The launch of season 1 of the Go Battle League in “Pokemon Go” should be a cause for celebration. The feature, which comes out Friday, finally brings a competitive online player-vs.-player mode to the masses more than a year after head-to-head matches were introduced.
That should be one of the highlights of a busy week for Niantic, but that has been overshadowed by the coronavirus. The COVID-19 outbreak has put “Pokemon Go” events in peril. The San Francisco-based studio has already postponed the Safari Zone in St. Louis and it has canceled Raid Day events in Japan, South Korea and Italy. It’s obvious that the pandemic presents a short-term challenge to the viability of the game. Because “Pokemon Go” uses real-life locations and relies on trainers playing outside and socializing, the coronavirus poses an existential threat to the game itself. If players engage with “Pokemon Go,” they put themselves at risk of being infected or infecting others if they’re already sick.
The dangers of exacerbating the situation is forcing some “Pokemon Go” communities to refrain from officially organizing raids. In the East Bay, the Pokemon Go Bay Area Raids group has stopped the practice and some members who are also doctors recommended refraining from Abra Community Day this weekend. (Full disclosure: I’m part of the Discord and help pin raids.) I’ve talked with other Discords to see how they’re handling the situation and they all seem concerned about holding events such as tournaments. *UPDATE* DTC, a Pokemon Go Discord in Chicago, announced that it is canceling its March Mega Cup because of COVID-19.
It’s hard to justify playing the game when organizations such as the NBA have postponed their seasons and the NCAA is saying that March Madness games will be played without fans. Around the Bay Area, officials have banned gatherings of 1,000 people or more. For “Pokemon Go” to still be viable amid this pandemic, Niantic should cancel all events, alter the mechanics or emphasis of the game, or do all three for next few months.
That could begin coincidentally enough with Go Battle League. Niantic could make it free and unlimited for trainers while also capping rewards after a certain number of matches. Currently, players have access to one battle pass that lets trainers fight five matches and garner rewards. Afterward, they have to walk three kilometers before they can access that feature again. The fact that Go Battle League can be played anywhere even when isolated will let players still be involved with the game if they can’t go outside. It can even hook players onto PvP. The combat system has more strategy and skill than one would expect. Giving players unlimited access could keep “Pokemon Go” going as players weather COVID-19.
Another change Niantic can make is to take down three-, four- and five-star raids. They could put different types of Pokemon in lower-level raids that can be soloed. Higher-tier raids brings players together, which is great in normal times, but during a pandemmic when players should be practicing social distancing, it is hazardous. Being able to go to a nearby gym, do a raid and finish it off alone is much safer than getting together for a raid train doing several in a series and meeting others along the way.
A third solution could be expanding the spread and density of Pokemon spawns so that players don’t need to travel far. If players can catch Pokemon at home — the ideal scenario — that would be great but not everyone lives next to a gym or Pokestop. Temporarily, treating certain times of days as a three-hour long spotlight hours could keep players happy if they’re in self-quarantine.
I’m sure there are other possibilities, but what Niantic can’t do is sit idly by and let their player base handle this on their own. I’ve seen how one group will be fine with the cautious approach, but there’ll always be a certain segment who doesn’t take the situation seriously. They may think that a game is more important than the danger they put themselves and others. These are the people who will keep on raiding even if they’re sick, trying to get that shiny Cressalia or perfect Giratina for PvP, and they’ll unintentionally spread COVID-19 to others.
*UPDATE*:Niantic responded to my request for comment. The company has already postponed Abra Community Day and Niantic is making some fundamental changes to the game. The company said the following:
1. We’re offering a +99% discount on Incense packs, which when activated, attracts Pokémon to a Trainer. It will also last one hour.
2. Incubators will now be 2x effective so that Trainers can hatch Eggs twice as fast.
3. PokéStops will now drop Gifts more frequently so Trainers can collect them faster and send to friends.
4. We are increasing Pokémon habitats around the world so that Trainers can see even more Pokémon nearby allowing Trainers to play closer to home.
The “Pokemon Go” makers also said, it will continue “to monitor the situation” and though it won’t hold Community Day, the developer is looking for a way to celebrate Abra on March 15. Expect updates on their channels.
Finally, Niantic said the decisions were made “based on the current global health situation,” but the company also said it encourages “players to make decisions on where to go and what to do that are in the best interest of their health and the health of their communities.”