Pokémon Unite, the new mobile/Switch MOBA, was announced recently and with it the usual fire hydrant of hate that greets most Pokemon news. It seems fairly innocuous; a free to play, 5v5 multiplayer game where each player controls a Pokemon. This game however elicited hostility from two different camps. Pokemon fans were frustrated by a new side game rather than the new “Let’s Go” sequel that was rumored. Hardcore MOBA fans found that it looked too simplistic compared to the intensity of genre mainstays Dota and League. There’s nothing wrong with a little variety or a more sleight version of Dota. I don’t disagree that it’s not at least partially a cynical cash grab; MOBAs with dedicated player bases print money and couple that with Pokemon it’s practically destined for success. Even so I can only imagine that the game will be at worst a pleasant and easier way to jump in and out of a MOBA without eating up my schedule. This could also attract a much more diverse audience which will hopefully help skew away from the more toxic nature’s inherent to the two fandoms.
I certainly sympathize with the hardcore Pokemon fan base. Being plugged into dedicated online communities means sorting through your own personal excitement for a franchise and half truth rumors. A sequel to “Let’s Go” is certainly exciting; the original was a great surprise and I’d love to revisit the Johto region from Silver and Gold in 3D. That doesn’t excuse the petulant online behavior though, a trend amongst the Pokemon fandom that reached a peak with the regional Pokédex. Anything that doesn’t meet the exact expectations is derided. The reception of a new Pokemon Snap is a great example; a new sequel to a beloved spinoff game was met with high praise. The Unite trailer however received lots of dislikes on YouTube. A new genre spinoff of Pokemon doesn’t have to be crushed by fan expectations. The series has enjoyed plenty of spinoffs that were retroactively embraced by the fandom. This game isn’t going to replace the mainline games after all; the Pokemon company would actually charge for that. This game isn’t diverting resources either as a developer familiar with mobile MOBAs is creating it. In other words, Unite is not taking anything away.
MOBA fans on the other hand are much different but no less dedicated beast. Especially in North America, MOBAs are only for the hardcore as the current most popular games require extreme dedication. The rules themselves can be a bit intimidating, but learning heroes and then team roles are even bigger learning curves. Dota 2 and League of Legends require studying and aren’t designed for easy accessibility. That’s not even mentioning match times which are usually at the minimum 40 minutes. This has bred a toxic player environment, a badge of honor that you were dedicated enough to understand the game. The intense cooperation necessary leaves players open for harassment too.
This is a bit of a narrow view for the genre. Since the initial MOBA explosion at the beginning of the decade, there have been lots of mobile versions that have sprung up in Asia. These are much friendlier games allowing for a wider variety of players to pick up. These haven’t really picked up in North America though. The dedication for hardcore MOBAs hasn’t inspired those same players to pick up other alternative takes on the genre. The style of game also isn’t as ubiquitous; people may know what League of Legends is but isn’t hasn’t penetrated to wider cultural phenomenon. Without that existing buy in these smaller games don’t have a chance at the same success.
Enter Pokemon Unite. Pokemon, with its friendly aesthetics and gigantic cultural reach, is the perfect property to graft on to the mobile MOBA formula. The brand is aimed at younger audiences so having an easily accessible game, both in price point and difficulty, will ensure a hit. The cynical side of this is that it’s an extremely savvy business move. There is an almost 0% chance that this game fails; at the very least it’ll have an explosive opening. A free to play price point (or “Free to Start” in the game’s parlance) ensures lots of microtransactions. Whether that’s gameplay inhibitive or strictly around cosmetics remains to be seen. The upside though is an easily playable game for a much wider audience than a traditional MOBA. Pokemon has the chance to bring in people who don’t usually engage with multiplayer games, especially since it’s available on mobile. An easy pick up and play multiplayer game is a great way to connect with friends who usually don’t engage in games. The fact that it’s all Pokemon is the icing on the cake.
That doesn’t mean Pokemon Unite is going to be for everyone or even great for that matter. It’s really a fairly innocuous announcement. The amount of ire it stirred up doesn’t match the scope of the game. Pokemon Unite has the capacity to be a multiplayer phenomenon but will probably skew closer to fun momentary diversion. That’s really all it’s aiming to be, a fun genre spinoff using the existing property. It’s staying power is completely besides the point. I’m excited to play as a Squirtle alongside 4 other friends, even if it’s only for a game or two.