I went to Pokémon GO Fest to (try to) play the game with thousands of others. Here’s what it was like

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I went to Pokémon GO Fest to (try to) play the game with thousands of others. Here’s what it was like

“Do people still play Pokémon GO?”

It’s a question that pops up pretty much any time the game gets mentioned.

The answer: yep! It’s rarely the sidewalk-filling, flash mob-inducing hype monster that it was for a few weeks after launch — and that’s probably better for everyone. But lots and lots of people do still play.

Enough people that the game can still be found floating around the iOS App Store’s Top 20 grossing apps. Enough people to fill a big ol’ park that otherwise hosts events like Lollapalooza.

That was the idea behind Pokémon GO Fest. It would be a real-world gathering of many thousands of Pokémon GO Players in Chicago’s Grant Park, all playing together, catching some Pokémon (some of which were meant to appear there for the first time) and working toward a common goal. As a Pokémon GO player from the game’s earliest days, I was genuinely excited to go.

Alas… Pokémon GO Fest didn’t work. Within minutes of the gates opening, technical issues brought everything to a grinding halt — where it stayed for most of the day. Here’s what it was like to go.

(Use that right arrow to advance to the next picture; if you’re on mobile, just scroll)


Why go?

So why would anyone want to fly out to Chicago to play a game they can play at home?

A few reasons:
— To be with a community of people each more obsessed than the next with this little game about walking around and catching fake monsters.

— Niantic hinted that some rarer Pokémon would be making appearances, including some not usually seen in Chicago. The big appearances on the day of were mostly Unown (a Pokémon rare enough that even most longtime players wouldn’t have caught one) and Heracross (a regional Pokémon that only spawns south of the 29N latitude line, which, in the U.S., means a small wedge of Texas and Florida).

— Even months ahead of time, most people were pretty certain it’d be where Niantic debuted at least one of the “Legendary” Pokémon — ultra-strong Pokémon that, leading into the festival, hadn’t made any official appearances in the game. Many talked of a massive raid that would happen at the end of the day, the first-ever “Legendary Raid.”


The first challenge…

For many, just getting a ticket was the first obstacle.

Tickets (RFID-enabled wristbands) for the event went on sale at 10 AM on June 19th at $20 a pop.

By 10:30 AM, they were sold out.

By that afternoon, wristbands were selling on eBay for $200+. Pairs of wristbands were going for closer to $500.


The storm before the calm

Leading into the event, everyone I spoke to seemed worried about the same thing: the weather.

Most of the weather reports leading into the event suggested GO Fest would be going down in the middle of a storm. The night before, rain gushed down and thunder shook the city. Thousands of people standing in a wet field during a thunder storm while holding expensive electronics would… not be a good thing.


And yet…

On the morning of, the weather suddenly cleared. Sure, it was cloudy in the morning and the park was soaked — but by late morning, it actually started getting toasty. The clouds burned away, and the mud (kinda-sorta) dried up. They’d caught a break! Maybe this whole thing was going to work.


Heading in

Upon entering the park, attendees got an envelope containing two things: a “Chicago Badge” patch (modeled after a virtual badge their character would also get within Pokémon GO) and a unique QR code.

Why the QR code?

Pokémon GO has a long-standing battle with “spoofing,” or people manipulating their phone’s GPS coordinates to change where the game thinks they are.

Scanning the QR code in-game would tell the server that you had, in fact, gone through the gates and entered the park. You’d then be able to see the assorted GO Fest happenings within the park; spoofers, meanwhile, would just see the normal day-to-day stuff unless they managed to track down an unused QR code. It was a clever thought — the QR code would effectively be your in-game ticket.


The Check In

To scan the QR code, you’d stop by a special Pokéstop within the park (marked in game with a big ol’ “Pokemon GO Fest” graphic floating above the stop), give it a spin, and a prompt would appear asking for your code.

And it worked! At least, it worked at first. Unfortunately, it was one of the earliest things to start acting up when…


The park opens

GO Fest was meant to officially open at 9 or 10 am, depending on the wristband you had (people who stayed in certain partner hotels, won contests or were part of the media got to poke around a little early). By 8 am, both the early access line and the standard line were thousands of people deep, wrapping around the block.

