Pokemon Franchise Is on the Verge of an Evolution

There's something in the air at the Pokemon World Championships – a palpable feeling of excitement that surrounds the ever-popular franchise about battling monsters. It feels like Pokemon is on the verge of evolving into its next form – a true powerhouse in gaming, esports, merchandising, and multi-generational fun. The ever-popular franchise has made noticeable shifts in its presentation and approach to nearly every facet of the game franchise during the pandemic, which are bearing fruit at Pokemon's first world-scale live event in three years.

Sitting in the stands at the World Championships was a revelatory experience. The London stage is literally bigger than past years with reproductions of the London Bridge and Big Ben looming over competitors as they play on the main stage in front of a crowd of hundreds. With four streams running simultaneously on big screens in the arena, one can see in real time just how much additional effort The Pokemon Company has put into presenting its games to its online fans. A team of dozens of casters, many of which are women and people of color, provide play-by-play commentary, while breaks are filled with pre-made videos that spotlight the competitors and game strategy instead of dead air. It's a sleeker, more professional presentation than past years, one that signals that The Pokemon Company is catching up to its esports peers. Even the victories seem bigger than before – when Pokemon Go crowned its first champions on Saturday, fireworks literally exploded on stage as part of a cacophony of light and sound to celebrate their wins. This event alone signaled to its fans that Pokemon was getting bigger and better in almost every facet.

While Pokemon is one of the biggest franchises in the world, it has a decidedly mixed reputation when it comes to competitive play. The traditional Video Game Championships (VGC) and Trading Card Game (TCG) have always have attracted thousands of competitors, but the streaming presentation for both is more akin to watching a game of chess than a sports match. Coupled with criticisms that the core Pokemon games rarely stray from a well-worn formula, the Pokemon franchise seemed content to be a sleeping giant that leans on the strength of its Pokemon and merchandise sales rather than keeping pace with other video game franchises.

(Photo: Pokemon)

Then the pandemic happened. Millions of people turned back to the Pokemon franchise as a source of comfort and joy during the multi-year shutdown. The card game blew up with help from influencers like Logan Paul and Leonhart and bevied by a much-loved Sword and Shield set that's more collectible than ever. Pokemon Go received a boost thanks to its pandemic-friendly shift to worldwide events and expanded play, while Pokemon Sword and Shield added DLC, a first for the franchise.

As the world emerged from the pandemic, The Pokemon Company seems poised to become even bigger. Some pre-pandemic moves seem to be paying off, such as the 2017 switchover of the Master License for toys to Wicked Cool Toys. The toy company was purchased by Jazwares a year later, and Jazwares has since aggressively released action figures, plushes, and other toys since. Where Pokemon toys had a small presence in stores before, they now have entire dedicated sections. The Pokemon Center line of merchandise has also grown significantly – a UK online store opened up earlier this year, bringing scores of high-quality merchandise to the brand new European market.

The Pokemon Company itself has also bulked up its staff significantly, going on a multi-year hiring spree and bringing in talent from other video game companies. Bolstering its in-house talent has paid off in how The Pokemon Company presents itself, especially in terms of its streams and marketing. Some of this was evident during the marketing cycles for Pokemon Sword and Shield and Pokemon Legends: Arceus. Compare the relatively blasé approach to how Pokemon Sun and Moon were marketed to the engaging viral reveals of new Pokemon in the newer games. We've had viral 24-hour streams, and even hidden easter eggs on Pokemon webpages. These little touches are meant to engage fans and build excitement for the franchise in new and different ways.

Pokemon also received a new bulkhead in the world of esports with the arrival of Pokemon Unite, a MOBA-style game that offers a more exciting viewing experience. Coupled with the addition of the fast-paced Pokemon Go competitive format to official Pokemon events, Pokemon now has four core games for fans to promote on Twitch, YouTube and other streaming channels (Beloved fighting game Pokken Tournament DX is bowing out of competitive play after this year).

The other major change to the Pokemon franchise is the changing of the guard within Game Freak, the maker of the core Pokemon games. Longtime Pokemon game director Junichi Masuda departed Game Freak earlier this year for a supervisory role at The Pokemon Company. His replacement Shigeru Ohmori already brought significant changes with Pokemon Sword and Shield – DLC, open-world areas, and other changes away from the Pokemon game formula. Pokemon Scarlet and Violet seems to deviate even further with a fully open-world, multiplayer experience that fans have wanted for years. While Ohmori and his team haven't thrown out the Pokemon playbook entirely, they seem eager to add more pages and experiment a bit more with what's already a moneymaking formula.

(Photo: Pokemon)

Even with all their changes and "bulking up" The Pokemon Company has done over the past few years, there's still more work to be done to fully bring the Pokemon franchise into its next stage. The long-awaited Pokemon Trading Card Game Live app still isn't available for most fans, which would greatly expand online play and bring the Pokemon Trading Card Game to millions of potential new players. While the presentation of VGC and TCG matches have improved online, the presentation still suffers from a lot of dead time as players choose their next moves or re-shuffle their decks. Both Pokemon Go and Pokemon Unite still have their own growing pains to overcome – Pokemon Go competitors complained of issues with online connectivity during this year's tournament while developer Niantic still struggles to understand what fans want out of the game, while Pokemon Unite has struggled to retain players due to poor matchmaking in many of the game's modes. And the core Pokemon games haven't yet overcome the perception that they aren't challenging to anyone over the age of 9.

Still, Pokemon feels much bigger than it has at any point in time in its past. Even at the height of PokeMania in the late 1990s or the summer of Pokemon Go, Pokemon always felt like an unexpected hit that The Pokemon Company, and its various partners weren't ready to fully capitalize on. It now seems that The Pokemon Company is growing and adapting to fully grasp the size of the franchise they manage. Those changes are already paying dividends with more merchandise, bigger events, and more excitement than ever before.

If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear the familiar evolution music playing in the background when you see all the moves and changes made by The Pokemon Company and its partners in recent years. The biggest questions are whether the Pokemon franchise can finally take the next step as a transmedia franchise and what the Pokemon franchise will evolve into when it finally does transform.