Is this Pokémon GO image hinting at a China release?
Pokémon GO isn’t available in China, so why are they running around Shenzhen?
Update: Niantic denies that the image in question is intended as a tease for an imminent Chinese release of Pokémon GO. We've updated the story below with their response.
Pokémon GO fans are busy catching a new wave of creatures just released into the game. The fifth generation of Pokémon, first introduced in the Black & White games, are said to be from the “Unova” region -- an area loosely based on New York City.
But the promotional image released with the game’s launch doesn’t show New York. It’s set in a city on the other side of the world… and it’s sparking speculation that Pokémon GO might finally reach the world’s biggest mobile gaming market.
Fans quickly discovered that this image actually shows Pokémon on top of a photograph of Shenzhen, the southern Chinese tech hub that borders Hong Kong. The background of the poster appears to have been taken near Shenzhen’s Grand Theatre station, discovered after matching the buildings in the picture to those in the area.
But Niantic says there's nothing more to the image than that -- just an image. In an email to Abacus, a company representative said they had "no intention of making any allusions to China" and apologized for causing "this unexpected rumor."
Pokémon GO was first released in July 2016, but since it relies on Google Maps to operate, it was never officially available in China, where Google is blocked. Some thought the game might make its way into the country eventually through an arrangement with another company, but authorities claimed the game was a security risk because people could use it to identify military bases.
Hopes were further dashed in 2017 when a gaming industry association under the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said in a notice, “Given overseas consumer experience and cases, the game presents a big social risk, such as posing a threat to geographical information security, public transport safety and personal safety.”
Since then, the game has been effectively banned. There seemed to be some hope in 2018 when Niantic’s CEO told the Financial Times that they struck a deal with NetEase to bring the game to China. But there haven’t been any updates since then.
The tidbit about NetEase makes Shenzhen an interesting choice for this latest poster. Shenzhen is home to some of China’s biggest tech firms, including NetEase’s biggest competitor in gaming: Tencent.
Tencent already has a bit of history with Pokémon. In recent months, Tencent has been quite aggressive in trying to capitalize on the Pokémon brand.
Just two months ago, the Chinese gaming giant said that it was working with the Pokémon Company on a new mobile game. Tencent has also been working closely with Nintendo -- which owns a third of the Pokémon Company -- to bring the Switch console and the game Pokémon Let’s Go to China.
Tencent declined to comment for this article.
Since some of the hullabaloo over Pokémon GO has died down, the prospect of seeing it in China has started to seem possible. The initial concern from the Chinese government involved the use of GPS information. But Tencent recently launched a Pokémon GO clone in China that works the same way. So there doesn’t seem to be a hard ban on location-based AR games.
Pokémon GO’s absence so far hasn’t just affected Chinese fans. Frequent travelers to China are also dismayed by having to spend time away from their favorite Pokémon.
“As someone who spends two months per year in China and misses out on everything happening in the game, I'm very excited,” one Redditor wrote about a possible China release. “Great find!”
If Pokémon GO really is launching in China, though, China’s internet seems largely unaware of it. There’s been almost no chatter of the Shenzhen easter egg on Chinese social media.
This is odd given how popular the franchise is in the country. Even without access to the mobile AR game, China has plenty of Pokémon fans, as evidenced this week. Many fans of the franchise in the country wrote heartfelt social media posts after Ash Ketchum -- the protagonist of the Pokémon anime -- finally won a Pokémon League champion after 22 years.