Typically, my job is to shout from the rooftops about the future of mobile esports. Heck, I did exactly that last week. It is, in fact, because of my strong belief in the future of mobile that I’m writing this piece at all. So that when Pokémon Unite is a revenue and downloads powerhouse, but has virtually zero impact on the esports industry, it is not viewed as a commentary on the potential of mobile, but of the consistent, utterly disappointing lack of a proper esports push for Pokémon across its entire games library.
There’s a rather old meme that I think perfectly encapsulates the challenges Pokémon has had as a competitive gaming property:
Essentially, despite the incredible depth of complexity that competitive Pokémon involves, its esports infrastructure has always revolved around systems for children to compete – awarding scholarships and creating age-bracketed divisions rather than a traditional tournament circuit or empowering local regions to develop their own competition ecosystems. Even with the brand’s fighting game Pokken Tournament, the rulesets, prize pools, and general level of investment more closely resemble a typical kids’ media contest rather than professional esports.
Imagine if at the Fortnite World Cup, instead of $3M Bugha received either a scholarship or travel voucher worth $10K. That was the top prize for the Pokémon video game World Championship in 2019. Bugha would have been placed into the under-18 division due to his age, and not even given the choice to accept his prize in cash.
Just like Nintendo (where all Pokémon games reside) The Pokémon Company doesn’t get esports and is unlikely to change that perspective any time soon.
Now, if you wanted to be the sort of silly person who gets their hopes up about a Pokémon property’s esports potential, your best bet is the fact that Pokémon Unite is developed by Tencent’s TiMi Studios. This is the same company that created Honor of Kings, a mobile MOBA with its own franchised league in China. If any company could create a Pokémon esport, you’d think this would be the one.
Unfortunately, that hope is merely the light dangling in front of the massive, hungry anglerfish that is Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. The game’s first presentation establishes a number of concerns for anyone familiar with MOBA esports. First, while there are still few details available about the game’s monetization model, the term “free to start” rather than “free to play” does not inspire confidence. Successful esports rely on cultivating a large playerbase, which is enormously helped by a free-to-play business model. Especially in the U.S., people already have such a negative view of mobile games due in large part to problematic business models. If there is anything fishy about the way Pokémon Unite operates in this area, the game won’t get off the ground as an esport here.
Even if the business model is actually free to play, there’s still a big concern with the gameplay itself: capture points. Holding a point might work great in Overwatch, but it has been a consistent failure point across the history of MOBAs. It’s like Pokémon Unite took a look at the failure of Infinite Crisis and the elimination of Dominion as a mode in League of Legends and said “yea, let’s make that the victory condition for our game!”
Will I be downloading Pokémon Unite the day it comes out? Absolutely. Will it be fun to play a game where I get to fight people as Snorlax? Almost certainly. Would I love to be completely wrong about this and see Pokémon Unite become the next major esport? No question.
Unfortunately, history has proven that when The Pokémon Company or Nintendo are involved, hoping that any esports potential will be acted upon will just leave you tired and frustrated.
Mobile is the future. When Pokémon Unite lands in the esports world with a resounding thud, it won’t be because that fact has changed, it will be because yet again The Pokémon Company missed the boat.
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