Pokémon Interview with J.C. Smith

by Aaron Kaluszka - May 31, 2010, 12:03 am PDT

We talk with Pokémon's spokesperson about the franchise, tournaments, and phenomenon that is Pokémon.

The 2010 Pokémon Video Game Regional Championships are underway. During the San Francisco tournament, we had a chance to sit down with J.C. Smith, Director of Marketing for The Pokémon Company.

Nintendo World Report (NWR): Can you describe the relationship between Nintendo and The Pokémon Company?

J.C. Smith (JCS): We're actually a separate company. The Pokémon Company was started by Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures to manage the brand. So, while Nintendo has a stake in Pokémon, we're run independently from them. So, we have a separate office. We work very closely with them, but our office is in Bellevue, which is down the road from them.

NWR: Have you been to Nintendo’s new building?

JCS: I actually haven't even been to the new office; a bunch of my coworkers have, but I haven't been to it yet. It sounds amazing. My boss came back and he was like, "It's unbelievable!" We both worked there. I was at Nintendo from 2000 to 2007, so we remember the old warehouse that was turned into an office, and now it's white, with plants everywhere. It just sounds like such a nicer work environment.

NWR: Getting back to Pokémon, how does the tournament this year compare with previous ones?

JCS: Last year we had a great, great tournament structure. We had a similar number of events, but one of the major changes we made this year was to allow everyone to play, basically first come, first serve. We want to make sure that we can get as many people in to have a great time battling as possible. We've had great turnouts this year already. Seattle's the only event we've had so far. Seattle had 208 Juniors and 439 Seniors battling. We had 2,000 people in the entire event. This is going to be well up there as well. We had 209 Juniors already this morning, and this line is looking pretty robust, so I'm expecting a great turnout. We're really excited just to give people all a chance to play. Last year we did a lottery because we weren't sure how many people were going to be able to get to play, and this time we decided, "You know what? Let’s make this happen. Let’s make sure everybody has a chance to battle."

NWR: Are you seeing any difference in the caliber of players?

JCS: Actually, that will probably be best illustrated at Worlds, because the cream of the crop from each location is going to have to follow a more difficult path. I think once we get to Nationals and Worlds, we'll be able to really tell if battling more of the best is going to allow for a more competitive environment. We did pretty well last year at Worlds. Europe didn't fare very well, but it was a pretty even split. There was a Japanese winner and a US winner in the Juniors. We'll see. It's going to be fun.

NWR: As you mentioned, there seems to be a lot more of the older participants this year. Is that generally the case?

JCS: It's generally the case only because the older participants can drive themselves. (laughter) I think there are a ton of kids out there who couldn't get mom and dad to drive them to the event. We try to have enough of them that there’s a way for them to get there, but it's difficult for a seven-year-old to say, "I don't want to play soccer today, I want to come to this for this weekend," and get their parents to say OK. We would love to see more and more Juniors, there's just a general limitation by transportation.

NWR: Can you talk a bit about how Pokémon has risen in the US in general?

JCS: Pokémon has been an amazing, amazing situation in the US. We've been around since 1998. It was '96 in Japan, '98 here. The brand has maintained. We had this pinnacle that everyone remembers and talks about, but the brand is still huge. I'm told it's the second biggest franchise behind Mario. Putting that in perspective, it has really made a name for itself in the video game space, and it's also in the trading card game space. We've got 14 seasons of animation. We've got 12 movies. It's amazing how people have found something in Pokémon that they love, and new generations of kids just keep coming back into it. To me that's very encouraging that there's something at the core of Pokémon that just appeals to people, and if I could put my finger on it, I'd be making millions. It’s great; I love seeing it.

NWR: What aspects of the franchise are you responsible for as Pokémon USA?

JCS: Officially, our name is now The Pokémon Company International. We are responsible for pretty much everything brand-management wise. We handle basically everything out of our office regarding licensing of the properties. We work on all the television deals. We do all the marketing production of the trading card game. For video games we do the localization, we do the web sites, and then Nintendo markets and distributes them. So they are heavily involved, obviously; we work in tandem on that piece.

