Opinion: Is Pokémon Unite Pay to Win? Either Way, It’s a Bit Unethical
I got into Pokémon Unite a little later than most of its current active players. At time of writing, I have gotten my as-yet-unpurchased Battle Pass to level 40ish and climbed the ranks to Veteran. This took place over the last two weeks or so. I had never played a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) before. Despite some very shady business practices, I am glad I tried this one out. Once you get out of the main menu and into a game, I must admit that it’s often a lot of fun.
It’s not that I thought I wouldn’t like MOBAs – really, they’re right up my alley, with fighting game health bars and animation cancels, along with elements of strategy games, all wrapped up in some 5v5 team play. I would’ve loved to have sunk my teeth into DOTA back in the day, since I love the look of the game and have mostly heard great things from players about its depth and variety.
But it’s not “back in the day” anymore. I was focused elsewhere during its heyday and now, DOTA and even League of Legends are just too daunting for me. Too many heroes, too many abilities. I mean, look, I sank 130+ hours into Spelunky 2. Imagine how many I’d sink into the only video game Gabe Newell has enjoyed in the last however many years it’s been since Valve made one themselves. I’ve heard that DOTA 2 is incredible, but it’s miles more complex than Unite. I don’t think I’m ready to take on a full-time job like DOTA 2 in addition to my freelance English major work.
Anyway, Pokémon Unite is the talk of the MOBA town right now, and for good reason. It’s a fresh take on the genre that strives to waste a lot less time per match, one that smoothly integrates Pokémon and their evolution mechanics. But not all the press surrounding this title has been positive. Let’s talk about it, through the lens of my experience with the game so far.
Is Pokemon Unite Pay 2 Win?
To answer that central question… yes, obviously, but only in the sense that the phrase “pay to win” is often used these days – as hyperbole.
“Pay for an advantage” isn’t quite as succinct, but it is more accurate in this case. The bonuses from held items are generally strong, even before you level them up significantly. However, having a maxed out set absolutely gives players who paid more money an advantage, which at any level of play can be the difference between winning and losing a team fight. That is despicable, disgusting, and frankly unacceptable in 2021. And it’s the Pokémon MOBA, so get ready for a lot of literal children to scream stuff like “MOM! I NEED MORE AEOS GEMS TO BUY GARDEVOIR! AND HER HANDMAID’S TALE SKIN!!! AND GOOGLE HOW TO BUY ITEM ENHANCERS FOR ME!!!!!!!”
Also, prepare your adult self for being tempted by some of the “Holowear” Pokémon skins. God, I want Captain Cinderace so bad. And I hate them for it, for tempting me to give more money to the same company who put the ability to buy Item Enhancers into their “free to play” game. If you’re not aware, these Item Enhancers allow players to upgrade the stats on their “Held Items,” which give passive stat bonuses, shields while you’re scoring, increased Attack, better Critical Hit rates, and so on.
The business model here is so ridiculous. Allowing players to pay for an outright, built-in advantage in a competitive team game like a MOBA is absolutely disgusting, especially when it’s so hard to max out your items without shelling out cash. It’s on a level of fragrant like a Ubisoft title demanding that you give them real world money to skip the monotonous grind that they put between the player and the end of their single player game. That’s the level we’re stooping to here. I thought we had collectively moved past the ability to pay for in-game power since EA tried that nonsense with Battlefront loot boxes. Guess not.
The non-“Holowear” cosmetics are kind of lacking, as well. There isn’t exactly a lot of “drip” for the Pokémon Trainers. I do honestly enjoy looking at people’s Player Cards, though, at least when they actually set them up. I wish the Trainers were 3D models who spawned in the base, but that might not be possible with the lil baby Switch’s puny outdated hardware. I’d much rather see them bring the game to PC than mobile, personally, on a related note… it’s not that the Switch Pro Controller is bad, or anything, but MOBAs were clearly meant to be played with a keyboard and mouse. I can tell that much, even with my lifetime 20 minutes on League. Cramorant and Gardevoir, in particular, feel like characters who are significantly nerfed by having to play with two analog sticks.
Where was I? Right, Tencent. I danced around this one for as long as I could, but I must make a repentant confession. I gave them $20 too, the rotten Monopoly Man looking mofos, twirling their moustaches and stroking their Persian cats while laughing like the Joker as I pulled out my wallet.
“Yessssssss, give in to your impatience! The scheme to cut off their Gold earnings at 2100 per week was a delightfully devilish one!” hissed these villains, watching me buy Talonflame, Pikachu, and… dare I admit this as well..? fine, the skin where Machamp has a Hawai’ian lei and swim trunks. That Holoware skin actually gives me a 26% boost to my mental stat that reminds me we’re not playing Call of Duty, so I shouldn’t always hold forward to try to rack up as many kills as I can before getting murdered with a shotgun… let’s call it my “Chill” stat, or CHL in Pokémon shorthand. This is just like how purely cosmetic Valorant skins seem to give you aimbot.
