Lextra’s GAMER GUIDE to COMPETITIVE Pokémon Tiering

And a modest proposal for a fair Pokémon League

Mewtwo and Sonic Amiibo
Photo by Ryan Quintal on Unsplash

Sometimes I see a gap in information so dire that I am utterly compelled to write something about it. I want to inform people on the topics that MATTER, and I think I’ve found my most worthy candidate yet.

Nobody understands the way Smogon tiers pokémon for competitive use! If there’s one thing the internet lacks, it’s an overwhelming deluge of information about pokémon. YouTube is a desert of knowledge on the exact properties of every single minute detail of the Pokémon franchise, and it is in turn lacking the kinds of YouTubers who will right this grave existential error. As I am the first YouTuber who has deigned to cover this elusive franchise, I will designate myself as the first of the “Tubermon” (or Tubermen, for short).

Smogon is a website that was established in 2004 as a place to create rules and share knowledge about pokémon battling “over the net”. If you look on their website, you can find recommendations for how to use most pokémon in competitive battles, either in-game or over battling websites like Pokémon Showdown. As part of this description, the pokémon is assigned a “tier”.

The Smogon Dex page for Klefki, the key ring pokémon
klefki klefi klefki klefki fleki

Now, it’s important to note that a pokémon’s tier isn’t meant to be any kind of value judgement, as people often think. In fact, it’s not even manually decided most of the time. Rather, every time a new generation starts, all the available Pokémon are thrown into the highest normal tier, OverUsed (or OU for short). Then, data on how much each pokémon is being used is collected, and if their usage drops to a certain threshold, they are moved down to UnderUsed (UU). This process repeats down the tiering rung until every pokémon is listed as OverUsed, UnderUsed, RarelyUsed, NeverUsed, or PU (which isn’t an acronym for anything, it’s just a pun).

Pokémon from lower tiers are fully allowed to compete in higher tiers. However, there are also special leagues for each lower tier, where all pokémon from any higher tier are banned, in the hopes of giving every pokémon a meaningful chance to compete. There’s no way Vileplume would cut it in OU, but in NU its great typing, amazing bulk, and numerous utility options allow it to act as a check to common Pokemon in the tier such as Flygon, Dhelmise, and Guzzlord! Also, each tier has its own ban-list. The OU ban-list is called “Ubers” and it’s home to a lot of beautiful legendary pokémon, and also Dracovish. Every tier has a unique and thriving meta-game, and every Pokémon gets a chance to shine!

At least, that’s what you’d think. But there is, in fact, something sinister lurking deep below …

Clefable

This is Clefable. Now, this thing is pink, and cute, and fluffy. It obviously can’t hold its own in a fight. However, due to the AGENDA present at Smogon University, Clefable is classified as an OU pokémon. This is blatantly unfair! Smogon expects this cute and helpless little dumpling to go up against vicious monsters like Tyranitar, Garchomp, Landorus, and even the terrifyingly aggressive Bisharp. Clefable isn’t alone as a victim of this injustice — adorable creatures such as Blissey, Slowbro, and even the effervescent Tapu Lele are daily being thrust into fights against the muscular, unmerciful threats of the OU meta-game, in the service of unknown and sinister motives …

We can’t simply stand by and allow this practice to continue. Every day, these poor creatures are being made to fight side-by-side with pokémon that, if you look at a photo of them, seem pretty scary. Therefore, I’m proposing a new, more fair competitive system. Instead of this “tier” nonsense, what we should do is we should divide all pokémon into exactly two groups based on how cute they look to us when they’re born. We’ll call the scary group “Pokémon” and the cute group “Pofémon”. As Clefable is obviously a pofémon, it will be used exclusively in pofémon battles, where it only matches up against compatriots like Diancie and Azumarill. Vicious pokémon invaders such as Druddigon and Buzzwole will be kept to their own pokémon leagues, which will almost always be the only leagues anyone actually pays attention to.

