On July 21, the release of Pokémon UNITE shattered the internet’s expectations of what a MOBA should look like with its fast pace and low barrier to entry for beginners. And now that Pokémon fans finally have a competitive version of their game that doesn’t require a calculator to fully understand, talks of the vibrant new title’s viability as an esport have already begun.
For longtime MOBA players, picking up Pokémon UNITE was like hopping into Call of Duty matchmaking on Christmas morning: a lawless free-for-all where those with the skills take pleasure in farming first-day noobs. While Pokémon’s first venture into this genre has served as an introduction for casual fans, as UNITE’s similarities to titles like League of Legends and Arena of Valor have made it easier for veterans to carry over their experience.
gg bro. i thought i'd let my 6 year old niece try this game out but she just left the room crying because she got fountain farmed by an ex-pro gamer. hope ur happy. pic.twitter.com/QHY8QyhGik— Danny Le (@Shiphtur) July 23, 2021
As players debate over supposed pay-to-win systems, call for “unskilled” players to stay away from ranked and lament getting wiped out by (well-intentioned) ex-LoL pros, a rift has formed dividing casual and serious UNITE players on how easy or difficult the game should be. But what’s so bad about playing games for fun? According to LoL Esports Observer and Pokémon UNITE content creator Elton “XT” Moc, nothing.
Nah— $acred (@GucciCanti) July 21, 2021
I am begging you.
If you're going to play RANKED on Pokemon Unite
Please wait till lvl 10.
Ignore whatever unlockable it is
Unless you KNOW the game, don't.
“I think the problem that a lot of people are having is that I think they’re really focused on the competitive aspect of the game when, in nature, I think Pokémon UNITE for the casual is extremely fun,” said XT.
Taking the pain out of learning MOBAs
Let’s not kid ourselves: learning a MOBA for the first time might be one of the most overwhelming gaming experiences out there. The wide variety of characters and abilities, the depth of tactical diversity and the sheer amount of brain power required at any given moment make MOBAs one of the most daunting genres to pick up.
UNITE tackles this with a single premise: that Pokémon games should prioritize fun.
“It’s a very fun experience when you don’t think about the strategy,” said XT. “The gameplay concept is very simple. You’re trying to just beat your opponents, try to get Zapdos and score more points than your opponent.”
Pokémon is one of the most popular video game franchises to ever exist, and the game’s roster of 21 Pokémon contains a healthy mix of mainstream favorites like Charizard, Pikachu and Snorlax to draw in the average fan alongside more niche characters like Eldegoss and Cinderace. There are hundreds more Pokémon that could be added to the game in the future, and players are bound to find one they connect with. Familiar faces, abilities and enhancement items also remove one less annoying step to learning the game for eager Pokémon enthusiasts.
“I’d say UNITE is easier to play and get into,” said League of Legends Color Caster and UNITE D’mitri “AlkBattery” Toledo. “This game would really suffer if you made it last longer than 10 minutes in any way. Low cost of investment for players since they know how long they’ll be in unlike League or other MOBAs.”
It’s not hard to draw comparisons between UNITE and League of Legends. Twisted Treeline and Dominion, two old game modes that were removed from League in 2019 and 2016 respectively, share plenty of similarities with the new title. UNITE shares the two-laned map, simple point-scoring system and major objective systems that differentiated those modes from LoL’s classic map, Summoner’s Rift. UNITE uses these attributes to its advantage because of short game times, capped at 10 minutes, and limited room to manipulate in-game systems for a strategic benefit. This style of gamemode worked in League too, but wasn’t worth maintaining since the majority of the playerbase WANTS those more complex and competitive experiences.
Different ways to play
World Ranking: 1— James Baker (@BakeryGG) July 29, 2021
Record 46 consecutive wins
I'm really proud of myself.
Huge shout-out to the Rank #1 Stack for getting me across the line. @FanHOTS @Gunner62ERBS @leonblackmoba @simply_hebi #PokemonUNITE #NintendoSwitch pic.twitter.com/YMo7yCgoic
Some UNITE players have hopes of reaching the top of the leaderboard while others are content hopping on to kill time with friends or collect cute trainer outfits and skins. So just like any game, there’s no right way to play Pokémon UNITE. But when it comes to the game’s future, it’s clear that fun will always trump competition. One of UNITE’s producers, Masaaki Hoshino even stated in a translated interview that there aren’t any immediate plans for UNITE esports, though fans could take things in that direction on their own.
Actually, that’s already happening right now. Pokémon UNITE has rocketed into popularity and the game has barely been out for more than a week. That means competitive players will have plenty of opportunities to scratch that itch, though it’s fair to assume the game won’t ever be balanced in favor of esports competitors over new and old Pokémon fans.
It doesn’t matter how many comparisons are made between other popular MOBAs, strategy games or even sports game titles, though. In judging one game by the standards and expectations of another, somebody is bound to be disappointed. For the foreseeable, Pokémon UNITE’s charmingly simple formula that allows players to control their favorite Pokémon and cooperate with friends will prevail.
“There’s a lot of people who want to be the next Faker in this,” XT said. “But there’s also a lot more people and families who are just like ‘I love Pokémon.'”