Nov 10, 2021 - Technology

As Pokémon turns 25, it grapples with an expanding audience

splitscreen between a pokemon and J.C. Smith

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo of J.C. Smith courtesy of The Pokémon Company International

As it turns 25, the hit Pokémon franchise is booming, even as it grapples with the challenges of an expanding fanbase.

Why it matters: Pokémon, which generated $5.1 billion in revenue in 2020, has come a long way from sending parents into a panic.

  • "We are in a position now where the parents don't say, 'What is that?' And, 'It's suspicious!''' the Pokémon Company's director of consumer marketing, J.C. Smith, told Axios Gaming.

The details: 25th anniversary efforts have involved a Katy Perry music video, an album, midyear hit game "Pokémon Unite," and this month's Nintendo Switch remakes of 2006's "Pokémon Diamond" and "Pearl."

  • More unexpected: a run on Pokémon trading cards in the spring that caused Target to temporarily stop selling them, citing safety concerns.

The signature yellow critter Pikachu remains Pokémon’s most recognizable character "by far," Smith said.

  • But recent fan polls have named the likes of Greninja and Dedenne as the favorites, with Pikachu not even making the top five.
  • That partially demonstrates the fandom’s widespread interest, which ranges across eight so-called generations of characters and games. 
  • Smith notes that the company chooses which Pokémon to market based on character feel (cuddly vs. fierce, for example). 
  • He adds that they try to "make sure that all the generations are getting some attention" and are represented on modern gaming platforms.

Fans have flocked to the series' games, even after initial skepticism, as was the case with "Unite," but an undercurrent of negativity does flow through online discourse.

  • In 2019, some fans complained in a movement called "Dexit" that the first major Switch "Pokémon" game broke from series tradition and did not include prior generations' characters.
  • Smith says fans are clear about what they want. "But there's also a vision for what the creators want to provide, and it's [a matter of] finding that delicate balance throughout."
  • Pressed on how the company considers some of the angrier feedback it gets, he said, "We have a group of creators and professionals working at the Pokémon Company that have been through a lot — seen, heard [a lot]. They have thicker skin than many people do because they’ve heard it."

What’s next: Yet another big "Pokémon" game release, the experimental "Arceus" is set for January.

  • As the fanbase gets older, there have been requests for more-sophisticated Pokémon games and storylines for a more grown-up crowd. "We hear it," Smith said. "And I think the creators definitely understand that there's a desire for maybe something."
  • "But we try to focus on making the core accessible to everyone."
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