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Can Pokémon UNITE become an Esport? – First Impressions

Pokémon UNITE has just released. But can the Pokémon MOBA stand the test of time and become an esport? Here are our first impressions.

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Ever since the initial announcement players all around the world have been looking forward to the Pokémon MOBA as a potential fresh breath of air for the genre. Now that the game has been out for a bit we took a closer look at it. Could Pokémon UNITE become the next esport?

Gameplay

For a game to take off and become an esport the foundation is obviously competitive and fun gameplay. After playing a couple dozen of matches the gameplay in UNITE is quite enjoyable and offers plenty of space for outplaying opponents on your skill.

Dodging skills, using items and abilities at the correct time are all part of UNITE and the works very much so like other MOBAs in this regard.  LoL or Dota 2 players will feel right at home in UNITE.

However the relative lack of creeps (or neutral Pokémon in this case) and item choices being delegated to pre-game setups, means there are some strategic aspects that are missing. But the varied Pokémon and the map objectives offer plenty of space for different approaches to winning that can be comparable to the strategic depth in the established titles.

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If the developers can keep up with balancing the game while simultaneously introducing new Pokémon and items, UNITE can definitely stand tall on its own two feet and keep the players engaged.

Stats, Fair-Play & more

UNITE has also learned from the current MOBAs in the market and adopted a number of features that you might not have expected in a game that will launch for mobile in September as well. Not only is there already a “Fair Play” Rating in place to reward good player behaviour and sanction griefing players, detailed post-match stats, lifetime records and other statistics are also implemented.

Pokémon UNITE's Fair Play Rating system
Pokémon UNITE’s Fair Play Rating system

It also offers practice lobbies and will breakdown your deaths mid-match so players can learn what actually killed them there. All important tools to improve. However other essentials like accessible replays and an observe mode are still missing from the game and could become hindrances if UNITE truly wants to become an esport.

A Post-Match Stats Breakdown in Pokémon UNITE
A Post-Match Stats Breakdown in Pokémon UNITE
Free-to-Start vs. Free-to-Play

There are two more key factors in determining which games break into the esports segment: Potential Player base and developer support.

Let us take a look at the player base first. As a Pokémon title UNITE is well-known around the world and will have little trouble gathering interest. There are however two barriers still in place that could hinder its growth. The “Free-to-Start” model of UNITE could be a barrier to new players. Although it is relatively easy to collect a sizeable roster of Pokémon to use as of now, the model which only offers limited options at start could turn off new players. The potential shortcuts by investing money into the in-game store to level up your items faster or unlock more characters also endanger the competitiveness of the title. Another potential hurdle is the current limitation of the game to the Nintendo Switch, but that will mostly be gone by September, when the mobile version of UNITE launches.

The lack of “Free-to-Play” need not be that big of a hurdle as League of Legends has demonstrated quite well. But that also leads us to the second factor: Developer support.

Developer and publisher support

Nintendo is infamously reluctant to embrace the more competitive side of play in their games. Be it Smash Bros. or other titles like Splatoon or more closer to UNITE the Pokken fighting game, which was a promising Tekken x Pokémon title that unfortunately did not grow a large esport scene. In an earlier interview UNITE’s producer Masaki Hoshino said that esports will not be that much of an focus early on, although it is of interest to them.

Counter-balancing Nintendo’s lackluster esport record is the development studio behind UNITE: TiMi Studios. The subsidiary of Tencent has plenty of experience in the esport sector as prior games of theirs like Honor of Kings, Arena of Valor and most recently Call of Duty: Mobile have all gone on to launch esport competitions. If they are willing to invest into UNITE’s esports, they certainly have the expertise to do so.

Conclusion

While it is still very early to say, Pokémon UNITE is a case that can easily develop into the next big title. Maybe it can even develop into the first mobile esport title that sees wide-spread success globally. The foundations for that are all there in the game. With minor adjustments, improvements and further updates UNITE can carve out a place for itself in esports.

The ball is now firmly in Nintendo’s court as they have the chance to set the record straight for their past esport endeavours and prove that they in fact can develop an esport title and nuture it.

Do you think that Pokémon UNITE can become an esport? Join the discussion on social media or our Discord!

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Image Credits: Nintendo