Hau is a nice, cheerful boy. He gives you presents. When defeated in battle, he is gracious, and tells you that he had fun. Nothing about Hau seems competitive, which might explain why Pokémon players keep theorizing that he’s not your real rival in Sun and Moon at all.
Historically, Pokémon fans associate the word “rival” with “asshole.” In Red and Blue, it was tradition to name your rival the worst curses you could think of, and these games cemented what fans expect from a Pokémon rival. Hau embodies none of those negative traits: really, he’s your buddy in Sun and Moon.
The effect is that Pokémon players keep insisting that Hau is not your rival. In particular, one theory points out a number of odd choices the developer, Game Freak, made for Hau. When you pick a starter at the beginning of the game, Hau picks the creature weak to yours. Historically, rivals go right for the monster that would be strong against your starter. Hau also carries a Pikachu, a Pokémon that players associate with the “main” characters. Finally, you always seem to be one step ahead of Hau, clearing trials and battles before he does—fans still have memories of the Red and Blue rival defeating gyms first. Taken together, some fans now have the conspiracy theory that the player is the rival (ignoring, yes, that a rivalry requires two people.)
Since release, players are constantly questioning Hau’s status as a rival:
Here’s where things get interesting. While Hau may not fulfill our expectations of a rival, there is another character in Sun and Moon who fits the bill rather nicely: Gladion, the Team Skull minion. From the outset, Gladion’s very appearance looks menacing, especially when placed next to Hau’s wide, doofy grin. Gladion is also terse and combative, immediately demanding skirmishes for no purpose other than to flaunt strength:
When Gladion loses, he seems devastated:
It appears that Gladion captures the spirit of rivalry we’ve come to expect from Pokémon games, but hardcore fans are also pointing to a more compelling piece of evidence. Hackers and data miners claim that the in-game files don’t refer to Hau as the rival at all:
While I can’t dive into the files to verify this, we can all hear a difference in the songs. Hau’s battle theme is happy-go-lucky:
Gladion’s theme, on the other hand, sounds epic, like a serious showdown—which is what people expect out of rival battles.
Maybe the song file stuff is bullshit, or an oversight on Game Freak’s part. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: fans are holding on to an old rivalry framework, and it’s influencing how everyone interprets poor Hau. Sun and Moon aren’t the first games to change the paradigm—X and Y gave players multiple rival friends to battle throughout the story, all of which weren’t outright adversarial, so really, this is nothing new.
Still, it’s pretty fun to think that maybe, just maybe, the rival isn’t who we think it is.