When Pokémon Unite first dropped on Nintendo Switch back in July, there were immediately some monetization red flags for this free-to-play Pokémon MOBA. Players could spend real money to purchase upgrades for in-game items that provided drastic increases to a Pokémon's base stats. Some infamous YouTube personalities and streamers even recorded evidence of how one-sided this made matchmaking for new players. This egregious oversight by Tencent and Timi led to a wildly unbalanced launch for the game.
In the few months since Pokémon Unite's release, the development team has been actively adjusting character balance and providing a more rewarding experience for all players. Season Two dropped yesterday and brings further evidence of Timi and Tencent's commitment to shaking the negative free-to-play stigma some have associated with the game.
As someone who's been grinding this Pokémon spinoff for over 100 hours now, I'm happy to report that thanks to a few significant changes, Pokémon Unite is far less pay-to-win than it used to be. However, for the sake of new players, there's still plenty of work to be done.
The root of Pokémon Unite's pay-to-win problem
In a genuinely clever and appropriate spin for a Pokémon-themed MOBA, Pokémon Unite replaces the traditional gear system of games like League of Legends or Smite with a Held Items. These strategic items are equipped to your Pokémon ahead of battle and are designed to leverage the unique abilities for each role.
Traditionally, MOBAs offer universal upgrades that are contained within a singular match, ensuring that all players start on a level playing field. Held Items, however, can be permanently upgraded with consumable Item Enhancers. Fundamentally, this system means that players who've played more or spend more money to purchase Item Enhancers will have better stats. This controversial approach is a significant point of contention between hardcore players and vocal objectors. On the one hand, there is damage this can pose to game balance. On the other hand, this is a legitimately fun RPG mechanic not seen in MOBAs.
These relentless hurdles to genuine progress were some of my most outstanding grievances against Pokémon Unite.
Regardless of where you stand on this decision, there were huge problems with how Pokémon Unite delivered these Item Enhancers to players. Early on, it almost felt as though the game was designed to encourage dedicated players to spend money on these upgrades to compete. This ideology snowballed, and I witnessed frustrated players online discuss how they were "forced" to purchase Item Enhancers for their Held Items.
It's worth noting that even from the start, players could earn these Item Enhancers simply by completing in-game challenges or leveling up their player ranks by participating in matches. However, getting any of your Held Items to max level was an excruciating grind. Even with over 100 hours of playtime, I couldn't max out a single Held Item unless I solely dedicated all my Item Enhancers to it. These relentless hurdles to genuine progress were some of my most outstanding grievances against Pokémon Unite. From cosmetic unlocks for Pokémon or your player to Held Items, this Pokémon-themed MOBA simply didn't offer a consistently rewarding experience.
What changed with the latest Pokémon Unite update
Leading up to the launch of the second season and mobile versions of Pokémon Unite, Timi hosted a series of surveys designed to gauge player feedback and drive the game's future. While these surveys are often simplistic and pose relatively trivial questions, I was thoroughly impressed by the depth of the questionaries I participated in. One of these inquiries literally took me over 15 minutes to complete and enabled me to address some of my biggest complaints with the game entirely. It's unclear how this feedback will be implemented, but based on what I've seen so far of Season Two, the team has already made some significant changes for the better.
The first and most meaningful addition to negating Pokémon Unite's pay-to-win model are new consumables called Super Item Enhancers and Max-Grade Trial Cards. Super Item Enhancers are precious rewards that instantly raise one Held Item to max level. As part of some new seasonal challenges, players can earn up to three Super Item Enhancers by simply raising their player level by playing matches. These magnificent tokens drastically level the playing field for both new and seasoned players while simultaneously eliminating some of the egregious grinding required to upgrade Held Items fully.
Some supplemental seasonal challenges also reward players with a handful of 7-Day Max-Grade Trial Cards. Much like the Super Item Enhancers, these consumables raise one Held Item to max level for seven days. Max-Grade Trial Cards also allow players to experiment with different Held Items loadouts before committing their hard-earned Item Enhancers to permanent upgrades. Both the Super Item Enhancers and Max-Grade Trial Cards are offered to all players entirely free for completing simple in-game challenges.
Season two of Pokémon Unite also does a drastically better job of offering more challenges across the board. There are more goals to strive for, from Challenge Events to the Battle Pass, every time you play. Completing simple objectives like playing five matches as a Supporter or Attacker earns you Aeos Coins and Tickets. Compared to Pokémon Unite's tedious launch state, this is a massive improvement to the game's sense of reward and accomplishment. Your dedication to the grind now comes with a better cache of tangible benefits.
How Pokémon Unite can evolve
While Super Item Enhancers and Max-Grade Trial cards are meaningful changes that demonstrate the team's commitment to correcting their free-to-play fumbles, Pokémon Unite isn't off the hook just yet. As it stands, players inclined to shell out real money can still obtain a huge advantage over opponents by purchasing Item Enhancers. Free rewards like Super Item Enhancers and Max-Grade Trials counter some of the imbalance, but you'll still need to grind your heart out if you want to upgrade more than a handful of Held Items fully. With five distinct roles in Pokémon Unite, you simply won't be able to construct a viable build for different team compositions with a handful of Super Item Enhancers.
Understanding the fundamentals and proper team counters will be infinitely more valuable than any upgrades you can purchase in Pokémon Unite.
The most straightforward way for Timi to correct these fundamental pay-to-win complaints would be to completely eliminate the option for players to purchase Item Enhancers with real money. If it plans on keeping these permanent RPG-inspired upgrades, which it probably will, it makes sense to keep them wholly tied to playing matches and completing in-game challenges. Another interesting idea that would beautifully lend itself to this RPG approach would be a system that rewards Held Item XP upon match completion. At the very least, this possibility would offer a consistent way for players to upgrade their Held Items.
That all being said, the more I play, the more I understand how team composition and coordination are far more critical than Held Items or arguably minimal stat upgrades. Understanding the fundamentals and proper team counters will be infinitely more valuable than any upgrades you can purchase in Pokémon Unite. However, if you happen to encounter a team with a firm grasp of the mechanics of this MOBA and happen to have better Held Items than you, you're probably not going to have a great time. As long as this team stays aware of the most significant balance concerns, Pokémon Unite could become one of the best Pokémon games, but I hope the start of Season Two is only a sign of what's to come.