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Sophomore reigns for second time as World Pokémon Master

Photo courtesy of Ray Rizzo

If you saw a certain video taken of the 2011 Pokémon World Championship last month, you can hear someone mention that they heard a rumor that Ray Rizzo “eats the souls of his opponents.”

Rizzo is a sophomore at Drake studying actuarial science, and last month he took home the title of Pokémon Video Game World Champion for the second year in a row – the first time in history anyone has repeated the feat.

How did he get there? While he never bought the trading cards and never watched the television show much, Rizzo’s journey started like that of any young Pokémon Trainer – in Pallet Town.

“I got into it when everyone got into it,” Rizzo said. “But it was a fad, and nobody played it anymore.”

So he took a break for quite some time and didn’t pick it up again until the release of the Pokémon Diamond and Pearl versions on the Nintendo DS. Even then, the only reason he got into it was because he won a free DS. The original red and blue versions for Nintendo Game Boy were released in North America in 1998, while the diamond and pearl versions came in 2007. That’s nearly 10 years when Rizzo wasn’t even concerned with the world of Pokémon.

After picking up the fourth generation of the game and setting off once again, Rizzo heard about the tournaments and promptly made his way to the top of the Pokémon world. In 2008, he reached the Pokémon World Championship and lost, but he would not be discouraged. In 2010, Rizzo took home the title for the first time.

This year’s tournament took place in San Diego. Rizzo and 1,000 other competitors, mostly his age, took the battle from the handheld to the big screen in front of cheering crowds to contend for the title.

“There are…I don’t want to say weird people, but definitely some people dressing up real crazy,” Rizzo said.

You might wonder if your parents or friends would be concerned about you being one of those crazies, but not Rizzo. After all, where would Ash Ketchum have been if not for his trusty mom setting his clock for daylight savings time and sending him gifts?

“My parents are totally cool with it,” Rizzo said. “I know a lot of people think it’s just a kids’ game – that’s probably a social stigma – but it’s actually really advanced.”

It takes someone with that kind of attitude to make it to the final battle against a guy from Italy and win it all.

“My first time in the finals was definitely pretty nerve-wracking, but the second time not so much,” Rizzo said. “The only reason it was close was that he got lucky in the second battle. I pretty much had control of the match the whole time.”

Rizzo won plenty of prizes for coming out on top in the tournament. He’s got two trips to Japan coming up, plus several exclusive trading cards that he quickly sold off for a few thousand dollars.

“And they give you this trophy that weighs like 50 pounds,” Rizzo added.

But what makes you a Pokémon champion? Rizzo said he’s only invested about 27 hours into the latest Pokémon games, doing most of his battle practices through an online simulator. It’s more about strategy.

“I don’t ever use the same strategy,” he said. “That way there’s a little luck involved. I try to focus on battling the most common strategies.”

So what now for the repeat champion? What does he do in his free time? Rizzo said he doesn’t consider himself a gamer. He said he has never, and never plans on, catching ‘em all. Other than Pokémon, he said he used to play Call of Duty and Halo, but he has since stuck to NHL games.

And there’s next year, of course. The champ gets a free trip straight to next year’s Pokémon World Championship, where he’ll vie for a three-peat. Hopefully there is still plenty of soul-feasting to come.

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