Kent State’s Pokémon Pro

Natalie Shampay watches a Pokemon game on Wednesday night at Full Grip Games in Akron.

Nicholas Hunter

With her hands set patiently on the table, Natalie Shampay watches as her opponent, Ian Robb, scoops up his damaged Pokémon, promotes a new one, loaded up with energy, and takes a knockout, leaving him a turn away from winning the 2018 St. Louis Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG) Regional Championship. 

In one continuous motion, she draws the top card of her deck, flicks it on the table to show it won’t be enough to keep her in the game and stuck her hand out to Robb, conceding defeat.

While Shampay, then a 20-year old Kent State psychology student, wasn’t able to walk away with a win, she made her mark as a finalist in the 1,066-person tournament — the largest in the game’s history.

Since that accomplishment, she has become one of the highest profile women in Pokémon.

“Pokémon in general is pretty welcoming compared to what I’ve heard from a lot of other card games and a lot of other video games and a lot of other competitive communities,” Shampay said. “I mean, the five women that you see in Pokémon is probably four more than you would see anywhere else.”

Unlike other people in the community, Shampay isn’t decked out in Pokémon gear; She looks like a typical college student. She sports big, dark-rimmed glasses, light blonde hair that falls past her shoulders and can usually be found in a baggy Thrasher Magazine hoodie and beat-up Converse.

As one of the few prominent women in the game, Shampay has found herself becoming a role model in the Pokémon community.

Riley Hulbert, a friend of Shampay’s and competitive TCG player, described her as one of the most competitive people he knows, but said what shines through most is how naturally she has taken on a leadership role in the Pokémon community.

“Privately, she might act nervous sometimes, but really she has done a phenomenal job at just being a face of the community and always putting her best foot forward, showing people the positive aspects of the game,” Hulbert said. “In spite of any anxiety she has in regard to having attention facing toward her, she does a phenomenal job.”

Shampay admits she serves as an inspiration for other women and younger girls to participate more in the game and its community.

“I remember my first big tournament going into a room full of a thousand men and maybe 20 girls,” she said, reflecting on past experiences. “It’s kind of intimidating when you’re a 15-year-old girl. It’s definitely off-putting and, you know, I adjusted, I got over it and I ended up enjoying competition and everything like that, but it’s definitely intimidating.”

Shampay said parents of girls in the Juniors division, the youngest group of players, have said seeing her success and powerful voice in the community gave them someone to look up to in the game.

“I can’t imagine (being a) girl who is trying to adjust coming out of like the senior (early teens) division and stuff like that, playing with grown men,” Shampay said. “That’s why one of the biggest things that I think is really important is a lot of representation.”

During a recent stream of an international tournament hosted by the game’s parent company, The Pokémon Company, international, a video played featuring Shampay as a “Top Trainer.”

“A lot of casual viewers might say, ‘All I see on streams are all these men, over and over again, men,’ and now they have me,” she said about the video. “I think it matters; the more representation, the better.”

Despite seeing Pokémon as a more inclusive game than others, Shampay said she still has plenty of awkward interactions with other players.

“I think just a lot of people that are in a hobby that is traditionally male-dominated don’t really understand how to interact with women,” she said. “I did have a guy, when I was 17, tell me to call him when I was 18. (He) kind of heckled me and I got very uncomfortable. I ended up just ignoring him and staying with my friends.”

Aside from the far and few aggressive men, Shampay said she faces a fair amount of unintentional disrespect from men in the game.

“A lot of people will be like, ‘Are you here with your boyfriend, is that it?’ ‘Did he make you that deck?’ Stuff like that. Now that I’m like more of a known player, I don’t get that as often, you can tell that it’s definitely just,” she stopped herself, slowing down to find a better word. “It’s different.”

Shampay’s boyfriend, Andrew Mahone, is also a competitive TCG player, as well as a high-profile personality in the game’s community. His YouTube channel, Tricky Gym, has more than 41,000 subscribers and his Twitch channel of the same name gets an average of over 100 live viewers per daily stream.

In an interview in November 2018, Mahone said it’s something he’s been very conscious of as his profile has grown. They waited a few months to publicly talk about their relationship.

“Neither of us were embarrassed to admit it or anything like that, and it was not weird within our social circles,” he said. “I wanted people on the channel to respect her as a person first and know her as a person and a player, not just, ‘That’s Andrew’s girlfriend.’ The gaming community can be pretty unforgiving toward females and can be pretty, pretty rough honestly.”

