25 years of exploring the cultural phenomenon

25 years of exploring the cultural phenomenon

The 2019 Pokémon Europe Championships will be held at a location that is anything but modest. The event is held in Berlin’s trendy Neukölln, which belies the corporate-feeling Estrel Congress Center, which is better suited to dry trade exhibits than the competition. The championships also feel out of place here, but the sheer size of the main hall, as well as the volume of participants — both competitors and spectators – means there are few places that could properly seat everyone.

25 years of exploring the cultural phenomenon

The size is the first thing you notice when you come in. It’s akin to what a suburban supermarket (think Asda) would look like if all the shelves and products were cleared off; it’s massive. The second thing you see is Pikachu, the de facto mascot of the Pokémon universe, which is properly huge and floating. Hundreds of tables, laid out like a GCSE exam hall, are strewn across the dimly lighted space, all looking to the stage, which hosts the analysts, players, and casters who provide a play-by-play description of the event streaming on YouTube. Despite appearances, it isn’t stuffy or musty in the least. In reality, both in terms of atmosphere and ambience, it’s reassuringly lovely. You’d be forgiven for expecting a snobby bunch of players – after all, it is a competition with thousands of dollars on the line for the victors – but the response has been surprisingly positive.

LouLou The Pikachu, a video game analyst and all-around Pokémon super-fan, adds, “It’s particularly nice when the game reaches all ages.” “To me, [Pokémon] is everything. It’s given me the opportunity to meet new people, tour the world, and learn about different cultures – and there’s a tremendous sense of camaraderie among the players.” LouLou is one of several persons on stage at any given time, an animated presence that either clarifies the action if you’re paying attention, or adds to your bewilderment if you can’t keep up. In general, there’s a hazy sense of disorder, and there’s no real way of knowing what’s going on unless you know what to look for. The sense of camaraderie mentioned by LouLou is backed up by a story that circulated during the Championships about a little boy who arrived with the hopes of competing in a video game contest. Unfortunately for him, the age of entrance for players was 12, therefore he narrowly missed the threshold at 11 years old.

Instead, he was invited to participate in a trading card game tournament, but he had to explain that he had forgotten his cards at home. Other competitors rallied around him and gathered their spares to help him fill out his deck and compete. He appeared to have progressed quite far in the event. While this may appear to be a case of copypasta (“and that boy’s name? Albert Einstein”), it is the type of story that is told here, and after two days of observation, I can see how it could be real. Many of the younger competitors are taking their first steps into the fast-paced world of e-sports. However, some wonder if it is truly an e-sport, owing to a lack of teams and large sponsors, making it impossible to make a living playing Pokémon. Because of how much effort the contestants put in, LouLou the Pikachu considers it an e-sport. Other players in the hall seem to agree, with one noting that its “popularity speaks for itself.” Both on consoles and in trading cards, Pokémon is a game that is easy to pick up yet terrifyingly tough to master. One thing has remained constant throughout the various planets and the introduction of hundreds of new characters: the overall framework.

It’s similar to riding a bike in the sense that it never leaves your side. If you were familiar with Pokémon in the 1990s, you probably know a lot more about it today than you realise – remember, water Pokémon are strong against fire types, and so on. In fact, like many others who grew up with the game, you might have Pokémon brain, where your brain has permanently rewired itself to store all those little animals. There’s also the fact that it’s such a warm and inviting place to be lost in. Competitors from all over the world flew in to Berlin for the 2019 European Championships. The event’s lingua franca was English, as it is with most things based in the online world. But it was Pokémon, particularly. Creators realised that both American and Japanese youngsters would be able to say “Pikachu” all those years ago, and that remains true today in a shared language spoken by followers all over the world. The popularity of Pokémon can be seen all around the world, and it seems like everyone has a story about collecting cards as a kid or playing Pokémon Go when it first came out in June 2016. One of my favourites is about a little boy who was yearning to get his hands on a shiny Charizard (weren’t we all?) and was surprised by his late father with one one day.

However, it’s possible that it’s not simply back (again). Maybe it’s bigger than it’s ever been? In late 1999, Pokémon: The First Movie grossed little over $85 million in the United States. Compare that to Detective Pikachu, which had a $55 million opening weekend and has subsequently eclipsed The First Movie in terms of box office. Maybe, just maybe, Pokémon fever is at an all-time high? Alternatively, perhaps those who grew up with it now have the financial means to take their own children to the movies, eager to be introduced to this fascinating world. I came here to find out why Pokémon is still so popular. But I’m left wondering why it isn’t more popular. Why hasn’t the fever reached 1999 levels? It’s a relentlessly, at times suffocatingly attractive phenomenon that evokes a bygone era while simultaneously reflecting the world as we know it today. Everyone here knows that you can never be too old to play Pokémon. Whatever happens next, I’m sure it’ll be popular in ten or twenty years, attracting thousands of people from all over the world to a massive hall to compete in their favourite sport.

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