A Closer Look at the First-Ever Pokemon GO Fest


By: Eric Flapjack Ashley (@flapjackashley)

This past weekend, two huge fan events took place: the perennial powerhouse Comic Con in San Diego and the “inaugural” Pokemon GO Fest in Chicago. As I’m sure you well know, one of them went well and the other did less than so. But this article won’t be one big bashing session – although it will have a recap of what it was like inside Grant Park, and it will look forward towards the future of the mobile game with that disaster behind them.

Looking Back

The excitement around Pokemon GO at launch in the summer of 2016 was beyond anything one could have predicted. Everyone seemed to be playing. Monster crowds of people wandering around and staring at their phones were seen in every city in every country where the game had launched. At its peak, the game was played by over 28 million gamers, a number that even surpassed Twitter in daily users. For Pokemon fans, this AR game was like a dream come true – it was the closest thing to living in a real Pokemon game.

The game has since decreased in users – a lot of it was to be expected with a game that massively popular, but also people were growing frustrated with server and connection issues and lack of updates and generation two Pokemon. Also, since the game encouraged you to walk around in the real world, changes in season were not kind to the game as walking around and hunting Pokemon was much less desirable in the winter months.

The Build-Up

In the spring, the game finally released generation two and later, introduced “Raid Battles” and the promise of upcoming “Legendaries.” The game was perceived as dead by many – but in reality, there are still well over six to seven million people who play daily, a number other mobile games would kill for.

As it approached its one-year anniversary, Niantic announced the first-ever official gathering for the game, to take place at Grant Park in Chicago, called Pokemon GO Fest. Tickets were snapped up and sold out in under a half hour. Scalpers commanded up to 15 times face value price for them. And the promise of rumored Legendaries plus Fest-exclusive new Pokemon sent fans into a frenzy.

And the weekend started off well. People arriving in Chicago tweeted out pictures of their maps and every Pokestop was lured, tons of Gyms were up for grabs, and the buzz of fans was at a fever pitch. The app introduced special packages with items geared towards raids and battling. Grant Park was decked out in amazing real-world mock-ups of Pokestop decorations and colored tents and more. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in a word, everything.

Lines from Hell and Connections from the Devil

The first sign of trouble happened for people who lined up to get into Grant Park. Sprint and Boost Mobile customers (the official mobile partner of Pokemon GO) were promised to get in an hour early, but lines that wrapped twice around the park and elsewhere said no. With only one real official entrance into the park, there were approximately 12 wristband scanners to admit what would be nearly 21,000 paid ticket holders.

Yes, Pokemon GO Fest had a paid attendance of 21,000 – many coming from not only all over the country, but the world. Not bad for a “dead” game.

Anyway, with lines stretching a mile long and clocking in at over three hours wait just to get into the park, viewers at home began to sense the trouble brewing as the 11 a.m. EST start time for the much-publicized live stream was delayed by a half-hour – twice. When it finally started at noon, people who managed to get into the park were already furious at connection issues. Niantic CEO John Hanke hopped on stage to try and assure people and was promptly booed off the stage. He’ll have nightmares of thousands of people chanting, “We can’t play!”

It only got worse as people connection issues choked the life out of the event. Many people couldn’t even get enough of a data connection to scan the QR codes given to them at entry to gain access to special badges and the exclusive Pokestops/Gyms in the park. The live stream had extremely long stretches of dead air. The heat plus not being able to play the game they paid hundreds of dollars in travel/hotels and even airfare to enjoy with others threatened to turn the angry gamers into a rioting mob. The poor scripted hosts carried on the best they could, reading lines written as if the day was going swimmingly. Tons of people caught less than ten Pokemon all day, the event was essentially cancelled and refunds promised before half the line of attendees even got inside. There was even up to an hour wait to leave.

