The Most Legendary Moments from Pokémon Go! Fest in Chicago

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This weekend, I was lucky enough to load up my car, pack my backpack full of backup chargers, and travel to Chicago, Illinois, to take part in the largest gathering of Pokémon trainers that we’ve seen since the Pokémon League Conference of 1999.

Chicago welcomed us with a white sky that illuminated the city as if it were in a photographer’s lightbox. We arrived alongside the onset of a thunderstorm that electrified the city, building anticipation for the enigmatic secrets that Niantic had yet to reveal. Amid flashes of lightning, we joked that Zapdos must be near; hardly minding the weighted plops of rain soaking us to our core. We were on a mission. To celebrate the anniversary of the Pokémon GO! app (Yes, people still play that), top-tier trainers traversed from across the globe to convene in what they hoped would be a day filled with defeating exciting challenges, adding rare and exciting entries into their Pokédexes, and unlocking new Pokémon for the world at large.

Let’s just say, “Things could have gone better.

Niantic, the company behind the game that has caused this phenomenon, was overwhelmed and under-prepared for the beating that this network surge would take on their servers, and the cellular networks that quickly jammed as users tried to log in and complete their challenges. Although they were forced to bear the majority of the blame for the networks going down, a wealth of the fault fell with the cellular providers that didn’t prepare for an event of this magnitude, despite assuring Niantic that they would be able to handle the surge. Luckily enough for the providers, they were not present, nor did they have to go onstage to face a perturbed crowd of stranded nerds.

The festival for the game that relies on network connectivity had lost all network connectivity.

Much like after the Whoville Whos had their Christmases sabotaged, the majority of players in attendance ignored this seemingly catastrophic glitch and enjoyed a beautiful day in Grant Park.

It was beautiful, the way that kindness permeated this group. People young and old were welcomed and engaged. Strangers were offering each other tokens of friendship that they had brought from their homes–it was so much fun. For me, this game is about the community. 

There WAS booing, and I’m sure that not all of it was tongue-in-cheek; but it was largely exaggerated. From within the crowd, most people booing were trying to be funny. We witnessed a small girl booing that quickly got reprimanded by her mother, “Don’t say ‘BOO’, say ‘DO BETTER!'”

After experiencing very similar glitches during the initial launch as well as many technical issues in the year since, and also considering that this app is still in beta, nearly everyone that I met were unsurprised, and had actually anticipated these issues–they used this as an opportunity to look up from their phones, meet other players, and enjoy the social aspect of this game in full force.

For others, however, this was a major disappointment.

Despite years of rhetoric, it seems that many players prepared for trouble, and forgot to make it double.

Once this news broke, many headlines have hyperbolized this event as the “Fyre Festival for nerds”; claiming that players in attendance revolted against Niantic, that Team Rocket had won and all hope was lost. Honestly, that was simply not the case. I saw something different. 

In my experience, it has been the players who have made this game great, not the developers. Despite the technical setbacks, everyone that I met was having a great time. The only complaining that I heard was in jest–it was almost like a massive inside joke that the worst case scenario had come to fruition, and we had all knowingly expected it.

After purchasing my tickets for this event, I was saddened to learn that my roommate wouldn’t be able to make it, leaving me with an extra ticket. Scalpers on eBay were earning upwards of 30x the face value of the wristbands, but I felt very uneasy about contributing to that nature of behavior. Instead, I posted a comment in the local Silph Road Facebook group that I had an extra ticket if anyone had an interesting offer.

A trainer and local raid-coordinator named Angela was quick to connect me with her friend, and local trainer phenomenon, Zach, who was in need of a ticket. In exchange, they offered to put me and my girlfriend Lakeland up in their AirBnB–saving both sides money, as I would otherwise be unable to split the costs because I didn’t know anyone going. In addition, Angela’s husband met us at  7:30 to ride up early to get “First Catch Hour” passes, providing great company and a dent in gas money along the way.

The Silph Road is a large, unofficial organization that has taken the responsibility of adding a layer of fun and community involvement into the game. I was familiar with their data mining and nest reporting projects, so I felt privileged to meet and spend time with such a group, and was impressed by their militant commitment to providing entertainment to others. As I learned, there is a vertical hierarchy to the group. On this trip, I met Justin (Slepnair), the Warden of the South; Sterling, the Ranger in charge of Tennessee; Jacob, who along with other scouts, keeps things running in our area. Unfortunately, I missed most of the Silph Road after-party and my chance to meet Dronpes, the executive, as I lost track of time hunting Legendary raids (and deep-dish pizza) with Lakeland, Angela, and Chip.

I was very glad to meet Zach, as he brought along a level of positivity to this experience that I’m finding difficulty articulating–this guy is wild.

Almost in unison, as moods started to drop, the thermometer started to rise. After Niantic announced that their first wave of challenges would be delayed due to technical difficulties, the temperature was rapidly approaching 90°F. Zach wasn’t about to let this take away from his weekend, and he wasn’t going to let anyone else have a bad day either. Like a magician with a sleeve full of kerchiefs, Zach pulled an inflatable Pikachu costume out of God knows where (though my guess would be his backpack).

