By Jason Krell
“Hey guys, Aaron ‘Cybertron’ Zheng here.”
For so many new players, these simple words are their introduction to VGC. As the most popular player and YouTuber in the scene, Zheng is often is described as the face of VGC. His reliable, consistent, educational videos offer fans a gateway to the game, and countless players over the last three years cite Zheng as the reason they play.
With more than 70,000 subscribers and 10 million channel views as of publication, Zheng is able to reach tens of thousands of viewers each day. But while so many people casually enjoy his content, few fully grasp the importance of his role in the community.
At the Dawn of Competitive Pokemon
Zheng has been here since the beginning of VGC, back in 2008 when VGC was called the Pokemon Video Game Showdown. Zheng had started in the Junior division but quickly aged up to the Senior division in 2010. Zheng was one of the most successful Seniors of his time, placing first, second, and third at various Regional events. He won US Nationals two years running and was a favorite to win the World Championships in the Senior division in both these years. The fact that he didn’t but came so close in 2012 motivated Zheng even more when he aged up to the Master division the following year in 2013.
Zheng identifies the first years of VGC as an important part of his life, reflecting on how it has allowed him opportunities to distinguish himself from his peers and stay connected with his family.
Growing up, from elementary to high school, I was always surrounded by incredibly smart and talented kids. High school especially felt a bit overwhelming because it felt like everyone was doing everything, and it felt hard to stand out among such accomplished peers. Pokemon gave me the opportunity to claim something as my own, something that I could take pride in and be honestly passionate about. I’m fortunate that my friends and peers were supportive, even if they didn’t understand it at all. My background ties into why I play VGC — “becoming the best in the world” feels like a goal that’s actually achievable, and that’s something that’s incredibly exciting to me.
Beyond that, VGC is incredibly important to me because it helped bring my family closer together. [My brother] Brendan, and I are five years apart, and I don’t think we’d be nearly as close as we are now if it weren’t for VGC. We didn’t really ever take family vacations because my parents worked so much and would save the money they earned for stuff like college tuition, so it was really cool to be able to win trips to places like San Diego and Hawaii and take my parents with us. They took a risk in letting us travel and compete at events, and I’m so grateful that they did.”
Though Zheng would have great success as both a Junior and Senior, his true breakout year came the first year as a Master in 2013 where he finished second at a Regionals, first at a second Regionals, top 16 at Nationals, and third at the World Championships.
To this day, however, his top four match at the World Championship against Japan’s resident bad boy, Ryosuke Kosuge, has gone down in infamy. Through an unfortunate string of bad luck, Zheng’s Pokemon were fully paralyzed six times, missed five Will-o-Wisps, and hit themselves in confusion twice across three games. To the outside observer, it seemed like an upsetting way to lose.
But while it wasn’t the most ideal exit for Zheng, he had a hard time being too upset. After all, his little brother had just made it to the finals of the Juniors division, which he eventually went on to win.
“It’s probably still one of my favorite memories,” Zheng said. “I went up and I saw he was crying, because he lost the first game but won the next two. He was obviously just so emotional because the last two years he’d been eliminated in that spot. It made losing in that top four not feel bad at all… It’s kind of funny. At that time, I was just so in the moment and happy that I’d made it so far that I didn’t think much of [losing].”
The Birth of a Meme
Zheng admits that missing out on the chance to be the youngest world champion was disappointing. But at the same time, this same performance changed the course of his life. Thanks to the exposure he gained on that stage, Zheng found the confidence to start his own YouTube channel.
“I’d always wanted help grow the game,” Zheng said. “I know that’s become a bit of a meme recently, but to me, VGC has been such a big part of my life. The people I’ve met, the places I’ve been able to go because of it. I feel like so many people play Pokemon, but no one really knows about the competitive scene, even to this day. Obviously that’s changing and people are starting to figure it out, but that’s still kind of the case. I was like, ‘What’s the best way I can share and spread some of my knowledge to other people?’”
