If you had been one of the attendees of this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, you’d be forgiven if you’d failed to pay any attention the folks walking through the convention center dressed as Pokémon trainers and Team Rocket grunts. It was PAX, for Pikachu’s sake; the place was filled with people in costumes!
I hadn’t paid them any mind, either, until a chance Poké-walking session, when I was asked “Hey, how many badges do you have?” Thinking that they were referring to the games, I answered that I’d beaten HeartGold back in March. He shook his head. “No, no – how many badges do you have here?”
As it turned out, it wasn’t just cosplay. A group of dedicated Pokémon fans had set up a real-life Pokémon League mimicking the one from the games. There were Gym Leaders wandering the floor – and if you could beat them in Poké-combat, you’d earn a badge. Get enough badges and you could challenge the Elite Four, and eventually the Champion. Team Rocket was there to muddy the waters and to prevent you from succeeding, and their boss Giovanni blocked the way to the big leagues.
Yeah, it sounded like pretty much the coolest thing ever. The Gym Leaders were almost all in costume, which made it half Pokémon competition and half Poké-LARP. For gamers who had grown up on the Pokémon games and TV show, it was like a dream come true. Walk down the hall, spot a guy wearing the red Gym Leader bandanna, and whip out your DS (baseball-cap-turning optional) – it was battle time.
The whole thing started back in April on the Penny Arcade message boards by user thespiffyneostar – who fought as lab-coated Professor Pine, the League Champion. Neostar, who goes by Patrick here in realspace, said that the inspiration for the PAX Pokémon League came from the very Pokéwalker that had led me to start seeking them out in the first place, and from how it encouraged Pokémon fans to interact face-to-face, if only for a few fleeting seconds.
“I guess it stemmed from learning the faces of people at my college who played Pokémon and had Pokéwalkers,” said Patrick. “[And I realized] how Pokémon is crossing over into the real world in some small ways, especially with the Pokéwalker, and it kinda snowballed from there.”
It seems almost contradictory, in a way. The current generation of console gaming – or indeed, gaming anywhere but on a PC – has seen a huge shift over to the online side of things. The biggest games in the world are the ones that rack up millions of gamers playing against each other on Xbox Live and PSN. These days, it’s almost rare to find a game without online features of some kind – and Pokémon isn’t exempt from this. The fourth generation of the series that kicked off with Pokémon Diamond & Pearl added a global online center to the games. You could now trade, battle, and interact with fellow trainers without ever seeing their face or knowing their name.
This isn’t a bad thing at all. None of it is: It’s damned convenient to be able to sit down and shoot, punch, or thunder-shock someone in the face whenever you feel like it without having to drive down to an arcade or lug your gaming rig to a friend’s house. You can keep in touch with and play games against friends on the other side of the country; this was all but unthinkable (on consoles) just ten years ago.
What Patrick and the PAX Pokémon League did wasn’t a repudiation or rejection of these technology advancements we’ve seen over the years, but rather a celebration of the old-school, of the face-to-face gaming that seems to have dropped by the wayside lately. This wasn’t something that just sprung up; the PAX League took months and months of careful planning as the participants meticulously selected and trained their teams, made costumes, and even designed and manufactured their own badges as awards for the trainers who bested them.
It was a Poké-LAN party – itself almost a relic these days – that encouraged fans of the series to meet up face to face and share in a sense of community all wrapped in a curtain of competition (and more than a bit of pageantry).
It was also a triumphant success, says Patrick, who estimates that over a hundred different challengers earned at least one gym badge, with fifteen of those making it to the Elite Four – and four besting him as Professor Pine to become Champions.
In the end, my own gym challenge never went anywhere; having to work made it difficult to find time to track down more than one or two badges. I did end up giving out an impromptu Escapist Badge (read: one of the “e” buttons I was carrying around) of my own, but my quest for glory remained sadly unfulfilled … for the time being, anyway.
“We’re definitely going to be doing it again next year here and at PAX East,” says Patrick. “We’re also considering bringing the league to other conventions.”
You know what, Patrick? In the name of old-school face-to-face gaming, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that at all.
John Funk would totally have been the Ice-type Gym Leader had he known about this thing in advance. Maybe next year.