The Pokémon Champions, Ranked From Worst To Best

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Cynthia is seen standing under a cloudy sky.

Geeta, the League Champ from Pokémon Scarlet and Violet was a bit of a let down. Her design is a serve and her background plot (of possibly being a terrible boss all the Paldea gym leaders resent) is actually pretty compelling, but her actual team and battle strategy is so anticlimactic she’s often tagged as one of the worst Pokémon League Champions in series history. Is that actually true? Who is the best champion in the Pokémon series? What makes a good champion?

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I’ve been thinking about this after seeing a TikTok by @amarcheo, which examined the competitive viability of each Champion’s teams to try and find a definitive ranking. Their comparisons, backed by data based on each trainer’s team’s type coverage and other stats, are pretty damning for some of the series’ most popular champs.

But there’s one thing raw data alone can’t account for: vibes. So I decided to look at each Champion’s team for myself and see just who is the best (and worst) Champion in the Pokémon world. To keep this simple, we’re keeping this to the crowned Champions we meet at the beginning of each game, rather than accounting for rivals and other characters who “ascend” to that station during the story or were once given that title in the past.

Welcome to Exp. Share, Kotaku’s Pokémon column in which we dive deep to explore notable characters, urban legends, communities, and just plain weird quirks from throughout the Pokémon franchise.

Lance is shown standing on one end of a battlefield.

This will likely upset the Gen I girlies, but the entire premise of Lance as a dragon-type trainer just falls so flat in the original games, and even in Gold and Silver, that the iconic first champion just pales in comparison to even the least remarkable trainers in my ranking. His team is just the same Pokémon three times (two Dragonairs and a fully-evolved Dragonite as his ace) slapped with other Pokémon that are vaguely dragon-like in every way except having the actual typing. (It is important to contextualize that the Dragonite family was the only dragon-type Pokémon in Gen I, so Lance being a dragon freak was just a concept that the roster of available pocket monsters couldn’t actually meet at the time.)

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To his credit, Lance’s future appearances have filled out his dragon team with Pokémon like Salamence and Garchomp in HeartGold and SoulSilver’s rematch battle, but ultimately, Lance is proof that a specialist Champion is just setting themselves up with an easily exploitable weakness. Which is a problem that plagues the top dog of a handful of regions. Such as…

Wallace is shown posing in the middle of a pathway surrounded by trees.

It hurts my heart to put the Hoenn region’s resident homosexual king this low, but looking at Wallace’s water-based team, I can only think about how my Raichu’s electric-based attacks would carve through it like a warm knife through butter. Credit where credit is due, Ludicolo’s secondary grass typing and Whiscash’s ground affinity are good shake-ups for when an electric-type Pokémon is just eating his party alive, but even so, swapping to a flying- or grass-type Pokémon for a turn will make quick work of those two outliers.

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Sorry king. Your look is a slay, your Milotic partner Pokémon is iconic. But if I dropped a toaster in a pool your entire team would be floating on the surface moments later.

Iris is seen holding up a Pokeball alongside her Axew.

Much like Wallace and Leon before her, Iris also falls into the same trap any specialist Champion falls into in that if you have even just one Pokémon who can exploit their primary weakness, you’re probably set. Her dragon-type team is far and away more well-rounded than Lance’s, and the team as a whole is just more formidable and intimidating than Wallace’s. But four out of six of her team can be tipped over with the slightest cold breeze, easily wrecked by a well-timed ice move. Aggron and Lapras interrupt the dragon-based flow and are pretty interesting picks to do that considering neither of them so much as have a dragon-type attack in their arsenal. But even so, any trainer whose team you can mostly steamroll with one attack doesn’t land in the upper echelon of Champions.

Alder is seen in a battle stance inside a ruin.

