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Pokémon has a YouTube problem

Or it’s possible that YouTube has a Pokémon problem

Dan Friedman/Polygon

The trailer revealing Pokémon Past and Pokémon Future for the Nintendo Switch offered just about everything a Pokémon fan could want: adorable new starter Pokémon, majestic new box-cover legendaries and high-definition graphics. It would include two new adventures in a shared world that would take place a hundred years apart, depending on which version of the game you picked.

It’s easy to see why the trailer has racked up nearly 2.5 million views on YouTube.

But if you take a second look at the trailer, you might notice a mouse cursor on the screen during the in-game battle footage. You might also notice that the video isn’t posted from an official Nintendo account. And then you might realize that the video is a hoax.

This fake trailer has a post date of April 1, and it could potentially be defended as an April Fool’s joke. But there is no attempt made to parody the Pokémon games; the only thing about it that might be perceived as funny is the possibility that some unsophisticated viewer might believe this is real. Nobody who clicked on the video did it for a laugh; they clicked because they thought it was the new Pokémon game.

The Pokemon Past and Pokémon Future “trailer” is still up, long after April Fool’s, and it still has ads enabled. YouTube has had a clickbait problem for a long time, but for the past few years, that problem has been felt acutely in the world of Pokémon.

High-quality content is drowned in noise

I’ve been on a bit of a Pokémon kick lately, and a recent project I decided to undertake was a soft-reset hunt for a shiny Landorus with a competitive nature.

After I got one, I searched YouTube for videos about how to build and outfit my fancy new bud. I found a couple of videos by creators that I don’t usually see in more generic searches for Pokémon content.

One video that popped up was from Wolfe Glick, the 2016 Pokémon world champion and one of the most accomplished competitive players in North America. Glick’s 20-minute video about Landorus goes over every detail of the Pokémon: its best movesets, which held items to use on it and which opponents Landorous should fear.

Glick has a respectable 62,000 subscribers on YouTube, but that is a much smaller number than you’d normally expect to see from an esports star in a competitive game with millions of fans. The Landorus video — a comprehensive breakdown of the best competitive Pokémon from one of the best competitive players — has about 25,000 views.

Another Pokémon champion, Jack TheBattler, has climbed into the top 10 positions on the ladder repeatedly over the last several years. He posts incredibly detailed team composition breakdowns for the VGC doubles, and I appreciated his informative video about how to use my Landorus in concert with a Zapdos.

Jake provides cogent explanations of esoteric Pokémon concepts, like how to best distribute each Pokémon’s allocation of 512 effort value points to help your Pokémon win specific matchups that would otherwise be unfavorable. Most players just dump those points into two of a Pokémon’s dominant stats, but Jake’s videos walk through a complicated set of calculations determining how to use those points to ensure, for example, that a Mega Charizard Y can survive a Rock Slide from a Landorus and hit it back with a lethal attack.

Landorus is the most popular Pokémon in online battles right now, and most Landorus carry Rock Slide, so getting hit by that is something that is going to happen to your Charizard pretty frequently as you try to climb. Planning for foreseeable occurrences like that is what separates competitors from casuals. This is useful information.

Jake TheBattler, however, has only 2,600 subscribers. His most popular videos, a breakdown of the team he used to climb into the number one spot on the Pokémon Showdown ladder and a tier lists for competitive formats, have only about 20,000 views, less than one percent of the views the fake trailer for the fake game received.

There is one obvious and valid reason why top competitive players might not be pulling in the views on YouTube: Most fans looking for Pokémon content don’t actually care about VGC or competitive battling.

It is an indication of what most viewers care about that Wolfe Glick’s most popular video, with 153,000 views, is a breakdown of meme Pokémon Pyukumuku. The character is a sea cucumber that can perform no offensive moves, but instead vomits up its guts when it dies to deal recoil damage to the attacker equivalent to the attack that killed it.

Most of the traffic likely came from searches for wild Pyukumuku interactions, like this one from Pimpnite, who has a channel that specializes in videos of wacky Pokémon plays. Pimpnite’s Pyukumuku video has 457,000 views, and his channel has ten times as many subs as Glick’s.

Pokémon is a massive franchise, but a lot of the audience is made up of kids, anime fans and casual gamers. I get that those folks would rather let their Charizards get stomped by every passing Landorus than sit through a competitive tutorial video, which is basically a Powerpoint presentation about math. I can certainly appreciate why Pimpnite, whose videos are often very funny, is more popular with the mainstream audience than are channels about high-level competitive analysis.

But a lot of the videos that are garnering six-figure view counts aren’t nearly as entertaining as Pimpnite’s. I love Powerpoint presentations about math, and YouTube doesn’t show them to me unless I use very specific search terms. And few of these videos showed up in my recommendations, even after I looked at other videos about competitive analysis. This is high quality-content, and while it may not be what all Pokémon fans want to watch, most people who enjoy playing games enjoy winning, and these videos teach you how to win.

