Interview: The Pokémon Company International's J.C. Smith on World Championships and Expanding the Brand
Posted by Jake Shapiro
Hints at a Mega Evolution for Slowking?!
During this weekend's Pokémon World Championships in Washington, DC, we were able to catch up with J.C. Smith, the Director of Consumer Marketing for the Pokémon Company International, to talk about the competitive scene, the Trading Card Game Online, and Pokémon's worldwide appeal. Whether you're here for X & Y or for the TCG, Smith has you covered.
Just to start out, JC, could you introduce yourself? I know your job title can be hard for some people to understand.
Yeah! I’m the Director of Consumer Marketing. What that means is I’m involved in all this stuff: all the events, all the set-up, organisation, the streaming, the stage presence, PR, advertising, all kinds of stuff, but right now I’m clearly focused on the PR about this great event that’s going on.
How do you think Worlds have been going so far?
Awesome. Yeah, I mean, I’ve been to six Worlds now, and for me it’s great. It’s been consistent in one thing, and that’s that the community is always here; they’re always having a good time, they’re always happy to see each other, and there’s always good gameplay going on. We just build the frame around it to let them have fun and encourage them to have a good time onstage.
How do you think it’s changed over the last few years?
I think a couple of big things. The past few years, streaming has been the big change for us. We built this great event, [and we're] really making sure that more people can see it. We want people to understand that this community is as vibrant as it is. For us it’s just awesome to be able to show it off to people who want to watch around the world and can’t get to D.C. to see it. And the commentary’s huge too. Just having people be able to talk about the strategy and kind of explain it at such a high level.
You have both the TCG and video game stuff going on. Those are two very different communities that could have two different tournaments, but you put them together as one. What would you say about the relationship between the two communities?
It’s funny. They developed separately, and now we’ve brought them together; I’m actually starting to see a lot more meshing of the community. But there’s always going to be the different fan sites, the different strategy sites that people go to based on that. But the key is they all love Pokémon, so they get along on that level. The Trading Card Game World Championships have been going on since 2004, and we just added the video game component officially, World Championship level, in 2009. So they haven’t had as much time to understand what Worlds is. But I think they get it pretty quickly when they come here and see what’s going on.
Obviously it’s a very international event, but looking at all the different countries people are from, the trading card game seems to have a much bigger worldwide following in a lot of places like Latin America. What do you think it is about the trading card game that’s able to reach a much wider global audience?
The video game is bigger in terms of access points for people just to buy and play worldwide, but the trading card game is easier to gather together with friends and play anywhere.
I think there’s a couple things going on. One, the video game is bigger in terms of access points for people just to buy and play worldwide, but the trading card game is easier to gather together with friends and play anywhere. You don’t need as much equipment, you don’t need the organizing body... I think that’s allowed for a lot of smaller pockets of people to grow and build. And we haven’t been as focused on it as a company – the video game side of it at least – until recently, so we’re helping to bring that forth, because we want more communities to get to play.
Pokémon X & Y had a big worldwide simultaneous release; it seems like Nintendo in general, and Pokémon specifically, are getting better at grasping the worldwide audience. What are you guys doing to help expand into those markets from the video game perspective?
A lot of it is just making sure that the games are done in a high quality way, they’re done seven-languages-in-one, so you buy the copy anywhere and you can play in the language you’re most comfortable with. That was a big change which we didn’t necessarily have in the past, so for that it was kind of cool. But for us it’s just continually putting people in front of it, seeing the streams, understanding what Pokémon’s all about, inviting them in, and trying to expand the event series in a way that makes sense so it maintains its quality core and fairness of the gameplay.
As far as new announcements at Worlds this year, Mega Slowbro is the big one – what happens to Slowking now?
Ah, yes. You’ll have to wait and see. Maybe there’s another announcement coming, who knows?
The other big announcement is that TCG Online is now on iPads. How is it for a Nintendo property to be on non-Nintendo platforms?
This is a beta test obviously, but we want to make sure people can have the ability to learn and play the TCG any way they want. We’ve been doing the trading card game online on PC and Mac for four years now; for us, it’s all about getting people to play and having a touch point into how to play the trading card game. We’ve always done stuff that was right for expanding that audience, so it’s nothing different than [what] we have been doing. In fact, we put out the Google Maps app that allowed people to search for Pokémon. We like to do things from a marketing standpoint that make sense to reach our audience.
