“Pokémon’s Ash Ketchum wins world championship,” reported BBC News.
“Ash Ketchum has finally become a Pokémon Master,” read CNN’s headline covering the story.
According to USA Today, “Ash Ketchum is finally the very best: Pokémon trainer becomes world champion after 25-year journey.”
While anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past two decades could probably tell you that these headlines were reporting about the plot of an anime, the very sports-formatted headlines from all of these major news outlets struck a chord with me. While Pokémon’s perpetually 10-years-old hero, the world that has been created around him and his sporting accomplishments within it are all very much not real, his feat was reported on in similar manner to a Wall Street Journal headline from 2016: “Chicago Cubs Win the World Series, Ending 108-Year Drought.”
This got me thinking — the feelings fans of Ash Ketchum’s journeys felt seeing a character they grew up watching finally achieve a goal he’s been striving for decades for are totally valid, just as the feelings of championship-deprived Cubs fans were. Are the feelings all that different? And if so, what does that say about our society?
I personally believe that all it says about us as humans is that we can derive joy from many forms of entertainment, and the successes of both real and animated people start to feel very similar, especially when interacting with one’s favorite real athletes up close and personal is not something that happens often.
One difference between professional athletes and Ash is his aforementioned famous trait: He never ages and he continues doing the same, consistent thing as long as there are people to put him on-screen and people to watch him. All athletes age and eventually retire, (except for maybe Tom Brady, but who knows, maybe we should start questioning whether he’s real) and even before that, they can switch teams numerous times throughout their careers.
For those looking for someone to root for that won’t leave a team, will never get injured and may just keep doing what they’re doing for eternity, it oddly makes sense to root for a fictional character over the real thing. That’s why there are so many sports movies — you get to have all the action and feelings attached, but the narratives are guaranteed to be good (at least, they should be).
There’s one other big difference between reality and fiction. With fictional characters, what you see is what you get. When someone chooses to be a fan of a real person, they’re supporting that person’s actions both while they do what they’re known for (e.g. an athlete in-game) and while they go about their everyday life. If there’s something out-of-game that’s morally questionable related to an athlete or a sporting event, it’s hard to separate that from the in-game events while keeping a clear conscience. A great example of this that’s going on right now is the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, where millions of fans are cheering for their favorite players and teams to win, while the conversation about the host country’s poor human rights record looms in the background.
On the contrary, Ash has no skeletons in his closet. While the writers of the Pokémon show can add traits to his character at will, the information about him that is available at whatever present moment is literally all that exists related to him. There’s no fear that who one is rooting for may have views one disagrees with when the subject is fictional, unless that character already openly holds said controversial opinions.
In short, it makes sense that our society might view Ash’s victory in a similar light to a real professional sports victory — both are forms of entertainment. However, the world of fiction is a much safer one, for better or for worse. Sure, Ash isn’t going to secretly have been a fascist this whole time, but he also stands for nothing. A remarkable thing about real people is that when given a platform, they have the agency to do great amounts of good. Going back to the World Cup for a second, one only needs to look at the incredible courage of the Iranian team for an example: Members of the team chose not to sing along with their own country’s national anthem in solidarity with protestors calling for the overthrow of the regime, taking immense risk doing so. Whether in Qatar, in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, athletes do use their platforms to affect change, and that’s just not something that a scripted piece of fiction can truly emulate.