Musings on the future of the game

None of us can know for sure when the game will return to a semblance of what it looked like prior to the virus, but what we do know is that the game will have changed. During the month of October in metro areas, anywhere from around 15 to 50% of small businesses were closed, some temporary and unfortunately some permanent or soon to be. What this means for organized play is that stores we have come to know and love will change come 2021. Fewer stores and the implications of said reduction will not be the only thing players will have to deal with, but expectations of events will change after a year and a half of where events have been played online. Each year venues have increased costs onto tournament organizers, with those costs having been pushed unto us players in the form of entry fees at regionals – in a year and a half where hotels and event spaces have been hit hard, a lot of said venues will try and recoup that money once events start back up again. These burdens on venues, tournament organizers and players of the last year and a half will clash and there are multiple scenarios that could arise that could change the state of the game for the better… or worse.

Stores have been hit hard by the pandemic, at first with closures and in cases where they were allowed to reopen a reduction in business – this dynamic means stores will have to recoup their losses somehow and organized tournament play will likely be changed. First, let me paint a picture of how these businesses operate in relation to organized play. Retail and boutique businesses depend largely on the margins of the product they sell, not organized play itself. Organized play traditionally however has been a means of spreading word of mouth and getting foot traffic. The virus itself isn’t the only thing who has hit these stores hard, increased movements to online platforms means revenues for stores continue to shrink and the viability of brick and mortar game stores will continue to come into question. Costs need to be recouped somehow – and if a store does not have a well-integrated online market presence, the return of players in organized fashion might be seen as a way of regaining a source of not just advertisement like has historically been the case, but as a means of quick revenue just in order to survive. Entry fees in many areas will increase, causing players on the fringes to potentially skip out on giving the game a try. Store closures mean there will be less competition than previously existed and from a micro behavioral economics perspective, people are less likely to join in a market after an adverse event (the pandemic) even once it has passed – so a lack of competition should become the norm in many areas. Competition creates better experiences for players, by forcing stores to differentiate themselves by either better prices, better tournament organizers, better prizing, etc. When the airline industry saw a decrease in competition in the late 20th century, we saw a decline in the “customer experience” of flying – and we shouldn’t be surprised if in the years to come many of the local store customs we became used to will likely also disappear in an effort to survive.

So, we have established that these businesses are on shakier ground than they have ever been, so why does it matter for us as players (aside from cost)? Venues are the way that the game grows. Without places for kids to get together and learn the game, the next generation will be less likely to emerge. The average competitive player may moan about local events like league challenges, but having local events is a way of building that next generation of kids interested in Pokemon. A decline in that base now is already partly guaranteed through the social distancing we have had to do over the course on the pandemic. This doesn’t just affect the competitive scene either, as when a generation grows up the value of Pokemon cards increases in value as that generation enters the work force and nostalgia drives things. Without these venues, growth of the game should decline and Pokemon and Organized Play should be aware of this and be aware that they need to find a way to protect the future of this game.

Pokémon World Championships 2019. Photo courtesy of The Pokémon Company International. 

Future, schmuture – what about the now? A decline in venues and pandemic related changes will mean the local CP grind will also change and in ways that may not be so obvious. Competitive players may not have been fans of the league challenge/cup grind, but it is part of the system and the pandemic will cause stores to try and lean in to such local events as a way to try and regrow after the pandemic. Pokemon relies on such stores to promote the game, just like how stores rely on organized play for word of mouth, meaning Pokemon will be incentivized to try and INCREASE the focus of local events post-pandemic. We already see evidence of this in local league exclusive promos during the pandemic and the Team League tournament being organized by Organized play. Pokemon does not want to see the “local” scene collapse, which means I can not see a future where local events are neutered or removed in the foreseeable future. Less venues, also means less local tournaments. What this means is still to be seen, but in certain areas it means players will now be incentivized to become more competitive at local events in order to try and earn points as fewer such opportunities exist. The “fun” and casual atmosphere is half of what keeps local events fun, but these tournaments could very well change because of these changes.

