TIME Pop Culture

A Weekend With ‘Nerds’ at the Pokémon World Championships

Players at the 2014 Pokémon World Championships in Washington, D.C.
Players at the 2014 Pokémon World Championships in Washington, D.C. Aaron P. Bernstein—Pokémon Company International

Why people travel from all over the world to don their Pikachu ears

Jaxson Piwek wants to be a world champion. He has been training for this day for months, even waking up at 4 in the morning and going to bed at 7 at night for the past week so that the time change between his home in Vancouver and the championships in Washington, D.C. wouldn’t affect his performance.

Jaxson, 10, plays the Pokémon trading card game. And this is his first time qualifying for the world championships.

“It’s very overwhelming for my first time,” he says as he looks around at the more than 3,000 fans packing the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, not far from the White House.

Overwhelming is a good word for it. There are two competition arenas at either end of the massive room—one for the video game competitions, the other for TCG, or trading card game. There is a stage in the front of the room with three screens on which they project the most exciting matches, with live commentary from an ESPN-style booth a few yards away. Gasps and roars come from the mesmerized crowd at crucial moments in the games. If you just heard the audio, you would think you were in a stadium watching soccer.

Pikachu is everywhere. The little yellow creature is emblazoned on t-shirts, backpacks, hats, sweatshirts and iPhone cases, and a giant inflatable Pikachu hangs suspended over the crowd: a smiling cartoonish deity for the pilgrims who have come from 33 different countries to watch the players like Jaxson battle to become world champion. (There are three age brackets—juniors, ages 12 and under; seniors, ages 13 to 16; and masters, ages 17 and up. Jaxson comes in 36th in the junior division.)

Caleb Judkins, 17, is one such pilgrim. He’s an avid Pokémon video game player but isn’t on the competitive circuit. He and his friends traveled here from Gainesville, Va., to see a competition firsthand. “It was on my bucket list to come,” he says. “I wanted to see the battles in progress.”

One person many people are here to see is Ray Rizzo. Ray, 21, is a three-time world champion in the video game—no one has won Worlds more times than he has. He won in 2010, 2011 and 2012 but didn’t make finals last year, so he’s coming back this year with a vengeance.

I talk to Ray after his first match of the weekend; he’s just won his battle so he’s feeling pretty confident. “I don’t really get too nervous anymore because I’ve been playing for a long time,” he says. (This year Ray once again did not make the finals, so he was unable to get a record-breaking fourth win.)

But for those who aren’t veterans like Ray, this weekend is packed with nerves. It’s a year-long road to get here—to qualify for Worlds, players have to compete in regional and national competitions, earning a certain number of “championship points” in each depending on how well they do. The number of these points a player accrues over the season determines if he or she is eligible to compete.

So why Pokémon? What is it about the characters and the games that inspire these people to spend months honing their skills and obsessing over strategy, or to don their Pikachu ears and travel across the world just to be here?

Jaxson Piwek’s answer seems to sum it up —“All the friends I make.”

“Everyone’s so happy and passionate and really enjoying the game,” his mother Shauna says. “It’s a great community.”

J.C. Smith, director of consumer marketing for The Pokémon Company International, says this idea of community is built into the game itself. “The principle they build the game around is communication,” he says. “They really want people to talk and to come together, either online or face-to-face to build these communities. This is the ultimate expression of that. … This is a world championship, but it doesn’t feel cutthroat to me. It feels like a community of people who like to play games, coming together to play games.”

The international element of the tournament does spur some divisions and regional pride—many spectators come armed with their country’s flag, and cheers of “USA! USA! USA!” erupt when American Nikolai Zielinski wins the senior video game tournament.

But people say the game still unites more than it divides. “You can be [an American kid] playing a Japanese kid, but you can totally get it and you can have an interaction through Pokémon,” a company spokesman says of the tournament.

Nikolai, 15, also talks about community, beaming and energetic after his win. “The video game Pokémon community is the best community I’ve ever been a part of,” he says. “Compared to other video games even, it’s amazing. Everyone is so friendly and really nice. I’ve made friends just by placing well in tournaments—people have wanted to become my buddy. And everyone just helps each other out a lot, online and in person. It’s a really, really nice community to be in, and great people to be around.”

Andrea Bacca, 18 and wearing a black and gold costume that includes striped knee socks and ears, puts it both bluntly and affectionately: “I like that we can all fit in and be nerds together.”

Sunday evening after the finals sees 12 trophies awarded—one for each runner-up and champion in the three age divisions of the two games. The most coveted awards of the evening, the masters division trophies, went to Canadian Andrew Estrada for TCG and South Korean Se Jun Park for video game.

As the champions stand onstage, holding their Pikachu trophies and being showered with confetti, the cheers from the audience change. No longer are the viewers chanting country names or clapping for individual players. Now, yelling over the triumphant music blaring from the stage, the audience swells behind a single cheer: “Pokémon! Pokémon! Pokémon!”

 

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