If the semi-ironic chants of “it’s coming home” heard around the world in the summer of 2018 didn’t make it clear, let me just confirm that the British love sports. We invented football (the real football), rugby, and cricket, and we’re really good at at least two of those. So when Pokemon Sword & Shield released last November, our love of sport was essential for Game Freak to get right if it wanted to nail Galar (i.e. Pokemon Britain) culture. Through its overarching themes, aesthetic, characters, and little flourishes, the games manage to encapsulate what kicking a ball around means to Blighty — while keeping the saccharine appeal of Pokemon.
Sword & Shield are arguably the first mainline Pokemon games in which you’re not the star. Yes, you (spoilers, I guess) eventually win and get to catch the box art Legendary, but it’s not a story about your journey — undertaken alone against impossible odds and ridiculous evil. You just need to qualify for the championship finals. Once you do, you go head to head with other trainers you’ve shared the road with, and it feels like they’ve all walked their own paths to get here. It’s a bit like kids from the same academy signing for the likes of Liverpool, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich, only to be drawn together in the Champions League. Pokemon Sword & Shield does the FIFA story mode better than FIFA does itself.
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It’s the fact that you have to start from nothing, in the shadow of longtime champ Leon, and slowly earn the recognition of the people which makes you feel like a superstar. The game doesn’t just hand you fame; you have to earn it. The best example of this is from your own fangirl, who watches all of your games live.
You can spot her in the corner of every gym, first with her Blipbug, then Dottler, before arriving at your Championship game with a fully evolved Orbeetle. She helps fill up the gyms, shifting them from the soulless battlegrounds they once were into arenas of passion and competition. The much more meme-able Ball Guy, while a brilliant addition in his own right, leans a little hard into the “go team go” attitude of American mascots. Whereas the very British, subtle-yet-constant support from your biggest fan brings a much needed balance.
The actual battles inside the gyms are pitch perfect, too. There’s an underappreciated genius to starting your experience in the stadium tunnel. It would have been so easy to plonk you down in the center circle, have your little cutscene, and then start the match. But no! It leaves you, with the cold silence of anticipation, in the dark tunnel. The light ahead is glowing — beckoning — and the roar will hit you as soon as you take another step. But for just a moment, there’s only you.
Whether at Old Trafford, Anfield, Ibrox, or the glorious St. James’ Park, so many little kids in Britain grew up wishing for this exact moment. While this is definitely the piece of visual storytelling which ties it all together, it’s the big picture stuff that allows those seconds in the tunnel to get a foothold. The architecture of stadiums like Wembley clearly influenced Galar’s battlegrounds. Meanwhile, the mandatory footballer fashion you wear to gym battles hammers things home. The ability to customize this kit to your own team’s colors would make it even better, but even in the plain white and gray, seeing your avatar in their matchday outfit puts you into game mode.
Just the stadiums themselves would have been enough to prop up the sports links, especially with the commitment to British slang. But thankfully, as the British often do themselves (I draw your attention once more to “it’s coming home”), Pokemon Sword & Shield go overboard.
Debates will always rage about who the best starter is, especially with upcoming DLC The Isle of Armor teasing Gigantamax forms of the Galar trio. If you truly want to lean into the sports angle, though, you simply must pick Scorbunny. I named mine Raheem, after scourge of right wing backs and right wing press Raheem Sterling. Evolving into the footy themed Cinderace, the Fire type starter perfectly complements your journey. Its signature move, Pyro Ball, sees it do some keepy uppies with a rock before igniting it and launching into a Peter Crouch style bicycle kick. Pro tip: give it Electro Ball to round out the football move pool. It’ll give great coverage to Cinderace’s Water weakness and with high base speed, it does significant damage.
Even football hooligans, the ugly underbelly of British sporting culture, were cartoon-ified into the Galar experience. Team Yell are the baddies this time around, but like Sun & Moon’s Team Skull, they eschew Team Rocket villainy and settle for being a nuisance — disrupting any gym challengers that might get in the way of their favorite trainer. If you can get over the fact they’re a group of fully grown adults who dedicate themselves to following a prepubescent girl everywhere she goes… they do seem like a cuddlier version of the home fans greeting the away team bus.
Finally, Sword & Shield do more than bring the sports theme home through the use of league cards. These recall the football sticker albums of the ‘90s and ‘00s — right down to doing swapsies in the school yard. At the same time, they remind us of the unseverable connection between the two fandoms (and why Galar’s fake Britain was the perfect setting for Pokemon). Sports and Pokemon cards both capitalized on children’s love of distant heroes, and the desire to share them with each other. Who’s your favorite starter? Who’s your favorite striker? Red & Blue put those decisions in our hands, and now we’ve come full circle.
There are nice touches scattered throughout the game, but ultimately the presentation the actual story is what’s key to making sure the spirit of sport is alive and kicking in Galar. Oh, and the Galar Championship? It’s coming home…