Alder is technically not a specialist trainer, but his party sure does lean on the oft-underappreciated bug type. Half his team is made up of Pokémon based on creepy crawlers, but the other three, Vanilluxe, Druddigon, and Bouffalant, feel kind of random in a way that would be compelling if his team wasn’t primarily made of bugs. The trouble with Alder’s team is that few of his Pokémon seem to have much that can counter obvious answers to its makeup. The spread of type coverage just isn’t there, and even the Pokémon he has don’t have many moves to push back against a good fire-type sweep, aside from perhaps Bouffalant’s ground and rock moves. Druddigon can stall in that scenario, but odds are if your team is well-rounded, you have an ice- or dragon-type move that can deal with it.

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My team has a Beautifly in it, so I love me a good bug-type Pokémon, but I also recognize the type comes with a lot of caveats. It’s not particularly strong and has a lot of counters, so it’s not often they can form the basis of a strong, competitive team without some careful meta-based planning you won’t need in any game’s actual story mode. So while I appreciate Alder’s desire to represent the underrepresented, his team is just waiting to get rolled over.

Kukui is shown standing under a blue sky while tipping his cap.

Because of some lore and semantics, Kukui is not often viewed as a Pokémon League Champion the same way most of these characters are, as the Alolan region has its own, separate gauntlet it puts trainers through rather than the officially sanctioned Pokémon League we fight through in other games. But fighting Professor Kukui, the man who sent you on your journey, is actually a pretty cool, full-circle moment at the end of Pokémon Sun and Moon.

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In general, his team’s not too remarkable. One of his Pokémon will be a starter you and your rival Hau didn’t pick, but the rest of the team is made up of some respectable, varied selections that don’t really scream “the best trainer in the region,” but at the very least have more type coverage than the other Champions we’ve discussed already. I would’ve liked to have seen his team change up more depending on which starter he was using, but the Pokémon he has don’t really overlap with any of the starters, which is a double-edged sword because it keeps the modular ace from being redundant but it also means there are just inherent gaps Kukui always has no matter what. Points for variety, but he loses some for not adapting to varied circumstances.

Geeta is shown holding a Tera Orb under a night sky.

And here we have La Primera herself. Look, I’m not going to pretend Geeta’s team is great, but I do think a few simple tweaks could have made her demonstrably better than what we got. Her fundamental weakness is that her signature Pokémon is Glimmora, which means she uses that rock-and-poison-type last when it’s fundamentally meant to be a setup Pokémon. Its Toxic Debris ability scatters Toxic Spikes on the ground when it’s hit with a physical attack, meaning that the second you use a physical-based move on it (which is optimal considering most of rock and poison’s weaknesses are typically based on physical damage), you’re immediately at a disadvantage for the rest of the match as your Pokémon gain poison status as they swap in and out of battle.

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While some of Geeta’s Pokémon aren’t that challenging or intimidating, her team’s well-rounded type coverage means you will likely have to swap between your own Pokémon to exploit their weaknesses, and if Glimmora had been used as a setup for the rest of the match, she would have a legitimate strategy for players to contend with in this final fight. But because the way these games are programmed means someone’s signature Pokémon must be used last, Glimmora becomes utterly useless and Geeta’s fight is forgettable in all ways beyond how baffling her strategy is. If she put Glimmora at the front of the team and had Kingambit as her signature Pokémon, Geeta’s skill as a trainer would have come through and she might not have the poor reputation she has now, which is what compels me to rank her as highly as I have. She’s a victim of a design decision, while in the margins, I can see a better strategy I wish she’d been able to utilize.

Hau is shown sitting in a jungle area talking to someone off-screen.

Narratively, I don’t think Hau, your game-long rival, showing up at the end of Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon is as compelling as Professor Kukui fighting you as the Alolan Champion. But I do have to give the kid props for being more adaptable than the professor when one of their Pokémon is modular depending on the player’s choice.

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Like Kukui, Hau picks one of the Alolan starters depending on which one you choose at the beginning of the game. On his journey he also gets an Eevee, which any Pokémon fan knows can evolve into one of several forms with different types. Depending on which Pokémon he chooses, he evolves his Eevee to accommodate a gap in his team’s typing. So since I chose Popplio, he evolved his Eevee into Leafeon, which gave him a grass-type counter to my water-type starter. Beyond that, his other Pokémon are pretty formidable and each have a strong spread of attacks that can exploit several weaknesses, so there really aren’t a lot of one-trick ponies on his belt for the championship fight.