I’m getting distracted again; sorry. Let’s circle back to the central question, because there is a bit more to say. Is Pokemon Unite truly “Pay to Win”? Rarely, if we take the phrase literally. My win-rate did jump a bit after putting the CHL lei on Machamp, but these Holowear skins have no actual stat bonuses. And getting every item to level 30 is not strictly necessary. You can compete at most ranks with held items that are level 10 or so, and I got a few to Level 20 without paying a dime, even getting into the game two-ish weeks after launch.
However, even if punching in your credit card numbers doesn’t instantly win you the game, it’s still an absolutely absurd business model, one that should certainly be frowned upon. I hope that Unite gets no money from people less easily swayed by fancy 3D models and new Pokémon than I, as retribution for this “Pay to Win” absurdity. I’m also still boycotting my personal Aeos Gems from being spent on Item Enhancers because YIKES. It’s hard to believe that they really went ahead and let players buy advantages over less fortunate players.
Pokémon Unite is even worse than some other “Pay to Win” models in certain aspects. For one, the time spent in menus is brutal. There is just so. Much. Menuing! To even buy the accursed Item Enhancers with the premium Aeos Gems, you have to go to the main menu, hit + to open the currency interface, then hit A to be taken to another menu where you decide to buy the number of gems you want (at least there’s a first time bonus doubling of your first purchase on the top row… though it is the row with less gems), then get taken to the Nintendo Eshop, where you finalize the purchase; then, you come back to Unite to get your new gems and then (and I can’t stress enough that this is seriously the way they make you do it) YOU MUST SPEND ALL OF YOUR AEOS TICKETS, the free currency that you spend on all sorts of things… so then, after you spend all of your tickets for no real reason, you then, in the shop menu, go to the Aeos Emporium menu, where you finally buy Item Enhancers at the rate of one per gem; then you go back to the main menu to go to OTHER MENU IN THE MAIN MENU BY HITTING X and THEN, after all of this NONSENSE, you are FINALLY ALLOWED to ENHANCE your ITEMS that do actually give interesting bonuses in battle, I admit… but you’re not just choosing which effect to have – you also must choose between spending money on in-game power or not. What a mess.
That might be the longest run-on sentence I’ve ever written. THANKS, Tencent. You guys are awesome. Four Machamp thumbs up!
That ludicrous “sentence” above is just the actual, literal, in-the-final-game process for using real money to buy an advantage in Pokémon Unite. I don’t know how little kids would even figure out that you can “pay to win” in Pokemon Unite, so there’s that, at least. A complete and utter train wreck, regardless. Success in a competitive game should come from an even playing field, where the amount you bought in with does not affect your chance of success. This isn’t a Las Vegas poker table; it’s a Pokémon game for all ages.
And the pay to win BS is far from the only I have reservation I have with Unite.
Pokémon Unite – Slaughter Innocent Baby Pokémon to Win
Anyone else hate that phase at the very beginning of every Unite Battle? I usually “jungle” when I’m in a friendly five-stack group, or when I’m allowed to by my solo queue nightmares- I mean teammates. I hate that when I Eject Button or dash into the jungle, I am then forced to murder a Lillipup like some kind of evil demon monster in order to hit level 5 by the time I’m out of the jungle.
And when I go to the top or bottom lane, I’m forced to murder innocent Aipoms. The nightmare just doesn’t stop. At least the 5-energy Aipoms hit you back. That’s what I mean when I say that Pokémon Unite is unethical whether or not it’s pay to win. It just feels messed up to punch defenseless babies until they die at the beginning of every match. Unless the fact that Pokémon can wear “Holowear” means that it’s all a hologram… like some kind of… video… game. Huh. Well, OK, maybe the only unethical thing about Pokémon Unite is that it lets you “pay to win.”
I still wish they wouldn’t force me to eat virtual baby Pokémon every game, especially if there aren’t any baby Pokémon in the actual roster. I would happily beat the stuffing out of a Riolu as revenge for all the times I’ve gotten shredded by an early Lucario gank, but I’m tired of murdering Lillipups. Could we at least let them respawn as later members of the evolutionary line – Herdier and Stoutland, of course – later in the match? I almost cried once, eating the poor pup that just runs away from me every game. It’s all too Nietzschean for me. “Ze veak exeest to feed ze stronk!” No thanks.
The Flow of the Game, and How Enhanced Items Unfairly Help
Once we get past these moral quandaries and the potential to pay for power, players have now had time to sink their teeth into a MOBA that’s very easy to learn while still retaining a decent amount of depth.
