I can remember the first time I played a Pokémon game better than I can remember the first time I rode a bike. It was my birthday, and I unwrapped a gift from my best friend to find a copy of Pokémon Blue, the first game—along with Pokémon Red—released in the series in North America.
I’d been obsessed with the series ever since reading about it in the library’s copies of Nintendo Power, going so far as to convince myself that it was okay to tear out the Pokémon comics included in those issues and keep them for myself.
I was so hyped for this thing that I faked sick to stay home one day because I thought the first episode of the TV show was airing during school hours. (It turned out to be a completely unrelated children’s program called Pocket Dragon Adventures.)
Welcome to the world of POKEMON!
Professor Oak offered me my first Pokémon—I picked Bulbasaur, and we set out together into Kanto. I tore through the game, acquiring badges from each gym leader as proof of my skill, picking up new Pokémon, and eventually claiming my place as the League Champion. My friends and I aspired to set up our own gyms during recess, challenging each other with unique, themed challenges, but they never quite got off the ground.
I studied rumours about hidden creatures online—this was before we had access to authoritative sources of information online—and attempted every trick I could find to unlock the “Poké God Pikablu”, who turned out to be the common Marill from the game’s then-unreleased sequel, Pokémon Gold and Silver. I used the now-infamous Missingno glitch to poke at the edges of the game’s code. I even bought a Gameshark for the sole purpose of getting a Mew.
Of course, I grew up and Pokémon fell by the wayside. But as the years passed, my friends and I began to look back on the series with nostalgia, a sentiment that blossomed right around the release of the fourth generation of games. I fell deep into Pokémon Diamond, and to this day, it’s still my favorite entry. I played it on every lunch break and day off, and it renewed my love for the franchise. When Pokémon Black and White were released I immediately got on board—and that’s when a long-forgotten dream was finally realized.
Living the Poké Dream
I don’t remember how, but I stumbled across a group of people setting up their own Pokémon League at what is now called PAX West but back then was just called PAX—the Penny Arcade Expo, one of the biggest gaming conventions in the US. They aimed to recreate the experience of the cartoon and games at the event by assembling a team of gym leaders who’d be open to challenges by con-goers, awarding successful challengers with their own special badges in the form of a pin button that could be proudly displayed on the winner’s person. Some of these leaders cosplayed existing characters from the series like Misty or Giovanni, while others invented their own personas.
I scrambled to submit my application to be a part of the League. When it was accepted, I set out to fashion myself—after all these years—as a Pokémon Gym Leader.
Around that time I was playing Pokémon using fan-made online simulators, so I was tapped in to all of the dominant strategies and monsters. But I didn’t want to play to win here—I wanted to have as good a time as possible. I decided to build not just a single-type team, but one with an additional theme. All of my Pokémon would be Water-type, and they’d also have regal names or themes—Empoleon, Gastrodon, Slowking, and so on.
The weekend of the convention, I roamed the show floor and invited challengers to face me, the Aquatic Aristocrat. I’d never cosplayed before, but I had role played, and I had a lot of fun acting snobbish and getting into dramatic battle dialogue with my opponents. The rest of the league was just as committed to the bit—someone played N, the pacifist character from Black and White. Instead of battling challengers, he made them use the “Feeling Check” feature of the game to determine the strength of their friendship.
Some of my challengers were adults, but many of them were children enthralled by having their favorite game brought to life in the midst of the show floor. In the games, players who fail to defeat gym leaders are forced to try again—but I took my cues from the leaders of the cartoon series, who often award their badges to those who fight with tenacity and ingenuity even if they are defeated.
“You lost the battle, but you displayed a truly noble bond with your Pokémon!” I frequently exclaimed to my younger challengers. “So, I award you with my badge!”
Sharing the Love
Taking part in the League was a wonderful experience. Pokémon is a game that’s meant to be shared with other people, but the relatively low penetration of portable game systems and the much lower population density of the US relative to Japan mean that it’s a rare occurrence to encounter another player in the wild here. Getting to be a part of a group dedicated to creating that kind of connection between strangers was the highlight of my convention weekend.
Looking back, I’ve made so many memories with the Pokémon series ever since that fateful birthday—shirking work in a hellish retail environment to trade monsters with my coworkers, distracting myself from the pain of a major surgery with Sun and Moon, and playing X & Y on a first date after my girlfriend had gotten copies from a store that broke the street date. But being a part of a real-life Pokémon League and helping make those kinds of memories for younger fans is the best of them all.
By the way, the PAX Pokémon League is still running—if you happen to be in Seattle for PAX West this weekend, go make your childhood dreams of being a Pokémon master come true.