While he didn’t think much of it when first buying his capture card, his channel picked up steam relatively quickly. According to Zheng, it was partially due to the inherent luck associated with being discovered on YouTube. Still, working with already established YouTubers, such as Justin Flynn, Shofu, Pokeaim, and Shadypenguinn for fun helped boost his presence further.
“To be able to work with those guys and have them put my name out there was really helpful,” Zheng said. “When I started, I never thought I would be a super popular YouTuber. I just thought I’d record some videos, maybe ten people will watch it. The support was overwhelmingly positive.”
That support is also part of what keeps him going. Zheng explained that one of his favorite things is when, at live VGC events, people come up to him and share how they’re only at that tournament because of his videos. Seeing that gratitude goes a long way.
“I’m always surprised that people are willing to come up to me and say that, but it’s very, very nice, and it makes me feel like the work I’m putting in is paying off,” Zheng said. “And at the end of the day, it’s still something that’s just fun. I think as a college kid, you can’t complain about having something like this on the side.”
While his channel has turned into something bigger than he expected, he wants it to keep growing. Zheng isn’t sure exactly where it will go over the years, but he explained how grateful he was to have gotten the opportunity to reach so many people through YouTube.
Under the Spotlight
As a result of being involved so prominently in so many areas of the VGC community, Zheng, in a way, became its ambassador. Now, almost everyone who plays the game knows of him and his channel, and he is one of the few figures non-VGC players recognize. While some might not enjoy his position, Zheng certainly appreciates its uniqueness. At the same time, it isn’t always easy for him to be singled out when he feels others deserve the attention more.
It’s pretty freaking cool, and it’s nothing I ever expected. I don’t think I’m the best player, for example. And I’m glad that other big name players that are really good are getting bigger followings and getting the recognition they deserve… But I think one thing I always felt uncomfortable about was that a lot of people who didn’t follow VGC much would know who Cybertron was, but they didn’t know who Ray Rizzo was, or who Wolfe Glick was back in 2014… I’m sure other VGC players aren’t happy with that, and I totally understand why. I don’t like having all the limelight, because I think there are so many amazing players in this game that deserve recognition and deserve respect, but I’m not going to complain in terms of being one of the faces of VGC. At the end of the day, I think the most important thing is being a positive influence… and having a positive impact on people. If being someone who is recognized a little bit more often, if I can… make peoples’ days a little bit better, teach them a thing or two, then I’m really happy about that.”
It’s not all fun for Zheng though, as he admits there are downsides to his status in the community. There are the occasional haters, and people constantly talk about him at events — sometimes without even realizing he can hear them. The word “overrated” also gets thrown around a lot, but Zheng said he channels that doubt into his drive for continued success. What isn’t always so easy, though, is the pressure that being in the spotlight puts on his shoulders.
I don’t really tell many people this, but sometimes I really wish I weren’t kind of famous or popular in the scene. Sometimes I wish I could just be a player who could play and have good results but not be talked about all the time… There’s definitely a lot more pressure going into events. And when I don’t perform well, it’s not even about letting other people down. It’s just like, I feel like I didn’t put in 100 percent or that there’s going to be a lot of people talking about how I lost this tournament and why I lost it. My losses are probably more in the limelight than other people, and that’s solely because more people know me… I was always frustrated losing, but now it’s even more frustrated knowing that other people will be talking about it… But that’s just the nature of how things work and it’s not something I can complain much about. If anything, it motivates me to make sure I don’t have bad performances. At the end of the day, I shrug it off because none of that really matters to me. What’s truly important is helping people learn, making them happy and personally improving at the game. If it means meeting a few haters down the way, that’s totally fine with me.”
Having so much exposure has done a lot more than let Zheng reach out to people. His time working across all areas of a competitive video game has given him a unique perspective that few others share. Zheng’s experiences acted as a gateway to the larger esports community and allowed him examine the VGC scene in a new light.
“Back in 2014, I was sponsored by Clash Tournaments, which is a [Super Smash Bros] streaming/content creation group, and they sponsored other smash players before they got their big name sponsors,” Zheng said. “People like Hungrybox, Armada, Mew2King, and Hax$ just to name a few.”
