The Champ

Thomas Mifflin, 23, of Costa Mesa placed first at the Pokémon Video Game Autumn Regional Championships, held in Pleasanton, Calif. last month. (KEVIN CHANG / Daily Pilot / November 2, 2013)

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Thomas Mifflin plans to don a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt every time he plays Pokémon — at a tournament, at least.

The item, which he purchased in San Francisco, was part of his ensemble this year at the Autumn Regional Championships in Pleasanton, where he placed first. It has evolved into somewhat of a good luck charm.

Pokémon, the video game-based media franchise owned by the Japanese company Nintendo, has made its way into the worlds of anime, manga, trading cards, toys and books. Mifflin, 23, of Costa Mesa, first encountered the game — commonly associated with 10-year-old Ash Ketchum and Pikachu, a yellow, glassy-eyed, red-cheeked and zig zag-tailed character — some 16 years ago.

"When it comes to Pokémon, a lot of people think of the TV show, and then they think of what they believe is a children's game," he said. "But there's a lot of critical thinking and logical skills when you get to the higher levels of the game, and that's what really draws me in. I enjoy trying to outwit my opponent and making the right moves with my strategies so I can advance to the next round."

Mifflin, a software engineer at Boeing in Seal Beach who also enjoys a good game of Halo, Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros. and Tetris, was first captivated by the social benefits of being a Pokémon player. He enjoyed going up against his friends as well as being able to approach others with whom he might not have interacted otherwise. As he grew older, many abandoned the game, but he remained hooked, now by its more intuitive aspects.

Over the years, Mifflin has, on average, spent about an hour a day armed with his trusty Nintendo DS. Although he battled with his friends for 10 hours — including bathroom breaks — during a sleepover in fall 2008, he's quick to clarify that such lengthy durations are the exception, not the norm.

He believes that Pokémon doesn't demand daily practice: It's not like basketball or any other sport that necessitates waking up early and traipsing to a gym. It's OK, he finds, to take a couple days off and return as strong as before.

What Mifflin doesn't suggest, though, is stepping away from the game for months or years at a stretch and then attempting to get back into the swing of things. Consistency is key.

And consistent he was until 2010, when he took time off to focus on the sports, studies and romance that were part and parcel of being an undergraduate at Azusa Pacific University. After graduation, he returned to the game.

This fall wasn't the first time that Mifflin took awards at a Pokémon tournament. In spring 2005, he placed in the top 14 nationally, followed by a top 16 ranking in the next year's Journey Across America, a commemoration of the game's 10th anniversary. He also ranked 21st at the Pokémon World Championships in 2008 and, in 2010, came in 30th at the national championships and was in the leading 32 worldwide.

His parents, Mifflin recalled, were a tad worried when he began developing an ardor for video games, taking solace only in the fact that he wasn't "obsessed."

"At first I thought it was a silly game," said his father, Dennis, an Acton resident. "He was young when he started, so his mom and I set strict limits on how long he could play video games in general. Then I saw how complicated Pokémon was, the amount of critical thinking skills it would develop, and how it complemented his analytic personality.

"As a teacher, I'm always looking at the learning angle. The day I saw that connection, then the rest was just fun."

Since the gaming device is not "stuck" to his son's hand — he has a regular life and is gainfully employed —Dennis deems Pokémon a "hobby".

"The regional championship was nice, but I think [Thomas'] ultimate goal is to win the international competition," he added.

Instead of training before the tournament, the junior Mifflin visited Ghirardelli Square, the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf, ate clam chowder and rode on cable cars, while ensuring that his game system was juiced up.

On game day, he woke up a few minutes before his series of five alarms, buzzing with excitement and nerves, and drove to the exhibition hall at Alameda County Fairgrounds, amping up with Def Leppard's help.

"My original goal going into it was 'just win one game so you can say you didn't completely fail,'" Mifflin recounted. "I half expected to not do that well. I had confidence, but I hadn't played in a long time and didn't know how much rust there would be."

After defeating nine competitors over about eight hours, Mifflin recalled sitting back in his seat, surprised.

"I hadn't done anything in a long while, and then I come back and win a regional?" he said about the "awesome" day that concluded with a celebratory dinner at In-N-Out Burger.

The Autumn Regional Championships is the first of three regionals taking place throughout North America. Contenders who achieve a high ranking will be given Championship Points — Mifflin has 120 — which will count toward travel awards to the 2014 Pokémon U.S. National Championships in Indianapolis next summer. After that lies the invitation-only world championships in Washington, D.C.

While Mifflin hopes to continue doing well in competition, he takes time to reflect with appreciation on all the experiences and friends that Pokémon has brought his way.

Before his first attempt in Seattle eight years ago, Mifflin said, "I had this preconceived notion that most game players are these nerdy guys with glasses who are overweight. When I got to nationals, I realized they're regular people who have a passion for the same game that I do."

Ever since then, he's made a conscious effort to avoid stereotyping people, reveling in the sense of community among comrades of similar ages and with common interests.

What does it ultimately come down to? "We all love what we do," Mifflin remarked.