Zach & Lakeland flicking the bean

A modern Kafka, Zach quickly metamorphosed into a giant, yellow, mouse Pokèmon so that he could change the tone of the day. With my girlfriend acting as his impromptu handler and photographer, he spent hours in this costume, walking from one end of Grant Park to the other, stopping every few steps to offer hugs and take photographs with children. It was truly an awesome experience to watch as moods transitioned from annoyance to delight, in waves that numbered into the hundreds.

Zach, a former wrestler, hardly minded the sweat that collected as this giant yellow trash bag acted similarly to a sweat suit in the heat.

Sterling & Jacob doing the electric slide

After Zach returned Pikachu to within his Pokéball (again, more likely his backpack), The Silph Road’s Master Guide for Tennessee, Jacob, took the cape and continued to provide entertainment for the children and adults, as well as the children-adults. Sterling, the Ranger for Tennessee, took on the responsibility of becoming his trainer–and in true Yellow fashion let him roam the park freely. I have to give Jacob props; he started his journey in a suit that was ALREADY drenched in sweat, but that didn’t stop him from dancing his way into hijacking the designated photo booth!

During the closing ceremony, Zach received a phone call informing him of a family emergency requiring that he leave right away, leaving us without the chance to tell him how awesome it was that he spent the day turning frowns upside down.

As a shining representative of Nashville, Zach has my nomination for SoBro of the week.

The stories I have been reading since this event have listed it as a disaster. I disagree.

At worst, a crowd that was not normally adjusted to sunshine turned a bit red and had some griping to do. I left with several new friends, and memories of a beautiful city that was thoroughly explored.

Walking around the park, they did a most excellent job immersing you in the culture of the Pokémon world without cluttering it. Upon entering the gates, we had envelopes with welcoming invitations ready for us to prevent spoofers from having a better day than anyone from the comfort of their own homes. Having a First Catch Hour wristband was a luxury for which I am very thankful–especially to Angela and Chip for waking up at ungodly hours to get us in line on time. My favorite part was being able to walk into the AR layer, taking photos with your favorite characters within replica cell phones.

Obviously, things didn’t go as planned, but anyone anticipating for them to was alone in those expectations.

Niantic is not only refunding the cost of attendance to the trainers who attended (which is a great way to account for scalpers), but they are also adding $100 of in-game purchases to each user’s account. If that wasn’t enough, they are adding the Legendary Lugia to my team (and, aside from the lacking storyline to cause this, is still pretty cool).

Genius collage by /u/dgbx

As the event came to a close, the radius of the event expanded by two miles in every direction. Rare spawns (including Unown, which as a creative Easter egg spelled out C-H-I-C-A-G-O) began appearing across Chicago. Heracross, who had otherwise been restricted to certain latitudinal regions, became indigenous to the area. On a personal note, I finally collected enough candy to fill the singular missing spot in my ‘dex, Porygon2.

Then, nearing the end of the night, Lugia and Articuno began appearing as raid bosses, sending the city into a frenzy.

I can only imagine how the police felt as an onslaught of pedestrians swarmed the streets, surrounding them in pursuit of something that to them was entirely invisible. It was awesome.

Instantly, this game regained its element of companionship–raid groups joined together to take advantage of the guaranteed catch rate of Articuno and Lugia.

It still cracks me up that Team Mystic (arguably the best team, from a card-carrying member) won the challenges of the day and unlocked Articuno. I suppose the requirement must have been approximately 18 catches in total? I’m 100% convinced that this was in fear of a riot if they had to announce that we hadn’t met the goals of the day due to network outages. I am literally laughing out loud as I sit here writing this, imagining what that riot would look like.

It became very clear to me that Niantic has not created a game, they created an app. The community created the game in the way that we play it–and that should be embraced.

The end of this event was incredible–we had a wide playing field, where we became able to explore a city with an added layer of information, increased rare spawns, distributed Legendary raids, and free play. This alone, lasting a full day, would have been a truly Legendary event.

I love the story of Pokémon; the lore intrigues me. It would be very easy for us to imagine that a gathering of immense power and great trainers *attracted* the Legendary birds, and perhaps afterwards a villain with a Mewtwo that needed immense crowd response to knock down a peg or two. Should they have simplified the challenges and expanded the range for better coverage, we would have been more than content with discovering the landmarks in Chicago and loading up on Unowns. There’s no need to overcomplicate things!

If I were to offer any words of advice to Niantic, it would be to learn from this weekend. Don’t feel the need to micromanage your users; we’re happy to just be gathered together.

People repeatedly ask me in disbelief, “You still play that game!?”

So far, Pokémon GO! has taken me through the streets of Paris in search of a Mr. Mime, to all of the largest landmarks in England, throughout southern Florida chasing Heracross and Corsola, through several state parks, and now intimately the streets of Chicago. The app catalogs where I’ve been, which landmarks I visited, and what Pokémon that I caught (and kept) from the trip. I have integrated into a community of locals that I cherish, and bonded with people that I otherwise never would have met.

The concept of this game is amazing–it adds a digital layer to the world that you already exist in so that you can take a closer look. There are incentives to make you go outside and walk around your neighborhood–and then to go further. There are challenges that require you to meet other trainers and work together. To any app that encourages me to travel further and look closer, I say, “Sign me up.

Mack Lunn is the SoBros Pokémon Master. He specializes in rare finds, perfect IVs, and friendship. Follow on Twitter: @MackLunn or Facebook: /macklunn

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