This story was originally published June 2014.
Pokémon is a series about friendship, competition and jamming fearsome creatures into tiny little balls.
It's a quirky, lovable franchise that over the last 18 years or so has won the hearts — and wallets — of millions worldwide. The brand makes up a highly watched kids show, more than a dozen animated films, a trading card game, merchandise and a video game series that continues to pump out one addictive title after another.
But the breakdown of who does what for the mega-brand isn't always clear, especially in relation to the generally named apparatus The Pokémon Company.
To clear up the confusion, we spoke with the company's director of consumer marketing, J.C. Smith, and The Pokémon Company International spokesperson Rob Novickas.
What is The Pokémon Company?
Founded in 1998 in Tokyo, the organization was established by Nintendo, Game Freak and Creatures — three companies independent from one another — as The Pokémon Center Company. It was officially named The Pokémon Company in 2000.
Its mission was simple in name, but daunting in task: manage the Pokémon brand. This isn't just limited to the franchise's video games, but its trading card game, animated series and films and other licensing responsibilities.
The Pokémon Company specifically refers to the offices in Japan, which Smith calls the parent of The Pokémon Company International. Established in 2001 as Pokémon USA, The Pokémon Company International was founded to work with the Pokémon Store in New York City. The International company, which refers to the offices in Bellevue and London, reports directly to Japan — as does the office located in Seoul, Korea, which manages the brand in Korea.
Between those branches, there are about 400 employees total.
The Pokémon Company International is in charge of the brand's Twitter account, Facebook page and official website — aptly named Pokemon.com — that spans localization for 12 countries. In addition to running the Play! Pokémon Leagues and tournaments, TPC International also developed The Pokémon Trading Card Game Online and handles localization for all video games, Pokémon websites and the trading card game.
On The Pokémon Company’s website, president and chief executive officer Tsunekazu Ishihara compared the company to a talent agency.
"We decide what types of media our talents, like Pikachu and Snivy, should appear in, how to nurture them, and what types of products to use them in," Ishihara said. "This is what we call 'producing Pokémon.'
"... A more accurate description of what it means to produce Pokémon is that we play a leading role in making Pokémon products as appealing as possible and that we make every effort to achieve the best possible business results when those products come out."
Why was the company created?
With so many moving pieces, the creators of Pokémon needed a way to keep the brand universal. Thus, The Pokémon Company was born.
"Our job has continued to evolve to look out for what Game Freak wants the Pokémon world to be represented like," Smith said. "What Creatures wants the world to be represented as; what Nintendo thinks the Pokémon world should represent.
"It really is built for consistency around the world. One country's interpretation could be very different from another's and we have to look at that holistically."
There's no measure of control within The Pokémon Company, Smith added, but rather a symbiotic relationship to establish what's best for the franchise.
Where do Pokémon come from?
In the Pokémon world, game developer Game Freak is the source of all life. Every new trainer, creature and region that appears in toys, cartoons and the trading card game have rippled out from each new video game.
"People that you run across in the video game end up being characters in the animation eventually, instead of the other way around," Smith said.
Who handles the Pokémon animations and merchandise?
Ash Ketchum and his friends have The Pokémon Company to thank for their takeover of kids' TVs worldwide. The show is available in more than 30 languages and broadcasts in about 160 countries. In addition to localization for the show, TPC works with the broadcasters who air the show.
"The Pokémon Company licenses animated content to media partners around the world, whether it be traditional broadcasters like Cartoon Network in the U.S., Gulli in France, or Pokémon's newest VOD partners like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon," Smith said. "On the creative side, there is a committee with members from several of the Pokémon partner companies who decide the direction the animation will take and then work with production partners to develop the content."
TPC works with "hundreds" of companies on the films, as well as merchandising, to create toys, clothing and more.
Who handles the Pokémon games?
Pokémon’s video game series alive and well, as the recent announcement for Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire can attest to. Each main series game is created by Game Freak, a Japanese company founded in 1989. Although Pokémon isn’t the only thing the company has created, it’s best known for the critter-filled series that began with Pokémon Red and Blue.
"The world that [Game Freak] creates in the games are the ones that we express throughout all the other properties," Smith said. "It's very important to understand what their intents were, their nuances of the game and share that through how we're marketing the games to ensure that the key points that they think are important are represented for around the world and all the various languages."
The biggest difference in preparation here, Smith said, is partners. There are more moving pieces when it comes to the video games. However, spreading the games across different regions isn't as difficult as it may sound, now that most video game savvy consumers know what the brand is all about.
"All companies really focus on the collect, battle, trade aspects of [the series]," Smith said. "There's obviously a lot of translation back and forth and making sure everyone is on the same page."
Games considered “non-core,” such as Pokémon Conquest or Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, meanwhile, are a collaboration between The Pokémon Company and third-party developers such as Tecmo Koei and Chunsoft.
Who handles the Pokémon Trading Card Game?
When it comes to the trading card game, TPC works with developer Creatures and Game Freak to square out mechanics and how each character is represented in the cards.
Additionally, The Pokémon Company is in charge of printing cards and shipping them out to nearly 70 different countries in their respective languages. With the exception of the Japanese edition cards, every Pokémon card in every language is created in the United States.
What is Nintendo's role in all of this?
Nintendo works primarily with The Pokémon Company on production and distribution of each Pokémon game. The assembly line works like this: Game Freak develops each game and gives the final copy to Nintendo, who then produces and ships it around the world. Nintendo also handles marketing for each game.
"We obviously are involved in the approvals [and discussions] to augment where we want to augment," Smith said. "We're working with them basically all day long. We're in different offices, we're different companies, but we're working with them all day long to make sure everyone is happy, and everyone is up to date with what's going on with the projects."
The close collaboration between the companies often leads to confusion on who’s doing what — a problem that isn’t lost on employees of The Pokémon Company. Using the Pokémon TV application — a free service that allows users to watch the animated show on mobile devices and tablets — as an example, Novickas said that people often incorrectly attribute their work as Nintendo’s.
"Regardless of how people are saying it," Novickas said, "it is interesting that there is this separate entity that is creating these Pokémon products that a lot of people don't realize are creating them."