I do think that the pre-Zapdos objectives are all well done, to give credit where credit is due. A little bonus solo queue tip for you: If you have or want to lane, call Top on the Pokémon select screen and go there so that you can be at least one person who’s going to rotate down for Drednaw, the vastly more important mid-game objective. Getting an Experience gain and temporary shields that will help you get even more XP or even some points are both way more important than clearing the first top lane base… tower… uh… what do they call it? Right, Goal Zone. Rotom is mostly useful as a way to stall the other team’s rotations – those points hardly ever matter. Many coordinated groups have taken to either abandoning the top lane entirely or leaving, say, a Defender up there if they have multiple Pokémon trying to score. Having four or five Pokémon on Drednaw is much more important than scoring early points, since dunks double in value during the last two minutes of every ten-minute match. It’s much better to have an experience lead than a goal lead going into that final stretch, because Zapdos so often swings games by hundreds of points.
The game is literally called Pokémon Unite, so please unite with your team after the initial “laning phase.” Granted, when no objectives are up, you can “farm” wild Pokémon, alone, to your heart’s content. The first eight minutes are all about getting your team as many advantages as possible for the final team fight. Most games won’t be won or lost until then. Even if both of your team’s lanes get absolutely annihilated, it’s not over until it’s over, so I wouldn’t surrender until after some hundos get dunked. It’s over when Zapdos is gone and a ton of points have been dunked and the scorers are now defenders. It does feel really bad to “outplay them for the whole game” and then lose, but I think the 5v5 basketball-MOBA analogies (made stronger by the dunking mechanic in Unite and esports industry figureheads like Jeremy Lin, NBA player, DOTA 2 lover, and owner of Team J Storm) are apt here. The last two minutes make or break many championship runs, in both MOBAs and basketball. This MOBA just happens to double down on that final stretch swing-y-ness by doubling the points.
In other words, Zapdos might be a little over-tuned when combined with the double points in the Final Stretch, but you can still set yourself up with a massive advantage by squeezing out as much “farm” and Drednaw experience as possible, as well as saving your Unite Moves for that all-important final fight in the central area. It feels unbelievably awful, of course, to lose that team fight because their team has more dollars than yours and thus has more health, does more damage, and wears cooler outfits. I don’t like to decry other players in Pokémon Unite as pay to win… unless they’re doing a ton of damage while wearing one of the outfits I don’t like. It’s awful to even have to wonder whether the other players are virtually “doping” or “juicing” or whatever slang term you use for PED use in pro sports.
Running into roided-up opponents in Pokémon Unite hurts a ton because the game absolutely does have a solid gameplay loop. It just sucks to get vaporized by a Pay to Win Absol main in Pokémon Unite, with their stupid top hat and 3,000 damage crits, with their level 30 items in the Zapdos fight, while my solo queue teammates farm the jungle on our side of the map and let me get destroyed. Even then, matches are almost always exciting until they’re over. Some dark clouds hanging over the main menus, early game phases, and tutorials that don’t really go into even the most basic strategies, like rotating down for Drednaw, don’t detract too much from a great core game.
Only the pay to win stuff in Pokémon Unite really grinds my gears, and it’s grinding them very loudly. See, the early and mid-game are meant to get you as high level as possible because leveling up increases your Pokémon’s stats (just like in the mainline Pokémon series!) so that you do more damage, have more health, land more critical hits, etc. What else can increase those stats? Money, of course!
Nintendo is very stubborn about not releasing the actual numbers behind their number-based games, but it’s still safe to assume that paying to win (enhancing your items to level 30) in Pokémon Unite gives you a solid level at the very least over an opponent who hasn’t upgraded their items at all (though most people at mid and high rank will have at least level 10). Level 1 items are almost useless; level 30 items are game-changing. As I said, getting to 10 seems a solid benchmark, since it gives the extra ability from each item its middle upgrade, with 20 being a solid target to aim for as a free to play player. But even that’s not ideal, stat-wise or time-wise. I haven’t been able to find the stats for every Held Item level – I only have my personal Switch in my hand, along with level 1 and level 30 stats being in front of me on the monitor. The numbers are kind of gross, and not just because of the often-uneven numbers on my account that hasn’t bought any Item Enhancers beyond what I was given for free.
|Leftovers passive HP increase:||Lvl. 1: +16|
Lvl. 10: +80
Lvl. 30: +240
|Buddy Barrier passive HP increase:||Lvl. 1: +16|
Lvl. 20: +400
Lvl. 30: +600
|Wise Glasses Sp. Atk. increase:||Lvl. 1: +10|
Lvl. 11: +20
Lvl. 30: +39
|Muscle Band Attack increase:||Lvl. 1: +1|
Lvl. 17: +9
Lvl. 30: +15
Those are just a few examples of items with obvious stat increases. The HP increases in particular are rather obviously the difference between some won and lost fights, but those are rare. More subtle and perhaps more insidious is that maxed-out Wise Glasses can make an opposing Attacker at the same level you are just straight-up out-damage you. That can be the difference between a won or lost Drednaw, or the last hit on Zapdos, or even just small things like winning a neutral wild Pokémon. Ridiculous.
