Recently, The Pokémon Company unveiled the next big project in the Pokémon franchise, but it caught many of us off guard. Pokémon Unite, developed in partnership with Tencent and its subsidiary, TiMi Studios, is a “multiplayer online battle arena” game, better known as a MOBA. Fans worldwide immediately showed displeasure with this announcement, flooding the reveal presentation with over 150,000 dislikes in less than a day. However, I believe that a Pokémon-themed MOBA makes a lot of sense as a spin-off for two main reasons.
A Pokémon MOBA feels closer to the series than most other spin-offs
As a lot of Pokémon spin-offs tend to venture into other genres, the mechanics therein often only lightly borrow from the mainline games. At times, this goes so far as to make the game feel completely dissociated from the franchise, aside from the big Pokémon sticker they slap on it. MOBAs, though not true RPGs themselves, borrow a lot of ideas from the genre. Characters level up and get stronger as the game goes on. The items and equipment you outfit your character with have a significant impact on how you play.
Despite not showing off too much, we’ve already seen a lot of these mechanics in Pokémon Unite. Pokémon level up and will learn new moves, just as they do in the main titles. One of the main objectives is to catch wild Pokémon by battling them, which is something we’re already conditioned to do. And sure, the format is objectively different, but compared to games like the recently released Pokémon Café Mix, Pokémon Unite seems closer to a main Pokémon game than we’ve gotten out of spin-offs in quite a while.
Going beyond the superficial mechanical similarities, strategy and competition lie at the heart of both MOBAs and Pokémon. For many trainers, the real fun of Pokémon comes from the competitive arena. This is more than simply battling other trainers though. In most cases, it takes a dedication to strong team building to be successful. Which Pokémon work well together, what move set each is equipped with, and how you train your team are all key factors in rising to the top.
MOBAs are no different, and that’s why they make for a great competitive experience. Team synergy, both in the human and game realms, is absolutely vital. Character development determines how you play and can be the deciding factor in a battle between you and a rival combatant. There’s a reason why MOBAs are so popular among the esports scene. Two top-tier teams can provide a thrilling match as they adapt on the fly to their opponents’ actions. Only a well-oiled machine can continuously pull something like that off with great success. In this regard, Pokémon and MOBAs share the same concepts of strategy and competition.
It’s a great introduction to MOBAs for Nintendo fans
One of the biggest problems MOBAs face is their character roster. Often incredibly large, (For example, League of Legends currently has 148 champions.) a game’s roster can be very daunting to a new player. First, you have to figure out who you want to play as. Characters in MOBAs are often categorized by roles or attack type, so if you know you want to play a support character, you can begin to narrow it down. However, this can still leave you with a sizeable pool to choose from. (League of Legends has 32 support characters.) Also, because these games limit each team to having unique champions, you really should have multiple characters you’re familiar with, adding to the complexities players face.
Second, even if you don’t play a particular character, it’s still useful to have a passing understanding of the others. When facing one of these characters on the battlefield, knowing what type of attacks and abilities they have can mean the difference between life and death. Third, in most cases, the characters within a game are inevitably original, which isn’t bad in itself but doesn’t lend itself to new players quickly connecting with them.
The roster for a Pokémon-themed MOBA, on the other hand, wouldn’t have as much of a problem with these factors. Though the roster could still be large — we don’t know the final starting count yet — the included characters would be familiar to longtime fans of the franchise. It’s much more welcoming to new players, since someone could come in and say, “Pikachu is my favorite character, so that’s who I’ll play as.” Because of this preexisting connection, players will understand the characters better from the start and will at least have an inkling of how they might play. Of course, if someone is completely new to Pokémon, this problem of being unfamiliar with the roster still persists, but that’s a problem that no game can fully solve.
There’s no doubt though that the target here is people already familiar with Pokémon, so this shouldn’t be as big a problem as it is in other games. After all, Pokémon is one of the largest and most popular franchises in the world. You wouldn’t be making a Pokémon game unless you were expressly targeting that audience.
Within this audience, it’s likely that a large portion has never played a MOBA before or even been interested in one. By making a Pokémon MOBA like Pokémon Unite, The Pokémon Company can draw in that crowd on the basis of its simply being a Pokémon game. This is a unique opportunity to create fans of a new genre, and since Unite is borrowing and reworking mechanics from the mainline games, the MOBA becomes both more enticing and easier to learn. This is genuinely an effective vehicle for introducing the Nintendo fanbase to the genre in a way that doesn’t feel forced.
Is Pokémon Unite the game we were all hoping for? For most people, definitely not. There are certainly legitimate reasons to be upset over the reveal. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bad game though. Time will tell.
But I’m actually surprised we haven’t seen a Pokémon MOBA until now. The Pokémon Company has produced significantly more random spin-offs than this, many of which are fine games in their own right. However, given all the mechanical similarities to the franchise, a MOBA is one of the most natural extensions we’ve seen yet. Further, due to its large preexisting audience, Pokémon has the potential to bring in a lot of new MOBA fans. It’s for these reasons that a Pokémon MOBA like Pokémon Unite makes sense.