A little after 9, folks started trickling in. By about 9:40 — before the event had officially opened to everyone — things in the game started to act up. For some, the QR code scanner wouldn’t appear; for others, tapping on a Pokémon caused it to disappear or the game to crash.


The park fills…

As more and more people filled the park, things got worse.

What was initially a bit of lag turned into something unusable. By about 10:30, it seemed like nearly every smartphone screen in the park was showing the game’s loading screen. The loading bar would sometimes get about halfway, then stop; other times, you’d be logged out and asked to sign back in — itself a challenge on an unstable network.


So what was happening?

Many things, and I’m sure there’s far more than I know.

On one level, it boils down to the same issue that you’ll see at just about any big concert or event: more people using more smartphones in one area means more connectivity issues. It’s a problem with many facets: the human body is annoyingly good at messing with cell attenuation, especially when you put a bunch of bodies near each other.

More importantly, each cell tower can only handle so many connections at once. Furthermore, every smartphone spinning its gears and trying to find a connection is adding more wireless noise to the environment, making it that much harder for every other nearby smartphone. No matter the carrier, no-one seemed able to get online.

It’s a hard set of problems to fix, but one that you can at least alleviate with a helluva lot of careful planning, testing and cooperation from the wireless carriers in the weeks ahead. It’s… unclear how much of that there was. Fixing it on the day of, however, once things are already going downhill? That’s just not going to happen.


The show kicks off

Around 11, Niantic CEO John Hanke took the stage. The audience’s welcome was… rough, to say the least. Frustrated that they couldn’t connect to the game they’d traveled here to play (many I spoke to coming from other states and countries), big chunks of the thousands-deep audience started chanting things like “We can’t play!” or “Fix your game!”



Even at this point, with enough people in the park for there to be connectivity issues, thousands of people were still waiting to get inside.

The park was configured to only have a  dozen or so turnstyles, along with security guards doing bag checks. This bottleneck led to it being well into the afternoon before everyone was in.

This seems like one of the more foreseeable, non-technical issues of the day. If you know how many turnstyles you have and roughly how long it takes to get through bag checks, you can get a rough idea of how long it’d take per person to get inside. Compare that against how many attendees are expected, and, well… they needed more gates.


Plowing forward

At this point, Niantic didn’t seem to know if they could get things working. So they kept moving forward, opening up the first “challenge” of the day — a collective effort to catch a ton of Pokémon within a certain time window in order to unlock in-game bonuses for players worldwide.

As you might expect, given that many people still couldn’t play, this announcement was not well met. The “We can’t play!” chants from the crowd began again.

Spoiler alert: All of the day’s challenges were, erm, “completed successfully,” despite few having a connection consistent enough to play. That was likely always the plan; no matter what happened, the players would win — no use in making them fail a test they can’t take, right? No numbers were ever disclosed, either on number of Pokémon required or the number caught in the end.


Back at base…

So what was everyone doing while the game was borked, besides milling about?

Most people went back to their team’s tent. Pokémon GO has three teams that players can join — Yellow/Instinct, Red/Valor or Blue/Mystic. Each team had a dedicated tent where they could hang out in the shade, commiserate in their lack of connectivity or kick back in bean bag chairs.


Niantic calls it..

At around 2 PM, it seemed like Niantic was realizing the situation wasn’t going to get better.

They made a series of announcements:

— Everyone in attendance would be offered a refund of the admission fee

— Everyone who checked in with their QR code at Grant Park would get $100 of in-game currency, or Pokécoins. That didn’t cover everyone’s travel, hotels, etc., of course — but it was one of the day’s few well-received announcements.

— They would expand the “region” of the event from just the park itself to include two miles in any direction. This matters a bit  more later.


One more our-bad

Around 3:30, Niantic hit the stage with another set of announcements:

— Everyone who attended would automatically get the Legendary Pokémon Lugia. No raid required, though it was unclear if there would be an in-park raid or not.