That same year, the organization decided to launch a pro division. Zheng was their selection for Pokemon, alongside Zero and ESAM for Smash 4. Those two have since gone on to become some of the best players in the world in Smash 4, and being alongside them had a huge effect on Zheng.
“I remember, I actually went to a live tournament and was interviewed by Prog,” Zheng said. “I had always liked Smash, but I was like ‘this is really cool! I didn’t know this was a thing,’ So I got home, started watching more streams and, through VGC, actually got to meet some pros… It was really exciting knowing there was this whole world of competitive gaming out there.”
Zheng started watching all the Smash streams, including EVO, and began to realize how cool their scene was. Then came his interest in League of Legends, sparked by the 2014 documentary, “Road to Worlds.” The stories of those players and their sacrifices elicited actual tears from Zheng because of the struggles they went through.
“People don’t understand gaming as a profession or as a hobby most of the times,” Zheng said. “I haven’t been through a lot of the hardships that some of these pro players have, because for them its their full time job, but I can definitely resonate a little bit with it. And after watching that documentary I was like, ‘man, this is pretty cool. I want to learn more about the players that these stories are about.’”
On the Other Side
In 2016, Zheng was offered and accepted an opportunity to commentate the Pokemon US National and World Championship tournaments. Though it meant giving up on that season as a player, he realized his VGC experience could once again benefit the community.
“One of my main motivations for becoming a commentator [is that], having been in the scene since 2008 and actively involved since, I felt like I knew a lot of the players, their stories [and] accomplishments pretty well,” Zheng said. “I wanted to make sure [these] stories and accomplishments were told to help build some background to streamed games.”
By introducing the stories of the actual human beings behind the teams, Zheng hoped to bring more relatability to a game where virtual monsters get most of the attention. If he could elicit some of the same feelings he felt when watching “Road to Worlds,” then perhaps, Zheng thought, he could attract even more followers to VGC.
Zheng spends a lot of time thinking about the future of esports, especially that of VGC. When considering everything he’s learned through all of his experiences in the community, as well as his experiences with other games, he sees so much potential for Pokemon as an esport. One development he would like to see is an increase in stream production, as well as more advertising for official events. That being said, Zheng recognizes how much the official circuit has already improved from day one.
“I think we’re still very far away from what I imagine we could be, and some of that lies on what The Pokemon Company International does,” Zheng said. “But I think Chris Brown, [the manager of organized play at TPCI], does an amazing job, and I don’t think he gets enough credit. People constantly like to criticize him for his decisions. I’m not saying we should always praise TPCI because, as with any company, there are good things and there are bad things, but I think Chris has definitely been pushing for a lot of good things.”
The other half of the work, Zheng said, has to come from the community. To reach the level of other esports, players need to continue streaming and making content. Having multiple regionals streamed that otherwise wouldn’t be, he said, has been a huge help to the game’s growth. Then there are the grassroot tournaments, which can supplement the community’s need for competition between official events.
For this [One Nation of Gamers] tournament, I’m actually really excited because it’s a huge opportunity. I don’t think people realize how huge this really is… Having an organization that does full-time esports come in and help us… is something that is really great… I’ve never seen a grassroots event or tournament organized as well as this, so I have high expectations for this weekend’s competition. And I think it’s really good, because VGC is something where no one really has the time to dedicate to content creation full-time, or writing articles full-time or streaming full time. So being able to get the help of a professional company that has experience in this is really, really big. I think this is honestly a huge step forward.”
In many ways, Zheng is the futurist in the Pokemon community, analyzing patterns in past games to anticipate and predict the trajectory of VGC. Still, he can’t look too far ahead since there is still so much to focus on in the present. The ONOG invitational is certainly one of those things, and he’s excited for the opportunity to compete against some of the best players in the world. But there is far more to be done. He has a world championship to win. He has videos that need to be made. But most importantly, he has a community that needs him “here” as a leader, encouraging it to keep reaching for new heights.