I do gotta ask, though, why does his starter only have three attacks? Nothing is stopping you from teaching them a fourth move, king. This is how the game works.

Steven is shown with his arm raised preparing for a battle.

Steven is what Lance wishes he was. The Hoenn Pokémon League Champion keeps his team to a general theme of steel- and rock-based Pokémon, but each has a secondary typing and well-rounded moveset, which keeps his team versatile and exciting to fight against even when he’s seemingly beholden to certain archetypes. His Metagross ace feels intimidating and enigmatic when you finally reach it, and powerhouses like Aggron and Armaldo really set you up to fear what might be coming at the end of the fight. Steven’s team is one of the best at showcasing a powerful, strategic, and formidable final boss fight.

Diantha is shown looking up at something off-screen with a determined expression.

For the top three, honestly, the data wins out in the best Champion’s placement, because Diantha and our other two remaining trainers have some of the best teams of any trainer in any Pokémon game. The Kalos region Champion’s team is as fierce as it is elegant.

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Diantha’s team starts out hitting hard with Hawlucha and stays at that caliber until Mega Gardevoir takes the stage at the very end. Her team broadly has an Achilles’ heel in the fairy type, which was new to Pokémon X and Y, so it makes some sense that she would encourage players to take advantage of this new addition to the meta. But as TikTok’s @amarcheo points out, across Diantha’s team of six, she’s the only one who has a super-effective move against every Pokémon in the Pokédex.

Diantha is underrated as hell, and it’s a crime that Lance beat her in the anime during the Masters Eight Tournament. A crime!

Leon is seen smiling at something off-screen.

We’ve gotta give our flowers to the no thoughts, head empty king that is Galar’s Pokémon League Champion. Leon’s team is a group of powerhouses, and even with him choosing one of the starters you didn’t pick at the beginning of Sword and Shield, he manages to change up his team to accommodate what his team lacks with off-the-wall picks (though nothing your chosen starter can’t handle, as Mr. Rime, Rhyperior, and Seismitoad take up the modular spot).

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But each of Leon’s Pokémon is built to counter typings you might not expect, and that means he can catch you off-guard if you’re relying on the same ol’ tactics. His Charizard can Gigantamax, which allows it to circumvent Solar Beam’s usual charge-up time, giving him a devastating counter to your water-type friends, and his Dragapult is equipped to handle any ice, dragon, or ghost-type Pokémon you throw at it. A lot of Leon’s strategy relies on subverting expectations and counterplay, and that’s how you know he’s got the game down.

Cynthia is shown holding two books under her arm inside a library.

As I’m sure any and everyone expects, Sinnoh’s champion comes out on top here because she is the quintessential Pokémon Champion battle. So nice and intimidating they did it twice with an entire callback battle in Pokémon Legends: Arceus that references how much the Pokémon fandom was collectively traumatized by Cynthia’s team in Diamond and Pearl.

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She’s not a type specialist, and her team covers so many bases with their inherent types and also varied moveset that it forces you to have your own eclectic team just to ensure you have something that can handle anything she throws at you. More recent iterations of her team have made her even more formidable, such as her Garchomp now leading with Swords Dance in the Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl remakes, and she also gives each member of her party a held item that plays into their moveset.

Each battle in a Pokémon game’s story is often hamstrung by its inability to implement real strategies before you roll over a team with a super-effective attack, but your encounter with Cynthia is about as close as a non-PvP battle gets to emulating what it’s like to play against someone who has game sense and strategy in their corner, rather than just big walls of HP. Her team is incisive, her coverage is nearly unmatched, and if you’re not leveled up properly, she just straight-up hits harder than you can dream of. She stands tall over her contemporaries because she is everything a Champion should be.

Anyway, be sure to listen to this banger on your way out:

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