Even as Shampay has gained more notoriety and respect in the community, she still gets the “Andrew’s girlfriend” treatment at tournaments from time to time.

“I solidified myself as my own player and I’d still have people come up to me and be like, ‘How’s Andrew doing?’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh, he’s four-and-one,’ and then they’d leave,” she said.

When you see them interact, though, the mutual respect between the two is clear. Shampay came on his March 29 Twitch stream, and while they played a game of Pokémon TCG online, they gloated back and forth about who had the most impressive accomplishments.

“I already have a better finish than Andrew, doesn’t matter!” Shampay told the stream chat in the middle of a game. “He hasn’t done better than my second place yet.”

“That’s not true,” he replied, “I have a regional win!”

“Well your win was a little, teeny regional.”

“It was 360 players!”

“Tiny. Doesn’t count.”

“Oh, this is insane,” Mahone grumbled before getting back to their game.

She didn’t get to the biggest stage in the game overnight, though; she spent more than six years working toward contending in the highest level of competition.

When Shampay was 14, she and her cousins badgered her uncle in the grocery store to buy them Pokémon theme decks —pre-constructed decks that, while good for learning how to play, don’t hold up competitively.

They sat down with one another and started playing, learning the basics and gaining confidence that they knew exactly what they were doing. That is, until they took the decks to a local Pokémon League, where players come together to play casual games to build their skills for tournaments.

“I started going (to the league), brought my theme deck, lost a lot to these (competitive players) and I realized what it was like to actually play the real game,” Shampay said.

Despite losing time and again, Shampay got a taste for the Pokémon TCG  and decided she wanted to take it seriously. She scoured the internet to find the then-scarce resources available to help her build a deck that could hold up in competition.

“I ended up finding like a blog from some guy who used to do a lot of competitive coverage for the time and (used it to) build my first real deck and started playing,” she said. “Ever since that, I’ve been hooked.”

Otto Balendran, a close friend of Shampay and fellow TCG player, like Hulbert, described her as one of the most competitive players he knows.

“She may or may not admit it, but she does not like to lose at all,” Balendran said. “She’s the kind of person where she would rather not play at all if she has a chance of losing, which I always find really funny. She takes it very seriously even though she pretends to be really chill about it.”

Shampay laughed at this, but admitted it’s something she’s conscious of.

“I’m kind of stuck there right now,” she said, a bit quieter than usual, especially packed inside a card shop where an 18-person tournament was taking place behind her. “I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself for sure. I thought it would get better as I got some more accomplishments, but now I find myself being harder on myself now that I have some big accomplishments.”

Despite her competitive and the pressure as one of the few notable women in Pokémon, Shampay made the decision to take a step back from the competitive scene this season. She’s graduating this spring, working fewer hours at her job as a library manager at the instructional resource center in White Hall and has more financial responsibility than last year.

“It’s not even just the fact that I’m finishing school, that I need time to finish all my stuff, ‘cause I get it all done and I do a good job,” Shampay said. “But it’s also that I’m not working as much and it’s hard for me to financially reason with the fact that I’m playing.”

While Shampay isn’t pushing for an invite to the World Championships this year, she still plays with her group of friends and keeps up with the game. Even so, she works to strike a balance between Pokémon and school.

“The weekdays I generally stick to just doing all my homework,” she said. “Weekends, you know, I’ll test, I’ll play cards, I’ll go to tournaments. But I try to get everything done during the week so that I don’t feel as guilty or that I don’t have to put things aside for Pokémon.

“My school comes first. I’m almost done. So I figured there’s plenty of time for me to play Pokémon. I gotta make sure I finish my semester off right.”

After Shampay finishes school, she plans on taking a gap year before going to grad school. As a Pokémon player, she said her goal is to win a regional championship, especially after coming so close in 2018, and to qualify for the World Championships a few more times.

Outside of Pokémon, however, the path Shampay wants to follow isn’t as clear. She’s finishing her degree this Spring, and taking a gap year before going to grad school. Beyond that, she doesn’t have a clear path in trying to accomplish her goal.

“I’m not a hundred percent sure what I want to do with (my degree), Shampay admitted. “I want to find something so I can help people as a life. That’s all I care about, really.”

If Shampay’s goal is to help people, she’s already found a way to do it, whether she realizes it or not.

“Seeing Natalie be successful inspired a lot of people, and I saw that,” Balendran said. “It wasn’t just that she told me, we would go to tournaments and people would come up to her and literally tell her those things.”

Nicholas Hunter is a senior reporter. Contact him at [email protected]