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Pokémon Unite: How The Pokémon Company has tackled the argument of a pay-to-win MOBA

Do players of this MOBA title need to spend real money to win in the game?

Since its debut on Android and iOS, Pokémon Unite has steadily climbed the ranks among other games of the MOBA genre. It has since then received immense popularity from fans of both the franchise and the MOBA genre due to its gentle learning curve and unorthodox gameplay, making it one of the most popular games of the MOBA genre to date. However, the debate of whether Pokémon Unite is pay-to-win still stands strong among the players since the game’s first release on July 21, when it was announced for Nintendo Switch.

The debate has caused a rift between the players dividing them into those who believe that the game is pay-to-win and those who do not. After careful analysis of the game and all its aspects, we have come to the conclusion that while the game does have a pay-to-win model, spending real money to get those extra boosts does not guarantee a victory. This article will explain in-depth why Pokémon Unite is not pay-to-win.

What is a pay-to-win game

The phrase “pay-to-win” is self-explanatory where players are given the opportunity to spend real money to gain an in-game advantage. As mentioned earlier, there’s no doubt that Pokémon Unite has a pay-to-win model, one of the reasons being that the game’s business model relies partially on players willing to spend money.

Pokémon Unite Currency Guide
Aeos Gems

But here’s where it gets interesting: the game does not fully meet the pay-to-win spirit because all of the in-game currencies which are required for purchasing Pokémon, purchasing, and upgrading held items can be obtained by completing a variety of missions, events, and simply by grinding.

Why Pokémon Unite was considered as a pay-to-win game

The biggest issue where the pay-to-win part of the equation comes in is the Item Enhancers. Item enhancers are one of the many currencies in the game. They are in-game tokens required to boost held items giving players an extra in-game advantage. Each Pokémon can have three Held Items equipped to it at the same time, which they can bring into each match to gain passive boosts. 

The items grant players persistent boosts to health, defense, and attack. It can be leveled up by item enhancers that are purchasable with real money. They can be boosted up to level 30, maxing them out with the highest advantage that each item can provide. These can all be obtained with currency earned through regular play, but the issue boils down to the ability to upgrade them with the Item Enhancer currency.

Leveling up till level 20 is relatively easy but after level 20 is when it gets difficult to level up the items. The item enhancers required to level up for every 10 levels are as follows:

LevelsItem Enhancers required
1082
20567
302587

The climb from level 21 to 30 requires more than 2,000 item enhancers, requiring players to buy the bigger gem packs that run anywhere from $40 to $100 to have maximum advantage on one item. 

Here’s why Pokémon Unite is not a pay-to-win game anymore

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. The arrival of a multitude of free rewards in this season’s pass is further evidence of TiMi and Tencent’s commitment to shaking the negative pay-to-win stigma that is associated with the game.

While Pokémon Unite felt exceedingly pay-to-win when it was first released in Switch, on the release of the game on mobile devices and the launch of the second season in Pokémon Unite, TiMi hosted a series of surveys designed to receive player feedback to drive the game’s future. On my part, I was thoroughly impressed by the depth of the questionnaire which took me over 15 minutes to complete and enabled me to address the issues and problems I had commonly faced while playing the game.

The first and the most beneficial addition to the game to negate the pay-to-win model of the game is the introduction of new consumables called Super Item Enhancers and Max-Grade trial cards. Super Item Enhancers are invaluable rewards that permanently max out one item instantly. They can be acquired as part of in-game events and players can earn up to three Super Item Enhancers by completing missions. These tokens have drastically leveled the playing field for both new and seasoned players while simultaneously eliminating some of the grinding required to upgrade held items fully.

Super Held Item Enhancer Missions

In addition to Super Item Enhancers, the introduction of Max-Grade Trial Cards has also served as a valuable addition leading up to the developers negating the pay-to-win aspect of the game. Max-Grade trial cards allow players to experiment with different items allowing them to max out held items for 7 days before deciding to spend their hard-earned item enhancers to permanently upgrade the items. Both Super Item Enhancers are Max-Grade trial cards that are offered to players entirely free as rewards for completing some simple in-game missions.

Season Two of the Battle Pass also comes with a lot more goals and rewards to strive for, letting players earn Aeos Coins and tickets by completing simple objectives. Even if players haven’t purchased the Battle Pass, the free version still offers plenty of rewards that allow players to max out their held items. This is a massive improvement to the game’s sense of reward and accomplishment along with tackling the stigma around Pokémon Unite’s pay-to-win model.

Players can also earn a number of Aeos Tickets and item enhancers as a part of leveling up. These rewards negate the pay-to-win aspect of the game immensely because players can get roughly 2 items to level with level 10 once they hit level 18 and above, assuming they previously have zeroed out their item enhancers.

Trainer Level up has Item Enhancers as rewards

In addition, players get an insane amount of Item Enhancers and Aeos Tickets from various other in-game events and missions which they can acquire as rewards for completing certain objectives and missions.

Pokémon Unite pay-to-win
Held Item Enhancement Support Missions

Players can also purchase item enhancers from the in-game shop using Aeos tickets which are acquired simply by leveling up and by completing a variety of missions and objectives including getting them for free as seasonal rewards even if players have not purchased the Battle Pass. 

Pokémon Unite pay-to-win
Aeos Tickets can be exchanged for Item Enhancers

But, the main point to be focused on here is that leveling up all three held items to level 30 only amounts to a 3% extra advantage. It has already been established that players can easily level up their held items to level 20 without spending a dime due to the rewards being offered by a variety of in-game events, missions, and objectives. This leaves a 1% advantage that players with level 30 held items will have over players with level 20, which is actually not a lot.

On our part, we have spent roughly 200 hours in the game and have upgraded about 4 items to level 30 and a good majority to level 20 and above without spending a single cent on item enhancers. Not only that, the game does not simply revolve around having that extra 3% advantage. There are a number of other factors that come into play in securing the victory like teamwork, good team composition, and team synergy.

Even after maxing out my items, the buff on my Pokémon was not enough and me and my team got absolutely demolished despite having had 3 fully upgraded items. On my part, I feel confident in saying that the small star bonuses conferred by these items are no match whatsoever against a coordinated, objective-based team. Players’ ability to stay alive increases by 3% more than usual. This means nothing if they’re not scoring or if they’re up against a counter-pick that has specific tools to thoroughly demolish them. 

Final thoughts

While thoroughly disagreeing with monetization, it is my own belief that TiMi and Tencent have worked considerably well to tackle the stigma of Pokémon Unite being pay-to-win. While players can speed up the process by spending real money to purchase item enhancers, a good grind of about 20 hours for players who do not wish to spend real money can easily get them the same advantage as players who have spent real money.

Regardless, as mentioned earlier, item enhancers only amount to 3% of an advantage over other players, and someone who’s not skilled but has maxed out items can still lose against someone who’s skilled and hasn’t maxed out their items and this is what competitive play is really all about. I would suggest players not let this minute factor stop them from performing their best because, with good team coordination and strategy, victory can still be theirs even if they have chosen not to spend real money in the game.

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Abeer Qureshi

Abeer "MADCAT" Qureshi has been a die-hard gamer ever since the era of old school gaming, dating back to the first Playstation, Nintendo and the hype around Pentium systems. Her journey in the Gaming Industry started from the days of Virtua Cops & Vice City on PC, Tekken & Resident Evil on the PS, to League of Legends & PUBG on mobile and it has been exhilarating. Aside from the passion of gaming, she's a professional teacher and an amazing cook. She'll be sharing in-depth insights on League of Legends: Wild Rift.
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