David Welch (PR): You guys do the tournaments alone, right?

JCS: Yeah. This tournament structure is something that The Pokémon Company International is driving. Nintendo helps us; they're giving us all kinds of equipment, but this is something we thought was important to keep everyone engaged with the brand even after a launch. It's not just something we're only doing at launches. We're going to keep doing this because we think it's important to have a nice competitive environment for those competitive players to enjoy.

So yeah, our office is pretty well-rounded. We have business side of things, and we do all the coordination with the London office, which is handling Europe in the same way. It's a lot of work. We make sure things are rolled out and information is shared with everyone because we have a very tight link with Game Freak, the developer, and Creatures, the card developer. We've basically got our hands in everything Pokémon and keep things moving.

NWR: Can you talk a bit about how Pokémon has affected Europe, and other territories?

JCS: Pokémon is just as strong there as it is here. It's an amazing, worldwide phenomenon which, for me, is the really fun piece of it. We run these tournaments also in Europe, so we have four of those coming up, starting on the 29th [of May] in the UK. Just going to these events and seeing kids speaking French, talking about Pokémon, and going to Japan, and you see Japanese kids playing it and loving it, and then you see them all together at Worlds, to me it's just like, "Whoa. I'm a part of something that's pretty cool." For me, it's rewarding to see something that strikes a chord with kids internationally. It's not just an American thing or a Japanese thing, kids just love it. And adults. - I mean, look at this line. (laughs) We've got 500 people in line here. - Europe is another hot spot for us, absolutely.

NWR: Now that it's entering its fifth generation, do you have any ideas of how Pokémon has been kept relevant?

JCS: (laughs) I have nothing I can talk about for the future other than what's been announced in Japan, and you guys can find what you may there. I think keeping it relevant has always been just keeping new Pokémon that are applicable to people, evolving the battle systems to make them more interesting and make them more fair, working out the glitches, so that if there’s something that people think is unfair in one version, they’ll fix it in the next. They've always focused on community, improving that aspect. Last generation they did Global Trade Station, which allowed people to trade across the world. There's just been a focus on bringing people together. The Pokéwalker is another great example, being able to link up with people, have your Pokémon battle each other, and then get items from that. For me, it's a fun way to bring the community together.

NWR: Pokémon seems to be very popular for tournament gaming. Does a lot of planning go into development for that purpose?

JCS: Definitely. One of the cores of Pokémon is battling. You battle all throughout the game, and having a way for players to battle each other – we're always focused on that. The developers at Game Freak battle all the time. They're dialed into this. They compete, they go to the events to see how things are going, they want to get feedback, they're definitely aware of the environment there, and they're always trying to evolve it, make it more fun and more challenging for players.

NWR: Do the sheer number of Pokémon cause any difficulties?

JCS: (laughs) It's funny, when a newbie comes on to the company, they're kind of overwhelmed, like "Whoa, I don't know if I'll ever learn these names." It's amazing how quickly you start picking them out. Even if you don't play, you're seeing it enough, you're hearing people talk about it enough. These names just start flying at you. It’s really cool, actually. But it's certainly a steep learning curve for someone who hasn't been involved in the franchise to get into it, but once you get in there, you're golden. The Pokémon aren't going to change; you just have to learn the new ones when they come out.

NWR: Can you name some of the most popular Pokémon at your company?

JCS: Oh, wow. Everyone loves the Munchlax. Everyone loves the Snorlax, because it's a funny, big, fat, lazy creature. There's a girl at our office who has a bunch of Murkrow all around. Eevee is extremely popular. One my coworkers has Eevee memorabilia from all over the place that people give to her. Obviously, Pikachus are all over the place. We have a conference room called "Mew," we have a "Munchlax," a "Pikachu," and we have a "Meowth" currently, and then we have a couple more being built. We’re steeped in it. We’re surrounded by it. Those are some of the favorites I can think of.

Thanks to J.C. Smith and David Welch for the interview! Discuss it in Talkback!

Interview conducted by Aaron Kaluszka and transcribed by Dan Wasielewski.

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