Pokemon has evolved.
And, figuratively, so have the people who play the game religiously.
The video game/anime/trading card game series, founded in 1996, is going strong 20 years later, finding popularity among children and adults.
Pokemon fans say it is surging in popularity in a society where tech executives are as much public figures as major athletes.
And it’s big business.
The Pokemon Co. recently announced it sold $2.1 billion of licensed merchandise in 2015, according to a report in License Global magazine, and the series is poised for even more popularity as new games debut later in 2016.
“Pokemon is probably one of the most bizarre game phenomenons I’ve ever seen,” said Davis Sickmon, a local game developer. “I would have never expected to see it grow in that way.”
What is Pokemon?
In essence, the Pokemon games of 2016 are much the same as the Pokemon games of 1996.
Pokemon began as a Japanese video game in which players caught, trained and assembled teams of battling Pokemon – digital creatures – in an effort to become “the very best, like no one ever was.”
The popularity of the video games spawned an anime that has been on television for almost two decades, and animated films that, at the height of Pokemon’s popularity, played in major movie theaters across the country (including at Wichita’s Northrock 6).
Then came the onslaught of branded merchandise, which included stuffed animals, board games, clothing and a slew of other officially licensed merchandise.
A quick search on Etsy yields hundreds of fan-made Pokemon gifts as well.
The kids who grew up playing the original Pokemon games, watching the anime series and collecting the trading cards have grown up. Yet many of them are still deeply invested in Pokemon, as even more children grow up on the newer games.
“Pokemon understands its target audience is still people our age,” said 24-year-old Pancho Fields.
Fields, a Newton native, is working toward a doctorate in biology at the University of Notre Dame. He’s been a Pokemon fan since he was a kid.
Pokemon “is kind of like a story of growing up … and having control of our own lives,” Fields said. “Since Pokemon was something we were able to connect with when we were younger, it’s easier to come back and connect with it again. It’s a weird cycle.”
Rebekah Valentine, a local video-game writer, said the franchise now markets itself not just at kids but also at adults.
“A lot of their advertising this year has been really nostalgia-focused,” Valentine said, noting that 2016 is Pokemon’s 20th anniversary.
An advertisement for Pokemon even occupied a coveted slot during the Super Bowl this year.
Sickmon, the game developer, said that increased marketing has made playing video games like Pokemon more mainstream.
“Part of the evolution was the marketing behind it, rather than a generational shift,” he said. “As more money is made on video games, more time is spent on marketing.”
Nintendo announced new games in the series in February – “Pokemon Sun” and “Pokemon Moon” – and gamers are awaiting their release later this year.
The company also announced a Pokemon game for mobile devices, “Pokemon Go” – a new concept for Nintendo, which is known for its handheld systems.
“Pokemon Go” is expected to turn real life into a sort of Pokemon world – it’s a GPS-enabled app that lets you virtually encounter and catch Pokemon as you travel to different places.
Your iPhone or Android will alert you when there is a Pokemon nearby, and you can try to catch it by entering a code in your phone.
Nintendo is planning to host events for people to trade their Pokemon and build their collections.
No longer is playing Pokemon a solitary activity.
In order to thrive in the series’ new games, including “Pokemon Go,” being social is as key as assembling a balanced Pokemon team, Valentine said.
“They’re focusing so much on connecting with other people,” she said. “Especially since (‘Pokemon) Black’ and (‘Pokemon) White,’ the themes in the game have been all about connecting with your friends, connecting with people in different cultures, connecting with your family.”
The stereotypical “gamer sitting around in his mom’s basement” is dead. Or, at least, pretty much, Sickmon said.
“The chance to get out and be face-to-face social is rather cool, but it’s not a brand-new idea,” Sickmon said. “Look at the original Pokemon games, where you could direct link (between Game Boy systems). It wasn’t new but it was a little more exclusive.”
The popularity of Pokemon is perhaps telling of a relatively recent shift in culture in the United States.
Decades ago, it might have been considered taboo for adults to openly consume media intended for children.
As millennials have transitioned into traditional adulthood, they have retained things like Pokemon. In most cases, people will openly admit they play the game and sometimes will attend in-person conventions or swap meets at GameStop locations and local venues like Hero Complex or Wizards Asylum.
Gamers like Sickmon are quick to point out, though, that video games were not always considered a child’s pursuit – quite the opposite, he said. In the 1970s and ’80s, he said, playing Atari was largely considered entertainment for adults.
“We’re now on our third generation of people who grew up with video games,” Sickmon said. “It’s now fully ingrained into our culture.”
Fields said most millennials can talk about Pokemon publicly and “there’s not judgment – there seems to be more understanding.”
“It’s weird, but it gives us a way to connect with our kids and the new generation of Pokemon players that will be coming about, because we have that shared experience,” Fields said. “They’re going to know what Pikachu is and you’ll still know what Pikachu is. You’re growing up together and it’s becoming a shared experience.”