Beyblade Like An Egyptian
In 2005, when I returned to Egypt after a three year absence to gather information on Egyptian entrepreneurs for Connected in Cairo, I visited a former graduate student with two young children.
I was talking to her about my Pokemon chapter, and she warned me “Pokemon is old news in Egypt. The big thing now is Beyblades.”
“Um…I know about Yu-Gi-Oh. What is Beyblades?” I asked.
She called one of her sons over and spoke to him. Five minutes later my cupped hands were overflowing with decorated plastic tops in different colors. They had a series of “attack” and “defense” rings that could be attached, as well as a metal “weight ring” that gave them some heft. The packaging (which he let me keep) was in French , suggesting that local stores were importing them from there rather than the US (as in the case of Pokemon).
The tops were apparently released in specially designed arenas where they could fight one another. And there were a lot of them, with different cool names. In other words, like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, they tapped into a deep desire by 8-10 year olds (especially but by no means limited to boys) for collecting and combat.
Flash forward to 2011. I’m at a Cub Scout meeting and we’re planning what to do each month for the Pack event which brings all the kids from 5-year old Tigers to 11-year old Webelos together for activities. Scouting is made for Spring and Fall; Winter activities are hard. One of the adults suggests a Beyblade tournament, and the others enthusiastically agree.
My wife and I go off to Toys’R'Us that weekend and pick up a couple of Beyblades for my poor deprived son, who doesn’t own any. They are heavier than I remembered, with ring-like gadgets that can slip on and off. (I’m reminded of the chariot wheel bades in Ben Hur). The Beyblade tournament ends up being one of the most popular events of the season.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking “Wow. Globalization is weird. Egypt was ahead of the U.S. curve on that one.” (Unlike Pokemon, as I describe in Connected in Cairo Chapter Three)
I’m reminded of this because of an article in today’s New York Times about the Beyblade phenomenon in the U.S. According to the Times, it’s big, and getting bigger. It is hard to imagine anything ever taking the place of Pokemon, which essentially colonized global children’s imaginative play for about five years, but toys like Beyblades clearly are all trying to tap into those same transnational desires.
It turns out I’m only partly right. Thinking about globalization in terms of waves is a bad way to imagine processes of transnational flows, which (continuing the hydraulic metaphor) run across irregular channels, and in multiple directions, with different strengths of current.
The Times reporter writes:
TODAY’S Beys take their name from a Japanese fighting top known as a bei-goma, and they are a rare case of a fad catching fire twice. Beyblades were first sold in the United States in 2002, in a simpler, mostly plastic form. In 2008, the brand was reintroduced in Japan with a variety of changeable parts — energy rings and spin tracks and fusion wheels — and more metal, which added heft and created a satisfying clanging noise when they collide.
The new-and-improved Beys didn’t reach American shores until August 2010, according to Hasbro, coinciding with a new anime series on the Cartoon Network, produced by Corus Entertainment in Toronto, which is hosting the world championships. But with names that make them sound like heavy metal bands — Poison Zurafa, Evil Befall, Thermal Lacerta — and with different strengths (some are best at attacking, others at things like defense or stamina), they have proven to be a potent collectible for children.
The Times account is essentially correct, although the actual history of the evolution of Beyblades series, and their releases, is more complex than the reporter describes it.
Basically, Nintendo released the game in Japan in 200. They began marketing it worldwide in 2002. It had solid sales but didn’t really catch on as a fad in North America, but was apparently extremely popular in Europe. It seems to have traveled to Egypt via the French and German schools, and from them to the cosmopolitan Egyptian children’s culture generally, where I encountered it in 2005.
From the Egyptian kids it spread to the North American kids at the American schools. One kid who left Egypt in 2006 to return to the US told me he brought his Beyblades back with him, but sold them at a garage sale when he realized US kids “weren’t into Beyblades.”
But Beyblades continued to evolve, first by recasting the toys in a heavier polycarbon, then by adding more and more metal parts. The increasing weight increased their spin times.
In 2008, Nintendo released a completely new line with the Hybrid Wheel System and Heavy Metal System. These went on sale internationally in 2010, as the Times reporter states, and are the basis for the current U.S. fad.
There are, of course, Beyblade manga (as well as comics), an animated series (including a new one for the “Metal Fusion” release in 2010), books, video games and all the other spin-offs that made Pokemon such a perfect simulacra.
And speaking of Egypt, in Season 3, episode 18 of the animated series, entitled “Beyblade Like an Egyptian,” the Beyblade team travels to “the world’s largest sandbox” (?!) for a tournament:
And here’s something cool: the Arabic opening of the Beyblades animated show, with bilingual subtitles.