And don’t get me wrong, I love pofémon battles! They deserve the world for trying so hard despite their … obvious deficiencies. All I’m saying is that the pokémon are more fit for real battles, what with all their spikes and muscles and things. Pofémon are obviously best suited to participating in beauty contests, but just because they’re different doesn’t mean they aren’t equal to pokémon. Their battles aren’t as exciting, but if that’s what pofémon want to do with their lives then more power to them. It’s the least we can do to keep all the exciting and dangerous action out of the pofémon leagues, so they don’t have to trouble themselves with it. That’s why all who desire to compete in pofémon’s sports should be subject to intense and uncomfortably physical cuteness inspection — it’s the only way to protect them.

An image depicting Blissey, Tapu Lele, Clefable, and Azumarill facing off against Tyranitar, Buzzwole, Druddigon, and Bisharp.
IS THIS REALLY THE WORLD WE WANT TO LIVE IN???

Now you may be thinking, “Hey Lexi, this bit is incredibly specific and confusingly elaborate, can you please explain what it’s a strained metaphor for?”. To that I say, yes! It’s sports

See, the joke is that, while the idea of tiering these creatures based only on a superficial element of their appearance instead of stats or performance sounds absurd, it’s also exactly how we manage gendered sports in the real world. I’m using it to make a point about the debate surrounding trans people’s participation in the same. I mean, it’s obviously not a perfect metaphor. These are different species of creatures, the actual genders they have rarely matter, it’s an indirect competition where players choose which creatures to use instead of actually competing themselves, etc. However, there are some notable parallels here.

Sure, the typically gendered biological differences between humans are often quite significant, depending on the sport. Higher levels of testosterone probably mean more strength and stamina, for example, which means more inherent aptitude in things like wrestling and football. But we don’t actually target differences like that when we’re deciding who gets to compete where, do we? Usually we either divide sports leagues by gender or by “sex” (i.e. how long your glans was when you were born). The connection between these and anything material like muscle mass or hormone levels is already at best a rule of thumb, and even if we were to measure the physical characteristics themselves to establish “hormone tiers” or something, we’d still only be measuring a proxy for actual performance.

Clefable does quite well in OU. Its stats aren’t particularly impressive, but due to its great abilities and move-pool it has at times completely dominated the tier. Now, real-world human sports don’t usually draw from such a variety of independent traits like that, but I think the point stands that if fairness is something we care about in sports, it probably makes a lot more sense to rank players by how well they actually do than it does to rank them by how well we figure they’ll probably do based on what genitals they have or even what their hormone levels are.

Here’s the thing, though. Nobody actually cares about fairness in sports.

Some people running in silhouette
Photo by Fitsum Admasu on Unsplash

There’s a great article about this by Dr. Veronica Ivy called “How to think about trans-inclusive sport”. Argument against the participation of trans people in the sports leagues appropriate to their gender is usually framed in terms of “fairness”, because it’s assumed that gendered sports leagues were created entirely out of a concern for the same. But this just isn’t true. If we were really interested in making sure everyone only competes with people who are equal to them in skill and talent, there would surely at least be a whole lot more than just two tiers, and those tiers would surely be based on something more substantial. At the extreme end, we might institute some sort of Harrison Bergeron-esque nightmare system where every athlete must have their hormone levels or their height or whatever medically adjusted to an incredibly narrow range to completely eliminate natural advantage.

To argue whether or not appropriate amounts of HRT make trans women medically identical to some perfectly average cis woman is to completely miss the point. There’s no rule that a naturally tall woman can’t play basketball, there’s no rule that a naturally sturdy woman can’t wrestle, and until recently there was no rule that a woman with naturally high testosterone levels couldn’t compete in the Olympics. So, why this sudden concern about fairness in sports? And why now?

