Pokemon a Go: How The Pokemon Company kept a global audience active through lockdown

When Covid-19 struck with full force back in March this year, the implications of the measures taken to battle the global pandemic could have spelled disaster for The Pokémon Company International and its network of initiatives and fan events that relied very much on the freedom of public spaces and person-to-person gatherings.

Had the nimble-footed outfit not have reacted to the growing concerns and implications of the world’s lockdown with the agility and innovation that it did, the year 2020 could have been the one that finally toppled the world-leading franchise from its perch. Thankfully, the company is telling a different story – one in which its reflexive action (translating its portfolio of popular public events and tournaments to the virtual arena) has enabled the firm to hold on to its mantle as a globally beloved franchise.

Even Pokémon GO, the record-setting and genre-leading AR gaming app that takes places outside on the search for Pokémon to capture in real life settings, flipped the switch at the height of the world’s lockdown measures with enhanced functions to allow players to continue their AR gaming whilst staying at home. Meanwhile, the raft of new video game releases couldn’t have arrived at a better time for the brand’s fans looking for new platforms for entertainment during the pandemic.

To top it all off, The Pokémon Company has been listed among a select handful of companies championed by independent retailers in the hobby gaming space, who have spoken to Licensing.biz directly about the efforts of the firm to help and support its network of small retailers through the hardships of the coronavirus. All-in-all, it could be reasoned that the Pokémon Company International has navigated the choppy waters of the world’s pandemic very well indeed.

Here, Mathieu Galante, licensing director EMEA, The Pokémon Company International talks in-depth to Licensing.biz about the newest developments for the franchise, the success of its latest releases across gaming mediums, and why Pokémon will never cease in its mission to innovate.

How is business going with you guys – over the last 12 months – but certainly over the course of the last few? What’s been the Pokémon approach to changes brought on by the pandemic?

Overall it has been a positive 12 months for Pokémon. Our latest Video Game titles, Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, were a runaway success, becoming the fastest-selling Nintendo Switch titles ever with six million units sold worldwide during launch weekend last November.

The June expansion, The Isle of Armor which offers new Pokémon to encounter and new areas of the Galar region to explore, is also proving popular, as is March’s release Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX, which revisits the classic games of 2006. Whilst February’s first  Sword and Shield trading card expansion also enjoyed impressive sales.

Naturally Covid-19 has had an impact, especially on our increasingly popular public events and tournaments. However, as an ever-innovative brand we have adapted to promote more ways for fans to engage with the brand from home and produced fun extras such as printable colouring-in sheets and virtual backgrounds for video calls.

Although this summer’s World Championships in London couldn’t take place, we instigated the Pokémon Players Cup, a global online tournament featuring Pokémon Sword & Shield, Pokémon Trading Card Game and Pokkén Tournament DX, running from July to August. Pokémon League Trading Card Game events that normally took place in-store pivoted to using TCG Online, while this year’s Pokémon GO Fest in July was reimagined as a virtual event.

Meanwhile, animation fans have enjoyed Movie 22 – Pokémon: Mewtwo Strikes Back – Evolution, featuring a new CGI style to animated Pokémon movies, plus an extra treat in the new seven-part online series Pokémon: Twilight Wings, which features a new 5’ episode each month on Pokémon’s YouTube channel.

For our licensees across Europe, we are working closely to support them wherever needed. We have noticed a different impact across different markets, and product categories  as online sales being stronger in the UK, Nordics and BNL than in southern Europe.

Life’s seen a lot of changes, and lockdown has seen consumers turn to home entertainment, including video gaming. How do you think this has impacted on consumer engagement with the Pokémon brand?

We have been working to make it easier for fans to interact with Pokémon in a variety of new ways, including launching our first downloadable content for the two Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield expansions. June’s The Isle of Armor and the forthcoming The Crown Tundra introduce a variety of new features, including all-new Pokémon and new areas of Galar to explore.

Meanwhile, Pokémon GO has changed its gameplay to safeguard users, allowing people to play inside and around their own homes. Introducing new features and tweaking regular ones, it has made the at-home experience better to encourage users to stay indoors. Reduced walking requirements and discounted select items mean players don’t have to walk as far to catch Pokémon, with the in-game distance tracker updated to track indoor steps more accurately and game achievements also being rewarded for using a treadmill or doing chores around the house.

