Back in the real world, the younger generation wants to be famous on YouTube when they grow up instead of astronauts. More and more, kids are looking up to streamers and esports heroes, or dreaming of going pro themselves. Sword and Shield are windows into that world: You’re an athlete at the top of your game, but you’re also saddled with all the attendant stress and uncertainty.
Game Freak itself has stated that examining sports culture was the team’s intent.
“In the UK, which serves as the inspiration for [Sword and Shield’s setting] the Galar region, sports like soccer and rugby are very popular and players compete to become the very best and lead their team to winning championships,” said game director Shigeru Ohmori in an interview on Pokémon’s official website. “This kind of sports journey is also a very popular genre in Japanese manga and anime, and we’re taking a similar approach with the story for these games.”
Sword and Shield have similarities to traditional sports, but it expands to esports, too, especially because of the young age group that defines Pokémon trainers: It’s a world that puts child athletes on a pedestal. And along with that spotlight can come pressure, stress and toxicity.
For real-life Pokémon competitors Aaron Zheng and Wolfe Glick, the game reflects their own esports journeys in several ways. Zheng, who began competing at 10 years old, and Glick who started as a freshman in high school, have both found huge success in Pokémon tournaments. Glick won the Pokémon World Championships in 2016, and Zheng has won numerous regional and national championships. Having both played Sword, they connected to its themes of esports culture.
“I think this game is kind of unique because in the previous games, they always have like the Elite Four [the four rivals you normally have to beat], which has been a staple in the games," Zheng said. "But in this game, it was a little bit different where it’s a tournament. And it reminded me a lot of the [Pokémon] World Championships, where they call it the semifinals, and then the finals, and then you go up against the champion. And that was really cool.”
For Glick, it wasn’t just themes and narrative that paralleled his real-life experience of playing Pokémon competitively. It was also meaningful to him that Game Freak put more emphasis on mechanics and items that are significant for competitive play. Combining all these elements, he said, feels like a perfect unison.
“Something I thought was really, really, really cool about these games is that for a really long time, Pokémon never really acknowledged the competitive scene [in-game]," Glick said. "Pokémon would never make any allusions to that. It just felt like it really wasn’t a priority; that Pokémon was for the main game and the competitive scene was an afterthought. But this was the first game for me that felt very different in a lot of ways.”
In Sword and Shield, the player is made to feel like a star not just through your accomplishments, but in how the world treats you. With each battle you win, your fame grows astronomically. You stay in swanky hotels, go to extravagant dinners with the chairman of the league and get interviewed about your stardom from reporters who aim TV cameras at your face. Your fans, many of them children themselves, debate and criticize your strategies as you walk past, or tell you that they want to be just like you one day. This all begins, however, to feel like an insular world: Everywhere you turn, characters are talking about you, the championship and who they want to see triumph. That insular feeling can feel suffocating.
You’re a kid. Your character doesn’t have much of a voice — literally — outside of the rare moments where you can choose a line of dialogue. This adds to the feeling that you don’t have a choice or a say in whether you actually want to be a Pokémon master at all. It doesn’t matter. It’s expected of you.
And your pursuit can leave you feeling isolated. Your best friend Hop, for example, consistently puts your friendship second and the championship first. As the story progresses, Hop’s wavering self-esteem turns into more of a nervous breakdown. He is, after all, in the same predicament, and his brother is a Pokémon champion. It’s in his blood. If he isn’t the very best trainer, then what is he? Who is he?
Mental health problems have become prevalent in esports. In 2018, Justin “Plup” McGrath had a panic attack in front of millions. He came in third place in a Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament at the Evolution Championship Series, the world’s biggest fighting game tournament. Afterward, McGrath took to Twitter to explain that he had experienced his first-ever panic attack and candidly said that his anxiety had him worried about future tournament appearances.
Top esports players are no strangers to long hours beyond a standard 9-5 workweek. Given the high-stakes pressure to perform, many burn out in their 20s.
Zheng is working on his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, and Glick is a full-time consultant, so they both compete in Pokémon on a part-time basis and as a hobby. But even without the same intensity that pro players in esports leagues experience, Zheng and Glick say mental health and balance are a necessity. And it’s not always easy, especially when they both have large followings (Zheng has 74,000 subscribers on YouTube, and Glick has 69,000).
“I think Wolfe and I have been playing for a very long time, and we’ve absolutely felt either burnt out or pressure, because I think as two of the more public figures in the community, you know, whenever you do well, it’s celebrated by a lot of people,” Zheng said. “And the more in the public eye you are, the more often you’re criticized, the more people talk about your performances. That can be kind of rough.”
Because of burnout, Zheng transitioned out of competing in recent years and into casting for the Pokémon Company International.
“I’d gone to a bunch of international events and I really didn’t do very well,” he said. “And that kind of led me to reevaluate everything. I asked myself why I was competing, and what my priorities were.”
Sword and Shield don’t exactly delve into mental health in an in-depth manner, but it’s subtly touched upon. Halfway through the game, Hop has a breakdown and feels inadequate because his skills aren’t where he wants them to be. His character arc never fully resolves these issues, which is a shame, but it’s fascinating to see a series that’s generally been apolitical touch upon the subject at all.
“It’s crazy, the mental pressure you have to deal with, not only when you’re playing, but from all the fans and all the criticism that you get as well," Zheng said. "So it absolutely exists in our scene as well, even though it’s a little bit smaller. I think just the pressure of wanting to do well yourself is already enough.”
Being in the spotlight can be polarizing and add complications, especially when a fan base resorts to harmful behavior. Sword and Shield’s story has a version of a toxic fan base called Team Yell. Team Yell’s attempts to stop you are childish and, at worst, frustrating, but it has a similar anatomy of an Internet mob. Its members see their favorite trainer, Marnie, as an untouchable luminary. Their admiration twists into overzealous obsession: From their point of view, she’s the justification for their wrongdoing, and she herself can do no wrong.
Internet toxicity can have serious ramifications. When Toronto-based culture writer Wanna Thompson criticized Nicki Minaj’s music on Twitter last year, for example, she was harassed by an army of superfans who insulted, degraded and threatened her on various platforms. Of course, we don’t see anything nearly as drastic in Sword and Shield. It’s a Pokémon game, after all, but it has fascinating themes relating to the topic.
Glick has faced similar harassment depending on his performance in competitions.
“Our community can be really critical, because Pokémon is a game where someone can win and maybe it’s not as always clear like how high their skill is,” Glick said. “There’s a lot of just general bitterness within the community. There’s a lot of mockery and a lot of trying to tear other people down. So that in particular is taking a toll on me recently because I’ve been the subject of some of that."
Sword and Shield’s themes of sports culture and Internet toxicity bring a welcome change of pace to the story and overall feel of the game, and while they’re not deep enough to truly be a statement, the fact that they exist sparks excitement for the series’s future.
“I love the game,” Glick said. “I think this is the most fun I’ve had playing through a Pokémon game just casually in a long time. It might be my favorite one ever, honestly."
Nearing the end of my play-through of Shield, I entered the final gym and thought about the culmination of these themes: Team Yell’s toxicity and what it means for Marnie, Hop’s breakdown and what his future would hold, and the pressure facing my own character as a child athlete. I was going to make it. I was going to be the very best. But I couldn’t overlook all my character had endured to reach the top. As Glick and Zheng know, the costs of the climb are very real.