Well, I mean, it’s transphobia, obviously. Transphobia, misogyny, and some racism mixed in for good measure. Transphobes think that assigned gender is a more relevant and distinguishing factor than any inherent physical trait for the purposes of sports, and their bigotry often brings them to dismiss anyone who they figure is too tall, muscular, or black to be a real woman. But to leave it there would be a mistake, because the dynamics of gendered sports are a lot more weird and complicated than that implies. The position of women’s sports in our society creates an interesting situation where both feminists and anti-feminists can use their respective ideologies to justify a shared bigotry. They’re both being transphobic, but in slightly different ways and for slightly different reasons.

A legislature building of some kind
Photo by Mahesh Gupta on Unsplash

First, the feminists. The trans-exclusionary, radical kind. For one reason or another, women are typically out-competed by men in a lot of sports, and they’ve barely been allowed into sports (at least in the west) for a significant chunk of history. Women’s sports leagues were created as a safe space for women, where they could attain their own glory and be recognized for their accomplishments as women. It was never about fairness, it was about making sure that women in particular would always have big sporting events and make headlines, safe from the encroachment of men.

Then there’s the anti-feminists. Obviously due to women’s inherent biological deficiencies, they could never compete with men in literally anything. They keep wanting to play sports, though that is deeply unfeminine of them, but if they’re going to insist they might as well be kept from the real sports, where they would surely be killed. Women are inherently delicate and in need of protection from men, and strict boundaries between the genders must be maintained at all costs. Since any man would obviously obliterate every woman in every sport, women need a space safe from their encroachment.

But then, something happens. Turns out maybe gender (and the biological differences assumed to be inherent to it) are just a smidge more complex than we believed? Maybe it turns out that the length of a baby’s glans doesn’t always tell you what their gender’s going to be, or even what other physical traits they’ll develop as they get older. Maybe there’s more than just two genders. Now, there are trans women trying to compete alongside their peers. To the feminist transphobes, these are obviously male infiltrators bent on stealing even this small thing from the women it’s meant to serve — especially your daughter, who totally would’ve won otherwise. To the anti-feminist transphobes, these pathetic, helpless women have to be protected from the muscular grasp of the ̵r̵i̵v̵a̵l̵ male.

Tyranitar would obviously beat Clefable, as Clefable is weak and pathetic and must be doted over constantly. Milotic is a pokémon imposter, trying to steal from the pofémon what little they have now. If only we could do the rational thing and sort everyone into neat little boxes with no ambiguity based on physical traits that probably kinda sorta relate to present lived experience.

A diagram which details how Feebas evolves into Milotic
I see you.

Of course, trans women like myself just kinda want to pick up a foot ball alongside other women. Because we’re women. I mean, I don’t personally have that much interest in sports, but if I did I wouldn’t really want to be competing alongside men exclusively. It’s not me wanting to have an easier time of it — do you really think my lethargic ass can compete with anyone who actually works out? What, because of my shoulders? My height? Are we going to ban tall people from playing basketball? Are we really just doing “women aren’t allowed to be tough or stocky or powerful” but woke?

Well, yeah, clearly. That’s the obvious impression I get when I see transphobes taking a look at pictures of any female athlete with a strong jaw or a broad frame and declaring them to be secret men trying to infiltrate our sports. Especially when said accusations get leveled disproportionately at black cis women like Serena Williams and Caster Semenya. Almost as if maybe there’s some cultural reason why those people would be seen as unfeminine or aggressive, or why white women might be especially bitter about placing below them. Almost as if the real problem is that it’s getting harder to stuff everyone into the boxes that our culture created.

The fundamental tension at play here has nothing to do with fairness. Rather, what we’re seeing is the tension between segregation-based activism and the reality that gender can’t be so cleanly delineated. Like, I’m a nonbinary trans woman. Am I supposed to saw off half of my body so it can go compete in the Nonbinary League? What are people with no attachment to gender supposed to do? What of bigender people? The usual response to this is something about “sex”, but not only is that a very blurry concept that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it also misses the point of what gendered sports are hypothetically for — giving gender minorities their own shot. No matter what transphobes claim, my gender is a meaningful part of my societal experience and my body and life are fundamentally different from that of a cis man.