Poor planning was mainly to blame as much as anything. Selling that many tickets to a park that small was not good planning. Thinking 21,000 people all on mobile data would work out well was not good planning. Having 12 or so people checking in that many people was not good planning. Lessons could easily be learned here, but how much damage has already been done. Would anyone return to a Pokemon GO Fest 2018?

Mockery of the event was spreading like wildfire, even if it lessened a bit by concessions such as extending the radius of the rare Pokemon, aforementioned refunds, giving each attendee $100 of in-game currency, and also gifting them with the first Legendary Pokemon automatically in their Pokedexes. It got so fierce, I even began to fear that it will not only kill the mobile game, but also damage the brand name of Pokemon going forward.

I put the word “inaugural” in quotations because that’s how the Fest was introduced, but it seems like it is less of a “Yearly Event” and more of a “One-Hitter-Quitter.”

Back to Basics

A strange thing happened amid the day of awful news. When angry attendees began filing out and away from overstrained cellular networks, they instead filled the streets of downtown Chicago and participated in raid battles and Pokemon catching – you know, the stuff that should have been happening during the Fest itself.

But the key here is people were having fun. There are YouTube videos up of massive crowds playing together which were very familiar to anyone who played last summer when the game was a phenomenon. According to the official Pokemon GO blog, from Saturday night through Sunday, downtown Chicago registered in more than 69,000 Raid battles and caught nearly 8 million Pokemon.

Thanks to planned worldwide challenge event windows, people all over were encouraged to go back out and catch Pokemon – with the hopes of pushing the players in Chicago to even more bonuses that could be unlocked for everyone to enjoy. While that didn’t go well on the Chicago end, lots of people from all over the world tweeted out pictures of large groups gathering together and joining in on the fun of helping. Even in my small town, there were people out and playing again, gathered in groups to take down a Legendary. It’s not on a massive scale like last year, but the game is back to being fun.

And what makes it fun, in my opinion, are when people get together to play. Most people who fondly look back on those initial couple of months during Pokemon GO Mania talk about the game, but largely speak of how much fun it was to run around with friends, comparing catches, being outside and having fun. Pokemon GO is more than just a mobile app as it tends to highlight many historical sites around your community, sort of a low-key educational tool. I know I have been to quite a few places in Seattle, Indiana, and Florida I would have not known about if the game didn’t lead me there.

Hope for the Future

Do I think the reputation of the game has suffered due to Pokemon GO Fest? Yes, but not as much as I feared. Under normal circumstances, the game has had a huge drop in the connection issues it suffered at launch that it became infamous for – cramming 21,000 people all using mobile data in such a restricted area was bound to fail that planners should have considered. But I can go months now playing without a hiccup in the game whereas I could only go a couple of play sessions last year without an error. The Fest’s comparisons to the disastrous Fyre Festival is not really fair as no one in Chicago was trapped, starving, or abandoned.

Was it a failure? Yes, in every sense of the word in all of the worst case scenarios imaginable. But most people who didn’t just pack up their stuff and leave in a huff still had fun with the game in the end, many commenting how there was a public level of excitement “just like when the game launched.” This, of course, does not go into the people who spent a large sum of money for the event as those are wounds that will take more than one good night of play to heal. I think Niantic has a lot to make up for, and I believe they are taking some steps of cleanup. But the game, despite its horrible buzz, still managed to top the App Store charts on Saturday night, signaling that while the Fest was a blow, it is not the death knell once feared.

And with a schedule of future Legendaries coming as well as another generation of Pokemon to draw upon, this app is far from dead. The Fest gave the game a very public black eye, but as with any kind of wound such as that, it will heal and has already shown signs of receiving a healthy dose of Revive Potion. The Pokemon fan base is very dedicated, just like a Pikachu riding on your shoulders. If you have invested countless hours into the game, I believe the game will bounce back from this like a phoenix rising from the ashes – or a Dragonite from the flames of disappointment – don’t count the game out just yet; I believe there are still good times ahead.

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