MOBAs, or Team Battlers as The Pokemon Company would prefer we call them, are designed to be played in arenas. The spectator experience is simply unparalleled. The perspective and cadence make the games easy to follow, even for the uninitiated, and the energy of being there in person is intoxicating. Every big play or last-minute comeback is amplified by the roaring crowd; there’s no other genre that inspires as much edge-of-your seat, nail-biting tension. The MOBA is truly the pinnacle of esports, a fact that Pokemon Unite proved this past weekend at the Pokemon World Championship in London. The tournament was an auspicious debut for the newest addition to the annual event. And while it has a long way to go before it’s as popular as the legacy Pokemon games, the Unite Championship was undeniably the most exciting thing that happened at this year’s World Championship Series.
The $500k tournament played out over two days during the four-day event. Starting on Friday, 13 teams (16 qualified but three were unable to secure their visas) competed in a round-robin group stage. The top eight teams moved on to Day 2 and battled it out in a double elimination bracket, with North America’s BLVKHVND emerging at the end as the undefeated world champions.
I watched nearly every second of the tournament and was completely captivated by it. I’ve played Unite since Day 1, but watching the best teams in the world play in the arena is a totally different experience. Unite feels like it was designed to be watched just as much as it was to be played. There’s a subtle brilliance in the flow and tempo of each game that makes them easy to follow and enthralling to watch. The ten-minute matches are short enough to hold your attention because every move really matters. All the mistakes and big plays build on each other and tell the story of the game.
Something important happens in practically every minute of a Unite match. When the Vespiqueen spawns at 8:50, the team that is able to secure the kills gets an early XP advantage. When Dreadnaw spawns at 7:00, there’s a guaranteed big team fight. And of course, when Zapdos spawns at 2:00 it kicks off the big explosive finale. Every single match has a pulse-pounding finale. Just when you get your nerves back under control, the next match is already starting.
The Unite casters did an incredible job guiding viewers through the tournament and building the energy of each match. Spragels, Doobsnax, ZOINKS, and Jeff Hoogland delivered the most entertaining commentary in any game at Worlds. Their skills as analysts and storytellers were a big part of what made the tournament so much fun to watch.
All of the finalists were at the top of their game, but BLVKHVND was simply on another level. It was a joy to watch them sweep through the competition and demonstrate their flexibility – something that clearly gave them the winning edge. Back-and-forths, upsets, and come-from-behind victories are always exciting, but watching BLVKHVND excel through the entire series was almost like a metaphor for Unite’s entrance into the WCS. They showed up on the scene and instantly demanded everyone’s respect. Their competency and self-assuredness carried them to the top, making them phenomenal leaders for the fledgling game’s competitive scene.
The Pokemon Trading Card game and Video Game Championships have always, and perhaps will always be the headliners of Worlds, and for good reason. Their legacy is the foundation of the biggest gaming franchise of all time, and lifelong fans, including myself, have been playing for as long as they’ve been able to pick up a controller or bust a pack of cards.
I hope these games continue to grow forever, and yet, at the same time, I can’t help but notice how much more fun Unite is to watch. There’s plenty of drama and emotion in the other games, but the slow and methodical turn-based nature of the TCG and VGC just aren’t capable of producing the kind of hype that Unite does in every single match. Years from now, I won’t be the least bit surprised to see just as many Unite fans filling up the Stadium as TCG fans – if not more. I’m overjoyed to see how much of an impact Pokemon Unite had in its first year at Worlds. It more than proved that it deserves a seat at the table, and with a debut like that, I can only imagine how much better things can get from here.
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