First, let’s be clear: I’m not saying that Pokken Tournament is dead. What I am saying is that the omission of Pokken from The Pokémon Company’s official announcements about the 2017 circuit does not bode well for the competitive scene’s longevity. Pokken’s esports trajectory over the past several months has not exactly been impressive, especially considering the advantages it initially enjoyed.
Remember: Pokken got off to a fantastic start. As the first Pokémon-themed 3D fighting game, it had plenty of originality and hype on its side. A month after launch, it was outselling Street Fighter V in US retail. It locked down a bright green 76 on the review-aggregating site Metacritic, plus an even stronger User Rating of 8.1. The developers even shelled out $100,000 in prizes for the first competitive circuit, placing Pokken within 2016’s top 25 esports in terms of prize money awarded.
Nobody seems to watch it.
Despite all these advantages, Pokken suffers from one small but ultimately all-important problem: nobody seems to watch it. At the moment I’m writing this sentence, there are exactly zero Pokken streams on Twitch.tv. The Pokken subreddit has 6,000 subscribers, which makes it 3% the size of r/RocketLeague and 1% the size of r/Overwatch. And when Pokken was featured at EVO 2016, the premiere fighting game tournament of the year, it pulled fewer viewers than any of the other eight games, maxing out at a comparatively paltry 24,000. (Super Smash Bros. Melee broke 219,000.)
Whether Pokken deserves obscurity is not a question I’m equipped to answer. From my vantage point as an ignorant spectator, I find its gameplay a bit slow and repetitive, at least compared to alternatives like Melee. But people are allowed to like whatever they want, and those who like Pokken have a perfectly valid right to play, watch, and compete in it. I don’t want to be a downer and call the scene dead when it’s possible that announcements of a 2017 circuit are still forthcoming. But there is an economic truth I’d like to get across, which is as follows: if a game struggles to crest 25,000 viewers, it’s hard to imagine its developer continuing to pony up $100,000 in prize money every year. Sorry, viewers: you’re not worth four bucks each.
If Pokken builds market share, it probably won’t be from soliciting esports newcomers.
In the end, what may have doomed Pokken as a mainstream esport was simple old-fashioned natural selection. Look again at the list of esports awarding prize money in 2016—there are at least 19 other games with triple-digit prize pools. The overall esports audience might be growing faster than ever before, but it’s still finite. You can argue that it’s not a zero sum game—e.g., Melee and Pokken don’t typically run opposite each other, so they’re not really competing—but as saturated as the esports world has become, there’s hardly ever a shortage of alternatives. If Pokken builds market share, it probably won’t be from soliciting esports newcomers. Any new eyeballs that tune in to watch Pikachu and Charizard clobber each other will have to be torn away from League of Legends, Dota 2, Overwatch, and all the rest.