Just because there are fewer stores, does not mean each local event will be larger either. The year and a half break will have caused a portion of players to have quit the game – as can be seen when there have been similar breaks in other sports/hobbies for other reasons. Players might soon be put in a situation where the ease of access of online tournaments will cause some to ask why bother showing up to in person events either. There is also the real risk of some people not taking the vaccine, causing some to avoid local events still willingly for a while. The player base will likely be smaller than it was pre-pandemic, which would be the first such decline in a long time. And a decline in the player base means tournament organizers may be placing misplaced hope in the resumption of organized play of card games as a means of regaining hope for their business.

Pokémon World Championships 2019. Photo courtesy of The Pokémon Company International. 

Moving away from local events, let’s look at regional and above events, because we will likely see drastic changes to these as well. Regionals in the pre-pandemic era continuously increased their prices – and again, a loss in revenue for venues and tournament organizers will be need to made up and the only way to do so will be seen via the players. It wasn’t long ago that players complained vocally online about a Jimmy Ballard regional as it was the first to break the $45 entry barrier and under that pressure Ballard reduced said entry price. But that was temporary and the year after we saw $50+ regional entry costs. It costs a lot to run a tournament and TOs have to make estimates of how many players they expect for an event. With what likely will be a reduction in players, TOs may overpay for venues and again those costs will be passed onto players in some fashion. Regionals have become more centralized in recent years as well, with fewer TOs controlling more regionals – mismatched expectations and declines in the player base may cause some TOs to exit the market (which again, a reduction in competition results in decreased player experience).

Regional events are large scale events that involve hundreds of people, but one thing we shouldn’t forget about the pandemic even once we have access to the vaccine, is that the virus will not disappear overnight – and TOs/events will need to account for this. Again, not everyone will take the vaccine even if they have access to it, which means there will be moral and legal conundrums organized play will face. What happens when someone dies or becomes deathly sick after contracting the virus at an event, in part because they didn’t take the vaccine? TOs and players alike will have to come to terms with this – especially as the current vaccine candidates all differ in terms of efficacy with % ranges of around 70 to the 90s. Safety precautions will not go away even with the vaccine. Should TOs still enforce mask rules once the vaccine is released? I think legally they may be encouraged/required to by Pokemon. Things may not change back to the pre-pandemic normal, even with the vaccine. This means venues that were used in the past, may need to be changed or may no longer be used. IE if a venue doesn’t have enough bathrooms/space to wait in line 6 feet for a bathroom, they may no longer be viable. Venue changes will also mean possible increases in cost, which again will likely be passed onto the players. In short, the venue supply chain is likely to be strained in a way that is hard to be foreseen as other conventions will try and compete for the more spacious venues as well.

PTCGO is here – and it is here to stay. Many other TCGs currently have better online experiences than Pokemon, with better and more supported online scenes than we do currently. Pokemon was late to the game in this respect and only pushed to put more focus into it because of the pandemic. In person participation may drop off, but there are people who got into the game for the first time because of this new push/promotion of its online platform. If Pokemon sees what I expect will likely be a major reduction in attendance of in person events, who is to say they won’t look at PTCGO with an even larger focus in coming years as possibly a more efficient, less costly, less risky means of promoting the game than by supporting a potentially now flailing in person organized play scene. The pandemic exposed Pokemon’s lack of support for its online platform, but this doesn’t mean its continued negligence of this will continue. The decline of in person events, may mean what we are doing now, is actually the future’s new normal.

Pokémon World Championships 2019. Photo courtesy of The Pokémon Company International. 

Traditions and sportsmanship could very well change as well, who doesn’t remember shaking hands with every new opponent you met at a tournament? Handshakes spread germs; we knew this before – but it was still the norm in many places. With people being resistant to getting vaccines, players will likely be asked to avoid shaking hands with others when events begin again. Consider this, close contact could kill someone. This is the reality we have been living through for the last year and a half. But again, not everyone will vaccinate, meaning the impetus will be on everyone including the vaccinated to still not spread the virus as even if unintentionally your actions could lead to someone’s death or long-term illness. Either way, don’t go around throwing away your hand sanitizer once events begin again.

Anyone who tells you exactly how the future is going to look is being naïve, because ultimately no one can tell what will happen exactly. But regardless, we should come to expect changes in costs, venues, and how we play once the game returns. Patience for venues, TOs, and each other will be more important ever as we will all be navigating a new future together. Organized play will deal with its new normal – and I hope this set of musings may have helped you keep an open mind about what is yet to come.