— Legendary raids, the cooperative 20-person battles that would let you catch Legendary Pokémon, would start going live within 24-48 hours.

— Articuno, the Legendary ‘mon that doubles as the mascot for Team Mystic, would start appearing in raids “shortly after” Lugia.

After a day of endless technical failures, there was no way to make things completely right here — but these announcements at least seemed to make the audience cheer again.

With that said: most people took this as a cue to leave, leading to…


The unintentional city-wide after party

Remember when I mentioned that Niantic expanded the “region” of the event in every direction from the park? This… actually helped a lot, and turned the whole thing into something new. It meant no single, massive congregation of players — but it also meant considerably less congestion on any one cell tower.

Knowing that they could leave the park and still get the Unown/Heracross/etc. and the assorted bonuses they were hoping for, people spilled into the surrounding areas of Chicago.

Unown were spawning left and right (someone noticed that of the many letter-based Unown variations, the ones spawning were just enough to spell out “C.H.I.C.A.G.O”. Cute.) Pokéstops were spitting out special 2k eggs. People who hadn’t even been able to check in to the event all day suddenly could check in down the street, where their phone actually worked.

Anywhere there was an in-game Gym, you could find dozens of players. Each gym was a little mini-GO Fest, feeling more like the early days of the game’s absurd popularity than anyone had seen in a while.



When one person shouted “LEGENDARIES!!,” most assumed it was a joke. At this point, no one was expecting Legendaries until the next day, at the earliest.

When a second person down the street followed suit, everyone checked their nearby raid list. Sure enough, Legendary Raids had begun. And they were everywhere. The cell connectivity was still shaky, but with everyone spread out a bit there was at least a good chance of it working.

Niantic had promised Legendary raids within about 48 hours. They got them up within three. Lugia went live first, and Articuno started appearing almost immediately after.

Suddenly, those pockets of a few dozen players standing around gyms turned into pockets of hundreds. After a day of baking in the sun and shaking your phone in hopes that it would somehow start working, this was why people had come — or at least a shadow of it. It was on the streets of Chicago rather than concentrated within a park, but people were playing together. You’d hear one group of 20 players cheer when they managed to take down a Legendary together; across the street, you’d hear another. No one was happy to have wasted a day waiting for a solution that never came, but people were happy to at least be playing together. The day’s many failures couldn’t be glossed over, but it at least ended for many on something of a high(er) note.

“It feels like Niantic accidentally just threw the event they were trying to throw all day,” someone said to me as we took down an Articuno half a mile from the venue. “I wonder if they have any idea.”


It was weirdly… poetic?

Pokémon GO Fest sort of felt like a one-day embodiment of so many things about Pokémon GO.

It’s an excellent concept at its core, but one in which its creators failed to realize (or properly stress test for) the demand. The game’s servers floundered for days as soon as it launched; likewise, just about everything at GO Fest broke as soon as the gates opened.

Like the game, its draw and appeal came largely from a sense of nostalgia. Pokémon GO tapped the nostalgia of everyone who grew up playing the games; GO Fest, meanwhile, tapped the nostalgia of everyone who missed GO’s earliest days.

Pokémon GO is, even today, a buggy mess. And yet, many players stick around on the idea of what it could be.

Pokémon GO Fest was, just yesterday, a buggy mess. And yet, many players stuck around on the idea of what it could be.


What's next?

Part of me wonders if they’ll try again. Perhaps on their home turf in California, rather than across the country, where they might be able to properly design and stress test the networks involved, in a location they know and can better calculate the logistics. But is the risk of a second backfire even close to worth it?

Part of me wonders if they’d be allowed to. The Pokémon Company, parents of the IP, carry a monumental amount of say over what can and can’t happen with the game. They’ve been throwing Pokémon-related events since the ’90s, between their many portable titles and collectible card games. Seeing something go south like this undoubtedly has them fuming.

And with that, I leave you, with this GIF of a dancing bootleg inflatable Pikachu surveying its lands.