Meanwhile, conservatives seek to capitalize on what their ideology shares with that of the transphobic feminists to create a strictly policed gender barrier that keeps everything simple and prevents both parties from having to think about anything material that conflicts with their pre-existing ideologies. It’s interchangeable with every other fear campaign about trans people. Our existence pokes holes in the worldviews of transphobes and they want us out of sight and out of mind. But we insist on being seen and being treated with a basic standard of respect because we exist, and they can’t tolerate that. Or, to hear South Carolina representative Chris Wooten put it:

“If you ask for something and get a reply it’s called an answer, not a target. We wouldn’t be having this issue if someone had not asked to be involved as a male in women’s sports or a transgender in sports.”

Some leaves arranged to show a change from summer to autumn colors
Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

So, what do we want to do about this? I don’t know. I mean, it depends on our priorities to some extent. Personally, I think that a performance-based model like the one on Smogon has a lot of potential, and it’s a lot more direct than other methods of trying to ensure fairness. But that isn’t a serious or universal recommendation, considering the vast diversity of sports and how little I actually know about them. It should at least be clear that the simple gender-segregated model is a bit too rigid to account for all the things it’s trying to do, and I can’t imagine that just adding leagues for other genders or erasing trans people entirely is going to do anything to fix it.

The most obvious problem with a performance-based system like this is that it would probably place women most commonly in some “lower tier”, which has bad connotations that the neutral descriptor of “women’s sports” seeks to avoid. Smogon tiers aren’t meant to be taken as a value judgement, but seeing a pokémon you like in a “lower tier” is easily read that way regardless. The lowest tier being called “PU” probably doesn’t help. Just as Smogon’s lower tiers are often understood as some kind of insult, however, our broader societal ideas of women are not ignored when we parse the name “women’s sports”. Both are seen as secondary, less interesting and less worthy than real (men’s) sports. A system intended in part to bring glory to women has the ironic effect of shunting all female participation in sports off to the side where it can safely be ignored. Out of sight, out of mind.

I’m sure it’ll be surprising to hear coming from me, but the big takeaway here is that we should make an effort to understand what we’re actually talking about when having conversations like this. If we want to create a safe space for women to play, then that’s fine, but we have to be able to adapt as our society changes and we can’t just ignore trans people as if they pose some unique threat to “fairness”. If we care about fairness, let’s talk about how we can give everyone a fair shot. Otherwise, let’s consider what it is we’re actually trying to accomplish, and if we’re doing it in a righteous and effective way.

The Smogon model appeals to me because it uses actual performance data and allows for error instead of assuming the tiers can be perfectly determined beforehand. There wouldn’t be any question on whether trans people have some unfair advantage in a system like that, because we quite obviously don’t. I mean, right-wing media blows up nearly every story of any trans person happening to get first place in a race or whatever, and it’s still a rare thing to see. The suspect test is over. Trans people clearly don’t need to be banned.

I mean, we’re not Landorus

Thank you for reading! This article was loosely based on a couple of Twitter threads I wrote recently. Don’t take anything I said too seriously — like I said, I’m not the biggest expert here. Anyway, I’d like to thank my patrons, including: xin; VixenVVitch; Vincent Poe; Vanessa Argodale; Upscale Furry Trash; Niels Abildgaard; Mizake Da Mizan; Mahan Harirsaz; Julia Pseudo; Honestlyarchon; Gender_Thief; Bran; betty, your friendly neighborhood anarchist; and of course, Abigail Nail. If you’d like to join those fine people, you can donate to my Patreon. You can also use my Ko-Fi for one-time donations, and check out my YouTube page for the video version of this article.

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Trans Internet Creator with an engineering degree. She/they.

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Alexis

Alexis

Trans Internet Creator with an engineering degree. She/they.