What’s it like to be a real-life Pokémon trainer? – The Guardian

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Welcome to Pokémon Worlds, the wholesome tournament where childhood dreams can come true
Like many 90s kids, when I was 10 I dreamed of becoming a Pokémon Master. From car journeys spent craning my neck over a Game Boy screen while battling through Victory Road, to cranking the Pokémon album on my Discman, I was determined to be the very best. Life had other plans for me but, as I discovered on a sunny August weekend this year, for 5,000 dedicated competitors across the globe the dream is very much alive.
After a Covid-mandated three-year hiatus, the Pokémon World Championships have returned. And this year, Pikachu and pals took over London, coating the ExCel centre’s concourse with Poké-paraphernalia – even transforming the nearby cable car over the Thames. Surrounded by 100-foot-tall inflatable Pikachus and a stadium-worthy stage, this once drab conference hall is now a makeshift battleground for aspiring trainers young and… well, I’m not ready to call myself old yet. Less young? That’ll do.
Watching a millennial couple carefully top and tail a five-foot Arcanine plushie down to the tube station, I am comforted that I’m not alone in my overgrown love for this franchise. Competitors, families and spectators of all ages glide excitedly around the bustling concourse, from four-year-olds queueing up to meet Pikachu to selfie-taking Twitch socialites waiting for Pokémon face paint. An infectious sense of shared, uninhibited joy fills the halls.
For competitors, there’s some tension mixed with the hype. Thanks to the huge popularity of Pokémon Go, and lockdown guiding more people towards the wallet-emptying trading card game, the scale of this year’s Worlds takes me by surprise. Where previous events often felt like town hall gatherings, 2022’s main stage stands shoulder to shoulder with the production you’d expect from a major Fortnite or fighting game tournament. Alongside jaw-dropping London-inspired stage dioramas, cleverly positioned mics allow partitioned spectators to enjoy different commentary on whichever of the four tournament games they’re watching: Pokémon Go, the trading card game, Sword and Shield or Pokémon Unite.
“If I could go back in time and tell six-year-old me that we went to the Pokémon World Championships – played in the World Championships – it’s just the dream!” says first-time Pokkén tournament player Dan Styles, blushing through their Ash Ketchum cosplay. “I got a bit emotional when we walked through, seeing the banners and everything. It just means a lot.”
Even celebrities aren’t immune to contracting Pokémania. Fresh from a chart-topping Charli XCX collaboration and a televised performance at the Queen’s jubilee, I greet a beaming DJ Jax Jones ahead of the set of a lifetime – a Pokémon boat party. Alongside Ed Sheeran and JME, Jones is one of the UK’s most prominent Pokémon devotees. He became smitten at primary school, and now shares the passion with his wife and infant daughter.
“To be a part of this is immense,” Jax grins, rocking a giant fluffy hat and a Pikachu-adorned denim jacket. We chat about his designer Pokémon fossil collection as we bob along the Thames: Jones’s set is the official party kickstarting this year’s Worlds. “As a Pokémon fan, it’s amazing, man! I was part of the Pokémon 25th anniversary album as well,” he adds with a disbelieving grin. “I was kind of blown away by the other artists who were on it.”
It must have been a comparable honour to be asked to perform at the royal jubilee, I suggest, taking in the various Pokémon plushies surrounding Jones. “Sure, sure, it’s been a great year,” he replies half-heartedly. “But when I got the call for Pokémon? That was a real career highlight – I even met Pikachu!”
Back in ExCel’s vast halls, I spot a pair of particularly excited young Pokémon trainers. Playing the trading card game since they were six and seven, these 12 and 13-year-old champions-in-the-making journeyed from Germany in order to put their decks to the test. “He’s won two games today!” exclaims Paul’s beaming mother, Eva. It turns out that Paul’s adjacent 13-year-old frenemy – Ilyas – isn’t battling alone in the Pokémon World Championships this year: his dad is also competing. “My son came to me and said, father, I would like to know how to play that game. I told him OK, then first we read the rules. So, I read the rules – to help – and now I’m competing in the London Open,” he laughs.
“I was a player for a couple of years, and I really enjoyed it. Then it kind of snowballed into me talking about the games. Now I’m here at the World Championships,” says sharply dressed ex-pro video game player and current Pokémon video game championships commentator, Lou Cromie. “With the World Championships, you have to qualify to be here,” she explains, which is unlike all the other Pokémon tournaments. “So, there’s that extra level of expectation – and pressure. This event only comes around once a year, so it is the best of the very best.”
On the penultimate day at Worlds, as the finals start to draw near, the buzz is growing. Even as someone who does this for a living, Cromie tells me that witnessing people’s reactions to the Worlds never gets old. “The juniors here for the first time, they see Pikachu everywhere – the graphics, the banners – and their eyes are absolutely wide open just taking in every minute. There’s a really natural joy to seeing these kids enjoying Pokémon, and the awe on their faces that they’re actually competing.”
As I approach one player with a competitor badge for an interview, I’m informed by another wide-eyed attender that this guy is “legit famous”.
“I came here from Australia,” says a blushing Henry Rich, the star player in question. “This is the third Worlds I’ve attended. After a three-year break because of Covid it’s been incredible to come back and see people. The venue itself is incredible. I don’t think we’ve seen a stage setup or production like this.”
How does it feel as an adult, I ask, to be on the road to becoming a Pokémon Master? “You see Pokémon on TV, you play the games, and it just seems otherworldly – something you’ll never achieve. Being here is something that every kid dreams of. Playing games and getting paid for it, travelling the world. You just can’t say no when something like that comes up.”
While the livestreamed tournaments may be the main event, for many of the people here this is simply a fun day out. During my two and a half days at Worlds, it’s hard to imagine a happier collection of people. As I prepare to leave this Poké-paradise behind, I spot two cosplayers, posing and laughing together like old friends.
“Oh, er, we just met here because so many people wanted to take our pictures,” says Kasper Harris, dressed as gym leader Allister.
“It’s made out to be like some massive competition and all that, but really, it’s an event for anyone who has any interest in Pokémon,” adds Chris Caballero, his words slightly muffled by his homemade Mimikyu costume. “The fact that it’s open to everyone makes it even better for people of all backgrounds.”
From the 5,000 trainers amassed here hoping to earn a trophy, to the numerous thirtysomethings sprinting through the ExCel to raid the pop-up Pokémon store, there’s an atmosphere of carefree community that I won’t soon forget. Unlike most childhood dreams, for at least these four days a year, the Pokémon trainer dream is real – and people are living it.

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