distributor for local stores helped get sanctioned events in the city, starting with UAE Nationals in 2016. But VGC never quite took off the same way.
It wasn't for a lack of trying, though. Abdulla also applied to be an official Tournament Organiser back in September of 2015. This just required passing a test about how to handle certain situations that might occur during a tournament, but he's heard no word on the status of his application and is essentially sitting in limbo.
In the meantime, Abdulla decided to take his future in competitive Pokemon into his own hands. While he couldn't compete from the comfort of his home city, nothing was stopping him from travelling across the world to fulfil his goal of being world champ. And when a friend was interested in flying to Melbourne, Australia to compete in the region's International Championships, Abdulla decided to go for it.
Abdulla fell one game short of making the second day of competition, but he did still earn a decent amount of the championship points he needed to qualify for the World Championships. That gave him the motivation to attend special events in both Copenhagen and Milan, as well as regionals in Malaysia and Perth, Australia.
At the latter, he actually finished in the top 4, which gave him another chunk of CP and the confidence that he was growing as a player. But since he was doing more than just playing for himself, it had another effect.
"I honestly surprised myself," Abdulla said. "I was definitely excited about that, and it made my guys back home pretty happy. It made them even more interested in competing in sanctioned events."
By that time, he was 27 points shy of his invitation to Worlds, and the only tournament left was the North American International Championships. Abdullah made the trip and only needed to finish 64th or better to take that next step toward his dream. With a 6-3 record, it was doable but not guaranteed. Everything would come down to how his strength of schedule stacked up to the rest of the field.
But, when the final standings were posted, his name was next to the 74th slot. He wasn't going to Worlds. What stung the most was that, if Dubai had the local sanctioned events that many others can earn points from around the world, he would have easily qualified. He didn't let it get to him, though.
"I'm actually pretty happy about my performance, even though I fell short. Being able to reach that high without the smaller level events — I think that's kind of good."
Now that his season is over, he's back to focusing on the future of competitive Pokemon in his country. The good news is that he recently discovered that there is an official tournament organiser in Dubai, but he has yet to run any VGC events. Abdulla plans to reach out until he can change that for next season, all while hoping his own application finally goes through.
He had hoped that a Middle Eastern player competing at the World Championships would show The Pokemon Company International that there was interest in his area, but he's resolved to demonstrate that his community is growing in other ways.
"We do try to be out there, for sure. And I tried my best, even though I fell short of the invite," Abdulla said. "I think someone in TPCI knows that we exist, but they're a pretty big company."