At 10:28 pm on November 1, an image of an unknown and classified Pokémon appeared in a Discord group. Gigantamax Machamp, the megasized version of the body-builder Pokémon, was slated to appear in the then-unreleased games Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield. Within minutes, JPEGs of it were posted to 4chan. Then, on a dedicated Pokémon Reddit. It wasn’t long until 300 URLs were hosting it.
Nintendo and The Pokémon Company, who developed and published Pokémon Sword and Shield, said in a November court document that they had handled the games’ materials with the “utmost secrecy.” Background checks. Secure computers with secure storage mechanisms to which limited employees had access. Digital tracers. Key cards for building entrances. And, of course, non-disclosure agreements. After the levee broke, The Pokémon Company submitted takedown request after takedown request, but Gigantamax Machamp was uncontainable. In fact, it was only the beginning: Over the next 15 hours after the first Discord post, at least 18 other pictures of Pokémon leaked and proliferated—all from the game’s unreleased strategy guide.
Nintendo filed a lawsuit against the alleged leakers who had undermined their PR strategy. It wasn’t out of character; Nintendo’s lawyers and leak investigators are playfully referred to as “the Nintendo ninjas” among the leaking community. Yet over the last couple of months, Nintendo has taken action against multiple leakers. Ahead of the much-anticipated releases of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild sequel, and Nintendo’s traditional E3 digital press conference, it looks like the gaming giant is cracking down.
Nintendo’s leaking community is more visible than those of other game companies.
In addition to Nintendo’s suit against the Pokémon Sword and Shield leakers, Nintendo in mid-February cut ties with Portuguese review site FNintendo, whose freelance reviewer shared screenshots from the games. The leaker Zippo told WIRED that they will no longer be leaking Nintendo games. And in a message on his Discord channel, the leaker Sabi said the same to friends and fans. Finally, in February, the FBI caught one of the most connected Nintendo leakers of all time: a hacker who went by the name RyanRocks.
“Nintendo has been increasingly aggressive when it comes to combating leaks,” says one longtime member of the Nintendo leaking community who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. They say that a few years ago, “it absolutely wasn’t as threatening, and even just early last year it wasn’t bad.”
Says another community member, who obtained a copy of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate two weeks before its 2018 launch and whom we’ll call Gary, “Nintendo is always cracking down on leakers, but recently there has been a surge in activity.”
Nintendo and The Pokémon Company declined to comment for this article.
All game companies have leakers. (Just this week, Activision sent a subpoena to Reddit after someone leaked an alleged battle royale mode for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare). And all game companies pursue their leakers with varying degrees of tenacity. But Nintendo’s leaking community is more visible than those of other game companies. Energetic, detail-hungry, and undeterrable, the fans who leak Nintendo game announcements, information about upcoming games, and sometimes the entire games themselves constantly butt up against Japanese game company’s reputation for opacity. Because so many people grew up alongside the now-behemoth game company, Nintendo fandom easily and naturally becomes an identity. Nintendo’s drip-drip-drip feeds about hugely-anticipated Pokémon, Super Smash Bros., Animal Crossing and Zelda games are called “teases” for a reason. And a lot of people can’t resist the temptation.
Over the last several years, no one has embraced Nintendo leaking quite like Ryan Hernandez. According to court documents, Hernandez, 21, registered online for Nintendo developer access in 2016—that’s a privileged resource for people who make and publish games for Nintendo consoles. He accepted a non-disclosure agreement, which prevented him from sharing much of what he saw, in exchange for proprietary information about the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U consoles. That information began appearing on a Twitter account attached to Hernandez, and when Nintendo noticed him posting confidential information, they sent Hernandez cease and desist. Because he was 17 at the time, his parents agreed on his behalf. But Hernandez didn’t stop; he was just getting started.