I likely never would have found Jake TheBattler’s channel if I hadn’t happened been looking for a competitive analysis video about a specific Pokémon, and if he hadn’t happened to have just made one. I only found the channel for top VGC player Aaron “Cybertron” Zheng, when I realized search results weren’t showing me competitive analysis videos and tried to tailor search terms to find them.

YouTube isn’t just creating an ecosystem where literal fake news flourishes, it seems to be actively keeping us away from the stuff we actually want to see.

Zheng’s channel has 75,000 YouTube subs. He bills himself as a top educator about VGC competition, and backs that claim up with a comprehensive 45-minute guide to team building that has about 190,000 views.

That’s a lot, but it’s also a lot fewer than so many low-effort, low-quality clickbait Pokémon videos earn. I’m sure Zheng’s content would interest a lot of the people who are clicking that stuff if YouTube recommended it to more people.

So what Pokemon videos actually do well on YouTube?

There is a hunger for Pokemon news that YouTube is ready to fill

Nintendo has announced that it intends to release a Pokémon game on the Nintendo Switch “in 2018 or later.” Sometime between this afternoon and the day the sun burns out, there will be a new Pokémon game. That’s the only news that’s certain.

Beyond that, we know nothing, and neither does anybody else outside of Nintendo and Game Freak. There are 3.8 million results for the search “Pokémon Switch” on YouTube.

These videos have no information about the new game. The “rumors” they report are pure speculation. The images in the thumbnails for these videos are not screenshots of the new game; they’re either renders grabbed from someplace else or Photoshop composites. Videos that purport to discuss new or unreleased Pokémon are just showcasing fan art. A lot of these videos include Nintendo logos in their thumbnail images to confuse viewers into believing these videos are official Nintendo content. They are not.

Many of these videos have tens or even hundreds of thousands of views. They contain no reliable information about the Pokémon game that will someday be released for the Nintendo Switch.

These videos proliferate so widely because YouTube’s algorithms encourage them to. By putting videos that are getting a lot of traffic into recommended video lists and auto-play queues, YouTube causes the traffic to snowball. As long as the clickbait works, and as long as creators vie for attention in a zero-sum battle, YouTube’s systems will automatically promote scummy content.

There is a huge demand for Pokemon information, and Nintendo doesn’t want to share any. The lack of actual news doesn’t seem to be slowing content creators down. There is plenty of attention to be grabbed from fans, and YouTube is the perfect place for people who want a piece of it.

This is not just a Pokémon problem

There are several reasons why the Pokémon YouTube community has been so vulnerable to inundation by clickbait and hoax videos: First of all, the audience skews young, and younger viewers are more likely to be drawn in by these types of videos.

Finding good information about Pokémon on YouTube often feels futile
Danel Friedman/Polygon

Second, Nintendo has been extremely tight-lipped about the new game as player anticipation has built up over months, and it’s only natural that unscrupulous actors will fill the space left by Nintendo’s silence with hoaxes and made-up “rumors.”

But this situation is a symptom of a problem with YouTube that runs deeper than Pokémon, because this shows that the YouTube platform and the algorithms that amplify popular content can be weaponized to spread disinformation to an audience of millions. Whether you care about Pokémon or not, you should care that a hoax has been live on YouTube for five weeks and has accrued 2.5 million views.

There are solutions available

After its platform was used to spread fake stories during the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook has developed a complex algorithm, aided by machine learning, to identify hoaxes and balance them by directing users to accurate information.

Other social platforms like YouTube and Twitter need to recognize that they are vulnerable to the same kind of problems and take proactive steps to curb the spread of hoax content, and to prevent their recommendation mechanisms from amplifying disinformation.

One thing that would certainly cut through the fake news would be some real news. Nintendo likes to time its announcements to make a big splash, but months of silence about this game with no new information have left the ravenous community scrabbling after anything that looks like a crumb.

That puts unscrupulous YouTubers in a position to rack up lots of views by making stuff up. A few official screenshots or details would put a stop to many of the most shameless hoaxes.

Publishers like Nintendo also need to be doing more to support creators who produce high-quality content. Even without releasing new information about the upcoming Switch game ahead of its planned schedule, and even without action from YouTube, Nintendo could change the incentives for creators by promoting the work of high-effort, high quality creators on official social media feeds and websites, creating rewards for good content that might counterbalance the YouTube algorithm’s tendency to encourage clickbait.

The problem we’re seeing in the Pokémon community is the result of a platform that blindly promotes popular content without any filter for quality or accuracy, and a game publisher that has taken a hands-off approach to its community.

Nintendo and YouTube need to act to remedy the situation, and other developers and social media platforms need to learn from what has happened here.

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