Is there a more impenetrable genre than MOBAs? There are MMOs with longer histories and more arcane systems, like EVE Online or Final Fantasy 14, but the potent mix of difficult gameplay, complicated builds, and a toxic community makes MOBAs uniquely inaccessible. If you wanted to learn League of Legends, for example, you’d need to understand how 156 champions work, learn what 175 items do and how they combine, figure out the purpose and playstyle of five completely different roles, and accept that someone’s going to harass you during every match you play. LoL, Dota 2, and Smite are high-skill games that require years of practice and near-constant attention to shifts in meta in order to excel at them. Unlike a lot of other genres, it seems like most people either play MOBAs a lot, or not at all.
Plenty of MOBAs have tried to compete with LoL and Dota 2, but not a single one of them has managed to carve out a space in the genre for very long. After spending the weekend with Pokemon Unite, however, it seems like it has a legitimate chance to succeed where so many others have failed. Not because of the strength of Pokemon — though that certainly doesn’t hurt — but rather because it isn’t trying to compete with the League and Dota. Pokemon Unite’s genius is in its simplicity. It has a significantly lower skill floor than other MOBAs, yet for those who make the commitment, it clearly has plenty of depth too. Unite is a MOBA for people that don’t like MOBAs, and I think there’s a good chance it’s going to stick around.
It’s shocking how many MOBA conventions Pokemon Unite has thrown away. There’s no creeps, no consumables, and no gear to buy. Instead of attacking towers and bases, teams compete to collect points and score goals on each other. There are some similarities to the roles, but there are also huge differences too. Each Pokemon only has two abilities and one ultimate, and your choices when leveling are extremely limited. It feels like a stripped down version of LoL in some ways, but changes and minimization also feel purposeful and driven by a new approach to the MOBA genre. This isn’t just a baby version of League of Legends, Pokemon Unite’s gameplay is fully-formed and designed to serve a different kind of audience.
This isn’t the first simplified MOBA. Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm features shorter matches, team-wide leveling, and an easy-to-digest talent tree rather than a gear shop for character building. It’s certainly a more accessible game, but it ultimately failed to compete with LoL and Dota 2. The game’s esports league was shut down in December 2018, Blizzard moved most of the development team onto other projects, and there hasn’t been a new character in nearly eight months. By trying to simplify the genre, HotS failed to capture a sustainable audience of MOBA fans.
But Pokemon Unite has given me reason to reassess that narrative. Perhaps Heroes of the Storm (and other abandoned MOBAs) didn’t fail because they were too simplified, but because they didn’t go far enough. Making “League of Legends, but easier” wasn’t ever going to be enough for MOBA players when League is ultimately a more satisfying experience for those that are willing to commit to it. Pokemon Unite, on the other hand, confidently carves its own path as a brand new kind of MOBA — not just a simplified one, but one with completely different hooks and goals.
By stripping out nearly every conventional MOBA mechanic, Pokemon Unite allows players to focus exclusively on the action. Until you reach the highest levels of play, there’s no reason to concern yourself with timing, resource allocation, cooldown management, last hits, or any other skill that is essential to normal MOBAs. Instead, Unite is all about the moment-to-moment action, the teamwork, and the skill shots. These are the fundamentals of other MOBAs, but in Unite, they’re almost everything. There’s a lot of minutiae and meta to learn in other MOBAs, but Unite is practically a purely mechanical experience. Held items and tier lists will come into play as the game matures, but it's never going to become the behemoth that League is. Even if the developers continue to add new items and Pokemon for years — which I hope they do — the point of entry for the game is never going to change much, and I think that’s what will give it the best chance at success.
After playing Unite, I have to wonder if other MOBAs would have succeeded had they not tried so hard to mimic League and Dota. The DC comics game Infinite Crisis had a fantastic hook that involved multiverse versions of famous characters, but was shut down within a matter of months. The developers were clearly focused on the esports potential of the game and built the game around feedback from pro MOBA that wanted traditional three lane maps. Ultimately, by trying to be like League of Legends, Infinite Crisis failed to live up to impossible standards. If Infinite Crisis had just tried to be its own game, maybe it would still be around today.
Pokemon Unite appeals to a more casual audience than other MOBAs, but it still has plenty of depth. There are a lot of players like me that just can’t commit to a single game forever, which means that MOBAs have traditionally been unavailable to me. You can’t really dabble in League of Legends. But I feel like I can jump into Pokemon Unite whenever the mood strikes me and I’m not going to feel like a noob that’s ruining everything for my team. A MOBA that doesn’t suck your life away is a completely new kind of game as far as I’m concerned, and I’d love to see Pokemon Unite inspire a new kind of battle arena going forward.
Vi and Caitlyn are gay and nobody can change my mind.