I hope that at least a few people at Tencent are ashamed of this payment model. Even if enhanced items represent a fraction of a level, that difference can make the difference between a won and lost fight, and a won or lost fight can be the difference between a won or lost match. We all supposedly start at level 1 every game, but the paying players have an invisible leg up. There are a million ways to say this, but we’ve gotten far enough down the list for me to say “screw that.” It’s screwy, with screws loose, so screw it. It’s so outrageous.
The only slight redemption is that it does lend a sense of progression to the overall experience, but that can also come from cosmetics or Battle Passes or any other unlockable. Those also leave a much less sour taste in everybody’s mouths, and only a slight rework of the system could make it infinitely more bearable. I hope Tencent’s few repentant employees make every single one of everyone’s Held Items instantly the equivalent of level 30, while also refunding everyone who ever bought Item Enhancers in full, at least in the form of getting their Aeos Gems back.
Still, in my opinion, even when keeping the pay to win debacle in mind, Pokémon Unite is the best Pokémon game in years, at least for people who aren’t children or self-proclaimed “Pokémaniacs.” Nothing wrong with liking turn-based RPGs with cute animals instead of human characters. Pokémon is popular for a reason. But I rather outgrew the series, I think, especially given how lazy Game Freak seems to have gotten. This new MOBA is a fresh take on both the IP and the genre with some delicious “flavor” – I love leveling up, evolving, and choosing which moves my Pokémon will learn much more now that it’s in real-time and in a multiplayer battle arena. PvP is also infinitely more interesting here, in my experience.
I’m very glad I got into Unite, and perhaps even more glad that I have fun groups to play with. Solo queue is about what you’d expect – a coinflip where you have just enough agency for the experience to be addicting. But the grouped-up experience, the core gameplay, the easy-to-learn but interesting-to-master learning curve… these are excellent. And it’s not so ludicrous to pay even $50 for a video game like this, even if it feels like something on the same wavelength as a queer person / ally buying from Chic Fil A or a human buying fossil fuels to spur on the current mass extinction event. Buying Item Enhancers feels deeply immoral, is what I’m saying, even if Tencent are the ones really doing wrong.
Pokémon Unite just gives me too many twinges of regret despite my continued enjoyment. First and foremost, I regret giving Tencent any money, despite how little it was and how I’ve spent it. The ability to pay for an advantage that leads to a win even once every fifty matches is ridiculous; the ability to pay for any advantage in a competitive game is just so absurd. It violates industry standards in a way that I hope does not become the norm. Valorant sells you gun skins and that’s it. Most MOBAs only let you buy cosmetics. Even gambling on most loot boxes isn’t anywhere nearly as bad as the horrific Item Enhancers.
I’m fine with characters being behind a paywall, but entire roles are now frustratingly walled off. Like, oh, you grinded to level up Attack items? Sorry, guess you can’t play Special Attackers anymore! And many items are like that, only shining on a few particular roles or even just a few particular Pokémon. If you queue into a team that locks characters in the roles for which you leveled up your only items, you’re in a very rough spot. It’s not just an advantage in stats and effects, in other words – it’s also an advantage in role flexibility, unfairly locking certain players out of being able to play the part they want to on a team because they don’t have the right items for the job. Absurd.
I encourage anyone reading this to not pay for in-game power, at least until it feels like you’re in a rank where you can’t keep up with the opposing jungler who has a million Attack because of their level 30 Muscle Band and Float Stone and does a billion damage per second because of their level 30 Scope Lens critical hits.
It’s just a very disheartening set of business practices to see in a mainstream title, and I’m afraid the only language that Tencent speaks is money. It’s right in their name. I bought some ‘mons and some a Holowear skin, but I will not buy Item Enhancers with Real World Dollar Bills. They should not get away with this burlap sack with a dollar sign on it, but they already are, Hamburglar-lookin’ thieves that they are.
Oh well. Such is life. The rich get richer. Companies will monetize more and more aspects of video games until we will eventually win or lose based on how quickly we can enter our credit card information. One individual resisting Pay to Win practices in Pokemon Unite with a “boycott” isn’t going to do much. I feel bad even admitting that I like the core gameplay of Pokémon Unite, with this horrible system in place, and feel even worse admitting that I did swipe my credit card for them. Not much to do but be honest and critical, and hope that they realize how awful the system is through a torrent of bad press. I hope pieces like this push Tencent to at the very least make some tweaks to the item enhancement process.