That’s great! It all seems like the logical thing to do, but Nintendo is infamous for not doing that a lot of the time. You often hear about how "Nintendo’s failing right now, and they would succeed if they would just put Mario and Link on the App Store.” What lets the Pokémon TCG do what the rest of the company can’t do?
I don't know what Nintendo’s plans are for the rest of their properties, but for us it’s important for the trading card game to be accessible.
We’re doing it differently, right? They have their philosophy for their properties, and for the Pokémon brand. You can’t play the trading card game online unless you have some sort of system to use it on, so we talk about that all the time. We need to have that out there. I can’t say it’s a widespread thing; I don't know what Nintendo’s plans are for the rest of their properties, but for us it’s important for the trading card game to be accessible.
So you can’t imagine X and Y coming out on iPhones?
Oh, I have no idea. I can’t say that’s ever been talked about, but who knows.
[Note: Smith's team later clarified to us that the Trading Card Game Online is being developed internally by the Pokémon Company International, not by Nintendo]
If TCG Online becomes a big thing, is that the wave of the future? Are the physical cards going to go away and it’s just going to all be online?
I don’t think so. Part of it is what you’re seeing here: people like getting together and playing, so that’s still going to happen. Having the trading card game online allows them to play more, but our packaged product is key to that. When you buy cards at a store, you get a code card in it that you can use online. We don’t want people to have to choose one path or the other – we want them to do both. And you see a lot of the players that are out there playing both ways. They play physical cards, [but] they also play online to test out strategies, build decks, do things like that. More people [are] going online, because there’s opportunity and more places to do that, but I don’t think the physical cards are going anywhere.
When I was a kid, Pokémon was the big new phenomenon, and now for kids playing today it’s an established brand. How do you keep the popularity of Pokémon alive when it’s not the New Thing anymore? Now it’s a brand that’s been around; it may as well be Charlie Brown to these kids.
That’s an interesting question, because it’s something we talk about all the time. We do have to find that balance as marketers, because we want kids that are just coming into it to realize it’s established but it’s not exclusive. You don’t have to have been playing for 25 years to understand what’s going on. You can get in and the game will explain itself to you, then you can get into the depth that everyone’s talking about. So that’s very important for us to be able to have that accessibility. But then there’s things like we did here, with the Mega Slowbro reveal. We want something to play to the audience that’s more into the franchise and has been playing it for years and knows these characters intimately, and has their favorites that they want to see in Mega form. So we find that balance the fun part.
It’s great that in all the posters and stuff here, you see a huge range of Pokémon. You have a lot of the originals represented but then you have a lot of the new ones too.
We’ve got 700 characters, we can’t just focus on 10 all the time!
We gotta celebrate! We’ve got 700 characters, we can’t just focus on 10 all the time!
As far as the competitive scene goes, what do you think of eSports? How important is the competitive aspect of Pokémon to the Pokémon Company?
It’s definitely not something we want to shy away from. There is a community out there that’s doing it and they’re doing it year-round, so finding outlets for them to showcase that is great. I don’t know if you’d call it a typical eSport – it’s a little different vibe – but people are competing, they’re playing year-round, they’re doing something they love, and it’s a community event. It just doesn’t feel quite the same as some of those other events. So we want to showcase that and still have people understanding what Pokémon’s all about, but doing it our way and whatever makes sense for us.
What about you personally? How much do you play, both the TCG and the video game?
The video game is clearly where I’m best. The trading card game is something I’ve learned, but I’ve never gotten great at. The video game, I do better at. We have internal tournaments and I always participate.
Who are your go-to ‘mon?
Right now I’ve got a pretty stereotypical team. I’ve got Rotom Wash, Mega Kangaskhan... I’m playing around with a few other things. I had a Mega Charizard Y, I rotated that one out. I have an Aegislash I’m playin’ around with. I’ve got a team, I’m just trying to get it to gel!
We'd like to thank J.C. Smith for his time, and Phil Klugman from TriplePoint PR for arranging the interview.