A new form of home gameplay, the GO Battle League, allows trainers to take on other players from around the globe with a team of three Pokémon, while it’s now possible to battle Team Rocket from home as well.

Can you talk us through some of the latest developments for the Pokémon brand – games releases, boost from the feature film, TCG, and of course its always interesting retail presence?

Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield have been hugely successful. Approaching 18m sales worldwide, they are the fifth-bestselling Nintendo Switch titles to date.

Our Trading Card Game remains one of the most popular in the world – shipped to 77 countries and regions in 13 languages – and has also enjoyed great results with Sword and Shield. Its first expansion in February, boosted by a TV ad campaign and strong retail activity, and May’s Sword and Shield – Rebel Clash have been very popular, featuring powerful new Pokémon V and Pokémon VMAX cards that will play an important role in players’ strategies.

We are also excited about the Darkness Ablaze expansion launching in August, with new Special Energy cards. TCG fans can now also learn, practice, and play online as a single player or against other players, and browse and discover expansions and promo cards via the Pokémon TCG Card Dex app for iOS and Android.

Our unique new puzzle game, Pokémon Café Mix, a free-to-start game for Nintendo Switch systems and mobile devices, makes players the owner of a café that Pokémon visit. There, they work alongside Pokémon to prepare drinks and dishes for Pokémon customers by completing puzzles. As more puzzles are completed, the café can be upgraded.

With innovation in our DNA, we continue to expand the brand into new areas. Our latest app offering, Pokémon Smile, incorporates the world of Pokémon into the everyday task of brushing your teeth, making it a fun activity to encourage kids to develop good brushing habits as they catch Pokémon.

We also recently announced two exciting new games, Pokémon UNITE and New Pokémon Snap, for forthcoming launch.

Pokémon UNITE, a free-to-start cross-platform game for Nintendo Switch and mobile devices, is a strategic team battle game where players face off against each other in five-on-five team battles. Introducing a new kind of Pokémon battle – one that requires teamwork and strategy – it is simple, yet full of intricacies waiting to be unpacked.

New Pokémon Snap for Nintendo Switch is inspired by the classic 1999 Nintendo 64 game. This completely new game will take Trainers on an adventure to unknown islands where they can research various Pokémon in their natural habitats, take photos to make their very own in-game Pokémon Photodex and discover new, never-before-seen Pokémon expressions and behaviours.

The halo effect of the box-office smash hit movie POKÉMON: Detective Pikachu, which achieved phenomenal exposure, has brought greater awareness for brand as a whole. There was a significant sales lift for the associated licensed products – including toys, TCG and apparel – and also non-film-related products and we have been working hard to build on this effect.

After a raft of activity at the start of the year, including special retail promotions around Pokémon Day in February, Covid-19 has restricted things in this area, but we have exciting plans afoot to support our licensees and retail partners going forwards, including our master toy programme for Christmas. And, with Pokémon’s ever-increasing status as a fashion icon, we are working on new apparel collections with our DTR partners including global giants H&M, Zara, Bershka, Pull & Bear and Celio. This year also brought exciting fashion collaborations with new partners adidas and Casetify.

How is Pokémon leading the charge with its approach to and relationship with retail? You guys seem to be loved by indies and big name retailers alike. So, what’s the secret?

Obviously our retail partners are hugely important to us and we are making every effort to support them with initiatives such as allocating Sword & Shield— Darkness Ablaze pre-release kits free of charge to eligible retailers to support hobby stores. As a brand we also enjoy strong support from retailers both large and small across Europe – seeing Pokémon as a true evergreen brand, they feel we are a “safe bet”.  We work hard on the best ways to create engaging and different retail programmes for toys and games and fashion across Europe.

Where do you guys go from here? What are the next steps or plans in the licensing space for you?

We continue to explore innovative products, promotions and retail activations to maintain our strong positions in the UK, France, Italy, Germany and Spain for our core master toy programme and fashion programmes. We are also looking at opportunities to expand in the Nordics, BNL and Poland. In addition, we are working on exciting new collaborations and projects as we gear up for some fantastic plans to celebrate Pokémon’s 25th anniversary in 2021. Watch this space.